'Seeing Vietnam' with a tourist's eye

May 23, 1994|By Marc Leepson | Marc Leepson,Special to The Sun

Susan Brownmiller is best known for her strongly argued feminist writings, including the best-selling "Against Our Will." But she barely touches on feminist issues in "Seeing Vietnam," a combination travel guide, personal rumination and historical and sociological look at Vietnam and the American war that raged there in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like many other members of the Vietnam generation, Susan Brownmiller was affected directly by that war. From 1965 to 1968 she screened and edited dispatches from the war zone for ABC News.

"I slogged through [videotapes of] routine search-and-destroy operations and inconclusive firefights, pieced together murky footage of falling black bombs, raging smoke and fire, whirring Medevac Hueys, wounded GIs on stretchers, captured enemy in black pajamas, burning monks, screaming children fleeing across fields, women keening their dead," she writes.

Working so intimately with images of the war at its bloody height soured Ms. Brownmiller on Vietnam. When she quit her ABC job, she stopped paying close attention to the war. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, she says, the war "receded from my frontal lobes."

Ms. Brownmiller's interest in Vietnam was rekindled a few years ago. "I wanted," she says, "to see the country in peacetime, its problems and progress." So she arranged "the trip of a lifetime," as she puts it -- a journey to Vietnam with photographer Maggie Steber to write an article for a travel magazine. The purpose: to "explore the country from a tourist's point of view."

They embarked on "a private, customized tour for two from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta," with stops in Danang, Hue, the Mekong Delta and Saigon (which only dedicated government officials call "Ho Chi Minh City," its post-1975 official name). The women were under the watchful eyes of government-issued guides but managed to make a few unescorted forays.

Ms. Brownmiller's report on life in Vietnam jibes with those of other recent American visitors. The nation is desperately poor. The government is relaxing many, but not all, of its authoritarian policies. The people seem friendly toward Americans and speak bitterly of the Russians. Businesses from Asia and Europe are moving rapidly into Vietnam, with the government's blessings.

The northern city of Hanoi "charms a visitor," she writes, with its "tree-lined boulevards and gemlike lakes set in leafy green parks" and its "stucco row houses and ochre villas with blue louver shutters and iron filigree gates."

Saigon is an overcrowded, cacophonous commercial center with lots of great restaurants. "Saigon is not beautiful," Ms. Brownmiller reports. "The imperial lines of boulevards laid out by the French are obscured by a hodgepodge of latter-day constructions destined for the wrecker's ball but gussied up for the present with Christmas tree lights, neon marquees, billboards that trumpet Sanyo, Panasonic, Sharp."

Ms. Brownmiller devotes a hefty portion of this breezily written book to these and other touristic concerns: accommodations, restaurant meals, transportation logistics, historic attractions. In these sections, she often succeeds in evocatively conveying the details of her Vietnam tour.

The narrative suffers when she frequently interrupts the personal guided tour with what appear to be hurriedly researched mini-lessons on Vietnamese history and the American war. These "capsule" discussions, as Ms. Brownmiller refers to them, are filled with generalizations and many unattributed facts and figures. Although the author lists a dozen or so sources in her acknowledgments, the historical discussions contain too many errors of omission and several misstatements.

To cite one example, Ms. Brownmiller writes that President Lyndon Johnson waged "full-scale war" in Vietnam. The truth is that Johnson's primary goal was the opposite: to wage a limited war.

Some critics of his policies, in fact, argue that LBJ's main failing in Vietnam was his determination to wage a limited war. Johnson "made a conscious decision not to mobilize the American people -- to invoke the national will -- for the Vietnam war," retired Army Col. Harry Summers wrote in "On Strategy."

"Seeing Vietnam" is not the book to go to for a well-researched analysis of the American war. But the book does provide an interesting, and at times insightful, look at the land and people of Vietnam.

Mr. Leepson is book editor and columnist for the VVA Veteran, the newspaper published by Vietnam Veterans of America.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart"

Author: Susan Brownmiller

Publisher: HarperCollins

-! Length, price: 212 pages, $22

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