The blurb on the back of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity asks "how did the Vietnam war change the way we think of ourselves as a people and a nation?" And Christian G. Appy does an apt job addressing this question. I spent this past winter and summer working for an oral history project called the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, dedicated to recording the stories of members of the Dartmouth community who served in Vietnam or who were active in the anti-war movement on campus. I was fortunate to interview very different people - from a marine to a military chaplain to a conscientious objector to a draft dodger - and it sparked my interest in learning more about the Vietnam War Era. So, on the recommendation of my Dad, I read this. And I loved it. That isn't to say you have to spend half your year studying Vietnam to love Appy's American Reckoning (but I guess it didn't hurt). There were two main things I enjoyed about the book: one, the way it didn't just focus on the years America was involved in Vietnam, but the before and the after. Appy split the narrative into three parts -- (1) Why Are We in Vietnam, (2) America at War, and (3) What Have We Become? He went all the way up through the Obama administration. The scope of how he traces the roots of American exceptionalism is marvelous. Two, I particularly enjoyed his interweaving of pop culture. Appy starts off with a discussion of a book by Tom Dooley, Deliver Us from Evil, and touches on everything from the Ed Sullivan Show to Bruce Springsteen to Rambo. Analyzing American national identity is a hard task; but Appy is undeniably up for the challenge. The only drawback of the book for me was that it took me until chapter 3 to really want to read the whole thing; maybe because the beginning didn't feel like new material. But I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book, from the very end:
The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America's persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we were not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.