I just wanted to put in a quick plug for The Cat From Hue, a Vietnam War nonfiction book I'm working on right now. I'm beginning to divide my Vietnam reading into two categories. The first includes official histories, after action reports, and other government documents. These tend to be very helpful in detailing locations, dates and times, and overall quantifiable events. The reports often include hand drawn maps and other bits of information taken directly from the scene and sometimes deliver a good amount of granular detail.
The second category of material is the personal history. Sometimes this can be a transcript from an interview, or an essay found on one of the numerous
sites dedicated to various regiments and units stationed overseas. The personal histories are often very detailed and help paint a picture of a particular scene or even span of minutes. The Cat From Hue falls into this second category.
The Cat From Hue was written in 2002. As I make my way through it I'm finding it uneven but occasionally extremely valuable. In its' best segments author John Laurence writes as if he was composing shortly after the events in question. Thus, Morley Safer is introduced as yet another correspondent. Joe Galloway is introduced with no reference to his future role in historical reporting. Ernest young officers make comments in 1965 without any authorial winking or eye rolling. The result for me is a reading experience that feels authentic. I can supply hindsight on my own, but Laurence supplies the feeling of being there and not entirely knowing what the next week or year will bring.
That being said, the material is least helpful when Laurence goes ahead and supplies a meta narrative. For example, he steps aside to explain why he feels that his reporting could never have been truly objective. While this is true enough I would look for that level of discussion in a different book, or in a later section of this book. It feels intrusive in the middle of the historical narratives.
Another issue I have with the book is that it starts in 1968, and then jumps back to 1965. The 1968 Hue material is oddly not the strongest and I would have been just as happy to place it chronologically. I think the final take is that a bit of editing to help place the content would not have hurt.
I read a personal history to get a better understanding of how events took place at an individual level. An after action report may describe a squad as having moved from point A to point B but it will neglect the human dynamics, details, and costs of that journey. The Cat From Hue touches on a good number of well-known events and adds first-hand experience to the larger picture.