Embers of War

The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam


Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, by Fredrik Logevall, is the origin story of America’s Vietnam War – how and why the US found itself fighting a war in Southeast Asia. The French ruled Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) for decades. Then their grip was loosened by the disaster they endured during WW2.

The Vietnamese, forming a resistance movement called the Viet Minh, fought for independence from the Japanese during the Second World War. When the war ended, the triumphant Vietnamese, lead by Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed their independence. However, the French soon returned to the country, which they still consider as their colony, and wrestled for control of the government.

Within the next few years, the Viet Minh and the French waged war in Vietnam, culminating in the Geneva conference of 1954, and the French forces’ ultimate loss at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam was thereafter divided into two states – the communist North, and the US-backed South – along the 17th parallel.

With the threat of communism looming large over Asia, the US, determined not to let the region fall into Soviet Union’s orbit, had moved to buffer up – initially, in secret – the French forces waging war against Ho’s Viet Minh. After the French defeat in 1954, the US gave its full backing to South Vietnam, ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem.

Despite widespread atrocities and corruption committed by the South Vietnamese despot, the US continued to support the regime, fearing that its fall would usher in the full spread of communism across Asia, a belief known as the “domino theory”. And in the process, the US started – secretly – committing troops to the ground, ostensibly for an “advisory” role.

The book’s narrative ends in 1959, in the incident at Bien Hoa, where Viet Cong forces raided the US base, killing two American personnel. These two – Major Dale Buis, and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand – are considered the very first US casualties of what will be known as the Vietnam War.

Embers of War won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History. In my experience, Pulitzer winners are some of the best history books to recommend for the casual readers – excellent narrative, comprehensive, but not too complicated for people with minimal background knowledge.

Embers of War is something I’d highly recommend for readers who want to understand how US got into fighting a war in Vietnam, how the successive leaders formed policies and decisions that would cost enormous lives and resources. A very enlightening read indeed.

The Pursuit of Glory

The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648 – 1815


The world as it was at the end of the Thirty Years’ War is vastly different from that at the end of Napoleon’s wars across the continent. The roughly one-and-a-half century in between saw Europe undergo a number of thoroughly vast transformations across all aspects of life – be it political, economic, cultural, or religious. The book The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815, by Timothy Blanning, examines “five of the modern world’s great revolutions – scientific, industrial, American, French, and romantic”. The book shows how all these five events come together to redefine Europe, in a period that serves as a bridge from the Medieval to (Early) Modern times.

It is, however, a daunting read, much more because the thematic approach causes some jumps and leaps in the chronological narrative. The first part is an overview of life in Europe during the period, including the state of peasantry and serfdom, plus the Industrial Revolution. This part is still pretty light on the names and dates, but nonetheless a slow read if one isn’t too invested in the details.

A second part tackles the sovereign entities of Europe, of who ruled what empires or territories, and also includes overview of the American and French Revolutions. The third part discusses culture, religion, the Scientific and Romantic Revolutions, and the state of monarchies and monarchs throughout the period. This is where things get really confusing, as all the nitty-gritty details start to come together, and things already discussed previously are brought back to be blended into the relevant themes.

Now, this can be discouraging to all but the most passionate readers. I personally struggled through much of the book too, as I didn’t have enough prior relevant knowledge of European history covered by this book. The morass of names, dates, events, and everything else can get difficult to follow really quickly. And it doesn’t help that the Scientific and the Romantic Revolutions aren’t sharply distinguished, and are situated within an overarching overview of European culture as a whole.

But once the reader has gotten through the third part, things start to all become clearer, and exciting too. At this point the relevant details have been mentioned and repeated enough that it should (hopefully) be easier for the reader to follow through. Not to mention, the chronology is a lot more consistent and cohesive now. The final – and arguably the best part of the book – is all about the wars waged in Europe, from the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years’ War) to the 1815 Treaty of Paris (which ended the Napoleonic Wars).

And boy, are there so much wars to tackle, as the 167 or so years covered by the book is packed with so much conflicts, (largely useless) treaties, territorial changes, and generally just straight-up political drama, the reader would be advised to have maps and maybe Wikipedia ready to consult often. That said, the timeline is a lot more cohesive, and unlike in previous chapters, the conflicts are discussed more in-depth, so things are way easier to follow and understand in general.

At this point, it should be obvious that this book is not for the faint of heart – neither is it for the simply curious reader, who probably just want to widen their bit of knowledge of history. Even for someone like me, the book still feels pretty convoluted. Yet, for the well-prepared history buff, I would say this is a good book to have, though possibly more as a general survey of the period than a serious dive into early modern European history.

The Pursuit of Glory succeeds in illuminating the period 1648 – 1815, in a truly comprehensive – if not the most cohesive – manner. As a guide for the political upheavals of the times, the wars fought, and the revolutionary changes that defined the era, it can be daunting and intimidating, but the effort it requires the reader definitely pays off, and towards the final part of the book, pays off really well.

For the Soul of Mankind

The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War


Instead of dealing with a plethora of events – major and minor – that occurred throughout the Cold War, Melvyn Leffler’s For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War instead put the spotlight on five Soviet leaders – Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev – and how they dealt with the US leaders during their respective terms.

And yes, the book does focus a lot more on Soviet leaders than on the US presidents. It’s evident in the way the book’s narrative starts and ends – it began with Stalin’s early life, and ended with Gorbachev and the final months of the Soviet Union. The book showed how each Soviet leader dealt with their US counterparts – how they tried to uphold their Communist ideology, while trying to not bring about a nuclear war with the US.

But protecting and upholding one’s ideological principles is way more powerful than any desire to hold back the aggressiveness and discuss peace. Both the Soviet Union and America had to contend with this dilemma throughout the Cold War. For many times, they had to come to their allies’ aid, even as both superpowers strived to make peace and avoid confrontation with each other.

The US found itself fighting in Korea and Vietnam due to fear of Communists gobbling up the rest of the world, in what is known as the “domino theory”. The Soviet Union, for its part, had to intervene in the third world lest it be seen as abandoning its Communist comrades in the battle against capitalist West. This is most evident in Soviet intervention in Africa – Cuba’s Fidel Castro kept persuading Soviet Union for help for their comrades – and in the eventual decision to send troops to Afghanistan.

There were, indeed, numerous times when both Soviet and American leaders tried to break the vicious cycle that kept the Cold War going. Georgy Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev broke away from the Stalinist system – the use of violence and intimidation to ensure absolute loyalty to the Party leader – and tried to negotiate detente, as it’s the only way they could focus on resolving domestic concerns. Leonid Brezhnev succeeded in negotiating an arms treaty, and strived to keep detente going, even as the need – or rather, desire – for foreign intervention in the third world kept him busy until his death. And Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reform from within, still with the intent of freeing up burdens and focus on domestic issues.

And it’s Gorbachev’s reforms that ultimately led to the end of the Cold War. For the Soul of Mankind is not a book that squarely frames the Cold War as a US victory. Far from it, in fact, as it was Gorbachev who initiated the policies of transparency and military retreat that unintentionally led to peaceful revolutions all over the Soviet empire. Pretty soon, the events were out of their control, and one by one the Soviet territories broke away, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and Soviet Union, with nothing else left to rule, peacefully ceased to exist.

For the Soul of Mankind is, in general, about the leaders and their dilemmas. It’s all about how they all sincerely wanted to put a stop to the madness, yet by virtue of their ideologies, and their political and social interests, failed to end the Cold War. It took Gorbachev’s bold decisions for the wheels to start slowing down, and ultimately come to a halt. Yet, for decades, the cycle of failed negotiations and foreign interventions just kept going on and on, in the long “struggle for the soul of mankind”, that began, continued, and ended, through events beyond control of the world’s most powerful people.

The Price of Glory

Verdun 1916


There’s so much that has been said about the tragedy that was the Battle of Verdun. It was the battle of attrition within an overarching war of attrition; it was the ultimate symbol of the horrors that the Great War has been known for. For nine gruesome months of 1916, the French and the German forces fought for control of a fortified region, with arguably minimal strategic significance to the war at the time.

The German High Command’s plan to bleed the French to death simply resulted in both sides getting sucked into a vortex of never-ending misery and destruction, in which both sides suffered unimaginable devastation, with neither side gaining any considerable advantage in the end.

Alistair Horne’s acclaimed work, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, is still the authoritative reading on the subject, despite having been first published more than half a century ago. The book seamlessly combines military and political aspects of the battle, with anecdotal narrative of how the ordinary soldiers fought, suffered, and died in Verdun. A short chapter is also devoted to the aerial side of war, as Verdun’s skies was where the so-called “Flying Aces” began to see greater involvement in the ongoing conflict.

Verdun remains a symbol to the French people; countless porminent leaders of France, like Petain and de Gaulle, saw service in Verdun, taking part in the symbolic battle that moved a nation and continued to influence the men who fought there even after the war.

But the tragic legacy of the battle is precisely because it was a “symbol” of valor: the French, somehow, kept on repeating the stubborn defence that they put up in Verdun – most notably in Dien Bien Phu, where they held on even in the face of the already-superior Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French, it seems, learned a different lesson than they should have.

Verdun 1916 isn’t exactly for general readership, however. A knowledge of the First World War is assumed of the reader. Many names and events beyond the Great War are also mentioned in passing, again with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with what is being discussed. The first chapter discusses the history of France since the 1870-71 War; the epilogue goes as far as Indochina and Algeria.

Nonetheless, Verdun 1916 – for the curious mind with sufficient background knowledge, and who wants to know more about the Battle of Verdun – is possibly the best single-volume resource for the specific battle. Even the more recent WW1 books list this book in their bibliographies, an evidence of its great reputation on the subject matter. Definitely a recommended reading for history enthusiasts.

The Coming of the Third Reich


This book, The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans, is a first of a 3-part series by author Richard Evans, which discusses the story of Hitler and the Nazis, from the Party’s rise into power, up to the Second World War, and ultimately, the Third Reich’ complete and utter destruction in 1945.

The Coming of the Third Reich tells the story of how a small German Workers’ Party, upon accepting former WW1 Corporal Adolf Hitler as its member, transformed into the NSDAP – known to everybody as the Nazi Party – and, throughout the life of the ever-fragile Weimar Republic, rose into power and came to dominate Germany until 1945. And more than that, in fact, as the antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology didn’t just come from out of thin air. It has always been there, beneath the surface, a lingering philosophy and way of life for many – but not most – of the Germans, ever since the Bismarckian era.

The failures of the Weimar Republic became the fuel to the fire that both the Communists and the far-right groups, including the Nazis, used to burn down the democracy that most people didn’t approve of anyway. The hyperinflation of 1923-1924, and the Great Depression, both became the catalysts for groups on opposite sides of the political arena, who used all methods of violence available at their disposal to try and destroy one another, while also competing for dominance of the Reichstag. And in this is the irony, that the people who most wanted to destroy the Republic, actually availed of democratic methods to bring down that very system that they somehow belong to.

The Coming of the Third Reich is a tragic story of how Germany, limping about after the Great War, throughout its period of “decline and fall”, transformed into the Nazi Germany that, in 1939, would plunge the world once more into absolute war. Above all, it is the story of the failure of democracy, and the triumph of evil and violence, in a country that so proudly boasts itself as a model of civilized society.

Finally, the rapid “Nazification” after Hitler’s ascent into Reich Chancellor is one of tragedy and fury – and so much fury I felt reading this, as helpless Germans – most specifically the Jews, who were stripped of everything they have – were forced into total submission, their democratic ways of life turned completely upside down, through an unprecedented level of violence unraveled in full view of the world, without even the slightest hint of remorse.

There are many lessons to learn from the history of the rise of the Nazis into power, and the author explicitly notes that they are “for the reader to take from this book, not for the writer to give.” There isn’t much discussion of morality in here, as the writer believes it’s not what writing and telling history is about – a view that probably isn’t for everyone to agree with. But if you ask me, you wouldn’t really need such moral arguments in this book – for the horror and the tragedy of Hitler’s rise to power is laid bare, and after reading this book, whatever lessons to take from it will be all too clear and obvious for the reader.