I’m a big fan of Kathryn J. Atwood’s work. She’s written several collective biographies of women who either insert themselves into or find themselves in the midst of a war zone or occupied territory. I wrote about her Women Heroes of World War I book here and Women Heroes of World War II: The Pacific Theater here. Her books are written for a young adult audience, but they’re good reading for adults as well.
Courageous Women of the Vietnam War introduces the reader to the Vietnam War from a variety of perspectives: Vietnamese, French, New Zealand, Australian, and American. By including women from different backgrounds and countries of origin, Atwood is able to show how international this war in a relatively small country was.
Atwood organizes this book chronologically in five parts:
Part 1 — 1945-1956: Ho Chi Minh’s Revolution
Women featured: Xuan Phuong and Geneviève de Galard
Part II –1957-1964: Ngo Dinh Diem’s Civil War
Women featured: Le Ly Hayslip and Bobbi Hovis
Part III — 1965-1968: Lyndon B. Johnson’s American War
Women featured: Kay Wilhelmy Bauer, Jurate Kazickas, and Iris Mary Roser
Part IV — 1969-1970: Richard M. Nixon’s “Peace”
Women featured: Anne Koch, Dang Thuy Tram, and Lynda Van Devanter
Part V — 1971-1975: Endings and Beginnings
Women featured: Kate Webb, Joan Baez, Tracy Wood, and Kim Phuc
The Vietnam War has always been a rather murky mess in my mind. I haven’t read a history of the war, but I have read a few novels written by veterans who experienced combat there. The two that immediately come to mind are Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes and Fields of Fire by James Webb. I’ve read memoirs, too, such as Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July and Hurricane Street, but I’ve never attempted a study of this war. Is it because it’s too close and still seems more like current events? Is it because it was such a complex war and I have not clue where to start? World War I and World War II were no doubt complex wars, but perhaps distance has given us more entrenched narratives that are easier to follow?
I don’t know, but I do know that Atwood’s book has given me an organized overview of the war as a whole and some idea of the significant twists and turns it took over the decades. There’s a map of Vietnam and the countries at its borders with arrows outlining the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Scattered throughout are photos of each woman and sidebars that explain important concepts or events like Communism, PTSD, the POWs of Dien Bien Phu, and Agent Orange. At the end of each chapter are listed resources to “learn more” about the subject of the chapter.
The heart of this book, however, is the women that Atwood is writing about. There’s certainly a need for books about women and war, especially for young adults. And although it’s not easy to read about war, there’s something refreshing about reading about a war from a variety of perspectives, not just the victors or the warriors.
It was fascinating to learn about how life has turned out for Kim Phuc, who was famously photographed when she was 9-years-old, running naked from the flames of Napalm. And then there’s the case of Kay Wilhelmy Bauer who served as a nurse in the Navy in Guam and Japan before heading to Vietnam. After her service in Vietnam Bauer worked as a Navy recruiter in Minnesota and was targeted by anti-war protestors. Her office was bombed. Then the house next to hers was destroyed by another bomb that killed the inhabitants, a case of the wrong house being targeted. My image of anti-war protestors is hippie teens putting flowers in rifle muzzles of soldiers, not domestic terrorists bombing buildings.
There’s a lot to learn and Atwood’s book is a great place to start for adults both young and older. I imagine it will fill a big gap in the libraries of those who may have read a lot about the war, but not much about women’s contributions and experiences.
Title: Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More
Author: Kathryn J. Atwood
Foreward by Diane Carlson Evans
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, May 2018
Recommended for ages 12 and up