Robin Gerster reviews 'Việt Nam: A History from earliest times to the present' by Ben Kiernan

Robin Gerster reviews 'Việt Nam: A History from earliest times to the present' by Ben Kiernan

Việt Nam: A History from earliest times to the present

by Ben Kiernan

Oxford University Press, $41.95 hb, 637 pp, 9780195160765

‘Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’ The American reporter Michael Herr thus concluded his celebrated work Dispatches (1977), confident that his readers understood what he meant, even if most of them had never set foot in the country. The very word possessed an almost incantatory power. In the United States, as in Australia, opposition to the military intervention and its cross-fertilisation with other forms of dissent dominated the historical period. ‘Vietnam’ became an all-consuming cause célèbre as much as an actual geographical entity, ‘a war not a country’, in the revealing phrase used by Herr himself. Indicatively, Dispatches said plenty about the war’s traumatic effect on Americans, but very little about the Vietnamese themselves.

The vicariousness of ‘Vietnam’ is directly addressed by the Yale-based Australian scholar of Southeast Asia, Ben Kiernan, in the opening chapter of this major new history of the country. The use of diacritics in work’s title, Việt Nam, signals that Kiernan intends his work to be an act of precision and of reclamation. Multi-regional and polyethnic, Vietnam ‘has always been much more than a war’, he writes. A long, slender land of rivers framed by the Red River Delta in the north and that of the Mekong to the south, and bordered by the South China Sea, it is apprehended as a real landscape populated by real, if diverse, people. The place we now call Vietnam is ‘a land shared and contested by many peoples and cultures’ over three millennia, ‘a series of homelands that have become a shared territory’. Just as the country cannot be reduced to a single twentieth-century war, nor can its history be simply distilled into one national narrative.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Robin Gerster

Robin Gerster

Robin Gerster is Professor in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. He is the author of Big-noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing (1987) and several other books, including Travels in Atomic Sunshine: Australia and the Occupation of Japan (2008). His latest work (co-written with Melissa Miles) is Pacific Exposures: Photography and the Australia-Japan Relationship (2018).

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.