Max Hastings, the award-winning author, British journalist and foreign correspondent for the BBC delighted members of the public when he appeared at UEA on the 14th of November to discuss his 2018 release, Vietnam: An Epic History of A divisive War 1945-1975. Christopher Bigsby begins the session by introducing Max, commenting on the “innumerable wars” he’d written about, from the First and Second World Wars, to the Korean and Falkland wars. Chris praises his book as one that “tells the story from beginning to end detailing; strengths, tactics and battles”. A short clip is played of Max from when he reported live at Vietnam during the war, whilst bullets where firing over his head.
After an eruption of applause, Max starts off with a joke to get the crowd engaged before plunging straight into the story of the death of a young solider in 1968. Instead of immediately discussing his book, Max begins with a series of figures to show the immense impact of the war and provide some context for the audience. Heart-breaking examples included the fact that around 300 telegrams declaring deaths were sent out every week. Max showed his wide breadth of knowledge on the topic, immersing the audience in a deep and intense chronology of the events of the Vietnam War. He doesn’t hold back from the details in this portion of his talk and gives a truthful and accurate description, from the story of a traumatised woman offering up her body after losing her home, to napalm victims. He offered insightful comments about his interpretation of the war, discussing the cultural impact and claiming it was significant in “destroying one US president and contributing to the downfall of another”.
Many of Max’s own personal beliefs are embedded in his book, and he makes sure to highlight the immense tragedy of the war. He gives great sympathy to the Vietnamese but concludes “neither side deserved victory”. Personal comments such as “I felt like I had been caught up in the apocalypse” when describing being near a bomb explosion, provided a key connection point between Max and the audience. Across his talk, he often linked to relevant important historical figures such as Lyndon B Johnson and Ho Chi Min. He also referenced other authors such as Tim O’Brien and Michael Herr to offer a wide and whole picture of the war. Though incredibly serious issues were discussed, Max often evoked laughter from the audience, perfectly balancing tones of seriousness and enjoyment.
In an eye-opening Q & A session, the author claims that it is the stories about people, the victims, that interest him most when writing books about war, not the soldiers and the battles. Discussing the key lessons he took from the Vietnam War, Max explains “fire fights mean nothing unless you can achieve cultural, social, political engagement with people’”, also claiming “where there is nothing to join up to, its all for nothing”. A final joke about Max’s “American accent”, and Chris wraps the session to a close, praising Max for putting a human face on such an important book.