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Reflections on war, from ancient times to Vietnam

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Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, The United States and the Modern Historical Experience, by Gabriel Kolko. New York: Pantheon. 628 pp. $25. Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle, by Richard Holmes. New York: The Free Press/Macmillan. 436 pp. $19.95. Nothing is a stronger impetus to peace than an accurate picture of the reality of war.

As historians continue to write about the Vietnam war, the volume of information grows and grows: government studies, historical treatises, endless charts and photographs, order-of-battle military accounts, and great gray mountains of journalism. The distillation and re-distillation of this mash of facts require the ability to focus accurately and work toward a preselected point on the horizon of knowledge.

Anatomy of a War is one of the best-written general histories of this conflict yet published, but it is as controversial as it is lucid. Gabriel Kolko, author of seven influential books on foreign policy, has arranged factual material and analysis so that they intelligently justify one another, condensing mountains of information to help the reader who has a serious but not inexhaustible curiosity. This is no small accomplishment, even at well over 600 pages, since to leave out some of the interesting and flamboyant aspects of the war is to risk a dull account.

On the contrary, Mr. Kolko tells the more gripping story -- the political and military tenacity that locked both sides in a battle from which neither would benefit. The entire account testifies to his final statement that Vietnam proved the ability of arms to do little more in the third world than ``impose immeasurable suffering.''

Kolko's conclusion, which hasn't been accepted by some other commentators in the ongoing revision of the history of the war, is that smaller nations like Vietnam must be left to develop in their own way, and that they will probably do so more rapidly without the help of the United States or any other intervening power. Not everyone will agree with this view -- it's as out of fashion now as it was in John Kennedy's time -- but it's well argued here.

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