AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER consists of two extended essays — of discovery (“Hanoi and the North”) and rediscovery (“Saigon and the South”). They first appeared in briefer form (and with his wife Susan credited as coauthor) in THE NEW YORKER and are reminiscent of THE JAGUAR SMILE: A NICARAGUAN JOURNEY (1987), Salman Rushdie’s not uncritical reflections on Sandinistas under siege. While Sheehan’s Hanoi reportage has its moments, in particular a conversation with General Vo Nguyen Giap, the most riveting scenes take place in the South — at Ap Bac, Ben Suc, and the renamed Ho Chi Minh City, where Sheehan sought out old haunts and acquaintances such as former ARVN commander Ly Tong Ba. Ba spent a dozen years in reeducation camps before the hard-line policies of General Secretary Le Duan were replaced in December, 1986, by a Vietnamese version of perestroika called doi moi. The author’s flashback memories and impressions are effective, but he eschews the younger generation, who speak only through graffiti found within a run-down ARVN cemetery. Sheehan writes: “Misguided men in Washington pursuing the fantasies of empire and venal men in Saigon pursuing the lure of power and graft had used them badly in life. In death they were discarded.”
The time for American diplomatic recognition of Vietnam is long overdue, Sheehan believes. Only political cowardice and knavery have delayed rapprochement this long.