“The Sorrow of War” was banned by the Vietnamese government, for as far as I can tell showing the Vietnamese resistance as people instead of as action heroes. What soldiers don’t have complaints about their superior officers or doubts if it is all worth it?
It shows remarkably little of what is called here “The American War,” focusing mostly on three other periods of the main character’s life: Kien’s high school love with Phuong, his duties and disappointments immediately after the war (including removing bodies from a jungle believed to be haunted by ghosts of fallen warriors), and his struggles to write about it causing him to have the same reputation as a crazy old writer as his father had as a painter. The effect of showing us all this before showing us the war drives home the emotional costs of being in battle or just surviving bombing that show up towards the end of the novel. It also allows the author to climax the novel with the worst events.
Phuong is more idealized than Kien, which is bound to happen in a novel from his point of view. In America they would have been homecoming king and queen, but in post-WWII Vietnam they are the focus of jealousy from students and discouragement from teachers, as love is seen as a distraction from duty to Party, country, etc. Phuong wants to sleep with him before he joins the army, but Kien chickens out. When the war comes, it transforms them both into “fallen” versions of their younger selves. I put “fallen” in quotes because they were pushed; they didn’t jump.
Phuong comes across to me as too idealistic in a way I’ve seen in some American women; needing to fit relationships into their Platonic categories. Meanwhile, Kien always has trouble crossing the Rubicon. He comes right up to love but can’t quite fulfill it. He comes right up to wisdom but can’t quite apply it. He comes right up to artistic inspiration but can’t quite finish it. The book is well written enough that you feel his pain while he struggles with, and for, all three.