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The People We Wanted to Forget
Harpold’s memoir of his time as a civilian adviser during the Vietnam War, and later working for the Border Management Agency, is sometimes meandering but deeply humane. Embedded with the South Vietnamese National Police Field Force in a militarily strategic province, he was tasked with training the NPPF to root out Viet Cong infiltrators without involving the U.S. military. He encountered atrocities and corruption, drove back the enemy, and developed deep friendships. Several years later, he led efforts to bring war refugees to the United States, beginning with a dramatic incident wherein he saved the lives of several people on a refugee boat. His quick thinking resulted in significant policy change.

Harpold’s extraordinary stories about living in the small town of Tam Ky explore the intersection of his civilian status and military training, and he uses maps and photographs to vividly enhance the narrative and help the reader follow along. His personal accounts of courage, hospitality and corruption are a highlight, but the end of his tour puts an abrupt end to these tales. Mundane stateside notes regarding dealing with bureaucracy and going on family vacations are a stark counterpoint to the memoir’s more dramatic aspects. But when Harpold travels to Thailand in an attempt to save the lives of Vietnamese refugees and begin righting the wrongs of American abandonment, the narrative crackles with tense excitement.

Often enlightening, this account also sometimes veers off into narrative dead ends and irrelevant anecdotes, such as extended meditations on meals. No matter his role, Harpold’s morality and compassion are evident; he has lived by his conscience at every point, even to the point of defying orders. Harpold’s memoir is at its best when he writes about navigating moral hurdles in a setting that defied easy choices. Anyone drawn to unconventional wartime stories will find this a satisfying work from a compassionate civilian perspective.

Takeaway: Readers interested in an American civilian’s firsthand account of the Vietnam War and a compassionate, reasoned take on immigration policy will be drawn to Harpold’s detailed memoir.

Great for fans of Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, Truong Nhu Tang’s A Viet Cong Memoir, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: A
Editing: C
Marketing copy: C