ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE VIETNAM WAR: A POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND MILITARY HISTORY, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, ABC-Clio, Three Volumes, 1,320 pages, $275.

It is generally conceded that our fighting men conducted themselves well in Vietnam, and that our failures there can be traced to unrealistic political aims and strategic decisions. Analysis of high-level decision making, however, must be tied to the flow of warfare in the field and other defining factors. In this regard, a work such as the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War can be extremely useful. Due to its depth and scope, it is a significant sequel to the still useful single-volume publication of the same title, Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, published in 1996.

This subsequent venture consists of three extensive volumes. The first two include alphabetical entries, while the third contains documents relating to the war, ranging from newspaper accounts to national security study memorandums. The academic excellence of this enterprise is assured by the qualifications of its editor, Dr. Spencer C. Tucker, who served in army intelligence during the Vietnam conflict and is currently a professor of military history at Virginia Military Institute.

The pain of Vietnam is always with us, however, and its lessons are so complex that they resist definition, even by a work as comprehensive as this one. This is where danger lies. The book’s very format leads the reader to seek absolute truths within its pages where, in some cases only nebulous opinions exist. At best, enlightened encyclopedic efforts that embrace historical themes serve to satisfy the intelligent general reader but only promote further study by the serious student.

Jonas L. Goldstein is a retired naval officer who holds post-graduate degrees in history, management, and librarianship.