Uphill Battle by Frank Scotton

Frank Scotton’s Uphill Battle: Reflections on Viet Nam Counterinsurgency (Texas Tech University Press, 376 pp., $85, hardcover: $39.95, paper) is an odd—though entertaining and insightful—account of a USIA and foreign service officer’s work during the Vietnam War.

It’s odd, because Scotton was a difficult, headstrong young man who didn’t like to follow orders. He arrived in Vietnam in 1962 under the supervision of a man he came to respect deeply, Everet Bumgardner. But Scotton liked to go it alone in the bush, playing Rambo and embarrassing his superiors, even getting himself kicked out of his AO through the combined protests of his Vietnamese counterparts.

Early on, his exploits were not only reckless, but pointless, and he came within a whisker of being ordered home. In the early part of the book, the reader will be reminded of Alden Pyle, the over-confident fictional CIA operative in Graham Greene’s acclaimed novel, The Quiet American.

Early on also Scotton’s wife, serving with him in Vietnam, demanded a divorce.

Scotton gained fluency in the Vietnamese language, and made some Vietnamese friends. He learned that loyalties could shift among the Viet Minh, the ARVN, the Vietcong, and the South Vietnamese government. In other words, you could never understand Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese, and you needed always to be a student.

U.S. Army medical personnel treating South Vietnamese civilians in 1970

In 1963, for instance, it was important to understand who was Catholic and who was Buddhist. The so-called pagoda raids of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem—and his overall bungling of the Buddhist crisis—eventually led to his assassination.

Scotton’s reckless early experiments fostered his ability to organize small groups that operated in the same, village-level spheres as the Viet Cong. Though he retained a slightly rogue modus operandi, Scotton became effective at the grassroots level. He maintained that “Any American (or Australian) assigned to the program should be imbued with an irregular spirit, abjure creature comfort, and risk going native.”

Scotton became an advisor to senior staff, and an important leader in his own right, rising to the post of USIA Assistant Director for East Asia. He spent time in Vietnam from 1962-75, and retired from USIA in 1998.

Scotton doesn’t have anything very startling to say in this book about the failure of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. As he notes: “We all know how the story ends.”

Scotton’s book is nevertheless fascinating for its portraits of famous and influential people who passed in and out of view in Vietnam during the war: Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, John Paul Vann, and many others. His book could have used some maps, and the photos are not very useful.

But otherwise Scotton documents his assertions thoroughly, and educates as well as entertains.

— John Mort

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