The Air Force Way of War by Brian D. Laslie

Long ago—in the 1950s and 60s—Strategic Air Command bombers ruled the world. SAC, for one thing, controlled ninety-five percent of the Free World’s striking power. Its city-busting thermonuclear war plans held top priority. Tactical fighter pilots hated SAC’s dominance.

Then came the Vietnam War and fighter jocks began doing the bombers’ job—deep-penetration attacks on strategic targets in North Vietnam. The jocks paid a heavy and disproportionate toll in losses, but gained heroic superiority.

Following years of obliterating tactical targets such as remote jungle outposts in Laos, SAC B-52s began to strike strategic targets in North Vietnam during the penultimate month of the war. But it was too late for SAC. The many years of role reversals had allowed tactical air force thinkers to gain equality in air war planning.

Working from this background, NORAD deputy command historian Brian D. Laslie examines what happened after the Vietnam War in The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 256 pp.; $40, hardcover; $38, Kindle). Laslie convincingly shows that inadequate training was the primary cause of combat losses in Vietnam. He points out that studies revealed that the first ten “actual combat missions” over North Vietnam took the greatest toll on pilots. Consequently, the Air Force revised pilot training to make it as realistic as the first ten actual combat missions.

Laslie goes on to explain the steps that revised the approach to training: creation of “designed operational capability,” agreement on “thirty-one initiatives” with the Army, evolution of Red Flag war games, and development of new aircraft. In other words, under the new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine.

Of course, Laslie holds fighter pilots in high esteem (rightfully so, especially those who flew over North Vietnam) and therefore strongly supports their views. As an old B-47, B-52, and Spectre gunship crewdog, I occasionally found his arguments credible but slanted.

 Vietnam War B-52 Stratofortress taking off

At the same time, I admire his honesty. He names generals who accepted mediocrity based on their inability to recognize the need for change. And he lauds leaders who championed crew survivability. Laslie should have said more about inadequate pre-strike intelligence, but perhaps he considered that weaknesses as a given.

The book’s final chapters describe the impact of improved training methods on combat operations starting with the attack on Libya in 1986. Swept up in the fighter pilots’ quest for control, Laslie makes the following pronouncements: “Many have dubbed the air war over Iraq and Kuwait as a ‘strategic air war.’ In the purest use of the term, this is a misnomer. The air war over Iraq and Kuwait was actually a tactical air war that caused strategic level effects.  Everything about air power in the way it was traditionally conceived was overturned during Desert Storm.” Along with winning Desert Storm, fighter pilots also finally won control of the United States Air Force.

And: “Perhaps the most damning statement in [a GAO] report was that the B-52’s contribution to the overall war effort was minimal and did not ‘stand out’ over that of the far more numerous tactical fighters.” Basically, the report said that SAC had no role “outside the nuclear realm.” Clearly, fighter pilots wanted to run the Air Force without compromise.

Laslie best captures the mood of the time in his account of planning for Desert Shield. Personality clashes created scenes of drama equal to the most intense you can find on a good TV miniseries.

Brian D. Laslie

As a wrap-up, Laslie explains the 1992 restructuring of the entire Air Force. He clarifies the merger of TAC and SAC into the Air Combat Command by saying: “The former members of SAC moved into ACC seamlessly as they reorganized the bomber doctrine and made it fit with what the tactical community had been doing for years.”

Laslie offers a postscript by analyzing USAF participation under NATO in the Balkan Campaigns. He finds faults in NATO’s lack of planning and clear objectives. But he credits Red Flag training for the good things that have happened, including the USAF’s ability to conduct day-and-night operations. He does not delve into air operations in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The book has excellent endnotes, along with a “Flag” appendix, bibliography, index, and seven pages of photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam: The Other Side by Duong Nguyen

Since the communist takeover of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, many writers have produced books about various aspects of the Vietnam War. Duong Nguyen—a medical doctor who fled his homeland in 1975 and lives in the United States—presents a unique, first-hand account of a country in transition in Vietnam: The Other Side, Challenging All Odds (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 218 pp., $23, paper). This autobiographical novel is told through the coming-of-age eyes of a child and his prosperous Hanoi family disrupted by the division of their country after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Uprooted from their spacious and opulently furnished home, the family hastily boards a flight to Saigon. never to return. Attempting to minimize the trauma, the main character Dang’s parents enroll him in a prestigious French school in which Vietnamese is considered a foreign language and the history curriculum emphasizes all things French. Dang relies on news reports on the war as it intensifies after 1964 with the American involvement.

Dang has some difficulty adjusting to his southern neighbors and is teased about his accent, but this criticism later subsides.

The culture in Saigon is corrupted by the arrival of Americans and their PXs and the black market and everyone’s desire for consumer goods. Many families resort to prostitution and profiteering just to survive. Amid this “westernized” Saigon atmosphere Dang completes high school and passes his medical school admissions exam even though his first choice is to be a pilot.

When his first year of medical school is completed he decides to commit to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam so that his tuition would be paid. In his fifth year of medical
school Dang meets his first love, a Peace Corp physician named Mary. To reveal the outcome would spoil the book for readers.

Soon after the 1968 Tet Offensive Dang graduates as a physician and is assigned to the 9th ARVN Infantry in IV Corps area in the relatively quiet Mekong Delta near Vinh Binh. “Rats ran unmolested everywhere with no fear of man and the food supplies were usually contaminated with rodent droppings,” Duong Nguyen writes. “Insects of various sorts were ubiquitous and tended to be ignored. This was kind of a cold shower for Dang, who was reared in comfortable urban and modern life.”

Finishing two years of combat duty Dang is transferred to the Air Force at Phan Rang just prior to what he describes as the “debacle.”  Dang witnesses the sudden and final collapse of The Republic of South Vietnam.

Dang joins many former ARVN troops and South Vietnamese government officials in communist re-education camps after he decides to register with the local police station. He tells his family: ” I will be back in a couple of days.” But he is held for three years. When released he is relatively healthy but extremely underweight.

Vietnamese fleeing the country in the late seventies

A few days under the oppressive regime is all it takes for Dang to begin planning his escape. “His parents were too old and could not make such a trip. His sisters were all married and living with their husbands’ families. His brothers were in prison, so there was only himself to worry about.”

This begins the novel’s most action-packed and suspenseful section, the page-turning conclusion. The reader will be taken back to the days of the Vietnamese “Boat People,” a situation that is sadly similar to the plight of refugees in Europe today.

The author, Duong Nguyen, enlisted in the U.S. Army after migrating to this country, and commanded two medical units and was Division Surgeon of the 1st Armored Division during the first Persian Gulf War.

—Curt Nelson

The Bangkok Asset by John Burdett

Sometimes fiction is stranger than truth. That’s certainly the case in John Burdett’s latest thriller, The Bangkok Asset (Knopf, 307 pp., $25.95).

This sixth novel in the series featuring the Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep—the son of a former Bangkok bar girl and a Vietnam War American GI—like its predecessors is compulsively readable, evokes the Thai capital and Thai culture splendidly, and has a convoluted but clever, over-the-top plot that comes extremely close to straining credibility.

Said plot: As a result of a forty-year effort by the CIA, the Chinese and Russians (don’t ask) are about to create a race of super humans who will soon take over the world. These “enhanced” human beings have been bred using a group of former American servicemen stowed away in the jungles of Cambodia after the war in Vietnam. Huge amounts of LSD were involved, along with 22nd century technological advances in human engineering.

The savvy, emotionally jittery Jitpleecheep gets enmeshed in this whole phantasmagoric business after he starts investigating a gruesome murder in which the killer leaves an incriminating clue linking him in the crime. Then things get really crazy.

An important part of the plot involves Jitplecheep’s longtime quest to find his biological father. In fact, Burdett goes into more detail on the Vietnam War and its veterans in this book than he has in any of the five previous Bangkok novels. That includes Vulture Peak, the previous one, which appeared in 2012, and the excellent first novel in the series, Bangkok 8 (2006).

We get more information on Jitplecheep’s father than ever before, including lots of details about his war and postwar experiences. To say any more would spoil things for those who read this entertaining book, which features vividly drawn characters enmeshed in crazy and portentous goings-on.

I had a small problem with the ending. Why? Let’s just say Burdett doesn’t exactly have things turn out happily ever after.

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam 1967-68 by David R. Higgins

Vietnam 1967-68: U.S. Marine Versus NVA Soldier (Osprey, 80 pp., $18.95, paper; $15,.95 e book) is an excellent book for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War. In it, author David R. Higgins, a veteran military historian, compares U.S. Marines and the NVA soldiers by dissecting three of their encounters in I Corps: the Hill Fights in April 1967, Operation Kingfisher in July 1967, and the Battle for Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The book provides background on the political origins of the war and on soldier-level topics such as training, logistics, leadership, morale, weapons, and tactics. Countless books have covered the latter material, particularly from the American viewpoint. Higgins stands out by discussing the Marines and the NVA separately and objectively emphasizing dissimilarities.

Fighting in the three engagements was ferocious and produced large numbers of casualties on both sides. Higgins’ accounts include information from both sides. Months prior to Tet, the NVA initiated a master plan that gave them superior positioning at the start of the offensive; American leaders failed to recognized the plan.

Higgins concludes that poor intelligence gathering also hindered the Marines in the Hill Fights and Kingfisher. At Hue, the confinement of city streets caused the Marines to operate independent of air and artillery support and reduced the effectiveness of armor. At the same time, he says, the ability to operate with less material and support than other U.S. forces gave the Marines greater flexibility to adapt to changing battle conditions.

              U.S. Marines during the fighting in Hue city, Tet 1968

Higgins identifies the use of irregular tactics, avoiding confrontation until establishing a superior position, and functioning with minimal supplies as factors that increased NVA combat success. Generally superior in numbers, NVA forces frequently ambushed the Marines. Furthermore, Higgins says, NVA soldiers had high levels of morale and motivation, which maximized their ability to learn and apply combat lessons.

This magazine-sized book contains excellent photographs and maps. Illustrator Johnny Shumate’s drawings of soldiers and combat scenes are extremely lifelike.

—Henry Zeybel