Dragon’s Jaw by Stephen Coonts & Barrett Tillman

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Stephen Coonts flew A-6 Intruders for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Since then, he has written sixteen bestselling aviation techno-thrilling novels, the first of which was the  Flight of the Intruder. Barrett Tillman, an authority on air warfare, has written more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind.

Coonts and Tillman’s Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 304 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is a book that editorializes about flying and Vietnam War diplomacy as much as it tells a war story.

The war story is the targeting of the strategically vital Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam by U.S. Navy and Air Force fliers. From March 1965 to the November 1968 bombing halt, the unproductive sacrifices made by these airmen—killed and missing in action, wounded, or captured as prisoners—were stunning.

The book’s title covers the flying action. In that regard, if you can imagine Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in a five-gravity landscape while strangers fling sharp-edged rocks at him, you have a hint about the story’s drama. Note: A few philosophers argue that such a task made Sisyphus happy.

To complete that imagery, here’s what Coonts and Tillman’s have to say about Rolling Thunder, the bombing program to interdict supplies from North to South Vietnam: It was “fatally flawed from the start. There were a great many fool’s errands in Vietnam—arguably the entire war was one—and the pressure from the top was excruciating.”

They address that pressure by classifying the diplomacy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara as misdirected, self-serving, and ineffective. They also shred John Kennedy’s decisions about South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended in the portentous November 1963 assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu. Many of their arguments reference previously published sources.

Coonts and Tillman dissect Johnson’s diplomacy by comparing it to Machiavelli, Thucydides, and contemporary thinkers—a no-contest encounter.  The authors fault senior military officers who “realized that the fuel and ordnance expended on Thanh Hoa missions and the losses incurred were wasted effort” against “the most heavily defended area in the world.”

Navy and Air Force fliers faced constantly improving North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG interceptor defenses. Their improvisation in maneuvering aircraft through dangerous situations was unimaginable—until it happened. Their inability to destroy the bridge symbolized North Vietnamese resistance and American impotence, the authors say.

A major argument against the war was the fact that, afterward, it was evident that all of the reasons not to pursue it were obvious before the war began, according to Coonts and Tillman.

The authors identify both American attackers and North Vietnamese defenders and quote their oral and written testimony about battle. Dragon’s Jaw honors the lives of brave men who otherwise might be forgotten. The war can be judged as ineffective in solving an international dilemma, but the depth of dedication by participants on both sides is unquestionable, as this book plainly shows.

Along with recreating bombing and dog-fighting missions, the authors describe operations and life aboard aircraft carriers; fliers’ constant quest for better tactics, equipment, and weapons; and the ordeal of American POWs. Given their antipathy to the antiwar movement, it’s not surprising that the authors disparage Jane Fonda for her wartime visit to Hanoi. They also devote a chapter to the evolution of aircraft carrier design as planes grew larger and heavier.

The authors depict Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as diplomatic wizards for befriending—or perhaps economically bribing—China while undermining South Vietnam in 1972. The bargaining received a boost from the development of laser-guided, three-thousand-pound bombs that finally collapsed the Thanh Hoa Bridge into the Song Ma River.

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 Tanh Hoa Bridge after American F-4 Phantom fighter bombers knocked its western end into the Song Ma River in April 1972.

The book broadened my knowledge of Navy air operations. But its arguments frequently are vitriolic, rehashing reasoning that is at least fifty years old. Old conclusions are still largely ignored, however, and I would have preferred to see the authors apply them to today’s military commitments.

In their final pages, the authors do mention the advantages of today’s guided munitions designed for the Vietnam War, and they tie an unsatisfactory Vietnam War targeting episode to Desert Storm as part of a Note.

Navy and Air Force leaders fought a “sortie war” to impress McNamara and gain personal recognition, according to the authors. The resultant lack of inter-service effort leads Coonts and Tillman to call the fighting in Vietnam a “shitty little war.”

They conclude with an idea from Henry Kissinger that they judge to be “perhaps the ultimate lesson” of the war: Victory in war is essentially meaningless unless it leads to a political settlement that will endure.

Think about it.

—Henry Zeybel