Courageous Women of the Vietnam War by Kathryn J. Atwood

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Chicago Review Press, 240 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle), Kathryn Atwood examines the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and the Vietnam War (as Americans know it) from the perspectives of women from both sides—including the French who started it.

In this young adult book Atwood presents the war through the eyes of a French Army nurse captured by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu; a South Vietnamese revolutionary inspired by Ho Chi Minh; Joan Baez trapped in Hanoi during the Operation Linebacker II bombing; and eleven other vignettes.

Atwood’s accounts blend the women’s actions into an overall picture of the war. Therefore, the book covers material familiar to students of the war, but it also serves as a primer for younger readers. I was familiar with the lives of only four of the women. At the end of each chapter, Atwood lists two or three books suitable for further study on the topic she just covered.

K.J. Atwood

The book’s story line begins with the Viet Minh Revolution led by Ho Chi Minh, and progresses through the Ngo Dinh Diem Civil War and the machinations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In her book Atwood gives life to people who otherwise might be forgotten. For the most part, without wielding weapons, the women featured in the book faced dangers equal to those faced by many men who saw combat.

Atwood praises the women for their contributions to their countries. She writes about more American women than Vietnamese.

She is the author of three previous YA books about heroic women who served in World Wars I and II. “Young people might not believe they like history,” she says, “but [they] might be enticed toward interest in a particular historical woman if the narrative is compelling.”

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, Kathryn Atwood makes the personalities tick for readers of any age.

Her website is kathrynatwood.com

—Henry Zeybel

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The Guardians of the Night by David Keeton

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David Keeton’s The Guardians of the Night (227 pp. $25, paper) was written, Keeton says, “to honor the countless canines that have served alongside GIs over the years.”

Keeton was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967. In Dalat during the 1968 Tet Offensive he served as a Sentry Dog Handler with the 18th Military Police Brigade. After his discharge, Keeton worked as a deputy sheriff and then became a schoolteacher. He has published four other books about dogs.

The Guardians of the Night begins with a history of war dogs, including no less than Rin Tin Tin. The bulk of the book is devoted to stories of war dogs and their handlers in the Vietnam War. The final chapters cover 911 search and rescue dogs and war dogs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I saw some of these dogs in Vietnam, but had never given them much thought. Learning how they served and the many lives they saved has given me a new and very respectful understanding of their capabilities and their value in warzones.

The pages of this book are loaded with pictures, poems, stories, and interviews.  More than a hundred and fifty dogs and their handlers in Vietnam are highlighted, along with many more from other eras.

I found this book to be somewhat primitively put together in that most pages are physically cut and pasted, and there are editorial errors of all types throughout.

However, I also found this book to be captivating and a pleasure to read, so I give it a thumbs up. For ordering info, write to 402 Division St., Union City, MI 40904

— Bob Wartman

1968 by Richard Vinen

“The single most important cause of change in the tone of politics in the 1960s was the Vietnam War,” Richard Vinen writes in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $29.95). The war, he writes, “seemed to focus and incarnate all the other conflicts—about race, imperialism, militarism and capitalism.”

The book came out in July, a half-century after the cataclysmic year that saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon.

Vinen examines the twelve months of 1968 primarily in the context of the years just before and after, what he calls “the long ’68,” and he focuses on the West. “My version of ’68,” he writes, “involves affluent countries in which radical protest came up against elected governments.”

A professor at King’s College London and a recipient of Britain’s Wolfson History Prize, the author distills an extraordinary amount of information into about 340 pages of jargon-free text. He takes a thematic, rather than a linear, approach. So while the book can profitably be read straight through, it may be more valuable as a reference work.

Beyond the United States, Vinen concentrates on three countries: France, West German, and Britain. France experienced  intense activity—worker strikes and student demonstrations—in May 1968 in Paris. In West Germany, the “number of the most committed radicals was relatively small,” he writes, and “terrorism took its most extreme form.” In Britain, 1970s radicalization “extended beyond the campus [to] political violence in Northern Ireland.”

Richard Vinen

Vinen examines phenomena that, in addition to the Vietnam War, influenced “the long ’68,” such as economic growth, the increase in the number of college and university students, and the Civil Rights movement. Throughout, he substitutes complexities for clichéd dichotomies—young/old, new/traditional, outsiders/authority—and shares many intriguing details, among them:

  • “The largest live audience that John F. Kennedy ever addressed was not in Washington or Berlin but in Berkeley, California, and Berkeley illustrated the hopes that many placed in America during the early 1960s.”
  • “Many who had been radicalized in the late 1960s or ’70s turned to writing works that were inspired by American crime fiction. Most famously, Stieg Larsson, the Swedish creator of the Millennium series, had been a very young ’68er, campaigning against the Vietnam War when he was 14 and joining a Trotskyist movement six years later.”
  • “Some American women who opposed the war made much of their status as mothers. Not all feminists felt comfortable with this. Betty Friedan said: ‘I don’t think the fact that milk once flowed in my breasts is the reason I am against the war.’ A group of anti-war feminists staged a ceremony to bury ‘traditional motherhood’ at Arlington National Cemetery.”

–Angus Paul

The 31st Infantry Regiment by The Members of the 31st Infantry Regiment Association

Stories are the way people pass knowledge from one generation to another.

The late Karl H. Lowe, with help from James B. Simms and Grady A. Smith, has passed down a century of military stories in The 31st Infantry Regiment: A History of “America’s Foreign Legion” in Peace and War (McFarland, 519 pp. $45, paper). The three men were career soldiers who served in the 31st Infantry Regiment. They know combat.

As the unit’s Regimental Historian for twenty years, Karl Lowe recorded the 31st from its activation in the Philippines in 1916 through the Vietnam War. In this book James Simms expands on the unit’s action in Vietnam, and Grady Smith reports on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. An excellent selection of photographs from archives and personal sources supplements their writing.

The Regiment’s first battle took place during a deployment to Siberia in 1919 after Bolsheviks captured five American enlisted men following the Russian Revolution. That far north adventure earned the unit the nickname “The Polar Bear Regiment.” World War I had ended in Europe in 1918, but skirmishes between Russian, European, Asian, and American military forces continued in Siberia until 1920. Lowe’s account of the scale of interaction north of Vladivostok provided a new history lesson for me.

The same holds true for the Regiment’s deployment to Shanghai when that city became an International Settlement in 1932. This time the Americans stood aside with the British while Chinese and Japanese troops battled on the city’s fringes.

The entire book is a history lesson. Lowe writes about old encounters as if they had happened yesterday. Simms and Smith have a similar talent. Their stories tie troops, regardless of rank, to situations so that a reader fully understands what occurred and why. Best of all, the authors provide a feel for the moods of the troops and organizations.

Stationed in Manila from 1932-41, the undermanned and poorly equipped 31st Regiment followed a slow motion pace of activity, culminating in a series of ignored war alerts in November of 1941.

A few weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 31st Regiment in combat: in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The authors recreate battle scenes with great authenticity. Extensive chapter notes support their work. Many of the Regiment’s war stories have become high points in U.S. military history and the authors do justice to them.

31st Infantry Regiment troops in Vietnam in 1970

The Vietnam War is reported in two sections: 4th Battalion (1967-71) and 6th Battalion (1967-70). The latter includes operations in Cambodia. Again the reporting is personalized and describes actions and attitudes of individual infantrymen.

The book’s closing pages pay tribute to 31st Infantry Regiment troops killed in action in all wars.

The authors’ combat expertise, their fluid writing style, and the depth of their reporting make The 31st Infantry Regiment a worthwhile reading experience.

The book tells it like it was.

—Henry Zeybel

The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel

Combat at Close Quarters edited by Edward J. Marolda

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Combat at Close Quarters: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 2018, 360 pp. $39.95) is a compilation of essays on the topic edited by Edward J. Marolda. The five are all military historians who have written about the various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War: Norman Polmar, R. Blake Dunnavent, John Darrell Sherwood, and Richard A. Mobley. The book also includes more than two hundred photos and maps.

Dunnavent is a Louisiana State University history professor who has done a lot of work on the brown water Navy in Vietnam. He and Marolda in 2015, for example, co-wrote the 82-page book, Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam as part of the official “U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War” series, which Marolda co-edited.

Marolda served as an officer in the US Army’s 4th Transportation Command in Vietnam in 1969-70. A former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy, he is the leading historian of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

The four chapters in this book chronicle:

  • The Air War: close-air support, bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
  • Riverines: fighting throughout the Mekong Delta and north to the DMZ
  • Blue Water War: gun fire, interdicting trawlers, mining Haiphong Harbor
  • Intelligence Gathering: recon photo flights, radio and radar sweeps, SEALs

One aspect of the war that these historians note is the stark difference between the strict Rules of Engagement promulgated by the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the more flexible ones that the Nixon administration used.

The book as excellent accounts of the heat and terror of battle. There are descriptions of aerial dog fights, rescues of downed aviators, and fighting along the rivers and marshes of the Mekong Delta. The book also explains how the war was orchestrated by its supporting players. There’s information on monitoring and interdicting movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; joining Intel efforts of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps into a single, cohesive stream of information; and behind-the-scenes communications, politics, and negotiation strategies.

111111111111111111111The authors argue that U.S. lost the Vietnam War because its citizens and politicians lost the will to fight it while the military forces consistently won virtually every battle.

Most Vietnam veterans know about actions in which they had participated. They witnessed and appreciated the close air support and the artillery and Naval gun fire, yet many are unaware of all the behind-the-scenes activities needed to make those long-range bombs so timely and so accurate.

To help learn how it all came together, Combat at Close Quarters is a must-read.

— Bob Wartman

Political Tribes by Amy Chua

22bookchua1-superjumboAmy Chua is best known as the “Tiger Mother.” That not entirely complimentary moniker came from her 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Chua described and espoused her (and her husband’s) super strict child-rearing methods. Not coincidentally, reaction to the book brought her a mountain of media attention.

But Amy Chua is much more than a mother with strong ideas about kid discipline. She graduated from Harvard and its law school, clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and went on to work in a big law firm. Today she is a professor at Yale Law School.

Chua’s specialty is ethnic conflict and globalization. Her books include World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall.

Which brings us to her latest provocatively titled book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (Penguin, 293 pp., $28). In it, Chua takes an American-centered look at the impact of “tribal instinct,” aka “ethno-cultural rivalry,” on U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, including the 2016 presidential election.

Chua devotes a twenty-page chapter in the book to the Vietnam War–and why the United States came out on the losing end. But you won’t find anything in here about military tactics or strategy. Or the American media or the antiwar movement.

Chua instead concentrates on her specialty, giving us a tribal-centered answer to a question that has been debated for a half century: why “superpower America, with its formidable military,” as she puts it, lost a war to “what Lyndon Johnson called a ‘piddling, piss-ant little country.’”

Chua gives a nod to the “widely recognized” answers as to why the war ended the way it did: that the U.S. greatly underestimated the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and that Cold War myopia caused us to seriously misunderstand the nature of Vietnamese communism and its threat to U.S. national interests. But, Chua tells us, those two factors do not make up the “complete picture.”

What’s missing, she contends—“the core reason we lost in Vietnam”—in her words, is that American leaders from the Truman to the Ford administrations “failed to see the ethnic dimension” of Vietnamese nationalism. Amy Chua’s definition of the Vietnam War’s “ethnic dimension” in a nutshell: the multi-millennial conflicts between China and Vietnam.

U.S. policymakers’ gross ignorance of Vietnamese history (particularly the long-time enmity with China) caused us to blunder into the conflict for the wrong reasons. “Astonishingly,” she says, the U.S. was “so oblivious to Vietnamese history” that our State Department, Pentagon, and presidential policymakers “thought Vietnam was China’s pawn<_/>merely a ‘stalking horse’ for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’” This, she says, “was a group-blind mistake of colossal proportions.”

Chua makes her case with a brief recap of Vietnam’s enmity toward China, and an even briefer look at how the U.S. got into the Vietnam War, starting with fateful decisions made at the end of World War II. She delves deeper into the strong impact of ethnic Chinese people living in Vietnam. This, she says, is a good example of a “market-dominant minority,” a term Chua coined that describes the many entrepreneurial ethnic Chinese Vietnamese citizens who all but controlled South Vietnam’s “lucrative commercial, trade, and industrial sectors” for centuries, including during the American war.

All of this rings true.

Chua’s contention, however, that the fact that ethnic Chinese people dominated South Vietnam’s economy had a significant impact on the war’s outcome is harder to swallow. Yes, our South Vietnamese allies were generally not very effective fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. But to put the lion’s share of the blame for that on the South Vietnamese government asking its people “to fight and die—and kill their northern brethren” in order to keep the [local ethnic] Chinese rich” seems to be a huge exaggeration.

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Amy Chua

To her credit, Chua notes that many South Vietnamese were less than willing to fight their communist brothers for another reason: They had little love for a seriously corrupt regime that was asking them to do so, a regime—not coincidently—backed by the U.S.

“The group identity America offered the Vietnamese was membership in a puppet state,” Chua says. That amounted to “the ultimate affront in a country where many Vietnamese soldiers wore trinkets dedicated to the Trung sisters, symbolizing resistance to foreign invaders at all costs.”

No arguing with that.

And there’s no arguing with her conclusion that “virtually every step [the U.S] took in Vietnam was guaranteed to turn the Vietnamese against us. The regimes we supported, the policies we promoted, the money we spent, and the attitudes we brought made the Vietnamese hate us, hate capitalism, and only enhanced the appeal and status of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh.”

Chua’s website is amychua.com

—Marc Leepson