Air Power’s Lost Cause by Brian D. Laslie

Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.

Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.

I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.

Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.

Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.

To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.

North Vietnamese Army truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.

I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.

“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.

With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:

Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.

The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.

Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.   

In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”

Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking. 

—Henry Zeybel

The Bridge Generation of Viet Nam by Nancy K. Napier and Dau Thuy Ha

Nancy K. Napier and Dua Thuy Ha’s The Bridge Generation Việt Nam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime (272 pp. $15, paper; $3.69, Kindle) is an interesting book on several levels. It is at once jarring and revealing. It was jarring to me, a Vietnam War veteran, because Napier and Ha refer to the conflict as the “American War.” It was revealing in that they chronicle—through interviews, observations, and essays—the progress that has taken place in the entire country of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.

Napier is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at Boise State University. She managed an extension program developed by Boise State and funded by the Swedish government that brought an MBA and Business Management curricula to the National Economics University in Hanoi. Dua Thuy Ha is a Boise State alum who lives and works in Vietnam.

The book lives up to its subtitle by dividing recent Vietnamese recent history into three segments: “War,” from the early 1950s into the 1980s; “Hunger,” from 1975 to 1990; and “Launch,” from the early 1990s to today. The Bridge Generation is a term the authors give to Vietnamese people born in the late 1950s and early 1990s, as their lives “bridge” the three eras.

The authors interpret the eras from their perspective living in Hanoi, and the narrative is filtered by that and by the Vietnamese government’s communist ideology. That said, the book contains an engaging history of the Boise State project and its successes in preparing leaders for the new, emerging Vietnam. The book’s interviews were conducted with a wide variety of Vietnamese people of differing ages, experiences, economic levels, jobs, and goals.

Napier’s personal asides about living in Vietnam contain some interesting moments, including the vagaries of translations of English idioms and slang; food availability and preparation; and private conversations under the eye of the communist government. She extolls the emergence of Vietnam’s economy on the world stage and the resilience of the people who are making it happen.

This book presents, in a scholarly light, the progress that the Vietnamese have made as they seek their new position on the world stage.

Nancy Napier’s website is https://nancyknapier.com

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam 1972: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South by Charles Melson

Charles D. Melson’s Vietnam 1972: Quang Tri: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is interesting on several levels. It’s about the hard-fought battle to retake Quang Tri during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive and the crucial role the South Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) played in defeating the NVA. It also is an account of the U.S. Marine Advisory Unit’s role during the offensive. 

Charles Melson, as a former Marine Corps Chief Historian, has an in-depth familiarity with his book’s subjects, especially the Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers. Before jumping into the central thesis of the battle for Quang Tri, Melson dwells on the culture and traditions of the VNMC. As a side note he addresses the political alliances between elite units and their benefactors. 

In 1972 the VNMC had a special relationship with South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The Vietnamese Airborne, in contrast, was aligned with Ky’s rival, President Nguyen Van Thieu. That situation likely played a role in the poor command relationships in the Marines, including senior officers who were more political than professional.

Both units were highly reliable combat forces that formed the strategic reserve of the South Vietnamese military. Before the narrative moves on to the Easter Offensive Melson provides a detailed account of the orders of battle of both sides and descriptions of key personalities.  

The pace of the book picks up once Melson begins his play-by-play description of the Easter Offensive’s thrust across the DMZ and the fall and recapture of Quang Tri. The rapid NVA divisions heavily equipped with armor and air defense systems brought out the very best—and the disgraceful worst—in the South Vietnamese forces. Most glaring was the lack of effective leadership and operational sense at the most senior levels of command.  

This happened as some South Vietnamese units, mainly the Marines, tenaciously fought to prevent a North Vietnamese breakthrough to Da Nang and Hue and what would have been an envelopment of South Vietnamese forces. The fall of Quang Tri City was a major setback for the South Vietnamese because it had tremendous symbolic value for the North and was a humiliation for the South.

South Vietnamese troops entering Quang Tri City, late July 1972

The final chapters of this history capture the bitter struggle by both sides as the South’s Marines and Airborne Division supported by Rangers defeated the North’s best units in ferocious fighting. After 138 days of occupation, Quang Tri was finally liberated by South Vietnamese forces.

For some, it may be an eye-opener to learn about South Vietnamese units that had no reluctance to take on the best the North had to offer—and to defeat them. For that alone, it’s worth the time to read this short, heavily illustrated book. The excellent maps, illustrations, and photos are a real plus.

–John Cirafici

Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency by David Zarefsky

“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Coming at the end of a 45-munite speech on the Vietnam War on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s words sent a shockwave through America. Veteran reporters, including Roger Mudd, were speechless. Given the day before, many believed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. In the days before DVRs, viewers couldn’t rewind to watch what they’d just heard, and incredulously turned to each other asking, “What did he just say?

The origin story of the speech is the basis for David Zarefsky’s new book, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency: The Speech of March 31, 1968 (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp., $45). Zarefsky is a professor emeritus of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author or editor of twelve books, including President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History.

My first thought is that the title and subtitle ought to be reversed since as the book is an in-depth analysis of the March 31 speech. This is a minor quibble, though, about this well-researched and accessible volume of 190 pages of text and 36 pages of end notes. Zarefsky divides the work into seven chapters. The first two provide the historical context of the speech and the subsequent ones detail the design of the speech and its three main components: the bombing halt over much of North Vietnam, the limited increase in the number American troops, and Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race. The conclusion examines the speech’s afterlife.

Zarefsky’s contextualizing of the speech suffers from a few unforced errors: after World War II, there was no widespread consensus on avoiding nuclear war, but rather a nuclear arms race; President Kennedy did not send the first military advisers to Vietnam, President Truman did in 1950; and though Kennedy was shocked at the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, there is no record of him weeping after he learned about it.

Zarefsky hypothesizes that when Johnson became president he believed the American people would simply support his actions in Vietnam. But that is belied by LBJ’s obfuscations and his refusal to place the country on the war footing. Johnson proved that a skeptical warrior can be a committed warrior.

The analysis of the speech is where Zarefsky is on surer ground, expertly tracing the development of it through eleven drafts. Johnson ultimately decided upon a “peace” speech over a more belligerent “war” speech. The analysis goes into granular detail on the disagreements among his advisers and the conflict within Johnson himself, providing a thorough analysis on how the sausage was made.

Due to declining health, LBJ was considering withdrawing from the race as early as the fall of 1967. But Zarefsky may be too deferential to Johnson in discounting the importance of the strong showing of Eugene McCarthy in the March 12, 1968, New Hampshire Democratic party presidential primary and the entrance of Robert F. Kennedy into the race soon thereafter.

Johnson believed that withdrawing from the race would provide gravitas to his Vietnam War policy, and he did enjoy a brief boost in the pools and in the media. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just four days after his speech and the country erupted in a violent spasm.

Johnson’s speech proved to be a temporary salve for his fractured psyche. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam in April and May of 1968 was greater than that in February and March. By December, the military had dropped more bombs in the eight months since his speech than the prior three years combined.

A broken Johnson then all but handed the presidency over to Richard Nixon.

–Daniel R. Hart

No Wider War by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith, the first book in his two-volume history of the Vietnam War, covered 1945-65. No Wider War: A History of the Vietnam War, Volume 2, 1965-1975 (Osprey, 528 pp. $40) immediately takes the reader deeper into the war with the first American combat units that arrived in 1965 and engaged enemy forces. As you read about the steady flow of U.S. units, you are made aware of the big lie: Combat troops were sent there, at least initially, to provide base security after a series of Viet Cong attacks, and not to Americanize the war. The nature of the war, however, quickly changed as hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into South Vietnam in the next five years and aggressively sought out the enemy.

Miller covers the seemingly endless engagements between American forces and the elusive North Vietnamese Army—officially known as PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam)—leaving the reader wondering how either side could ever have hoped to achieve a military victory.

On one side, we have Americans trained for a conventional war, transported 10,000 miles, and then thrust into the frustration of fighting an elusive enemy in rugged, jungle-covered terrain and the marshes of the Mekong Delta. With the mobility of helicopters, American generals hoped for surprise and fluidity on the battlefield, and with immense firepower resources, the means to annihilate the enemy once he had been fixed in place. Yet, one cannot help but have a sense of awe at the NVA’s tenacity, endurance, and commitment to a conflict from which many would not return alive.

The American war depended on body counts as a key metric for success; in the end, however, the number of enemy dead had little impact on the war’s outcome. The North also used body counts, but as a political device that had an impact on American public opinion and the national and political will to continue to continue the fighting. NVA troops would roam battlefields looking for wounded Americans to execute to elevate the numbers of dead that would be reported in the increasingly troubling news sent back home.

Gen. William Westmoreland’s 1967 speech before a joint session of Congress reflected optimism that the United States was clearly on the road to victory. Then the Tet Offensive of 1968 significantly altered America’s belief in that victory. 

Miller, a former British Army intelligence corps officer who served in the Persian Gulf War, revisits the NVA’s strategy for the Tet Offensive and explains how it played out. From a military perspective, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. However, it turned into a political victory for them because of the images broadcast on the nightly news in American homes. That visual evidence flew in the face of the optimism Westmoreland expressed to Congress.     

The American attempt to win the war militarily ended when President Nixon began withdrawing troops, what became known as Vietnamization. The 1970 Cambodian incursion was as a key part of the plan to cripple the NVA’s offensive capabilities, as was the subsequent move into Laos.

This well-researched book takes the reader through the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, the convoluted four-year-long peace negotiations in Paris, the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and finally the face-saving Paris Peace Treaty allowing the United States to extricate itself from a war it should have never entered.    

No Wider War covers quite a bit of ground, yet successfully captures the essence of the American war with all its blemishes, including the My Lai massacre and the military’s serious drug addiction problem during the last few years. The closing chapter recounts the sudden collapse of South Vietnamese resistance and the end of a very long war. As predicted, the South Vietnamese people then entered into a very difficult period under the North Vietnamese during which even many former Viet Cong did not escape Hanoi’s wrath.

We are now some five decades from that highly destructive war that was damaging in so many ways. For one thing, it would take years for the U.S. military to recover from discipline and morale issues in the war’s final years. Yet much of this is barely known or understood by many Americans today.

This book and its earlier companion provide a handy reference to that war and how America fought it—militarily and politically.   

–John Cirafici

Courage Under Fire by Ed Sherwood

Retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Sherwood’s Courage Under Fire: The 101st Airborne’s Hidden Battle at Tam Ky (Casemate, 360 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) takes a close look at that virtually unknown 1969 Vietnam War battle. The combat at Tam Ky very much resembled what happened during the controversial American frontal assault on Hamburger Hill a few weeks earlier, which is why political and military leaders kept what happened at Tam Key under wraps fearing more negative repercussions.

A highly organized researcher and writer with the reader constantly in mind, Ed Sherwood writes for the moment, as well as for posterity. His book provides a clear picture of what infantry fighting in the Vietnam War was really like. In doing so, Sherwood fulfills one of his goals: by presenting a picture of frontline camaraderie, he aims to encourage young people to serve in the military. Before being wounded and incapacitated early in the battle at Tam Ky, Sherwood led a Delta Company platoon in the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry in the 101st Airborne Division.

As a retiree, Sherwood saw that historians had ignored his men, and so he devoted five years to rectify that situation. He searching the official Tam Ky military records and interviewed more than 40 veterans who fought there. Sherwood summarizes his findings in the book in nine important appendices. Of particular note is his twelve-page analysis of newly elected President Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. Sherwood’s take on the political maneuvering involved with the transition of leadership from Lyndon Johnson’s administration would delight Machiavelli.

He writes about Delta Company’s operations in Hue, the A Shau Valley, and Tam Ky as part of Operation Lamar Plain. Sherwood initially limited his study to Delta Company, but expanded his history lesson by including the Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie companies of 1st/ of the 501st, as well as the Recon and Headquarters Company medical platoons.

Sherwood provides vivid insights into the operation by describing activities from both individual and unit perspectives. His findings illuminate the difficulty of operating in unfriendly territory without a definitive objective. His writing reignited my hostility toward political and military leaders who persisted in using unsound tactics.

He describes Americans, with an emphasis on Delta Company, as well-trained, physically and mentally tough men who lacked experience in extended firefights with NVA units. Mostly the men were young enlistees and draftees. Climate and battle attrition reduced the companies to two platoons each with junior sergeants leading understrength squads. Sherwood suggests that the odds were stacked in favor of North Vietnamese, who had better knowledge of the terrain, support of the local population, and many concealed and complex fighting positions in South Vietnam. The Americans depended heavily on support from artillery and air firepower, which eventually turned the tide at Tam Ky. 

During a short assignment near Hue, Delta performed one recon-in-force mission, a new name for “search and destroy.” The men assaulted a mountainous area by helicopter, killed two enemy soldiers on the first day, and during the following week swept the area for caches of food and weapons. They did “a lot of looking, but not much finding,” Sherwood says.

Delta also spent a month conducting operations in the A Shau Valley from Firebase Pike. During that time Delta suffered casualties from errant friendly artillery rounds. Contact with the enemy was sporadic.

For each month of combat operations, Sherwood charts what was going on back in “The World,” and each chapter concludes with a table of casualties and medal awards.

***********************

The heart of the book focuses on the initial combat operation and the decisive battle of Tam Ky and Hill 376. The battalion traveled to Tam Ky in C-130s on May 15, 1969, and made its first combat assault by helicopter the next day. Initially, Bravo Company took the brunt of punishment, losing six of the battalion’s 12 KIAs on the first day. Charlie Company took the next beating.

Delta entered the thick of the fight on May 21. From there, Sherwood describes extended American sacrifices, suffering, and heroism against an enemy force of unknown size and location. As he puts it: “In a straight-up infantry fight at close quarters, the weapons, skill, and determination of NVA infantry is equivalent to our own.”

Nevertheless, with a frontal assault from June 3-12 that felt like one continuous day, the Americans murderously slogged through mud and rain and fought through ambushes and small unit engagements on its way to the top of Hill 376, Sherwood says. The number of casualties was too high for public release. After securing the area, the men raised an American flag at the highest point.

Then, exactly as the troops had done at Hamburger Hill, they walked away from the battle site—but without public attention.

Sherwood offers seven conclusions that justify non-disclosure of the Hill 376 encounter for political convenience, which I found questionable particularly in light of present-day controversies over partisan political distortions of the truth..

—Henry Zeybel

Battle Green Vietnam by Elise Lemire

Elise Lemire’s Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston (University of Pennsylvania Press, 248 pp. $45, hardcover; $35.99, Kindle) is a detailed look at a relatively little-known antiwar protest held over Memorial Day weekend in 1971 by members of the New England Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Lemire, a Literature Professor at Purchase College at the State University of New York, conducted more than a hundred interviews with veterans and civilians who took part in the event or were opposed to it, and did a vast amount of research into archival materials. She has done a great job pulling all of that material together and tells a very interesting, readable story.

The protesting veterans considered the importance of place and performance for this demonstration to both focus, and magnify, what they were trying to say. They carried out their peaceful protest on Revolutionary War battlefields in Massachusetts enacting guerilla-theater war atrocities with toy rifles terrorizing innocent “civilians.”

The antiwar veterans believed that traditional ways of affecting change would not bring about the end of the war fast enough and so they needed to make a bold statement to try to make that happen. They walked almost a hundred miles to make the public more aware of their reasons for calling for an immediate end to the war.

Elise Lemire

The marchers wore jungle fatigues and carried toy M-16 rifles. They used battlefields where the Revolutionary War began: Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. They chose to do Paul Revere’s famous ride, as mythologized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in reverse, marching from Concord to Boston.

The idea was to suggest that the U.S. needed to reverse its course in the Vietnam War. They saw this as a patriotic act to warn the American people about what their government was up to in Southeast Asia. Along the way the veterans drew crowds, made speeches, engaged in acts of civil disobedience—and were charged with trespassing,

Lemire also provided a good, concise history of VVAW, and also explains how the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, the role the New England colonies played in the Revolutionary War, and the meaning of using obelisks to represent war dead.

Lemire brings the story of this three-day-long demonstration to brilliant Technicolor life. It’s a story that well deserves that treatment.

The book’s website is battlegreenvietnam.com

–Bill McCloud

Allies in Air Power edited by Steven Paget; Educating Air Forces edited by Randall Wakelam, David Varey, & Emanuele Sica

Four editors working for the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies have developed a spellbinding format for evaluating the past, present, and future value of military air power. They have put together two books that resemble think tanks of facts and opinions from twenty-two authorities about the worldwide efficacy of airpower. In essence, the two books bond practical and educational approaches to air war.

In Allies in Air Power: A History of Multinational Air Operations (University Press of Kentucky, 314 pp. $70, hardcover; $52.99, Kindle), editor Steven Paget ties together case studies written by ten scholars and himself about coalition performances of air forces around the world. The essays, he says, “predominant[ly] focus on the experience of Western forces, not least because of the frequency with which they have engaged in multinational endeavors.”

Paget is the University of Portsmouth’s director of academic support services at Royal Air Force College Cranwell in the UK, and a member of the editorial board of Air and Space Power Review. In dissecting coalition operations, he follows a historical course that differed from what I expected. His subject matter often parallels the fringes of major events, which opened my mind to situations of which I had no knowledge. All of the entries definitely held my attention.         

The most pragmatic essay in Allies in Air Power is Paget’s detailed analysis of the Royal Australian Air Force Canberra bombers in the Vietnam War which illustrates the pros and cons of coalition operations, in this case with the U.S. Air Force.

Both the Australians and Americans made drastic changes to facilitate cohesion, Paget explains. The Canberra’s drawbacks—an inability to dive bomb, a complicated level bombing pattern, and restrictions against bombing Laos or Cambodia—were offset by its four hours of on-target loiter time and its ability to drop a stick of bombs singly and in pairs at extremely low levels with pinpoint accuracy.

Extensive tactical changes by RAAF Canberra crews and USAF FACs made the bombers highly desired close support aircraft. From 1967-71, the RAAF also used squadrons of Iroquois helicopters and Caribou transports in Vietnam. Although they depended on the USAF for their basic needs, the Aussies nevertheless maintained independence by paying their own way for everything, particularly for rations, fuel, and bombs. Mutual respect sealed the partnership.

Allies in Air Power also includes an essay on the ill-fated coalition between the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force (l’Armee de l’Air) in 1940 and the drastically one-sided pact between the Royal Hungarian Air Force and the Luftwaffe during World War II. These examples confirm that even at high levels personalities have an impact on relationships.  

Paget’s selection of articles about the first Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War could serve as a training manual for coalition operations. Basically, all participants in the operations had a voice and contributed the most they could. The value of combined air power was virtually incalculable. However, the main point is that “the widely differing social, cultural, and religious perspectives of various partners that colored and influenced day-to-day operations and relations” are always a challenge in coalition warfare.

In Educating Air Forces: Global Perspectives on Airpower Learning (University Press of Kentucky, 254 pp. $70, hardcover; $52.99, Kindle), three editors—Randall Wakelam, David Varey, and Emanuele Sica—present the writings of a dozen eminent international military leaders and scholars. Their thesis is that “an understanding of air power education would enhance aviators’ abilities to develop the intellectual capability and capacity of their particular service.”

The three editors possess a wealth of university teaching experience. They present concise histories of past and present “education philosophy and practice” predicated on events from the interwar years, the Cold War, and post-Cold War. By citing experts, they solidify the “logical link between education programs and the development and transmission of air power concepts and practices to members of the profession among European and English-speaking nations.”

Educating Air Forces also offers lessons that broadened my knowledge. From the traditional thinking of in “Giulio Douhet and the Influence of Air Power Education in Interwar Italy” to the near-revolutionary theories of “Square Pegs in a Round Hole: John Boyd, John Warden, and Airpower in Small Wars,” I enjoyed reading everything the book offered. New wars and new types of warfare demand rethinking about what the military too frequently accepts without question.

The experts in Educating Air Forces begin by examining the early development of military-run schools in the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. They go on to note that secret German Luftwaffe programs and training that stressed joint operations were the best approach—one that led to the overwhelmingly successful 1941-45 Stuka-Panzer blitzkrieg. English, Canadian, and Australian military historians describe their services’ approaches to education over the years.  

The book emphasizes the United States’ delays in forging air education schools because of struggles between generals and differences of opinions among politicians. Today, the U.S. Air Force has an array of sophisticated schools for officers of all ranks. The book makes a good case for civilian-run schools that teach graduate-level military history courses to investigate “war and society.”

The book examines the classic issues of “strategic versus tactical employment of forces” and the differences between large and small wars. The arguments come full circle by emphasizing famed Gen. Billy Mitchell’s idea that “the airplane’s role in war is the product of decision-making peculiar to each state.” To be blunt, reading Educating Air Forces left me with the impression that after a century of military air operations, the best approach to teaching its history is still highly debatable.

Separating theory and practice has always been a formidable task. In the early 1960s, I was both a student and faculty member at squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College. Many times, I questioned exactly what we were teaching our students and why.

–Henry Zeybel

Rogue Diplomats by Seth Jacobs

“Diplomacy,” said the writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, “is the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

In Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in American Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 406 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $17.20, Kindle) Seth Jacobs examines the role and conduct of diplomats in the shaping U.S. foreign policy. American diplomacy—often overlooked by historians and political scientists who concentrate on executive power and the military—has had a profound impact on the many achievements that have helped establish contemporary America.

Seth Jacobs is Professor of History at Boston College. His books include Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam and America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia.

Jacobs’ opening thesis statement is striking; he contends that the most important triumphs in American history came a result of American diplomats disobeying orders. Using a case-study approach, Jacobs uses six examples:

  • John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War
  • Robert Livingstone and James Monroe bargaining for the Louisiana Purchase
  • Nicholas Trist ending the 1946-48 war with Mexico
  • Walter Hines Page as Ambassador to England during the World War I
  • Joseph P. Kennedy in the same post in period immediately preceding the Second World War
  • Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963.

In all five of the six cases, Jacobs argues, insubordination was ultimately the correct course of action.

Of particular interest is the case study on Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The patrician Republican Lodge was a curious choice for the Democratic President, John F. Kennedy, as the new U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963. Aside from their party differences, Kennedy had defeated Lodge for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952, and again when Lodge was Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960.

When Lodge arrived in Saigon in August 1963, the embers of the Diem Administration’s raids on Buddhist pagodas in South Vietnam were still smoldering. A lone wolf who kept his own counsel, Lodge soon dominated the diplomatic scene in South Vietnam and forged his own policy in the wake of vacillation from Washington.

Henry Cabot Lodge looming large over Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963

In Saigon, the South Vietnamese populace had tired of Ngo Dinh Diem’s autocratic rule, and there were as many as twelve coup d’état plots against his government. Lodge delicately walked the tightrope of not thwarting any of the coups while maintaining plausible deniability of American involvement.

Jacobs overstates the case of Lodge’s perfidy, but there is no doubt that he, as much as any American, helped cause the overthrow of the Diem government.

Lodge’s rogue quality rested more on his unmanageability than dishonesty. Despite Jacobs’ characterization of Lodge’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador as one rife with disobedience and insubordination, he credits Lodge with ultimately making the right choice in helping oust the Diem government.

Jacobs’ book is an original piece of scholarship that is written in a manner that makes it entertaining, informative, and relevant. It is a rare book of American foreign policy that is accessible to both the casual reader and the academic.

The diplomats he writes about were both a reflection and a refraction of the culture of their times, rendering a distinctly American approach to foreign policy. In the end, Jacobs proves his provocative thesis that America was made by knaves and scoundrels who went their own way.

–Daniel R. Hart

Moral Imperative by Darrel D. Whitcomb

Darrel Whitcomb’s Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 368 pp. $27.95, paper; $20.49, Kindle) 2021 is a well-written, researched, detailed, and informed book filled with accounts of incredible search and rescue missions. Whitcomb, a USAFA graduate who served three Vietnam War tours as a cargo pilot and forward air controller, begins with the earliest phase of American involvement in Southeast Asia as a backdrop to the evolving SAR mission. That quickly leads to the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive and Operations Linebacker I and II, the centerpieces of the book. 

Reading the details of these rescue missions I was repeatedly awestruck by the courage and perseverance of the rescue crews—especially when so many were shot down, riddled with fire, killed, or captured. 

On the eve of the 1972 Easter Offensive North Vietnamese antiaircraft units were heavily equipped with the latest Soviet technology and concentrated around sites targeted by U.S. forces. Facing an array of weaponry that could defend at all altitudes and weather, attacking aircraft were always in danger of being brought down.

The Russians had supplied the North Vietnamese with an abundance of artillery and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles with supporting radar, as well as fighter aircraft. Most telling was the large-scale introduction of portable, heat-seeking, shoulder-fired SA-7’s. Those weapons brought about U.S. losses practically every time they engaged attacking American aircraft. And nearly every attempted rescue mission took place in a high-risk environment.

The North Vietnamese monitored the American radio net, and set traps for inbound rescuers using downed flier as bait. Many rescuers and pilots consequently were hit by intense fire.   

The questions then arose: When is this tradeoff too costly to continue a rescue effort? Is it ethical not to try to rescue a downed crew?  If so, what was the morale impact on others who continued to fly high-risk missions? 

Perhaps the BAT-21 episode, which is described in this book, has been written about extensively, and was the subject of a Hollywood movie, best illustrates cost-versus-gain. BAT-21 was an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft that was shot down. Only one crewmember, the navigator, survived, and he wound up in a highly dangerous sector saturated with ground-to-air missile sites, SA-7s, and antiaircraft artillery.  

An HH-43F hoists a downed airman in Southeast Asia. U.S. Air Force Photo

The effort to save him resulted in the loss of five additional aircraft and the deaths of eleven airmen. What’s more, U.S. planes scheduled to help embattled South Vietnamese troops in desperate need of airstrikes were diverted to the rescue effort. After an extensive effort the navigator was rescued by a determined and courageous two-man SEAL team backed up by South Vietnamese Navy commandos.

Was saving the navigator worth the losses? As Air Force Gen. John Vogt said about ordering highly risky SAR missions: “The one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that was ever in doubt, morale would tumble.” Hence, the “moral imperative” of the book’s title.

One comes away from this book with a deep-felt admiration for the crews who willingly put everything on the line to rescue others in the Vietnam War.

— John Cirafici