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

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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

War Stories by Conrad M Leighton

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Conrad M. Leighton’s War Stories: A GI Reporter in Vietnam, 1970-1971 (MacFarland, 340 pp., $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a jounal of Leighton’s year in Vietnam where his main assignment was with the 1st Cavalry Division as a Public Information Office reporter. Leighton bases the book on the many detailed letters he sent home from the war. The result is more a series of vignettes than a narrative.

Leighton did a 1970-71 tour in Vietnam, and he describes the entire spectrum of his in-country experiences. The reader can see the the changes in U.S. forces and tactics from the beginnings of the war until nearing the end of direct combat involvement.

Leighton worked as an embedded reporter with different 1st Cav brigades and his orders were to report back what he saw from the Army’s point of view. He details the struggles of conscience he had with superiors who wanted particular slants on his articles. Leighton spent time in the field and with every aspect of military life during that year, from the humdrum to the profane—from hunkering down under incoming enemy fire to the travails of traveling dentists who visited fire bases, to the problems with waste disposal.

He is honest in his reporting and does not pull punches as he writes about drug use—in particular, marijuana—among the troops. He is frank in his dislike of new officers with stateside ideas and discipline. His main joys were to be published in either the division or brigade newspapers, and occasionally having a story picked up by Stars and Stripes.

Leighton paints the GI’s lives in detail, including the humor and grit and grime that goes with an unpopular war in a foreign country fought primarily by draftees. A constant theme running through the book is how tiring it all was.

For anyone interested in details about the later aspects of the war in Vietnam, this is a good book. It captures the frustrations of the soldiers and the spotty leadership at the troop level.

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The book also will be helpful to historians as it provides another look at the units that fought in different places in earlier times in the war. The generational changes in attitudes and tactics will enlighten readers and help understand why so many veterans had widely varying experiences during the long Vietnam War.

For the acute observer, it is possible to extrapolate this story and interpret it to reveal the result of poor management from top U.S. political and military leaders. Reading between the lines, you can sense a lack of purpose, and a lack of clear direction from the top.

No wonder so many men on the ground kept asking:  Why take risks? Why am I here? What good am I doing?

–J.L. Bud Alley

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 by Peter E. Davies

Fans of military aircraft cannot ask for more than what Osprey Publishing provides with its Combat Aircraft Series. The series authors and illustrators are historians who focus on specific models of aircraft and their crews during a narrow period of warfare.

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 (Osprey, 96 pp.; $23, paper; $18.40, Kindle) is author Peter E. Davies’ twenty-third book in the series. For it, he interviewed Navy and Marine Corps fliers who operated from aircraft carriers.

Illustrator Jim Laurier, who has worked with Osprey since 2000, contributes thirty color profile paintings of F-4 Phantom IIs with distinct markings of their aircraft carriers. A history of each plane complements his artwork.

Nearly every page of the book contains a photograph of crewmen or an airplane. Captions provide related facts to enhance readers’ knowledge of Navy operations.

Davies first explains the fighter aircraft environment before the 1969-73 period that he concentrates on. He examines changes in the F-4 II airframe, its missiles and tactics, as well as the political climate—for good and for bad. Comments by pilots provide an insider’s view. For example, when discussing a Phantom-MIG Fresco duel, he quotes Lt. Cdr. Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, who says, “It’s like a knife fight in a phone booth.”

This format continues through the book. Vivid accounts by fliers who fought the war support theories and practices of the time—again, for both good and ill.

Davies presents a clear picture of what it was like for F-4 II crewmen when they hit problems in air-to-air, interdiction, and close support sorties. Along with striking targets in South Vietnam, carrier-based planes bombed North Vietnam and Laos. In addition to normal survival concerns, crewmen coped with problems ranging from frustration due to complex rules of engagement to the dealing with the rationale behind awarding medals. Davies emphasizes stories involving hunting and killing MIGs, the premier accomplishment of fighter jocks.

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To keep the ledger honest, Davies includes successes and failures of MIG pilots who challenged U.S. aircraft and ships.

Insights from the Navy fliers brought back many memories. Anyone with even a minimal interest in military tactics or warfare should find satisfaction with this book.

Davies has a talent for finding and reporting what is important. I especially enjoyed reading about idiosyncrasies of aircraft carrier operations. They reconfirmed my appreciation for my flying career with the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel

The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 by Mervyn Roberts III

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The extent to which psychological warfare was used by all sides in the Vietnam War is staggering and so multi-faceted it almost seems like a barometer of the chaos and shifting strategies that occurred throughout the war.

There were leaflets—smuggled over borders, dropped from airplanes and fired from howitzers; radio and television campaigns; messages broadcast from helicopters and C-47s; newspaper accounts; disinformation and behavioral modification efforts by medical aid teams and brutal assault squads; blocks of ice dropped by parachute to persuade the enemy that troops had swept in overnight.

By the end of the war, psyops teams were employing thousands. Leaflets were distributed by the millions. And the goals were as varied as the methods.

There were efforts to boost defections; to destroy morale; to build support; to alter perceptions of success or failure; to taint image and credibility; to foment dissent or encourage resistance; to persuade opponents their war was being lost, and supporters that theirs was being won.

Mervyn Roberts III wrote The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 (University Press of Kansas, 432 pp., $39.95) originally as a doctoral dissertation after a career in the Army. He served two tours in the war in Afghanistan and was a psyops specialist. He’s a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

In his book, Roberts quickly traces the evolution of psychological warfare from its early use in the Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II and the Korean War. He shows that in the Vietnam War, psyops grew in fits and starts and that its uses shifted like the wind in a confusing cacophony. Why? Mainly because of inconsistent U.S. policies, bureaucratic chaos, and political instability on both sides of the border.

The American effort focused on selling the idea that U.S. troops were there to protect the country from communism and to bring peace and prosperity. From the North came the message that U.S. medicines were laced with fishhooks and that villagers could avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army if they amputated their trigger fingers.

There were battles over messaging and debates over psyops’ effectiveness. Roberts traces that evolution in enormous detail. He looks at campaigns that started and stopped and others that shifted emphasis and grew to unprecedented proportions. In the spring of 1965, for instance, U.S. teams were distributing 500 million leaflets per month to support a war Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of.

There were successes, such as the U.S. Chieu Hoi campaign to encourage Viet Cong defections, and the North’s assault on the Americans’ use of defoliants, calling it a toxic campaign designed to kill livestock and crops and force the population into concentration camps.170px-vietnampropaganda

Roberts details the shortcomings. In addition to the constantly shifting priorities, there was inadequate training, a lack of cultural understanding, and a lack of language skills and inadequate measurements to assess what worked.

On both sides troops who behaved badly fed new material to the other side’s propagandists. Plus, in Vietnam and in the U.S., support for the war shifted constantly.

Roberts’ grasp of the historical context is impressive, although some readers may find the treatment somewhat academic. But, as he points out, there has been no truly comprehensive look at psyops tactics and their role in the Vietnam War until this book.

The author’s website is https://mervynroberts.com/about-the-author/

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and an upcoming collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

The Ashes of War By MH Murphy

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M H Murphy’s The Ashes of War: The Plight of the Vietnamese People at the End and after the Viet Nam War (CreateSpace, 434 pp. $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) deals with what happened to—as the book’s subtitle notes—Vietnamese people after the fall of Saigon in April of 1975. The author served with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam in 1965-66.

Murphy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, became interested in the South Vietnamese refugees when he wrote an introductory guide for people who had relocated from Vietnam to the Chicago area. He did years doing an extensive amount of research in compiling The Ashes of War.

In the book, Murphy alternates between telling the stories of two South Vietnamese refugees. One is a former Saigon police officer who escaped by boat. It was surprising to learn that there were 2.5 million refugees who fled Vietnam, causing a humanitarian crisis and coining the term “boat people.” The stories of boats capsizing, pirates attacking, and starvation and suicide among the refugees were very powerful.

The second thread tells of a tea-shop owner who chose to stay in Vietnam after the communist takeover. The new regime closed his family business and sent the owner to a reeducation camp. Murphy writes that more than 300,000 people were sent to these camps. Conditions were terrible and reminded me of stories of concentration camps during World War II.

The tea-shop owner was released after a year when his family bribed the guards. He did find love among the hardships and ended up getting married before fleeing.

I wish the author would have written briefly about where the two main men ended up. Was it Chicago? Did they ever go back to Vietnam? Were they reunited with their families?

That said, I highly recommend this book.

—Mark S. Miller

Long Journeys Home by Michael D. Gambone

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Michael D. Gambone proposes that Americans should raise the status of Korean and Vietnam War veterans to the legendary height of those who fought in World War II. He makes that case in his latest book, Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, & Vietnam (Texas A&M University, 275 pp. $45.00, hardcover; $45.00, Kindle).

Gambone examines those who played a role in the three wars from multiple angles: class, race, gender, age, education, and region. Much of what he says is not new, but Gambone uses this information—such as how draftees were selected, the composition of forces, and post-war economic trends—to make his points persuasively.

He delves into the post-war lives of the three groups of veterans to show that Vietnam War veterans were not monsters as identified by many in Hollywood and the news media during that era. He also makes a case for boosting public appreciation for veterans of the so-called “forgotten war” in Korea.

 

Gambone, a history professor at Kutztown University, points out that many  novels, television shows, and movies laid the groundwork for countless authors, journalists, and film directors to build World War II veterans into the “Greatest Generation,” which won a “good war.” He notes, though, that those troops did not fight any harder, nor did not die in greater agony, than other combatants did throughout modern history. Nevertheless, the idea that World War II warriors saved the entire world from dictatorship placed a halo effect on them.

The public disliked and basically ignored the Korea War because it too soon renewed the fight against the Asian hordes, he suggests. In other words, public emotions overrode facts concerning combat to the detriment of American veterans from the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

Gambone strives to separate myth from fact and thereby reduce the impact of the nature of a war on the public’s perception of the value of its veterans. He contends that “armies cannot escape the societies from which they are drawn,” but he asks the public to accept veterans who deviated from the norm in crisis—rather than to condemn them.

Overall, Gambone shows that the quality of life beyond the battlefield deteriorated from World War II to Vietnam. Upon returning home, Vietnam War veterans experienced increasing difficulties with mental problems, job placement, racial issues, and educational opportunities.

At the same time, veterans from the three wars shared a commonality about the “basic nature of military service,” according to Gambone. To prove this point, he cites evidence that supports consistencies in patriotism, dealing with trauma, and assimilation into civilian life, along with much more.

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Michael Gambone

Gambone, the author of The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society (20015), served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1985-88. He spent 2006 in Iraq as an Army contractor.

I would have liked to see Gambone compare the veterans he writes about in Long Journeys Home to veterans from today’s all-volunteer military forces.

When describing the post-World War II period, Gambone says, “There was no shared burden to link the public with [the nation’s] military effort. Education, income, and race became important cleavage points with respect to service, sacrifice, and recognition.”

To which I say: “That’s still America today. Tell us how to change it.”

—Henry Zeybel