Drawn Swords in a Distant Land by George Veith

History is not kind to losers. Those who appease, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, or step down like President Richard Nixon, become exemplars of not only defeat, but of moral failing as well. In Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (Encounter Books, 660 pp. $40.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the historian George Veith attempts a rehabilitation of South Vietnam’s longest-serving president, Nguyen Van Thieu.

Thieu resigned his post in the spring of 1975 as the North Vietnamese advanced on Saigon, ensuring that the nation of South Vietnam was resigned to the pages of history. The military historian Lewis Sorley wrote that Thieu was “arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson, and—given the differences in their respective circumstances—quite likely a more effective president of his country,” suggesting that Veith’s revisionism is meaningful.

Veith, a former Army captain, is a PhD candidate who has written two books on American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War. His most recent book is Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975 In that 2012 book, he argues that the South Vietnamese were “quite capable of defeating the North Vietnamese,” but failed mainly because the U.S. Congress didn’t support them adequately because of the influence of “antiwar crusaders,” “major media institutions,” and the “Left around the world.”

Drawn Swords in a Distant Land is a monumental achievement in its breadth and scope. The massive tome is divided into 24 chapters and supported by 43 pages of endnotes. In addition to many American and Vietnamese primary and secondary sources, Veith interviewed an array of former South Vietnamese officials.

In the past two decades, some Vietnam War historians have emphasized the South Vietnamese experience, though most of this literature has focused on the regime of the first President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. In his book, Veith covers the Diem regime and the rotation of South Vietnam governments after his 1963 assassination before spending the bulk of the book on Thieu.

The book is primarily a political biography of Thieu and his effort to build a democratic republic with a viable economy and rule of law. He had to accomplish this while fighting a war against an indigenous communist enemy and the well-armed and well-trained conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army. The book contextualizes the role of the United States through the South Vietnamese perspective, which effectively lessens the American role.

Veith posits that Thieu’s role has been unfairly relegated to that of the losing and last President of South Vietnam, effectively devaluing many of his accomplishments. He implemented land reform, returned political power to the local level, oversaw several elections, and held together a fractured nation, all while leading the armed forces. Vieth’s sympathetic portrayal of Thieu reveals a resilient individual who was transformed from a modest military general to an inspired yet practical politician.

Though under his regime regional and religious allegiances dissipated, Thieu could never unify the competing groups of South Vietnamese nationalists. Veith portrays him as a model of probity who nonetheless oversaw a government plagued by corruption and scandal that he was unable to control.

LBJ and Nguyen Van Thieu

These issues are endemic to all fledgling democracies, and, though there was dissatisfaction among the South Vietnamese with Thieu’s government, it remained preferable to communism. In the end, Thieu could not both build a nation and fight an enemy after it lost the support of its American patron.

Though a generous depiction of Thieu — at times too sympathetic as many historians would challenge Veith’s contentions on Thieu’s land reforms and fair elections —Veith concedes that when South Vietnam needed Thieu to be at his best, he was at his worst.

Veith’s ambitious undertaking is worthwhile in its reassessment and a challenge to the belief that South Vietnam was a corrupt American puppet in a Cold War drama. But this perspective may be slightly off-balance by overly diminishing the American role. Vieth’s commitment to his subject leads to indulgent rhetorical flourishes, and the level of detail he provides allows the narrative to meander.

Given the large cast of characters, the book would benefit from a dramatis personae, and would have been enhanced by a more robust conclusion.

But these are minor quibbles in an important revisionist history in understanding America’s South Vietnamese ally.

–Daniel R. Hart

Dien Bien Phu 1954 by Martin Windrow

Martin Windrow’s Dien Bien Phu, 1954: The French Defeat that Lured America into Vietnam (Osprey, 96 pp., $24, paper) is an easy-to-follow account of the pivotal May 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended the Vietnamese war against France and determined the future of Vietnam. Rich in photographs, illustrations, and maps, and supported with a detailed chronology and order of battle tables, this concise history takes the reader right into the battle.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a consequence of monumental errors in French operational planning, including misunderstanding the enemy’s intentions and capabilities. The French also overestimated their own capability to maintain and defend the remote base with artillery and air support. and forces available—and underestimated the Viet Minh’s ability to commit substantial forces to the battle supplemented with artillery and antiaircraft weaponry.

The purpose of the base was to draw Viet Minh forces away from the strategically important Red River Delta, which included Hanoi and Haiphong. Ironically, the misguided plan instead isolated significant numbers of French forces, moving them away from areas where they were essential. Despite heavy losses by the Viet Minh. the French were ultimately crushed.

Although Windrow—a military historian who has written widely about the 20th century wars in Vietnam—does not compare Dien Bien Phu with the siege of the remote Khe Sanh combat base fourteen years later during America’s Vietnam War, one cannot help but look for parallels and differences. Some similarities and some important differences come to mind.

The Viet Minh, for example, zeroed their artillery in on Dien Bien Phu’s two airfields, essentially shutting them down and the North Vietnamese Army essentially did the same thing at Khe Sanh. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the overall commander of attacking forces in both battles, applied the lessons of the first to the second. French tactical airpower at DBP was sorely inadequate and encouraged Giap’s tactical boldness. In contrast, U.S. airpower inflicted heavy losses on NVA at Khe Sanh in 1968. 

Vietnamese artillery, well concealed and protected, was a key component of the siege strategy at both DBP and Khe Sanh. At DBP it was used to support assaulting troops, wipe out outposts, deny the use of the airfields, and target command and control bunkers. Fuel storage and ammunition dumps also were destroyed at Khe Sanh. The ammunition dump also was destroyed, many aircraft on the ground were hit, and movement within the camp greatly restricted. Yet Khe Sanh, supplied by airdrops, never fell to the NVA.

French troops besieged at Dien Bien Phu

Finally, an important difference: For the North Vietnamese the Siege of Khe Sanh was not the focus of the ensuing 1968 Tet Offensive. The base did not have to be actually taken. The NVA instead succeeded in its goal of drawing key U.S. combat forces (the 1st Cavalry Division) away from population centers on the eve of the South Vietnam-wide Tet Offensive.

As a veteran of the siege of Khe Sanh I wanted to learn as much as possible about Dien Bien Phu from this book. And I was pleased to see that Windrow’s narrative, maps, order of battle listings, and timelines allowed me an to “see” the battle of DBP as it unfolded.       

This book accomplishes quite a bit. It is well worth reading.          

–John Cirafici           

SOG Chronicles, Vol. I by John Stryker Meyer

The Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was one of the most misidentified and misnamed special operations units in the American war in Vietnam. With his 2017 book, SOG Chronicles, Volume I (SOG Publishing, 210 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), former Army Green Beret John Meyer gives us the first of a series telling the stories of the men who took part in the secret SOG actions.

Changing some names “to protect those involved,” Meyer tells us of the birth and mission of SOG, which was in place under MACV from 1964-72. He also includes some of the history that drove its inception and goals.

The Special Forces troops of SOG and their Vietnamese comrades, including Montagnards, went where they weren’t supposed to go and did what they weren’t supposed to do with the knowledge that the U.S. government would disavow their existence and missions into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam if they were discovered.

SOG Chronicles focuses on the 1970 Operation Tailwind, in which 16 Green Berets and some 120 Montagnard fighters went deep into western Laos to draw the NVA’s attention away from another operation being run by CIA forces in eastern Laos.

This operation turned into a four-day fight, a greater-than-expected engagement with more than a few casualties. The men were finally extracted with 60 wounded, all of whom were kept alive by the sole medic in the unit, Gary Mike Rose, with the help of an indigenous assistant. In 2017, Rose belatedly received the Medal of Honor for those beyond-the-call-of duty actions.  

Meyer also includes a rundown of other SOG operations, as well as details about some of the minutia and high jinx that took place in camps and on the trail. He heaps great praise on the airborne assets assigned to SOG, those who transported the men out and back and provided air support.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and informative book and a tribute the men of SOG.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

–Tom Werzyn

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM by Peter Caldwell

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM (Taote Publishing, 150 pp. $9.95, paper; $4.25, Kindle) is Dr. Peter Caldwell’s take on what happened during the American war in Vietnam. He therefore opens the book by asking: “How difficult is it for someone who wants to try and get up to speed on the history of American involvement in Viet-Nam?”

My experience reading this book was just that—difficult. It’s a wonderful book, but there is so much diverse material with many outside references in it that I had to re-read a few sections to understand the full picture Caldwell was trying to paint.

He has packed nearly 100 excerpts from publications written by Americans (both war hawks and doves) and Vietnamese (from the South and North) into this short book. The endnotes and bibliography lend credence to his observations and comments, causing me to rethink my opinions about the war.

From 1966-67 Caldwell served as a Navy Battalion Surgeon for the Marines in the Hue-Phu Bai area. He later made several trips back to Vietnam on volunteer medical missions and to visit his in-laws. In 1960, Caldwell’s Vietnamese wife Olga Hoang Hai and her family had moved to Hawaii where and met her and they later married.

Here are a few strategic changes that Caldwell believes could have reversed the outcome of the war:

  • Periodically invading southern areas of North Vietnam and moving into sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Pursuing the enemy into Cambodia and Laos
  • Continuing support for President Ngo Dinh Diem
  • Expanding the USMC’s Combined Action Platoon program
  • Integrating the ARVN command structure with ours and giving the South Vietnamese military more autonomous responsibilities
  • Reducing access to untruthful news outlets

I enjoyed reading Up to Speed on VIET-NAM and feel I now have a more well-rounded understanding of the Vietnam War. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

Clear, Hold, and Destroy by Robert J. Thompson III

Robert Thompson’s Clear, Hold, and Destroy: Pacification in Phy Yen and the American War in Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 330 pp. $39.95, hardcover: $29.95, Kindle) is, above all, about the Vietnam War’s U.S. pacification effort and how it failed. The question addressed by Thompson is: Why is it important that we understand this failure?

As I read this book, I wondered why Thompson’s case study of events that took place fifty years ago would be relevant today. It would seem more natural to look at the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Vietnam experience and analyze similar philosophical and operational errors to understand why we have repeated the same flawed philosophy. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Thompson’s study of the pacification program in the Vietnam War examines the effort in Phu Yen Province south of Qui Nhon. His goal is to show how Americans advanced pacification and why the program ultimately did not work. He grapples with the impact of conventional warfare on pacification during a war by looking at the North Vietnamese Army, along with the Viet Cong, who were primarily fighting an insurgent war with the goal of winning over the South Vietnamese people.  

The tragedy for the Vietnamese sandwiched in the middle was that the American search-and-destroy strategy was all but inseparable from U.S. pacification programs. At the same time, the often ruthless methods of the Viet Cong to control the population were no less harmful. However, it was not lost on the people that the Viet Cong would always come back after being forced away and reassert themselves.

Thompson, a historian with the Films Team at the Army University Press, argues that the ultimate objective of pacification during the Cold War was the defeat of communism, a goal not quite consistent with the traditional definition of “pacification,” which is to establish peace.

Therefore a dichotomy existed in the inconsistent and confusing use of the term and, more importantly, its consequences in actual practice. It has been said that pacification is about power—ultimately control over a population while isolating it from insurgents. In other words, it requires a major military component.  

In the 1960s the Field Manual 31-22 Counterinsurgency Forces’ definition was “to destroy the insurgent’s ability to use the population for support.” That has proven, because of the destructive nature of war, to be a fundamental contradiction. Witness how incredibly destructive the war in Vietnam was for the Vietnamese people when airstrikes and artillery were used to blast hamlets and repeatedly dislocate those who lived there.   

In an apparent effort to make the mission appear more benign to the public, a cascade of names was used for the program such as nation building, rural reconstruction, revolutionary development, winning hearts and minds, and civic action. Yet, in the end, pacification in the Vietnam War was never free from violence and destruction.

hompson could have looked at the American pacification of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and in the 19th century Indian wars in the West to illustrate the consequences of pacification. This summer, in his speech announcing the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, President Biden said it was the end of the era of “nation-building.” That reference reflects how much the concept has become associated with wrong-headed policies.

Thompson should be applauded for his excellent scholarship in approaching a very difficult subject and accurately describing the reality of pacification programs in the Vietnam War. His book is perceptively written, informative, and well worth reading. His website is drrobthompson.co,

–John Cirafici

War in the Villages by Ted N. Easterling

Men of the U.S Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam volunteered to live with and protect South Vietnamese villagers in I Corps. Ideally a CAP was made up of fifty men—14 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and 35 South Vietnamese Popular Forces troops, although in reality the teams often fell below those numbers. The program, designed to fight guerrillas during the night and help villagers during the day, was in place in Vietnam from 1965-71, and was the subject of controversies between upper echelon Marine and U.S. Army commanders. In essence, the Army favored the search-and-destroy strategy, and the Marines wanted to emphasize hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency programs.

In War in the Villages: The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 247 pp. $29.95, hardcover;  $23.95, Kindle) Marine Vietnam War veteran Ted Easterling tells the story of the effectiveness of CAPs against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Easterling holds a doctorate from the University of Akron where he taught history. Relying primarily on secondary sources in his book, Easterling concludes that CAP never realized its potential.

The book’s lengthy introduction details the principles of guerrilla warfare, communist ideology, and revolutionary warfare to show the formidable military challenge posed by the communist forces in Vietnam. Easterling also explains a range of counterinsurgency tactics designed to meet the challenge, the core of which fostered disagreement between Marine Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak and his boss, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland.

Easterling conscientiously takes the reader through all the stages of CAP’s existence, a struggle intensified by the program’s limited size and insufficient support from the South Vietnamese government. Even when CAP became a separate command, a lack of supplies hampered progress.

A Combined Action Program unit near Dai Loc, Nov. 5, 1970

Several recently released books about the CAP have reached conclusions similar to Easterling’s. In Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ, for example, the British military historian David Strachan-Morris rates CAP as successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless successful. For him, counterinsurgency is an effective way to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.

A more personalized view of CAP comes from Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a former CAP Marine who lived with villagers between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers south of the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.”

What’s more, he says that the South Vietnamese Popular Forces avoided taking risks, and the U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”

Regardless of the degree of CAP effectiveness, War in the Villages provides an in-depth study of a controversial program that once again shows the high degree of commitment by the U.S. Marine Corps.

—Henry Zeybel

I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Chris Lombardi

On their course through life, most people devote themselves to causes. Some are good; some not so good. Journalist Chris Lombardi discovered her cause in sixth grade after reading U.S. Army Dr. Howard Levy’s Going to Jail and learning to her disappointment that America incarcerated prisoners of conscience.

While a college junior in 1982, Lombardi wrote a play about Vietnam War draft resisters called Too Many Martyrs, the title of a Phil Ochs protest song. She also worked with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and met many Vietnam War veterans. Those relationships led her to write I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters & Objectors to America’s Wars (The New Press, 320 pp.; $27.99, hardcover; $12.51, Kindle), again using an Ochs title.

Lombardi’s work has appeared in The Nation, Guernica, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and ABS Journal. In I Ain’t Marching Anymore, her first book, Lombardi investigates American military dissenters, including conscientious objectors, from before the Revolutionary War to 2020 in a dozen chapters. I first read the chapters “1965 to 1980” and “1980 to 1991” to determine what Lombardi had to say about the U.S. military during and after the draft. In the Vietnam War chapter she provides a dramatic picture of the accumulation of tensions, in and out of the service, during the conflict.

She also writes about antiwar activities that were new to me. For example, in 1969, with information from like-minded Reservists, a few Vietnam vets captured two of three tanks in the middle of Philadelphia’s Broad Street, delaying their transit from an armory to a shipyard. She has nothing but good things to say about Vietnam Veterans Against War, Jane Fonda, and John Kerry.

On the opposite side, she shows the near impossibility of becoming a conscientious objector while on active duty. Most who tried did not even get to the stage of filling out the form, she says. “I had six COs: two are in jail and four are back on the line,” a battalion commander boasted. Lombardi reminds us that Gen. William Westmoreland originally labeled the My Lai killers as just a couple of bad apples.

She sees the design of the post-conscription military as an armed Peace Corps with new opportunities for women. Military recruiters sold enlistment by emphasizing job skills, cash bonuses, and escape from bad neighborhoods. Those enticements, she says, were designed to lessen the internal dissent that took place in the last years of the Vietnam War. During the 1980-1991 period, Americans fought in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama during which there were brutal actions against civilians. In other words, little changed—and then along came the first Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Lombardi’s chapters covering recent decades make captivating reading. I found myself agreeing, disagreeing, and questioning her analyses. Her portrayals of Chelsea Manning, Leigh Winner, and other 21st-century war objectors would make good television documentaries. She praises Iraqi Veterans Against War. She seems to be saying that current antiwar activities reflect a strong political appeal, lessening the impact of morality. All of her writing is interesting.

National Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, Manhattan, April 15,1967

The first half of the book, which covers the Revolutionary War to the war in Vietnam, offers arguments about both objections to war and about race relations. She presents these years more like a history lesson than an antiwar debate. The U.S. Army’s heartless subjugation of Native Americans during Westward expansion, Mexicans during our war with them in 1846-48, and Filipinos during the Spanish-American War have a familiarity that still persists.

In writing I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Chris Lombardi examines dissent in a manner that glorifies those who object to war as much as the public generally glorifies the nation’s most heroic warriors. I strongly recommend that high school and college students read her book as part of establishing a value system for life.

Maybe a few older people can also learn from her.

The book’s website is https://aintmarching.net

—Henry Zeybel         

A Shau by Jay Phillips

Six years before he went to Vietnam and became an infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1967, Jay Phillips began studying the war. Wounded three times, he spent 21 months in-country. In 1976, he received a BA in history from the University of Denver. Fascinated by the war and its outcome, he accumulated a library of some 1,300 books on the topic and did a large amount of research in the files of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University to write A Shau: Crucible of the Vietnam War (Izzard Ink, 542 pp. $39.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).

Phillips characterizes the A Shau Valley as “one of the most consequential pieces of real estate in all of South Vietnam.” In the book he analyzes how the United States never controlled the Valley after the North Vietnamese overran a U.S. Special Forces camp at A Luoi in March 1966, and how that influenced the war’s outcome.       

The book focuses exclusively on what happened in I Corps from 1961-72 in the area between A Shau and the nearby Laotian border to the west. The North Vietnamese Army used the 28-mile long valley as a supply route into South Vietnam. This greatly benefitted NVA activity, particularly the extended fighting in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive—a turning point in the war.

Although he never set foot in the A Shau—which Phillips states for the record in the book—his familiarity of time and place is admirable. U.S. Air Force CHECO Reports primarily provide his source material, but he also cites other official reports, award citations, secondary sources, memoirs, and interviews. I applaud the scope and intensity of his research.

Phillips offers up his interpretations of successful and unsuccessful actions in the field and at leadership at all levels of command. He speculates. He contradicts. He finds fallacies and corrects errors. To put it simply and bluntly: He calls bullshit when necessary.

Despite not maintaining a permanent force in the A Shau Valley, American forces conducted large- and small-scale, short-term incursions there. Phillips brings to life epic operations: Delaware, Somerset Plain, Dewey Canyon, and others. He takes the reader to the infamous Hamburger Hill.

In the A Shau Valley, 1968

Phillips recreates operations with details that should more than satisfy military history lovers. He describes the glory—and the suffering—of American combatants in the A Shau: primarily the 1st Cavalry, 101st Airborne, and the 9th Marines. Those units used reconnaissance and search-and-destroy tactics in forested mountains, much like Americans in the rest of South Vietnam did. At the same time, he weaves in the actions of smaller groups such as Rangers and LRPPs to complete a picture of the complex and fluctuating U.S. tactics.

A Shau has no photographs beyond the dust jacket, but includes maps that clarify each operation.

Jay Phillips now works with support groups for victims of Parkinson’s disease, which he contracted from exposure to Agent Orange. The Parkinson’s Foundation named him 2020 Volunteer of the Year

—Henry Zeybel

Target Saigon: The Fall of South Vietnam by Albert Grandolini

Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon, Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam: The Beginning of the End, January 1974–March 1975 (Helion, 104 pp. $29.95, paper) is a concise history of the final chapters of the decades-long American war in Vietnam. Ironically, it all takes place after the signing of the so-called Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.  

South Vietnam, going into its death spiral, was burdened by several disadvantages—unlike North Vietnam. For one thing, South Vietnam  was competing for munitions with Israel as a result of  the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which all but drained the pipeline of promised U.S. military aid. In contrast, the Soviet Union and China replaced most of the North’s materiel losses from the 1972 Easter Offensive.

It also was Saigon’s misfortune that President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation in 1974 put an end to his promises of aid and support if the North launched a campaign to crush South Vietnam’s government. His successor, Gerald Ford, faced with a Congress opposed to renewed involvement, was not going to re-commit the U.S. to the conflict in order to save the South Vietnamese regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.  

Beyond external factors, there President Thieu’s lack of strategic vision and poor decision making. In contrast, the strategic goal of the North—reunification under a communist regime—always remained the same despite years of horrendous combat losses. With the United States no longer a player in the war, the North totally applied itself to developing and implementing a final campaign.  

Grandolini, a historian and aviation journalist and author who was raised in Vietnam, effectively uses primary source documents to discusses another part of the equation: an unanticipated sideshow that caught the South off balance. In January 1974, South Vietnam suddenly found itself in conflict with the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Paracel Islands. After several naval engagements, China prevailed and took control of the islands.

The North’s leaders relied on a centralized and highly disciplined command structure with combat-experienced generals to form a strategy for ending the war in total victory. The resulting plan called for corps-sized phased regional offensives to begin in 1974 with the aim of probing for exploitable weak points that could be followed by breakthroughs.    

It was of great interest to learn about the successful concealment efforts by the NVA, including the use of bogus transmissions and hidden movements of major units, some advancing well over 300 kilometers. On the other hand, the South Vietnamese Army’s reaction to the Spring 1974 NVA thrust into the Parrot’s Beak must have surprised the North’s planners. In a multi-corps armored counterattack, the ARVN swung through Cambodia to outflank and outmaneuver the NVA while supported by highly effective airstrikes. They mauled the NVA units and sent them into retreat.  

But that would be the last ARVN offensive operation during the war. Although ARVN units often put up heroic resistance to NVA attacks, the fact remains that without American aid the South was forced to fight defensively with limited resources.   

Signing the Paris Peace Accords, January 23, 1973

In 1975 things irreversibly fell apart for the South. The North’s operational plan originally called for two stages, destroying the ARVN in 1975 and victory in 1976. The South’s fate was sealed, however, when in March 1975 Thieu abruptly—and without proper preparation at the tactical level—ordered the evacuation of military forces from northern South Vietnam. The withdrawal soon became a rout swollen with countless thousands of civilians blocking the way.

This well-researched and well written volume closes on that rout and sets the stage for the final battles and the fall of Saigon. I strongly recommend Target Saigon to anyone with an interest in the final two years of the Vietnam War        

–John Cirafici

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