Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.
Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”
All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.
These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.
What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.
Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.
These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.
Joe Copalman is an expert on aviation history. F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle), his first work for Osprey, is a thorough rundown of an aircraft that was hitherto unfamiliar to me. Along with accounts of its role in two wars, Copalman includes views of the Skynight’s activities throughout the Cold War. Jim Laurier provides the book’s artwork, the usual first-class Osprey combination of drawings and photographs.
The Douglas F3D Skyknight was in action with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as a night fighter jet from 1950-70. A pilot and radar operator manned the plane. Copalman calls the aircraft “the most unsung hero of its two major wars.”
In Korea, twelve F3Ds Skyknights (nicknamed “Nightmares”) replaced the F4U-5N Corsair and F7F Tigercat in August 1952. Copalman describes missions of crews inexperienced in combat against both Korean and Chinese aircraft and high caliber antiaircraft fire. The pilots developed complicated maneuvers and struck ground targets of opportunity. Lacking formal training in tactics, they learned by doing.
With detailed accounts of air warfare, Copalman explains Nightmares’ difficulties tryin to avoid becoming bait for MiGs and searchlight traps, as well as the rigors of escorting outdated B-29s. The Nightmare pilots were pragmatic and understood that their jamming was effective when tracking AAA began firing erratically as their aircraft broke enemy radar locks. The Nightmares’ confrontations with slow-moving North Korean “Bedcheck Charlie” biplanes steal the Korean War show.
Two years after the Korean War, the F3D upgraded to the F3D-2Q, re-labeled the EF-10B in 1962. In the Cold War the plane performed photographic and electronic surveillance against Soviet-designed radar in North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Far East. The EF-10Bs and MiGs looked each other over, but never fought.
The Vietnam War required a full-scale array of new tactics by EF-10B crews. They deployed as squadron VMCJ-1 to Da Nang in April 1965 and operated over South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Copalman offers a full picture of the squadron’s actions during five years in-country. Renaming the aircraft “Whale” and “Super Whale,” crewmen again basically learned the best tactics for themselves through on-the-job training.
The men’s primary task was hunting and jamming North Vietnamese ground-controlled interception sites electronically or with chaff to outwit surface-to-air missile launch teams. In support of fighter-bombers, EF-10B crews were the first on target and last to leave. Overloaded with jammers and carrying maximum fuel, Whale pilots could barely get airborne and often shut down an engine to save fuel and lengthen their time over targets.
Whale and enemy SAM crews both developed new tactics. SAM crews tended to improve slightly faster because Soviet technical advisers helped them; at the same time, Pentagon rules restricted EF-10B attacks on SAM sites for fear of killing Russian advisers and escalating the war.
EF-10Bs escorted Navy A3Ds on straight-and-level, slow-speed bombing missions that one Skyknight pilot likened to World War B-17 raids on Germany. Every day offered a new experience.
Copalman describes almost unimaginable highlights of the EF-10B’s flying from aircraft carriers. More than likely, he could write an entire book about the uniqueness of that potentially self-destructive practice.
I enjoyed F3D/EF-10. Like every Osprey book, its research uncovered new facts about warfare—in this case, the work of an aircraft unfamiliar to me. Heroics also are part of the drama.
Copalman portrays the resilience of American flyers by showing how they had to learn for themselves the best ways to execute their mission.
They relearned old lessons that hadn’t been passed down by people in similar dilemmas. Copalman clearly shows that the pilots came up with tactics that helped others more than themselves.
When most of us hear the term “Boat People,” we think of South Vietnamese refugees escaping to the United States after the communist takeover in 1975. Nghia M. Vo’s Vietnam War Refugees in Guam: A History of Operation New Life, (McFarland, 203 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), focuses on a what happened to more than 110,000 people who fled Vietnam and reached the island of Guam that year.
Vo is a researcher who specializes in Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture. He has written several books and many articles on those subjects. His 2021 book, The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam, is interesting, intriguing, and very educational. His new book also contains a heavyweight history lesson.
Vietnam War Refugees in Vietnam, which deals mainly with Operation New Life, covers three general areas: The final days of the American war in Vietnam; the flight of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to Guam and other staging areas; and the reception they had when landing in the U.S.A. and began trying to assimilate into American culture.
For the most part, the citizens of Guam accepted and welcomed the beleaguered Vietnamese refugees with open arms. The Guamanians volunteered their time, skills and excess goods (food, clothing, toys, and more) to these strangers from a foreign country.
Vo writes very clearly and definitively about individual North and South Vietnamese people and Americans, revealing their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. The book teems with charts that offer a clear picture of the daunting tasks faced by American military personnel and aid workers—and by the refugees themselves.
Vo lists three types of general loss: casual (property, wealth), relationship (family, friends), and country (freedom and independence). With the communist takeover of their country in 1975, the South Vietnamese experienced all three of these losses.
What could be more blandly benign than an organization called the Studies and Observation Group? As anyone familiar with the history of the American war in Vietnam knows, though, SOG, which came into being in January 1964, did much, much more than just study and observe. SOG was a top-secret, multi-unit, special warfare MACV operation that mounted countless undercover missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
That included disrupting enemy activities primarily along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; undertaking prisoner snatches and other types of rescue operations; and mounting psychological ops. SOG teams were made up of U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Warfare Units, South Vietnamese Special Forces, and Montagnard volunteers.
SOG was “the only U.S. military organization [in the Vietnam War] operating throughout Southeast Asia with its own aircraft, raiding forces, recon units and naval arm,” retired Army Maj. John Plaster writes in SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars (Casemate, 456 pp., $49.95), a revised and updated examination of SOG with more than 700 photos, maps, charts, and sidebars.
First published in 2000, the book is a companion photo history to Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, but could very well stand on its own as a history of SOG. Plaster—who served three years with SOG, leading intelligence-gathering recon teams behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia—writes about many operations and the men who took part in them, a group that includes eight Medal of Honor recipients.
Although Plaster doesn’t include footnotes or a bibliography, he has his facts straight throughout the book, including in his accounts of operations such as the Son Tay prison raid and Bright Light rescue missions of downed American flyers in enemy territory in North and South Vietnam.
Rich in photographs and information, David Doyle’s U.S. Vehicles and Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 238 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) covers virtually every American vehicle and towed weapon used in the Vietnam War—from the little half-ton M-274 Mule to the M-48 Medium Tank.
For those who served in the Vietnam War era, looking at the photographs in this book is a nostalgic journey. Reading Doyle’s description of the instability of the M-151 MUTT (AKA, Jeep) brought back scary moments when I served in Vietnam and the Jeep I was reading in nearly flipped over. For post-Vietnam War veterans, the book just may be an eye opener to see how much military equipment such as the Humvee and M-1 Main Battle Tanks have changed.
Beyond the approximately two hundred photos of vehicles and weapons—from ambulances to cargo, firefighting trucks to self-propelled artillery, and much more—the book includes extensive charts and tables on each piece in which Doyle lists details on electrical systems, turning radii, dimensions, and more. There is probably not a single question about the equipment that this book does not answer.
Here and there interesting facts appear that may surprise many readers. I, for instance, had either forgotten or never knew that some military vehicles built by Continental Motors contained multi-fuel engines that could run on gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.
This informative and interesting book is a great reference for anything that moved on wheels or tracks during the Vietnam War, including amphibious vehicles. For what might have been a dry subject, David Doyle, an accomplished military vehicle expert, has much to tell the reader about the Vietnam War—from the driver’s seat.
“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.
A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.
If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.
While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.
Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.
Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.
After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.
Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.
Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.
Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”
Osprey Publishing always produces quality books. True to form, William E. Hiestand’s Tanks in the Easter Offensive, 1972: The Vietnam War’s Great Conventional Clash (Osprey, 48 pp. $19, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a very nicely illustrated concise history of the use of armor by both during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive. The book includes details on every type of tank and armored fighting vehicle used by both sides the during five-month offensive, including their characteristics and limitations.
The role of armor is viewed from tactical and strategic perspectives, as Hiestand, a Pentagon military analyst, analyses successes and failures on the battlefield. When properly employed by competent officers, the South Vietnamese armored forces were effective, as they were during the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. On the other hand, when poorly led by incompetent commanders, the South Vietnamese armored vehicles were of little of no value on the battlefield.
As for the North Vietnamese Army, its armor acquitted itself well, but the tactical successes often did not lead to operational success because the NVA leadership was often slow to react to changing situations on the ground.
What makes the use of armor by the NVA especially interesting is that during the American War they rarely employed armor in South Vietnam, and then only the PT-76s—thinly armored amphibious tanks—that attacked lightly defended sites such as Special Forces camps in the Central Highlands.
By the time of the North Vietnamese 1972 offensive its military had become much better armed and was learning how to use combined armed forces using Soviet military tactics. The North suffered horrendous losses during the offensive due in large measure to effective U.S. airstrikes which destroyed some 250 tanks and AFVs.
One important lesson from the battle was the very successful use by both sides of anti-tank weapons. The North employed a new type —the Russian AT-3 Sagger. he ARVN at Kontum used an experimental TOW ATGM (anti-tank wire guided missile), and destroyed 24 enemy tanks.
At An Loc ARVN tank killer teams armed with M-72 LAWs (light anti-tank weapons) also took a toll on NVA armor. When ARVN leaders misused their armor in static defense postures, they became easy targets for Saggers and other anti-tank weapons. Today anti-tank missiles are playing a major role on the battlefield in Ukraine, with the destruction of Russian armor by Ukrainian fighters armed with American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Tanks in the Eastern Offensive closes with an analysis of the long-term impact of anti-tank weapons, including the successful use of Saggers during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
This book is informative and timely in explaining the use of armor during the Easter Offensive, and in illuminating lessons that are applicable on the current battlefield—plus, it’s a handy reference book on the subject.
Erin McCoy’s A War Tour of Vietnam: Cultural History (McFarland, 206 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle) covers the years 1940-75 in a mere 190 pages of text. McCoy’s ambitious goal of exploring the “culture, history and popular music in the countries most affected by the Vietnam War, i.e. North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Australia and of course, the United States,” though, falls a bit short.
McCoy devotes a chapter to each of these years, but the popular music she writes about in all the chapters is all American. Plus, her music reviews and references are sometimes somewhat oblique.
While McCoy touches on many cultural topics, she occasionally goes off on tangents. Nearly half of the chapter about the year 1969, for example, deals with the music of that year, and, for some reason, we also get details about a trip she took to Puerto Rico. That and other recitations of day-to-day, personal activities subtracted from the book.
That said, McCoy does bring interesting facts and observations to the page. And the book reads well, and would be valuable to casual readers who are not part of the Vietnam War generation.
Ken Conboy’s The Erawan War, Vol. 2: A Paramilitary Campaign in Laos 1969-1974. (Helion 78 pp., $29.95, paper) is an account of the largest CIA operation of the Cold War, in which the agency fielded an army numbering perhaps eight indigenous divisions. This second volume of a two-volume history, seamlessly follows the first one in describing the evolving nature of operations during the last five years of American involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Although Volume 2 can stand alone, it is immensely helpful to have read Vol. 1’s 1961-69 history. Like the first, Vol. 2 captures much of the secret war in Laos, including its complexity. It focuses on CIA-trained guerilla units recruited from the hill tribes of Vietnam and Thailand. In operations against North Vietnam’s heavily guarded and vital Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos teams penetrated defenses, destroyed supply-laden trucks, and gathered intelligence. Equally impressive, they conducted attacks inside North Vietnam itself.
Although in the greater scheme of things these missions were pinpricks, President Nixon pushed for them as a means of applying pressure on Hanoi. The real test, however, came when guerilla regiments found themselves pitted against regular North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) divisions. Many PAVN units, known for their aggressiveness in South Vietnam, were also fighting in Laos.
The CIA out of necessity recruited increasing numbers of Lao tribesmen and Thai volunteers, and formed new battalions to fight in the rapidly expanding war. President Nixon was so pleased by their successes that he conveyed his admiration directly to the Thai prime minister. But the CIA-led paramilitary campaign could not stop the PAVNs steady advance.
Thai battalions became essential to operations in the Plaine des Jarres region, trying to stall advances made by the PAVN. It is evident that the large-scale war in Laos was in many ways as important as the war in Vietnam.
The book details the significant amount of combat airlift flown by USAF helicopters in Laos. USAF Combat Controllers and Forward Air Controllers also played an important role supporting operations there. U.S. military assets based in Thailand and South Vietnam were crucial to successes on the battlefield, in particular when U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft conducted airstrikes.
Conboy’s Erawan War books reveal the tragedy of this story: that men and boys recruited from the hill tribes by the CIA struggled against an enemy with seemingly unlimited manpower and weaponry. It’s to their credit that these irregular forces frequently working with Thai special forces, infantry, and artillery were able to resist for so long against the advancing PAVN and its Pathet Lao allies. The tragedy was that with the end of all American involvement in the conflict the hill tribes were left to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences at the hands of vindictive Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.
This concise, heavily illustrated book contains much information about a part of the Vietnam War that little known to the American public. The two volumes are a necessary read in order to truly understand the immensity of America’s involvement in the Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Is all sentimentality crass? Can nostalgia distort our collective memory into jingoism? Have Americans so celebrated victory in World War II to have willfully misremembered the past, setting a path for seventy-five years of misbegotten military adventurism? To Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West Point, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.
In her iconoclastic new book, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 368 pp., $28, hardcover; $20, paper; $14.95, Kindle) Samet undertakes an examination of American cultural identity and history, which evolved from confusion and cynicism in the immediate postwar years to American triumphalism and exceptionalism in the subsequent decades.
That sea change, Samet argues, was based on a false sentimentality, a nostalgia promoted by three familiar names: the historian Steven Ambrose, TV anchor Tom Brokaw, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
Because Samet believes America’s entry into the Second World War was necessary and just, it’s instructive to undertake an etymological examination of the word “good,” as in “the good war.” In that instance, “good” is the depiction of the heroism abounding in Ambrose’s famed 1992 book, Band of Brothers and Spielberg’s acclaimed 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan,” and the hagiography to Brokaw’s assessment of the World War II generation as America’s “greatest.”
As George Orwell did before her, Samet deconstructs the tropes that have pervaded this mythology:
that the United States went to war in 1941 to free the world of tyranny
that all Americans were united and made sacrifices to advance that effort
that the Americas fought only reluctantly and always decently
that it was America that ultimately saved the world.
Samet investigates American culture in that context primarily through examining works of film and fiction, as well as through memoirs, correspondence, and government-issued travel guides.
The American War in Vietnam, she rightly notes, is widely seen as a dent in the armor of the country’s invincibility, one repaired by the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the actions of George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War. Regrettably, the tragic Robert McNamara—an easy target—receives as much attention from Samet as the works of the Neil Sheehan, Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, and Tobias Wolff.
In her final chapter, Samet makes a provocative, but ultimately tenuous, argument in which she likens the Civil War’s Lost Cause Theory to the so-called Greatest Generation. The Civil War, Samet believes, has been turned into a “theme park,” with the Lost Cause myth serving as Teflon—despite the removal of a “few statues”—to all attempts to foster a better understanding of the war. That “few” statues, though, is now approaching one hundred, and Samet’s perspective on this reckoning calls into question her perspective on the current culture.
A book of estimable erudition, Samet’s writing is proficient and accessible, though the sheer number of movie and novel summaries tends to distract. The book righteously calls for a more complete and nuanced understanding of World War II, but suffers from its own form of absolutism that diminishes its thesis.
Though Samet’s book is skillfully argued, her thesis is not wholly original. Nostalgia has long been the ideal strawman for progressive intellectuals—the historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1940s and 1950s being the exemplar—and pundits have criticized Ambrose, Brokaw, Spielberg, and their ilk for more than thirty years.
“We search for a redemptive ending for every tragedy,” Samet writes. But notwithstanding the Rambo movies, the cultural response to the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has generally lacked redemption, as well as sentimentality.
There is a fine line between understanding history and celebrating patriotism, between appreciating and honoring those who sacrificed and served and idolizing and mythologizing them to the point that they are dehumanized abstractions. Samet’s strength is showing the pervasive power of World War II on American identity and leadership. But is all sentimentality bad? Of course not.
Nonetheless, Samet’s Looking for the Good War is a valuable and provocative take on the dangers of nostalgia and the need for vigilance.