Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel

The prolific author and journalist Eric Hammel has written fifty books and nearly seventy magazine articles on military history. He specializes Marine Corps activities. The republication of his Ambush Valley: I Corps, Vietnam, 1967—The Story of a Marine Infantry Battalion’s Battle for Survival (Casemate, 310 pp. $22.95, paper) demonstrates the high value of his research and expertise. Originally published in 1990, the book tells the story of four companies of the 3rd Battalion 26th Marines matched against a North Vietnamese Army regiment near Con Thien.

Hammel’s account of the fighting is a work of art because he weaves together exhaustive interviews with nearly two dozen men who were there. He began the interviews in 1983 and the final round took place in 1989. As for official documents, Hammel found merely three pertaining to the battle. One was inaccurate; the others were illegible and incomplete.

He gives space in the book to men of all ranks who speak repeatedly and at length describing those memorable six days in September 1967. Hammel puts the reader into the middle of the battlefield and shows multiple perspectives and differing mentalities of men under fire. An aura of disaster permeates much of the interviewees’ reflections.

Readers are expected to understand everyday details of field operations. Hammel, for example, offers no explanation about how a Claymore mine works.

The book’s story line is simple: NVA soldiers that had operated south of the DMZ for more than a year repeatedly outmaneuver U.S. Marines. The fighting at Ambush Valley was bloody. Both sides suffered enormously. Desperation dictated many decisions for the men of 3/26.

Along with being nightmarishly outnumbered by waves of NVA forces, 3/26 also confronted a full array of other problems: indecisive higher-level planning that bred fatigue and a “hurry up and wait” lethargy among the troops; poor ammunition resupply; limited artillery and air support; loss of its tanks; and NVA troops disguised as U.S. Marines.

Military historians believe that the Americans prevailed by the narrowest of margins. In the early morning hours of September 11, the NVA disengaged and disappeared. During the final day of battle, American artillery and air power had finally coordinated and left “hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies scattered around American positions,” Hammel says. Mixed among them were many dead Marines.

Hammel’s research for Ambush Valley completes the story of a battle otherwise reduced to merely a body count.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

Revolution and Renaissance by Daniel Forbes Hauser

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When did “The Sixties” as known in American collective memory begin? When did that era end? Rarely does the socio-cultural phenomena that define a generation fit neatly into a proscribed ten-year period. A black-and-white photo of John F. Kennedy and the Whiz Kids in early 1961 does not evoke “The Sixties” the way the violence of the 1968 Tet Offensive or the 1969 peace of Woodstock do.

In Revolution and Renaissance: 1965 to 1975 (History Publishing Co., 430 pp. $33.99) Daniel Forbes Hauser examines this period through the prism of his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Reflecting on the turbulence of this decade, Hauser analyzes this period of profound cultural transformation by examining the unprecedented confluence of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and—most significantly—the coming of age of the Baby Boomers.

Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield contributes the foreword to the book, which is organized by a chapter per annum, with each chapter containing the author’s reflections on a year’s seminal events, interviews, and personal musings. It is regrettable that given the expansive nature of the material covered, the book does not have end notes. The book is loosely centered on Boulder as Hauser introduces two contrasting protagonists: Mark, a poor kid from the wrong side of town who would serve in Vietnam, and Tom, the Asian-American son of a University of Colorado physics professor awhose brother would become a member of the Weather Underground.

Hauser’s goal, he says, is to create an expeditious and entertaining book, and in that regard he has succeeded. That his engaging and breezy commentary can intermittently be glib can be forgiven given the context, though Hauser falls into the trap of placing his and his cohort’s memories as “America’s” or as the “general public’s.” These gross generalizations can diminish his perspective and erode his thesis.

There are some minor historical errors. Contrary to popular myth, for example, the vast majority of troops in World War II were draftees, not volunteers; Walter Cronkite did not say the Vietnam War was “unwinnable” in 1968, (he said it was a “stalemate”); and it was a South Vietnamese (not an American) plane that accidentally bombed the village that led to famous “Napalm girl” photograph. Hauser writes about the movie MASH in his section on 1967, hyperbolically stating it “helped destroy any last vestiges for America’s will to win in Southeast Asia.” But the novel was published in 1968, and the movie released in 1970. Though the subtext of the film and the later television series was the Vietnam War, contrary to Hauser’s recollection the setting was the Korea War.

Other mistakes can be more jarring: Hauser transposes the Medal of Honor for any military decoration and writes that John Kerry threw his Medal of Honor in a river. He also mistakenly writes that the 1973 Paris Peace Accords called for the reunification of Vietnam, and in writing about the period American military engagements of the 1950s and early 1960s he egregiously omits to mention that 37,000 Americans were killed and 95,000 wounded in the Korean War.

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Hauser ties his tome together with the bizarre story of Renner Forbes, the Marshall of a small town outside of Boulder called Nederland. In 1971, Forbes murdered and placed the body of a local hippie, Guy “Deputy Dog” Gaughnor, in an abandoned mine shaft. In ill health, Forbes confessed to the murder in 1997, and died in 2000. If this tale was not sufficiently sensational, in 2016 a former friend of Deputy Dog, in a futile act of vengeance, tried to blow up the Nederland Police Department.

The book would have been strengthened by more insights and commentary about Mark (the Vietnam War veteran) and Tom (the physics professor’s son), and more analysis of the Deputy Dog story. Still, Revolution and Renaissance it is an enjoyable and fast-paced trot through a most revolutionary decade.

The book’s website is revolutionandrenaissance.com

–Daniel R. Hart

The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory edited by Mark Pavlick with Caroline Luft

Who controls history? How is collective memory formed? In the case of historical accounts of the Vietnam War, the famous maxim most widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors,” is problematic. While the North Vietnamese won the war, the Americans have had both the resources and the freedom to win the proverbial battle for the memory of that conflict.

It is within this context that The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory (Haymarket, 450 pp. $22, paper) is written. The book, edited by Mark Pavlick, a longtime activist in the U.S. antiwar movement, and Caroline Luft, is the second edition of a work originally published in 2007. It consists of thirteen chapters: eight essays, two Noam Chomsky articles from the 1970s, one book excerpt, and two interviews.

Curiously, the editors never define historical memory. For the record, historical memory is the way groups of people or nations create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events.

The book’s epigraph provocatively quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address before the Nuremberg Tribunal of November 21, 1945, with a clear implication that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Southeast Asia on par with those committed by Nazi Germany. The works of Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman fall within the vein of this polemical perspective.

The balance of the book, however, belies this overtly hostile style, with six essays that are scholarly in nature, promoting cogent theses without provoking raw emotion.

The essays on cluster bombing in Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell  and the use of Agent Orange by Tuan V. Nguyen are scholarly and thoughtful. The former even acknowledges the legitimacy of the bombing—if not its proportionately.

“Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia” is well considered even if its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between the American bombing in Cambodia and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge is tenuous. “The Indonesian Domino” by Clinton Fernandes proffers a thought-provoking thesis: that due to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party by 1967, that domino could no longer fall, invalidating the justification for the war predominant during the Kennedy Administration.

Gareth Porter’s treatment of the My Lai massacre, written from a definitive perspective, is authoritative in its research. Nick Turse’s essay is a powerful, if completely personal, indictment of the war. Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on U.S. policy toward Indochina since 1975 treads the familiar ground that this country is responsible for the stagnancy of Vietnam in the postwar years.

An interview and republished essays by Noam Chomsky, as well as the introductory essay by Fred Branfman, are the raison d’etre for the book. Polemics aside, these essays are problematic in their exploitation of history, which weakens their arguments.

Providing a different perspective to the perception of American mass propaganda is incredibly important, but it cannot be justified at the expense of its context. The thesis can fall into Manichean simplicity: America and its allies were unjust; therefore, North Vietnam and its allies must be just.

Chomsky makes no comment on the morality of North Vietnam’s execution of up to 25,000 “class enemies” in the mid-1950s, other than to point to the American exaggeration of the figure. He quotes Bernard Fall, but omits his estimate that the Viet Cong assassinated eleven South Vietnamese officials every day during the early 1960s.

The premise of moral equivalency is decidedly unhelpful in analyzing the Vietnam War. But Chomsky indulges irresponsibly in this matter, even taking a decidedly paternalistic and ahistorical view that communism in Vietnam was a monolithic movement among all Vietnamese people. But one million people fled North Vietnam in 1955 rather than live under communist rule, and two million left the country after the communists took in 1975.

Vietnam remains a closed society in which historians are denied access, and in which journalists are routinely imprisoned. They seemed to be rewarded for their totalitarian lack of transparency.

No matter one’s politics, this book will provoke and outrage.

–Daniel R. Hart

Elbridge Dubrow’s War in Vietnam by Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

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American involvement in the Vietnam War continues to confound. It is unfathomable that such a small country exacted such a profound toll on America.

Building upon decades of work by historians to answer the question of who shaped American foreign policy in Vietnam in the early years of American involvement (1957-62) , Millersville University Professor Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr. in Elbridge Durbrow’s War in Vietnam: The Ambassador’s Influence on American Involvement, 1957-1961 (McFarland, 271 pp., $49.95,, paper) attempts to answer the question by examining the turbulent relationship between American Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Frankum has written extensively about the American war in Vietnam, including books on Operation Rolling Thunder, the U.S. role in the migration of a million Vietnamese from North to South Vietnam in 1955, America’s relationship with its wartime ally Australia, and a Vietnam War historical dictionary. Frankum’s new book is a companion to his Vietnam’s Year of the Rat: Elbridge Durbrow, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Turn in U.S. Relations, 1959-1961, which came out in 2014.

In his new meticulously researched analysis, written in clear and accessible prose, Frankum indicates that Durbrow and Diem’s disagreements were partly personal and partly cultural, though neither doubted the other’s anticommunist bonafides. The crux was on how to best govern South Vietnam. This discord spread to their departments, with MAAG commander Gen. Samuel T. Williams—and to a lesser though notable extent, Edward Lansdale—on the pro-Diem side. Frankum’s analysis of the inter-connectivity of Laos and Cambodia, Diem’s management of his foreign policy, and American reaction to it, is particularly strong.

The narrative at times falls victim to the exhaustive nature of the research, lessening the drama, for example, of the 1960 attempted coup of Diem. Frankum’s allegiance to limiting the book to Durbrow and Diem’s relationship from 1957-61 is laudable, but more background and context would have strengthened the work.

How much, for example, did Durbrow’s work in Eastern Europe and Russia influence his perspective? Was Williams influenced by Eisenhower’s special representative Gen. J. Lawton Collins, a member of the anti-Diem group, who in 1944 had demoted Williams? Was there significance to the coup occurring just two days after the 1960 U.S. presidential election?

Regardless of Durbrow’s heavy-handed treatment of Diem and the internal strife between Williams and Durbrow, the political situation in South Vietnam was dire. There were, for example, expressions of outrage over Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership, includingthe failed coup and the Caravelle Manifesto, a political tract produced by South Vietnamese intelligentsia that criticized Diem’s rule.

Frankum believes that Durbrow and his team were largely to blame for the mistrust. He presents a largely sympathetic portrayal of Diem, while Durbrow is seen as arrogant and jingoistic. Frankum criticizes Durbrow for being more concerned about perceptions than actual situations, but in politics and diplomacy there rarely is a clear distinction.

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Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

If the origins of distrust did start with Durbrow, then the Kennedy Administration sought to address the issue by following Lansdale’s advice and removing Durbrow in favor of the accommodating Frederick Nolting, providing Diem with someone he could trust and respect. That the political situation deteriorated further under Nolting—who, along with MAAG commander Paul Harkins, supported Diem—suggests the incompatibly of American involvement.

The systematic issues with American foreign policy in South Vietnam are manifest throughout the book, including the willingness to accept authoritarianism to defeat communism, the fissure between the Defense and State Departments, and the temporizing and equivocating in Washington. For all the problems with strategy, there was an unquestioning adherence to the axiomatic principle: A loss in Vietnam would have deleterious consequences on the United States. In the end, even Durbrow believed that Diem was the best option.

Along with Frankum’s earlier work, this is an important book and a positive addition to the record of America’s early involvement in the Vietnam War.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

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In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

Fly Until You Die by Chia Youyee Vang

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History professor and author Chia Youyee Vang has written another chapter about the United States Secret War in Laos with Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 218 pp. $74, hardcover; $74, Kindle).

Professor Vang, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, takes a highly emotional look at why and how the United States trained Hmong soldiers to fly close air support in reconfigured T-28s commanded by Gen. Vang Pao in Military Region 2 of Laos. Code-named “Water Pump,” the program lasted from 1964-75 and trained thirty-eight men, some of whom flew thousands of combat missions. Eighteen were killed in action. The book accounts for all of them.

Born in Laos, Vang left the country at the age of eight in 1979. Her family eventually settled in the Minnesota as political refugees. In 2013-14, she conducted face-to-face interviews with former Hmong pilots, relatives of those killed in action or deceased, and a few American military personnel who worked with the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Forty-three people contributed reminiscences to her book.

Professor Vang excels at story telling by incorporating interviews verbatim into her narrative of the time. Her technique amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. She recognizes failures as well as successes of the Hmong pilots.

She explains how Gen. Vang Pao and American instructors selected and qualified Hmong as pilots from a group of people who lacked formal education and had no tech skills. A few of the men had never driven an automobile, Vang says. Worst of all, their T-28s had been rejected by the Vietnamese and, due to modifications, no two airplanes were alike. Sometimes bombs failed to release and rockets did not fire.

What’s more, the primary runway at Long Tieng (Long Chieng) was too short and one end was blocked by towers, which eliminated any margin for flying errors. Accidents happened frequently. Nevertheless, the performance of the Hmong in combat was selfless. No limit existed for how many missions they flew or the number of risks they took. An American interviewee claimed that one pilot flew more than 4,000 missions.

Vang Pao paid Hmong pilots salaries (plus frequent bonuses) far higher than those that went to his regular soldiers. When a pilot was killed, however, the General usually ignored the needs of the man’s families, causing them extreme economic hardships. Similarly, at the end of the war, Vang Pao provided little, if any, assistance to the Hmong. As a result, Professor Vang writes that Hmong who once flew for and admired the General lost all respect for him.

The book follows the Hmong who left Laos after the United States departed Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent communist takeover of both nations. Most fled to Thailand and enjoyed “a brief moment of relief” as people transitioning from fear for their lives to “the harshness of displacement,” she says. She portrays Thai refugee camps as worlds of utter abandonment; for the Hmong, life as they knew it appeared lost forever.

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Chia Youyee Vang

Eventually, the United States government gave 140,000 Hmong a second life by bringing them here. Based on their own testimony, those who moved to the U.S. have found happiness.

Professor Vang closes Fly Until You Die by reassessing the war and its legacy. She has previously examined the Hmong diaspora in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Hmong in Minnesota (2008); and Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016).

Her excellent appendices, notes, and bibliography, as well as ten pages of photographs, significantly strengthen the research. Above all, the revelations of the people she interviewed make this book a valuable history lesson about the intricacies of the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel