Combat Talons in Vietnam by John Gargus

The C-130 Combat Talon program was classified Top Secret during the Vietnam War. It operated out of Nha Trang Air Base. From there, six crews with four airplanes flew deep into North Vietnam to drop men, equipment, and leaflets intended to disrupt the enemy’s hierarchy. Navigator John Gargus, a retired USAF colonel, recounts his involvement in the program in 1967-68 in Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew (Texas A&M University Press, 272 pp.; $35, hardcover; $19.25, Kindle).

The Top Secret classification extended to every aspect of Combat Talon ops. For example, a section of the aircraft was partitioned by “heavy duty curtains” to prevent viewing of “sensitive Top Secret” electronic countermeasures equipment by “those who had no need to know,” as Gargus puts it. Conversation and planning for operations were limited to one secure room. Furthermore, crews “never knew the exact content” of bundles they delivered, Gargus says.  Basically, Combat Talon was an instrument of MACVSOG (the covert MACV Studies and Observations Group).

Gargus spent twenty-seven years in the Air Force. He served as the lead navigator for the November 1970 Son Tay Prison raid (for which he was awarded the Silver Star), and later wrote a book about the mission. In 2003, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame.

Gargus tells his story from a “personal perspective enhanced by numerous accounts of [his] colleagues who assisted [him] with their documented inputs.” In his history of the development of Combat Talon equipment, he points out that the air frame has also been called “Stray Goose” and “Blackbird.” He describes the airplane’s specialized performance capabilities—such as the Fulton Recovery System. But more so, he focuses on the disappearance of Crew S-01 in 1967 and the decades-long effort to find the men’s remains and return them to the United States.

He twice tells the story of the loss of Crew S-01. First, as part of his memoir, Gargus gives his eyewitness account of events as they happened, along with his post-war activities to expedite the return and burial of the crew. Second, in an appendix, “The Last Mission of Combat Talon’s S-01 Crew,” he offers a detailed account of the flight originally published as a booklet for the lost crew’s families.

His analysis of procedures for finding MIAs is an education in itself. He explains the intricacies of practices related to communications with next of kin, crash site recovery procedures, identification of remains, and burial and memorial services.

“All Americans should be proud of the way the U.S. government persists in identifying and returning the remains of fallen soldiers,” he writes.

The identified human remains of Crew S-01 reside in a common grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

In an epilogue, Gargus pays tribute to Special Operations. He also provides a remembrance of the seven Combat Talon aircrews lost between 1967 and 2005. Fifty-six illustrations enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel

Route 9 Problem by Dave Stockwell

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During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese Army needed Route 9 to move men and supplies from Laos into I Corps to besiege Khe Sanh in 1968. The main obstacle was Lang Vei, a camp manned by U.S. Army Green Berets and Montagnards fighters. To clear its Route 9 path, the NVA launched an overwhelmingly large force against the camp.

In Route 9 Problem: The Battle for Lang Vei by the Warriors Who Fought It (Book Publishers Network, 361 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dave Stockwell recreates the fighting in which the NVA employed tanks in South Vietnam for the first time in the war.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Stockwell did not serve in Vietnam. But his father did, which motivated him to write the book. Over several years he interviewed Army, Marine, Air Force, and Navy personnel who took part in the battle for Lang Vei. He also communicated with their next of kin.

Stockwell possesses a deep interest and appreciation for people. His book pays tribute to the many fighting men he interviewed. He incorporates their life stories with their actions in the battle. He also provides a general history of events leading to that point in the Vietnam War. The book’s focus, Stockwell says, is “not a battle analysis or after-action report,” but rather “a story written plainly for today’s young adults with no military experience to understand the war their fathers and grandfathers won’t discuss.” At the same time, he says, it is “a story to which veterans will relate.”

He fulfills both claims.

Stockwell writes about combat in a crisp and clear style that should appeal to a broad audience. He generally avoids military jargon, but unobtrusively defines military terms when needed. The many interviews allowed Stockwell to trace virtually every step of the Americans on the ground and every action of those in the air.

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In the aftermath of the fighting at Long Vei

The book is a trove of information, complete with photographs and maps. Sections are arranged in a user-friendly format. Stockwell starts with “The Men Who Fought the Battle,” in which he lists the U.S. personnel in the book, along with NVA units and key individuals. In the “Roll Call” Epilogue, he summarizes the post-battle histories of the same men.

I enjoyed the book, which recently was named a finalist in the military category of the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  Stockwell taught me new things about activities in that region, even though I had dropped CDS and LAPES supplies into Khe Sanh from C-130s and landed there to bring out Marines. He pointed out tactical errors such as a horrific bombing of a friendly village. Furthermore, without editorializing, he described inter-service rivalries that created questionable decision-making.

Stockwell’s descriptions of the dedication and valor of American soldiers in extreme situations made me feel humble. Yet his effort is not unique. I have read other books that describe otherwise forgotten men and battles. Dave Stockwell and his brother historians merit commendation for recording memories on the verge of being lost.

—Henry Zeybel

Arlington by James Gindlesperger

James Gindlespperger’s Arlington: A Color Guide to America’s Most Famous Cemetery (John F. Bair, 242 pp., $24.95, paper) is a handsomely produced book built around gravestone photos and information on 250 veterans buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The book includes info on otherwise unsung veterans–as well as many who achieved renown for their military or civilian exploits.

The latter group includes Joe Louis, Francis Gary Powers of U-2 fame, Audie Murphy, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the actor Lee Marvin, and Ira Hayes, the Marine who is immortalized on the Iwo Jima statue.

The relatively few Vietnam veterans include Medal of Honor recipients Michael Novosel and John Levitow, former POW James “Nick” Rowe, and Dieter Dengler.

The book also contains a brief history of the cemetery and imaps and navigating instructions, including grave sites’ GPS coordinates.

—Marc Leepson

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

The American War in Vietnam by John Marciano

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During a soliloquy in Julius Caesar, Brutus says, “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” His words clearly apply to John Marciano’s book, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review Press, 196 pp., $56.62, hardcover; $14.61, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Whereas Brutus speaks of Caesar’s use of power, Marciano addresses the misuse of the Noble Cause principle espoused by the United States in the Vietnam War.

Marciano, a Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, relates this principle to America’s employing military power in general—and in particular to what he calls the “staggering human and ecological losses” resulting from ignoring remorse relative to the Vietnam War.

Marciano starts by discussing how the United States has applied military power going back to the European settlement in America. He finds a close connection between Colonial “Indian hating” based on “white hostility” to exterminate “savages” and massacres committed “in Vietnam’s ‘Indian country.'” He cites what, in essence, is ethnic cleansing based on Noble Cause as the justification for U.S. foreign policy due to our “powerful and fundamental belief” that we are “the ‘exceptional’ nation chosen to lead the world.”

According to Marciano, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was based on trickery and lies. He cites political and military machinations that stretch from a French naval squadron’s attack on DaNang in 1850 through the end of the American War. He vilifies Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Marciano does an excellent job clarifying the past by citing sources that contradict “powerful government officials, the corporate mass media, influential intellectuals, and the educational system,” which, he says, are “long on passionate belief and empty of evidence.”

The most interesting part of Marciano’s argument is the final chapter in which he seeks to “examine and expand upon issues raised in the book.” He first offers conclusions based on his re-examining of imperialism, war crimes, protests, and thirteen other controversial issues that people have debated for more than half a century.

He next establishes criteria for analyzing facts presented in textbooks written between 2001 and 2011. He then offers “qualitative thoughts” on textbooks’ topics such as My Lai, Vietnamese death tolls, chemical warfare, and the POW/MIA issue that prolonged America’s war against Vietnam long after the fighting stopped.

The American War in Vietnam should serve as the syllabus for classroom teaching of the war, Marciano says. In reality, the book is a revision of Teaching the Vietnam War, which he co-wrote in 1979 with William Griffin (who died in 2007).

Marciano’s subtitle, “Crime or Commemoration?” might offend American Vietnam War veterans. “Can a war be honorable if it was a violation of international law, a criminal act of aggression?” He asks, “If so, can the warrior be separated from the war, and act with honor in a criminal cause?”

His point is: “Did we even care?” Marciano contends that our engagement in Vietnam caused massive devastation for which we have displayed no remorse. Plus, ignoring remorse toward our victims and the environment in Vietnam continues today. We must question ourselves, he says, as to whether our Noble Cause principle and our abuse of greatness are justifiable in ongoing military operations.

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John Marciano

Recently I have read several books that deliver messages similar to Marciano’s. In Aid Under Fire, Jessica Elkind describes America as “a rich man with a head full of racial prejudice” fighting a war “doomed from the start.” In Losing Binh Dinh, Kevin M. Boylan strives to determine if the Vietnam War ended in victory or defeat. And in the memoir, Vietnam Doc, William Clayton Petty, M.D., spells out the daily task of saving lives of troops who did not see a need to be in Vietnam.

I can only conclude that the big problem appears to be how to get powerful people to read, comprehend, and apply lessons taught by The American War in Vietnam and similar books.

—Henry Zeybel

Losing Binh Dinh by Kevin M. Boylan

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Reading and reviewing books about the Vietnam War in recent years has taken me down an intellectual path that grows ever more difficult. In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen says that wars “are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory.” His words constitute an absolute truth when applied to the Vietnam War. Which leads to the vital question: Did America win or lose that war?

In Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War, Jessica Elkind looks at the war in 1965 and concludes that the American effort was doomed from the start. Fundamentally, nation-building failed to make South Vietnam independent, she says, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals set by applying western practices that overlooked the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its collective hearts and minds to supporting the anti-communist cause.

Opinions similar to Elkind’s had not precluded President Richard Nixon—and his National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—from employing an endgame strategy that “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended.”

On the other hand, in The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam Johannes Kadura argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame for the loss of South Vietnam to the communists on Congress due to the nation’s lack of post-1973 support when Congress reduced military and economic aid.

Meticulously researched, these heavily foot-noted books are masterpieces of scholarship.

Kevin M. Boylan further pursues the question in Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971 (University Press of Kansas, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover: $19.99, Kindle). In this book Boylan seeks to come to a determination about whether the war ended in victory or defeat.

Boylan is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. From 1995-2005, he worked in the Pentagon as DoD analyst for the U.S. Army staff. His book contains forty-three pages of notes, mainly from archives and interviews.

Pitting the orthodox (people who claim the war was unnecessary, unjust, and unwinnable) against the revisionist, Boylan questions whether “a victory to be lost” existed prior to America’s 1973 exit from Vietnam. In other words, did pacification and Vietnamization work? Following in the footsteps of the Vietnam Special Studies Group, Boylan focuses his study on heavily populated and strategically located Binh Dinh province.

He examines the province’s military, political, economic, and psychosocial aspects by comparing achievements with expectations in Operation Washington Green, a 1969 American pacification plan for the hamlets of Binh Dinh’s four districts. He gives equal attention to North and South Vietnamese and American perspectives.

Using MACV Advisory Team Activity Reports, Boylan shows how South Vietnamese dependency on American leadership continually increased throughout Operation Washington Green and how consequently the Vietnamese failed to attain self-sufficiency. His detailed accounts describe the inherent turmoil that exists when foreign troops babysit a distinctly different society, especially one threatened by insurgents.

Boylan notes that in the Vietnam War there “was, in fact, no such thing as a truly representative province,” but the problems that affected Binh Dinh occurred “throughout a dozen provinces embracing nearly half of South Vietnam’s territory.” When “studied from the bottom up,” it’s plain to see that after the Americans withdrew from the region in  1972, “‘fence sitting’ villagers threw in with the seemingly triumphant Communists,” he says.

If one accepts the failure of Operation Washington Green as a fact, Boylan’s “Conclusion: Triumph Mistaken” stands as a final verdict about the war’s outcome. The “lost victory” hypothesis (that the war was won by 1972 and that Congress “lost” the victory by cutting funds to South Vietnam) is wrong, he says. His conclusion is worth the price of the book.

Boylan points out that the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan bear disturbing similarities to the Vietnam War. Again, the United States is propping up regimes with disputed legitimacy and military forces with questionable combat motivation.

Our extensive training, material, and logistical assistance in Iraq duplicates our commitment to Operation Washington Green in the Vietnam War, he says.

Gen. David Petraeus’s resurrection of “population-centric COIN” theory allowed Americans to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, but in 2014 Islamic invaders from Syria overran one-third of the country because Iraqi security forces “displayed a shocking lack of will to fight,” Boylan says.

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Troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which took part in Operation Washington Green in northern Binh Dinh in 1969

I must add my experience of teaching COIN theory at Air University in the 1960s. We low-ranking instructors laughed inwardly at the naivete of a military plan that called for winning hearts and minds with love. We preferred more direct action, as in: “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Infantrymen who served in Vietnam have told me that, for them, the war ended when pacification and Vietnamization began. They recognized the futility of the task as Boylan describes it: “The government of South Vietnam could spend years—even decades, if necessary—carrying out the nation-building programs required to resolve the underlying grievances that had fueled the insurgency in the first place.”

Furthermore, troops assigned to the task had no training to accomplish it, Boylan says.

I long for the simplicity of the Cold War.

—Henry Zeybel

Secrets and Lies in Vietnam by Panagiotis Dimitrakis

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“All’s fair in love and war,” Miguel de Cervantes once suggested, but he could have added “and in espionage.” Panagiotis Dimitrakis emphatically makes that point in Secrets and Lies in Vietnam: Spies, Intelligence, and Covert Operations in the Vietnam Wars (I.B. Tauris, 312 pp.; $57.14; $32,  Kindle). Dimitrakis examines the underworld of espionage in Vietnam by depicting the activities of agents and their masters from World War II to 1979.

An expert on intelligence and military history, Dimitrakis holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London. Among a broad span of other work, he has written books on Afghanistan, the Cold War, and the Middle East.

Each chapter of Secrets and Lies in Vietnam focuses on individual spies and chronologically shows how North Vietnamese intelligence agents outwitted the French and more than held their own against the Americans. Dimitrakis heavily documents his writing with notes primarily from Western sources. He skillfully recreates stories that have been told before, but gives them new life by adding details that flesh out the people and events involved.

The first third of the book describes the turmoil in Vietnam from the end of World War II to the 1954 defeat of the French in Indochina. Dimitrakis writes about the intrigues among France, England, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to influence the destiny of Vietnam. The country was rife with assassinations, bombings, sabotage, terrorism, raids, code breaking, theft of plans, signal intercepts, leaks, and duplicity. Dimitrakis weaves these factors together to present a succinct yet solid explanation for North Vietnam’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

From there, he segues to the accomplishments of a Viet Minh mole who infiltrated the U.S. Saigon Military Mission in 1954. As North Vietnamese Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap put it: “We are now in the United States’ war room!”

Introducing the book, Dimitrakis says, “We will not analyze strategy, military operations, counterinsurgency, or international diplomacy.” Instead, “readers will witness events through the eyes of the spy.” Nevertheless, he provides a good deal of insight about military actions, much of which was new to me. For example, he describes United States-sanctioned black ops in the early 1960s against the Hanoi government. Similarly, he delves into the politics of leadership changes in South Vietnam.

The last third of the book provides the greatest enlightenment concerning espionage. The unpredictable interplay of personalities Dimitrakis unveils in the chapter titled “Molehunt and Spies in the Vietcong” shows the uncertainties of “the never-ending difficulty of intelligence gathering.”

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The author

He also follows the trail of lies and deception into the White House to assess Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s intrusion into intelligence work. The results of this research reminded me of The War after the War: the Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam in which Johannes Kadura shows the president and his closest advisers colluding to mislead the entire nation for purely personal political reasons.

Books such as Secrets and Lies in Vietnam are important because they offer new perspectives about what happened in the war, both militarily and politically. Declassifying old government files and opening new sections of archives for perusal frequently reveal previously unobtainable facts. Even though the information is fifty or more years old, it is new to most people.

Panagiotis Dimitrakis—and similar scholars—merit praise for finding and presenting such facts in a highly readable format for the general public. More often than not, they permit veterans to validate complaints against leadership, especially inadequacies at higher levels.

—Henry Zeybel