Vietnam Vanguard edited by Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill

In 2006 I read Australia’s Vietnam War, an excellent account of the impact of the war, in many different ways, on Australia. The book, though, did not contain much information about Australian forces fighting in Vietnam. Vietnam VanguardThe 5th Battalion’s Approach to Counter-Insurgency, 1966 (Australian National University, 456 pp., $50) fills that void by taking the reader on operations in Vietnam conducted by the 5th Battalion of the 1st Australian Task Force during an early phase of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The editors and the book’s 27 contributors are veterans of operations conducted by Australian troops in 1966. Their goal is to recall with accuracy what transpired with Australia’s decision to join the war, as well as to show how its units prepared for operations, and to provide an account of the 5th Battalion’s year in combat.   

For readers familiar with the American way of war in Vietnam—especially those who were actual participants—it is very interesting to learn about similar challenges the Australians faced and their efforts to overcome them.

One parallel is the deployment of draftees into combat. The Australian battalion was half manned by national service soldiers who were conscripted and sent to Vietnam, just as many American troops were. Several contributors to the book emphasize the importance of not allowing disgruntlement at being conscripted and sent off to war become divisive within their units, especially in combat, and how they came to terms with it.  

Somewhat divergent operational approaches to the war by the Americans are contrasted with that of the Australians, reflecting lessons learned earlier about how to fight a counterinsurgency conflict. The Australians, unlike U.S. forces, had combat experience following the Korean War, including successfully conducted counterinsurgency operations. They had seen action during the 1948-60 Malayan Emergency and again during the confrontation with Indonesian irregulars in Malaysian territory. Consequently, many NCOs and officers in the Aussie Task Force in Vietnam had counterinsurgency experience.

It took years before American units could benefit from experienced personnel in Vietnam. As an example, my unit—the 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 506th Infantry, which deployed in 1967—had only a few NCOs who had served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66.

Australian leaders embraced the Hearts and Minds approach in Vietnam, as reflected in their Cordon and Search strategy. To illustrate the Australian way of war in Vietnam the contributors write about engagements in which they fought in difficult terrain against long-entrenched Viet Cong units. Many of their experiences in combat will be familiar to American Vietnam War veterans. Their frustration with some rear echelon units that didn’t provide full support to the troops in the field and their appreciation for courageous helicopter crews who braved ground fire, weather, and terrain are experiences American and Australian troops shared.

Members of B Co., 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment during Operation Tambourine

Australian soldiers found themselves unprepared when assigned to be advisers to local Vietnamese units and CIA-sponsored irregulars. Those assignments were disappointing and frustrating and remain a sore point with the contributors to this book.

The Australian military was very sensitive to casualties. This was something that Gen. Westmoreland, in contrast, was willing to accept for U.S. troops, as demonstrated by operations he ordered following 1965’s bloody Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. 

When the public in the U.S. and Australia turned against the war, the impact was especially felt by the veterans themselves.  American and Australian troops shared the experience of coming home from the war to an often indifferent nation.That factor has been a driving force in Aussie veterans’ desire at this late date to finally tell their stories. 

For the soldiers of Australia’s 5th Battalion, this book has provided that opportunity.

— John Cirafici

Feeding Victory by Jobie Turner

Lake George in the eighteenth century. The Western Front in Europe in 1917. Guadalcanal in the Pacific and Stalingrad in Russia during World War II. Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War.

With case studies of these five battlegrounds, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jobie Turner examines logistic support advancements from preindustrial times to the modern era in Feeding Victory: Innovative Military Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh (University Press of Kansas, 400 pp. $39.95). The depth of Turner’s research is the foundation for the highly informative framework he uses to analyze modes of transportation and materiel delivery under bitterly contested combat conditions.

Turner holds a PhD in military strategy with an emphasis on logistics. During his twenty-four-year USAF career he served mostly in airlift operations as a pilot and commander of C-130J Super Hercules squadrons. During that time he logged 3,200 flight hours. Today he works for NORAD’s U.S. Northern Command as a J8 Program Analyst.            

Improved modes of transportation have brought about great changes in logistics, Turner says. The military has benefitted from advances in technology ranging from wooden wagons and ships in the French and Indian War, to railroads and aircraft in the industrial age, and nuclear weapons and computers today. Across sea, land, and air, logistics have experienced a 165-fold expansion in cargo capacity since the late eighteenth century, thereby altering the critical relationship between logistics and warfare—and, ultimately, geopolitical dynamics.

Better transportation also has increased economic activity between nations. Following World War II, American technological dominance and a robust economy supported by a vast industrial base allowed the nation to dominate logistics worldwide—and made the President of the United States the leader of the free world, according to Turner.

Each of his five studies in the book emphasizes the advantages gained by the side that best controlled the period’s dominant mode of transportation. Turner’s analysis of the 1968 Siege of Khe Sanh, for example, reveals a turning point in logistical theory. The United States supplied the base primarily (totally at times) by aircraft; the NVA relied on 2.5-ton trucks or materiel moved on foot. Both sides managed to fulfill their troops’ basic needs.

“What the North Vietnamese Army lacked in technology,” Turner notes, “it made up for in sheer numbers of soldiers and support groups.”

Turner thoroughly explains the thinking of logisticians from the U.S. and North Vietnam and how geopolitics influence them. At Khe Sanh, the deciding factor was that “the line of communication through the air equated the capacity of land and water,” Turner reports. Air then became an equivalent mode of transportation in war.

Although Khe Sanh was a tactical victory for the United States, it became part of a geopolitical setback at home among the American population.

Troops awaiting Medevac helicopters at Khe Sanh
(Dana Stone/United Press International)

Feeding Victory leaves its reader somewhat stranded in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, over a half century ago. More-recent cases, such as the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, could have made Turner’s arguments even more conclusive. He suggests the idea, but does not pursue it.

The book is not a casual read. It provides many facts and history lessons that provoke questions. Occasionally, I had to reread a section to fully understand Turner’s reasoning. He includes a dissertation-like density of material on all sides of each study. Nearly a hundred pages of tightly packed notes, a bibliography, and an appendix support the text, which contains many figures and tables.

Although logistics are the book’s primary theme, Turner also includes detailed accounts of military tactics and strategies, particularly in the last three studies.   

Above all, Turner’s work proves the timeless value of studying the past.

—Henry Zeybel 

The Last Brahmin by Luke A. Nichter

Very few people know the burden of being born with a famous name. Some struggle with unfair expectations. Some shun the public and seek anonymity. Of those who enter the same field as their legendary predecessors, few reach the same levels of accomplishment.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902-1985) was a three-term U.S. Senator, the longest-serving American Representative at the United Nations, as wall as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam (twice), West Germany, and the Vatican. He also advised five presidents and was continuously in public service for nearly five decades. As a young man with wealth, looks, and a Harvard degree, he made a curious choice to join the Army Reserve when the military was at its post-World War I nadir. He would serve his entire adult life in the Reserves before retiring with the rank of Major General.

Lodge, out of now-antiquated notions of probity, wrote two autobiographical sketches of his life, but no memoir. Luke A. Nichter’s The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Making of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 544 pp. $37.50, hardcover;  $22.99, Kindle) is the first complete biography of this consequential American statesman. Nichter is a History professor at Texas A&M University–Central Texas and the co-editor of The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972. In The Last Brahmin Nichter mines the wealth of secondary scholarship and Lodge’s archived material, as well as those of all the presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. The exhaustive nature of his research is evidenced by the book’s ninety pages of endnotes.

Lodge was the grandson—not the son—of Henry Cabot Lodge, the contemptuous Massachusetts Senator notorious for his stand preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I. The Cabots and the Lodges were the epitome of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy. Their forbearers gained wealth in shipping before turning to public service. Lodge’s forefathers included a Secretary of State, a Secretary of the Navy, and six U.S. Senators.

At age 42, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. became the first sitting U.S. Senator since the Civil War to resign his seat and enter active military service and fight in a war. As it did for a generation of Americans, World War II changed Lodge from an isolationist (like his grandfather) to a zealous internationalist. He was re-elected to a third term in the Senate in 1946, but continuously clashed with the conservative Republican Old Guard. Determined to prevent another Republican loss in 1952, he convinced Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run. Lodge spent so much time working as Ike’s campaign manager that he neglected his own re-election campaign and lost his Senate seat to a young Congressman named John F. Kennedy.

After eight years at the UN, Richard Nixon tapped Lodge to be his running mate in the 1960 presidential election. They narrowly lost to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. After the election Lodge considered himself too old to run for political office, but too young to retire. He crossed party lines and agreed to become Kennedy’s Ambassador to South Vietnam in the summer of 1963. It would seem a curious move for the patrician politician—working for a man who had defeated him twice in a remote, violent land with a fledgling government.

Lodge & Ngo Dinh Diem, 1963

Despite an impressive career, the first three months Lodge served as Kennedy’s ambassador in Saigon are the most renowned of his life and the rightful cornerstone of Nichter’s work. A secretly recorded conversation implies that JFK gave Lodge approval to support a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Politically, Lodge was a nationalist in the best definition of the word; he valued loyalty and discretion, and did as well as he could in an extremely volatile situation. Lodge never explained his actions in Vietnam, but Nichter’s work is an important contribution in understanding America’s early involvement in what would become the nation’s most controversial overseas war.

In his effort to include as much as detail as possible, Nichter’s prose, though consistently accessible, can periodically be uneven. This is minor problem, though, given the scope of Nichter’s important work.

hgjkThe Last Brahmin is an impressive and authoritative account of a leading figure of the Cold War.

–Daniel R. Hart

U.S. Air Cavalry Trooper Versus North Vietnamese Soldier, Vietnam 1965-68 by Chris McNab

In early 1965 while at stationed at Fort Benning, I witnessed an incredible sight. Actually, I heard it first, and it sounded as if I were inside a beehive. Then an armada of helicopters emerged low over the trees with Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft leading the way and Caribou transports alongside. I had no idea that what I was seeing was the future of combat operations: employing airmobile forces on the battlefield.     

What I saw was the 11th Air Assault Division completing its final test phase. Within months the unit was re-designated the 1st Cavalry Division and sent to Vietnam. Airmobile warfare, tested and refined at Fort Benning and then put in place in Vietnam, is the subject of Chris McNab’s U.S. Air Cavalry Trooper Versus North Vietnamese Soldier, Vietnam 1965-68 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22, paper; $9.99, Kindle),

McNab, who specializes in writing about wilderness and urban survival techniques, focuses on the key components of success in war. He writes that the Air Cavalry is a true product of combined-arms warfare, employing vertical envelopment on the battlefield supported by massive firepower. McNab analyses how that concept worked in the Vietnam War against the North Vietnamese Army’s impressive ability to quickly adapt tactics to diminish the air cavalry’s advantages and inflict maximum casualties by assaulting air cav troopers before withdrawing. 

McNab points out how the cavalry employed technology to enhance success on the battlefield. New advances in radio communications, for example, permitted rapid responses to fluid situations on the ground, and scout helicopters brought eyes-on-the-battlefield to the command and control system. This was in addition to the use of helicopters to rapidly insert forces and shift them as battlefield conditions evolved.

Although the 1st Cavalry led the way with new tactics, mobility, and technology, it still had to fight conventionally on the ground. While the men of the 1st Cav inflicted significant casualties on the enemy—primarily due to the firepower at its command—they also suffered large losses. Two prime example, the November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, and the October 1965 Siege of Plei Me.

By the time the 1st Cavalry Division withdrew from the Vietnam War it had suffered more casualties than any other U.S. unit

1st Cav Col. Hal Moore in Vietnam

To illustrate the tactics of the 1st Cav and the NVA, McNab draws on the engagements fought in 1966-1967, particularly Operations Crazy Horse and Masher and the battles of Tam Quan and the Vinh Thanh Valley. He explains the NVA’s uncomplicated method of neutralizing airpower and artillery: quickly closing with U.S. troops, something they termed “holding the enemy’s belt.” In doing so, they got inside the safe zone for American forces where artillery and airstrikes were equally dangerous for both sides.

This is a first-rate short book, but there is a significant omission. Reading the description of the 1st Cavalry’s organizational structure I was surprised that McNab did not mention Air Force units that worked with the Cav and with other Army combat divisions and independently operating battalions: Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and the Special Forces Tactical Air Control Party (TACP).

Other than that misstep, this book brings much to the table: It is filled with excellent illustrations and photographs that greatly enhance the narrative, along with highly usable maps with descriptive keys. 

This is a valuable reference tool.

–John Cirafici

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan

If humans expect to make any sense of their past, Margaret MacMillan believes, studying war is a necessity. In War: How Conflict Shaped Us (Random House, 327 pp. $30, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle), she thoroughly analyzes the question, “Are war and humanity inextricably interwoven?”

Dating back to 1975, MacMillan’s academic achievements—she is emeritus professor of international history at the University of Oxford and professor of history at the University of Toronto—well qualify her as a leading thinker in modern history and international relations. Her six previous books have investigated an array of international problems.

Reading MacMillan is a delight. She presents her arguments in a conversational manner. Her ideas flow so logically that even when occasionally disagreeing with her, I look forward to her next point.

In determining war’s relationship with humankind, MacMillan excels in comparing the two by discussing the reasons for war, how wars have been fought, the making of warriors, the glory attached to combat, and civilian involvement. In each she delves to depths well beyond my expectations.  

MacMillan’s observations span events from an analysis of a mummified combatant from 3300 B.C. to Donald Trumps’ use of erroneous statements about war today. Similarly, she smoothly discusses Tito and Yugoslavia in the same paragraph with Samoans and New Guinea to make a point.

After convincingly analyzing the past, MacMillan describes her expectations about future warfare. She believes that war should not be a tool that “can rightfully and necessarily be used by states.” She sees future wars ascontinuations of conflicts inside states, often civil wars supported by outside powers.

Nurtured by greed, fear, and ideology, such wars are exceptionally complex and lengthy, she says. More so, they often are fought on two levels: one with professional forces and high technology, and the other with loosely organized forces using low-cost weapons. The two sorts of war overlap. Battlefields include urban settings.

MacMillan sees wars in cyberspace as the ultimate challenge for humankind. She warns that ultra-sophisticated technology promotes weaponry that offers “the prospect of the end of humanity itself.”

Nations might not desire war, she writes, but they cannot rule out the possibilities that others will. The prosecution of war is permanently ingrained into the human character, and we must not forget it.

The book provides no in-depth discussion of the American War in Vietnam. MacMillan briefly references actions from that war rather than discussing it in detail. Her most definitive conclusion about the war: “For the Americans, Vietnam did what the First World War did for the Europeans; it shook their confidence in themselves and their civilization.”

Margaret MacMillan

A bibliography handily divides MacMillan’s sources into nonfiction, memoirs and diaries, fiction, other, and websites. It then lists the works she particularly drew from for each chapter. Thirty well-chosen photographs with detailed captions, most of which were new to me, captured my full attention.

MacMillan’s approach to her question should fulfill the intellectual demands of readers from high schoolers to PhDs. I rank War alongside The Journalist by Jerry A. Rose and Lucy Rose Fischer and Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel (republished from 1990) as the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

—Henry Zeybel

Footprints of War by David Biggs

In the seminal work on warfare, The Art of War, the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu devotes a full chapter to the importance of terrain. French historian Fernand Braudel conceptualized history as the longue durée, (“long duration”), arguing that continuities in the deepest structures of society—including a geographical determinism—are central to history. Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter proffered that military actions produce creative destruction, imposing empty footprints that permit new spaces for development.

In Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam (University of Washington, 288 pp. $39.95, hardcover and Kindle) David Biggs weaves the concepts of Tzu, Braudel, Clausewitz and others together with an impressive array of aerial photography and maps to present a regional history of central Vietnam as a form of stratigraphy, with layers of foreign and domestic militarization and cultural iconography. 

David Biggs is a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside. His award-winning 2011 book, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, examined the environmental history of Vietnam in the 20th century. The genesis of his new work was a request from the Vietnamese government to use U.S. archival sources to locate potential environmental hazards resulting from the storage and deployment of chemicals and weaponry during the American war.

This innovative applied environmental history focuses on the narrow central coast around Hue, the former imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty in Annam, now Thua Thien Province. Though Hue is most recognizable to Americans as the scene of vicious fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the area also was the subject of Bernard Fall’s 1963 renowned book about the French Indochina War, Street Without Joy.

Biggs goal is to understand how military processes become embedded and woven into multiple landscapes. The six chapters of the book are organized chronologically, starting with a history of the area through 1885, followed by chapters covering the end of World War II, the French War, the Viet Minh era, the American War, and concluding from 1973 to present day.

The crux of the book is the American involvement in Vietnam as Biggs seeks to use the environment as an archive to contextualize the war. He contends that landscapes, like people, preserve memories of the devastation that was reaped upon them long after the fact. Biggs returns to the titular “footprints” often, employing the term literally and metaphorically. He argues that while an environmental footprint can be measured and analyzed, a socio-cultural footprint is as important, but infinitely more difficult, to discern.

Biggs outlines the guerrilla activity in the region dating back to the 1400s and the Tay Son Rebellion, a devastating late 18th century civil war that included for the first time a legion of French advisers. The French invaded the region in 1883 and ruled until World War II. World Wars I and II and communist revolutions in Russia and China spurred a generation of Vietnamese nationalists, including Ho Chi Minh, who fought alongside the Allies in World War II.

New technologies, including airplanes, aerial photography, and radios, were used for social and ecological engineering. A leitmotif of the book is how the Vietnamese used technology to enhance their enviro-social networks—using radios to establish an underground community, for example—when the French (and later the Americans) believed that technology could overcome the terrain.

David Biggs

The American response to the historic spatial limitations of Vietnam was to ramp up bombing, and, when that was ineffective, to send in more troops and helicopters. The futile efforts of the Americans to mold the environment proved to be a bitter irony.

The spaces the U.S. military cleared allowed North Vietnamese Soviet-built tanks unfettered access to Saigon in 1975. The book ends on a hopeful note outlining attempts to regreen, redevelop, and reclaim landscapes long devastated by war.

The book can be periodically dense and assumes the reader has a degree of understanding of Southeast Asian history. But these are minor quibbles.

This is a pioneering study written with great enthusiasm.

–Daniel R. Hart

Death in the Highlands by J. Keith Saliba

J. Keith Saliba’s Death in the Highlands: The Siege of Special Forces Camp Plei Me (Stackpole, 280 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $15.39, Kindle) is a well-written book does not begin with the title’s October 1965 siege by North Vietnamese Army on a remote U.S. Special Forces camp. Rather, Saliba starts with the siege’s back story, which more fully explains the event from a wider perspective of all the participants and at all levels of strategic thinking.   

Saliba, a journalism professor at Jacksonville University who has specialized in writing about the Vietnam War for two decades, starts with these questions: Why this battle when Plei Me was so far away from much more important South Vietnamese population centers? Why was a Special Forces camp even built at Plei Me? What was Hanoi’s greater goal beyond eliminating a small, remote camp? 

To answer these questions Saliba steps back to give the long view of the war and the strategic goals of the North Vietnamese. Paralleling this, he examines the Cold War policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies and how they led to deploying American Special Forces troops early in the Vietnam War. 

U.S. Special Forces arrived in Southeast Asia in 1961, and once there, Saliba explains why they developed the CIDG (Civil Irregular Defense Group) concept using fighters from local indigenous tribes. Ultimately, these camps become a thorn in the side of the enemy. Their presence thwarted the North’s goal of cutting South Vietnam in half.  

Consequently, the North Vietnamese decided that the camps had to be eliminated. They also believed assaulting these remote camps would enable the NVA to draw American and South Vietnamese troops into a meat grinder and strip away the forces needed to defend far-more-important urban centers.

After laying out the background, Saliba describes the operational and tactical levels of the North Vietnamese 1965 Monsoon Offensive in the Central Highlands and their Tay Nguyen (Western Plateau) Campaign. The core of the book is Saliba’s detailed account of the attackers and how Americans and CIDG fighters at Plei Me defended the camp.

We learn that the NVA commanders and their units arrived at Plei Me after a long and difficult march south, and how they planned to annihilate the camp. I came away impressed with the enemy’s detailed planning, including using sand-box models of targeted sites and rehearsal exercises. Paralleling that, the book identifies the Special Forces team members and aviators who showed incredible leadership, courage, and determination defending the camp.

Several people who became famous after the Vietnam War appear in the book. Norman Schwarzkopf, an adviser to South Vietnamese airborne units in 1965, would become the commanding general of American forces in the Persian Gulf War. Two months prior to the Plei Me Siege, Schwarzkopf had been involved in the defense of a CIDG camp at Duc Co against an equally ferocious attack.

Charlie Beckwith, who later led a Delta Force unit and was ground commander of the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, was directly involved in Plei Me’s fight for survival. Beckwith was, according to Saliba, a flawed and thin-skinned leader who was greatly impressed with himself.

The portrayal of the actual battle is rich in detail and never tedious. Saliba captures all the action. He describes sustained close air support missions coordinated by low-flying forward air controllers with flare ships overhead to light up the enemy positions, along with heroic work by the medevac and resupply crews who flew through intense ground fire.   

On the ground, Beckwith arrived as the leader of a small relief force to augment the camp team and take command. A much-delayed South Vietnamese relief column reached the camp just as the mauled NVA regiments withdrew and the siege ended.

Plei Me Special Forces Camp, December 1965 (Joe Schneider/Stars and Stripes photo)

The book closes with the 1st Cavalry Division, newly arrived in Vietnam, pursuing the remnants of the NVA units. This is at the beginning of escalation of the American war in Vietnam, and anticipates the Cav’s famed Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, which took place less than a month later.

Death in the Highlands is great book—not just because of the depictions of heroism on all sides, but because it also shows what the war was like before half a million U.S. troops arrived and changed the nature of the Vietnam War.    

Kudos to J. Keith Saliba for writing an easy-to-read and informative book.

—John Cirafici

Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin by Eileen A. Bjorkman

Eileen A. Bjorkman’s Unforgotten in the Gulf: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (Potomac Books, 256 pp., $34.95) is a well-written, meticulously researched and annotated story of the history and development of air rescue and retrieval from World War I to the present day. 

Bjorkman, a civilian flight test engineer and aviator, skillfully weaves the story of one rescue—of Navy aviator Willi Sharp from the Gulf of Tonkin after his F-8 Crusader was downed by enemy fire on November 18, 1965—throughout the book.

We don’t see 1st Lt. Sharp in the water until about three-fourths of the way through the book, yet his story provides the thread upon which Bjorkman builds the entire fabric of the book. Bjorkman writes about Sharp’s pilot training, first flights, and carrier deployments, and weaves in a well-developed picture of the history of air-rescue missions.

As worldwide U.S. military involvement waxed and waned over the 20th century, so did the need for airborne combat search and rescue (CSAR). The concept was developed during World War II, re-engaged during the Korean War, and honed during the Vietnam War. The introduction of helicopters into war theaters as a weapon and a rescue vehicle has defined current CSAR operations.

Throughout this book Bjorkman writes about gallows humor, the terror and elation involved in successful missions, and the sorrow of losing comrades. She notes that the vast majority of Vietnam War rescues involved aviators—and notes that the possibility of capture always lurked in the minds those who flew combat and rescue missions.

Eileen Bjorkman in the cockpit

She speaks as well of the successes of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and its continued operations repatriating the missing from all conflicts, even though the focus tends to be on pilots from the Vietnam War.

Bjorkman devotes a well-reasoned chapter to PTSD, even among aviators who seldom saw the devastation their efforts caused. Her interviews with Sharp and his fellow fliers are telling in the simplicity of their messages. All of them spoke volumes within their short answers.

This is a well-written and edited book that I strongly recommend.

–Tom Werzyn

Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

William P. Head’s fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the number 176 he drew in the 1969 Selective Service lottery, which put him on the verge of being drafted into the U.S. Army. Many of his friends did serve, and some never came home, he says. Head had entered college in 1967, eventually earned a doctorate degree, and became a United States Air Force historian—as a civilian—and Chief of the Office of History at Robins AFB, Georgia. Over the past thirty-plus years, concentrating mainly on the Vietnam War, he has written and edited many books and articles about warfare.

Head’s latest book, Storms Over the Mekong: Major Battles of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 480 pp. $40.00, hardcover; $24.99, Kindle), approaches the war by presenting and analyzing “the most significant and game-changing combat events” as he sees them. Head chose the events he says, based on the consensus of “the opinions of reputable participants, scholars, and analysts.”

The book begins in 1963 with the Viet Cong defeating the South Vietnamese Army at Ap Bac. It ends with the North Vietnamese Army capturing Saigon in 1975. The battles fit into two categories: “War on the Ground” and “War in the Air.” Head presents them chronologically, thereby pretty much telling the story of the entire war. He looks at ground encounters at Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Saigon and Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and Xuan Loc. Interspersed air battles describe Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, Commando Hunt, and Linebackers I and II.

Some of the accounts previously appeared in other places, Head says, but he has revised them with “current data and historical information.” His studies of Rolling Thunder and the Easter Offensive are new work.

The book repeatedly claims that, despite America’s extravagant investment of manpower and money at the start of its military commitment, national unwillingness to fight a protracted war against a determined enemy was the fundamental reason for the conflict’s outcome.

Head recreates the self-defeating hesitancy of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to apply air power over North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder in 1965-68. Head describes the operation as “Too Much Rolling and Not Enough Thunder.”

Johnson’s fear of greater Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war dictated his reticence throughout this time, Head says. Paralleling that feeling was Johnson’s contemptuous disregard for his generals’ opinions, which contradicted the respect shown to them in past wars. At the same time, Head faults the generals’ acceptance of unimaginative and ineffective strategies.      

The voices of political and military leaders from the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam are heard throughout the book. Background on North Vietnam’s planning and execution of Tet are particularly enlightening.

Head typically analyzes battles from high levels of command. Even the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which American infantrymen paid an enormous toll, is overwhelmingly viewed from the battalion commanders’ level. In recalling the “senseless nature” of eleven attacks in ten days, Head quotes just two sentences from grunts.   

When editorializing, Head stays within reason, and his conclusions are to the point. For example, in the chapter about Hamburger Hill, he calmly names and indicts certain commanders for starting—but mostly for continuing—a battle in which significant casualties resulted and nothing was gained. He concludes that the defeat at Ap Bac was “a wake up call that the United States would have to take over the fight, the path American leaders chose twenty months later.” He summarizes the frustration bred by presidentially decreed air strategy as “what you get when airmen do not fully control air assets and run an air war.” 

His assessment of the battle of Ia Drang Valley concisely consolidates the opinions of American and North Vietnamese thinkers. McNamara’s perceptive interpretation of the battle’s outcome is a high point of the book.

Bill Head’s overall conclusion about the war chastises America for not learning the primary lesson from its involvement and thereby committing itself to duplicating similar protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He judges this as a betrayal of all those killed in the Vietnam War.

Storms Over the Mekong provides a package of facts supported by voluminous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Well-placed maps and photographs enhance the discussions. The book should serve as a handy reference for old timers, as well as a textbook for students and others newly interested in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

What’s Going On by Michael Hayes

Before I began reading Michael Hayes’ What’s Going On: A History of the Vietnam Era (Tine Day, 139 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) I wondered how it would be possible for Hayes to approach such a complex time in America’s history in such a short book. The U.S. was undergoing great turmoil over major and unresolved social issues in the midst of the Cold War. Incredibly, the United States then entered into a war in Vietnam that further fractured American society and intensified the fires of domestic discontent. Would it be possible to do justice in a short book to a very complicated era?

Hayes offers an abridged summary of the historical background to the Vietnam War with references to domestic social issues in the United States and key personalities. He flavors this overview with vignettes in the words of those who experienced the war and the era and with his own words illustrating personal incidents showing the divisions within American society and the abuse of power by those supposedly protecting the public.  

Hayes—who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and has taught U.S. history at the collegiate level—only briefly summarizes complicated events and issues. He often does this without the benefit of balance, when in many cases these topics are controversial. Perhaps he found this necessary in order to keep his book brief, but with an awareness that those issues warrant much greater clarification and amplification, perhaps in a lengthier book.   

The book is written in a style intended for an audience of readers younger than anyone with first-hand memories of the war and the social disunity of that period. The target audience is young adults, who are separated by a half century from that incredible time and are most likely uninformed about the pivotal events of their parents’ and grandparents’ world. Hayes has given them, in most cases, the bare essentials to minimally grasp what issues the American public—particularly war veterans—were confronting during that time of intense combat in Vietnam and serious social and political divisions at home. 

What’s Going On, then, is a sort of primer to whet the appetite of someone with little or no knowledge of the war or the era, and provides the basis for pursuing more comprehensive scholarship. To that end, Hayes provides in end notes and a three-page bibliography with recommended sources for further reading.

A minor criticism is the author’s occasionally one-sided account of history. I say this as a war veteran and activist who remains highly critical of the war, but who seeks impartiality in any discussion of it. Hayes, for instance, reminds readers how the Vietnamese people were subjugated by France’s imperialist policies, but never mentions that the Vietnamese were in their own right imperialists who subjugated non-Vietnamese people (the Chams, Montagnards, and Khmers). 

He also describes the heavy-handed policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, while failing to note the North’s brutal suppression of opposition groups. In today’s political climate objectivity is of key importance.  

That said, this book is a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the Vietnam War and its milieu. 

–John Cirafici