Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam by William C. Haponski with Jerry J. Burcham

Retired U.S. Army Col. William C. Haponski presents his interpretation of the outcome of the Vietnam War in Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam (Casemate, 336 pp. $32.95). “The Vietnam War,” he says, “was lost before French expeditionary corps or American combat units came ashore. Said another way, there was never a war there which could be won. The reasons lie in the history of Vietnam and the character of its people going back more than 3,000 years.”

Haponksi makes his case with a tight package of facts based on extensive research, supplemented by his experiences as a 1968-69 Vietnam War commander with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1/4 of the 1st Infantry Division.

Haponski is the author of three other Vietnam War books: One Hell of a Ride: Inside an Armored Cavalry Task Force in Vietnam, Danger’s Dragoon: The Armored Cavalry Task Force of the Big Red One in Vietnam, 1969, and An Idea and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam. 

Col. Jerry J. Burcham, a retired Vietnam War brigade commander, worked with Haponski on Autopsy.

In the book’s three parts, Haponski analyzes what he calls the French War, the American War, and the Vietnamese War stretching from 1945-75. He contends that independence and unification were virtually the lifeblood of the Vietnamese people during that time. “Events show that neither the French nor the Americans nor the South Vietnamese governments and militaries could ever have won a war in Vietnam regardless of who led the efforts,” he writes.

His analysis of the French War focuses on leadership. Continuity of command greatly benefited the Viet Minh, he says. From 1945-56, Ho Ch Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap controlled the North politically and militarily, while France practiced revolving-door leadership. At times, his account of French activities resembles a novel of international intrigue—except no fiction writer could have imagined the trickery he reveals.

Haponski emphasizes Ho’s opposition to colonialism by tracing his communist affiliation back to World War I. Haponski notes that Ho “was particularly enamored of Lenin,” and recognized the necessity for “revolutionary violence.”

The book’s account of the American War could be titled “Good Intentions, Poor Execution.” Haponski analyses each stage of U.S. involvement: Advisory, Search-and-Destroy, Big Unit Warfare, and Vietnamization. He describes operations written about by many other authors.

The historic value here comes from descriptions of difficulties he encountered as a commander. Problems compounded: new clear-and-hold plans reverted to search-and-destroy operations; Americans tortured prisoners during interrogations; a Vietnamese district chief refused to cooperate; American soldiers shot civilians; strategic hamlets failed to materialize; the Pacification program failed; and the MACV commander fell asleep while Haponski briefed him.

The final third of the book covers the ultimate encounter between North and South—NVA versus ARVN. Haponski describes the struggle in a fresh and straightforward style. He emphasizes that the North’s communism “was uniquely Vietnamese” and followed no monolithic control from Moscow. Yet, after the communist victory, Haponski says, a dedicated cadre of doctrinaire believers ruled the nation while “lower down” motivation was mostly patriotism produced by compulsion.

Although the book is flawlessly organized and a pleasure to read, I cannot agree with Bill Haponski’s conclusion that the North’s victory was based on a long Vietnamese desire for independence. To me, the communist takeover of the nation boiled down to another twentieth-century dictator’s success. Ho Chi Minh followed the paths of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Today the Vietnamese people live under ideas formulated by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century—not ones based on their three-thousand-year-old temperament.

Haponski says he presents “as succinctly as possible the essence of the contest itself inside the political and social framework that constrained and guided it on both sides—that is, within Vietnam,” and he leaves it “to the reader to discern what lessons could have been learned.” In that manner, he ignores the violent communist re-education of Southerners that followed the North’s victory.

A book of this magnitude should offer guidance for the future—at least a warning to wake up members of Congress. Otherwise, America could become entangled in another misdirected war, one lasting perhaps as long as nineteen years.

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam provides a challenging thesis that stirs the mind.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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Dragon’s Jaw by Stephen Coonts & Barrett Tillman

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Stephen Coonts flew A-6 Intruders for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Since then, he has written sixteen bestselling aviation techno-thrilling novels, the first of which was the  Flight of the Intruder. Barrett Tillman, an authority on air warfare, has written more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind.

Coonts and Tillman’s Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 304 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is a book that editorializes about flying and Vietnam War diplomacy as much as it tells a war story.

The war story is the targeting of the strategically vital Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam by U.S. Navy and Air Force fliers. From March 1965 to the November 1968 bombing halt, the unproductive sacrifices made by these airmen—killed and missing in action, wounded, or captured as prisoners—were stunning.

The book’s title covers the flying action. In that regard, if you can imagine Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in a five-gravity landscape while strangers fling sharp-edged rocks at him, you have a hint about the story’s drama. Note: A few philosophers argue that such a task made Sisyphus happy.

To complete that imagery, here’s what Coonts and Tillman’s have to say about Rolling Thunder, the bombing program to interdict supplies from North to South Vietnam: It was “fatally flawed from the start. There were a great many fool’s errands in Vietnam—arguably the entire war was one—and the pressure from the top was excruciating.”

They address that pressure by classifying the diplomacy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara as misdirected, self-serving, and ineffective. They also shred John Kennedy’s decisions about South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended in the portentous November 1963 assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu. Many of their arguments reference previously published sources.

Coonts and Tillman dissect Johnson’s diplomacy by comparing it to Machiavelli, Thucydides, and contemporary thinkers—a no-contest encounter.  The authors fault senior military officers who “realized that the fuel and ordnance expended on Thanh Hoa missions and the losses incurred were wasted effort” against “the most heavily defended area in the world.”

Navy and Air Force fliers faced constantly improving North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG interceptor defenses. Their improvisation in maneuvering aircraft through dangerous situations was unimaginable—until it happened. Their inability to destroy the bridge symbolized North Vietnamese resistance and American impotence, the authors say.

A major argument against the war was the fact that, afterward, it was evident that all of the reasons not to pursue it were obvious before the war began, according to Coonts and Tillman.

The authors identify both American attackers and North Vietnamese defenders and quote their oral and written testimony about battle. Dragon’s Jaw honors the lives of brave men who otherwise might be forgotten. The war can be judged as ineffective in solving an international dilemma, but the depth of dedication by participants on both sides is unquestionable, as this book plainly shows.

Along with recreating bombing and dog-fighting missions, the authors describe operations and life aboard aircraft carriers; fliers’ constant quest for better tactics, equipment, and weapons; and the ordeal of American POWs. Given their antipathy to the antiwar movement, it’s not surprising that the authors disparage Jane Fonda for her wartime visit to Hanoi. They also devote a chapter to the evolution of aircraft carrier design as planes grew larger and heavier.

The authors depict Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as diplomatic wizards for befriending—or perhaps economically bribing—China while undermining South Vietnam in 1972. The bargaining received a boost from the development of laser-guided, three-thousand-pound bombs that finally collapsed the Thanh Hoa Bridge into the Song Ma River.

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 Tanh Hoa Bridge after American F-4 Phantom fighter bombers knocked its western end into the Song Ma River in April 1972.

The book broadened my knowledge of Navy air operations. But its arguments frequently are vitriolic, rehashing reasoning that is at least fifty years old. Old conclusions are still largely ignored, however, and I would have preferred to see the authors apply them to today’s military commitments.

In their final pages, the authors do mention the advantages of today’s guided munitions designed for the Vietnam War, and they tie an unsatisfactory Vietnam War targeting episode to Desert Storm as part of a Note.

Navy and Air Force leaders fought a “sortie war” to impress McNamara and gain personal recognition, according to the authors. The resultant lack of inter-service effort leads Coonts and Tillman to call the fighting in Vietnam a “shitty little war.”

They conclude with an idea from Henry Kissinger that they judge to be “perhaps the ultimate lesson” of the war: Victory in war is essentially meaningless unless it leads to a political settlement that will endure.

Think about it.

—Henry Zeybel

The Mayaguez Crisis by Christopher J. Lamb

In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

This understanding of presidential perspective is central to The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations (Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 284 pp., $66) by Christopher Lamb, who is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.

In his book Lamb examines what U.S. leaders hoped to accomplish in their response to the Mayaguez crisis, and how those motivations influenced the manner in which the ensuing drama unfolded. He believes the motives for U.S. behavior have been widely mis-characterized and their significance misunderstood.

Often cited as the last battle of the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Crisis began on May 12, 1975, less than two weeks after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, when Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboats seized the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant container ship carrying a crew of forty en route to Thailand, in international waters off the Cambodian coast.

In the first part of his book, Lamb lucidly provides details about the four-day crisis, highlighting the words and actions of the four principle players in the crisis: President Gerald Ford, in office nine months when the crisis started; Henry Kissinger, Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser; Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and Deputy National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

In the only such international incident managed through the National Security Council, the reaction was swift. The U.S. bombed the Cambodian coast, sank several vessels leaving the Koh Tang island, and used Marines to invade that island where we believed the crew was being held. Twenty-three Air Force police and crew were killed in a helicopter crash in Thailand, fifteen Marines died in action on Tang, and three were listed as missing in action.

After that military action, the Cambodians returned the ship and crew returned safely, and the Ford Administration demonstrated resolve in the wake of the unsatisfying end of the Vietnam War. The action was widely seen as successful.

Lamb’s historical account is both gripping in its prose and masterful, as is his command of the information. However, his primary motivation is not documenting the events in the White House, but understanding why they unfolded in the manner that they did. Lamb is uniquely qualified to undertake this assignment as he is the author of Belief Systems and Decision Making in the Mayaguez Crisis (1989), as well as many journal articles on the subject.

This analysis is accessible and thorough. The relatively brief text is backed up by more than fifty pages of notes. Lamb systematically reviews the potential motivations of the policy makers, which included:

  • a rescue mission, a use of coercive diplomacy against the Khmer Rouge
  • a use of military force to avoid a USS Pueblo-type prolonged hostage negotiation
  • an emotional catharsis in response to Vietnam, and
  • an effort to use the crisis to boost Ford’s reelection prospects.

Lamb shows that these reasons—even the rescue of the crew—all were secondary to the primary objective of Ford Administration policymakers: using overwhelming and rapid force to signal to North Korea and the international community the resolve of the United States.

Despite the agreement among leaders, the implementation of the policy was strained by a bureaucracy in which Kissinger exerted undue influence, and Schlesinger—who was chiefly responsible for saving the crew and preventing more deaths of Marines on Tang—was unfairly scapegoated for the loss of life.

Lamb suggests that this book is aimed primarily for the national security community, but I humbly disagree. This is an exemplary case study of crisis management that will be valuable for historians, analysts, political scientists, and anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

I give it my highest recommendation.

For more info and to order, go to bookstore.gpo.gov/products/mayaguez

–Daniel R. Hart

 

The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Philip Bigler

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Anyone with the slightest interest in military tradition should find Philip Bigler’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: A Century of Honor, 1921-2021 (Apple Ridge, 400 pp. $24.95, paper) an entertaining historical read of the highest caliber.

This informative treasure is a work of love. Bigler’s association with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began in 1983 when he served for three years as one of the official historians at Arlington National Cemetery. The contacts he established there led him to write a history of that famed cemetery. The approach of the Tomb’s hundredth anniversary impelled Bigler to do extensive research on every aspects of its history.

Some sections of the book include an abundance of photographs. Reading those pages is akin to watching a television documentary with detailed subtitles.

Bigler explains each step in resolving controversies about the Tomb’s design, along with determining the why, how, and who of selecting unknown soldiers. He also shows how other nations have paid tribute to their war dead.

He reviews the histories of America’s wars and their influence on expanding a monument for a single World War I Unknown Soldier into a resting place for unknown warriors from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier takes up a third of the book.

His voluminous and exceptionally informative endnotes reflect the depth and meticulousness of his research. Bigler showed me more about the Tomb than I ever could have anticipated.

An account of the duties of the ever-present Tomb Guards wraps up the story. Five appendices add to the picture of America’s dedication to its fallen warriors.

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November 11, 1921: The first burial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Bigler taught history and humanities in Virginia public schools for 23 years and later was an assistant professor at James Madison University. In 1998 he was named National Teacher of the Year. He has written ten other books: six on American history and four on teaching and education.

A companion piece to Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Michael Lee Lanning’s The Veterans Cemeteries of Texas, which explains the procurement and development of burial ground for military veterans; procedures for interment; and practices for continued honoring of the deceased. What applies to Texas cemeteries applies to the rest of the states—or it should.

The book’s website is www.tomb2021.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Brotherhood in Combat by Jeremy P. Maxwell

 

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The presence of death on a constant basis reduces other parts of life to insignificance. That truism is at the heart of Jeremy P. Maxwell’s Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 224 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, Kindle). Historians have previously studied the book’s topic; Maxwell reconfirms that front-line soldiers who shared war-zone dangers transcended racial biases and successfully integrated.

“This project started out,” Maxwell—the first Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society—says, “as a dissertation for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast.” The final product reflects extensive research in many archives across America. Maxwell often proves a point by citing twentieth century historians; his judicious choice of their material livens old text.

Brotherhood in Combat limits its focus to an evaluation of African American experiences in the Army and Marine Corps beginning with Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It centers on Maxwell’s premise that racial tensions in combat units did not mirror those in rear units—and throughout America.

In a long Introduction, Maxwell puts segregation in United States military history into perspective from its beginnings, and sets the stage for the entire study. From there, his research details the nation’s political and social climates prior to the Korean War to show why and how President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military. Maxwell then cites Korean War battlefield behavior that finalized the bonding between races.

That was during the war. Afterward, in peacetime, African Americans still faced direct and institutional discrimination in the military.

Concentrating on the actions of President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War era, Maxwell finds similarities in Truman’s actions before and during the Korean War. Sharing dangers of combat did the most to break down racial barriers in Vietnam, he says, even while such tensions persisted in America.

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As part of showing that the constant presence of death changes attitudes, Maxwell describes the environments of the Korea and Vietnam wars as background for clarifying the teamwork and heroics performed by front-line African American fighting men.

By the time “U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam,” Maxwell concludes, “the military was a completely integrated force.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Capture of the USS Pueblo by James Duermeyer

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The Capture of the USS Pueblo (McFarland, 209 pp. $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by James Duermeyer is an efficient and instructive review of one of the all-but forgotten events of 1968. As with many books these days, there is a longish subtitle which, in this case, is a helpful summary: The Incident, the Reaction, and the Aftermath.

It is important to remember that in January 1968 (when the Pueblo was captured) the Korean War was a recent memory in the American psyche. When you add to this the nation’s turmoil in 1968 over the Vietnam War, then the possibility of this series of foreign policy and military blunders involving a poorly designed spy ship was, in retrospect, almost inevitable.

Within a week after the capture of the ship, the Tet Offensive was unleashed. By the time the crewmen were released in December, Richard Nixon had been elected president, after LBJ chose not to run for re-election. The Vietnam War was a constant presence in the Johnson Administration’s deliberations about how to respond to the capture of the Pueblo. Military options were considered. But in the end, negotiations assured the release of the crew.

Duermeyer. who has master’s degree in U.S. History from the University of Texas, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. After the war, he continued his Navy career in the Reserves, reaching the rank of Commander. Duermeyer has written five historical novels she he retired from the Navy. In this book, he writes about a time and a subject (naval history) for which he seems well qualified.

The Capture of the USS Pueblo comes in at a compact 172 pages of text, with an excellent preface, introduction, and epilogue. These short sections book-end six chapters, which are a bit over-analytical. What’s more Duermeyer does not provide a compelling narrative arc in the book.image090

On the other hand, he includes several interesting facts and stories, including some dealing with the negotiations. However, one wishes that he humanized the main players a bit more, especially the Pueblo’s captain, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher. The book jumps around chronologically, with many references to post-release reviews and findings that disrupt the flow of the story.

North Korea remains a mystery, but Duermeyer does shed some light on North Korean political thought. He devotes an entire chapter to “Juche,” an ideology that demands independence and “self-sustainability” in foreign policy.

Duermeyer also provides interesting background and analysis of the Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung, which could inform our nation’s thinking as we continue to struggle in our relations with North Korea.

—Bill Fogarty