The Erawan War, Vol. 2 by Ken Conboy

Ken Conboy’s The Erawan War, Vol. 2: A Paramilitary Campaign in Laos 1969-1974.  (Helion 78 pp., $29.95, paper) is an account of the largest CIA operation of the Cold War, in which the agency fielded an army numbering perhaps eight indigenous divisions. This second volume of a two-volume history, seamlessly follows the first one in describing the evolving nature of operations during the last five years of American involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War.   

Although Volume 2 can stand alone, it is immensely helpful to have read Vol. 1’s 1961-69 history. Like the first, Vol. 2 captures much of the secret war in Laos, including its complexity. It focuses on CIA-trained guerilla units recruited from the hill tribes of Vietnam and Thailand. In operations against North Vietnam’s heavily guarded and vital Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos teams penetrated defenses, destroyed supply-laden trucks, and gathered intelligence. Equally impressive, they conducted attacks inside North Vietnam itself.

Although in the greater scheme of things these missions were pinpricks, President Nixon pushed for them as a means of applying pressure on Hanoi. The real test, however, came when guerilla regiments found themselves pitted against regular North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) divisions. Many PAVN units, known for their aggressiveness in South Vietnam, were also fighting in Laos.

The CIA out of necessity recruited increasing numbers of Lao tribesmen and Thai volunteers, and formed new battalions to fight in the rapidly expanding war. President Nixon was so pleased by their successes that he conveyed his admiration directly to the Thai prime minister. But the CIA-led paramilitary campaign could not stop the PAVNs steady advance.

Thai battalions became essential to operations in the Plaine des Jarres region, trying to stall advances made by the PAVN. It is evident that the large-scale war in Laos was in many ways as important as the war in Vietnam.  

The book details the significant amount of combat airlift flown by USAF helicopters in Laos. USAF Combat Controllers and Forward Air Controllers also played an important role supporting operations there. U.S. military assets based in Thailand and South Vietnam were crucial to successes on the battlefield, in particular when U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft conducted airstrikes.

Hmong fighters in Laos with an American military adviser

Conboy’s Erawan War books reveal the tragedy of this story: that men and boys recruited from the hill tribes by the CIA struggled against an enemy with seemingly unlimited manpower and weaponry. It’s to their credit that these irregular forces frequently working with Thai special forces, infantry, and artillery were able to resist for so long against the advancing PAVN and its Pathet Lao allies. The tragedy was that with the end of all American involvement in the conflict the hill tribes were left to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences at the hands of vindictive Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.

This concise, heavily illustrated book contains much information about a part of the Vietnam War that little known to the American public. The two volumes are a necessary read in order to truly understand the immensity of America’s involvement in the Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

–John Cirafici

Run Run Cricket Run by Tom Thompson

Tom Thompson’s Run Run Cricket Run: America’s Secret Wars in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper; $13.95, Kindle) is an interesting, exciting, and educating book.

This book is presented as historical fiction, but mirrors Thompson’s actual service as a USAF Forward Air Controller in Thailand, Laos, and North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The main character, Capt. Ted Thatcher—who, in reality, is the author, Tom Thompson—narrates the tale.

During the Vietnam War the U.S. news media blasted articles, pictures, statistics, and exposés of the fighting taking place in South Vietnam. Little or no mention was made of what American troops were doing clandestinely in Laos on the ground and in the air. Those “secret wars” were carried out to try to stem the flow of men and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam to equip the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam.

North Vietnam continually violated the 1954 Geneva Accords by creating and using the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. maintained a public policy of not entering Laos or Cambodia.

A major component of those covert operations was the Air Force’s Forward Air Controllers. Run Run Cricket Run gives an insider’s view of this group of brave men. The FACs controlled the aerial battlefield over the Trail. They engaged the enemy, located and marked targets, and directed American fighters and bombers onto targets such as trucks, tanks, and antiaircraft gun sites along the Trail. The FACs also worked with helicopters rescuing ground troops and downed pilots.

Thompson graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1966 and went on to earn his wings. He served in Laos in 1970. Run Run Cricket Run begins in December 1969, with Thatcher (Thompson) arriving at the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand.

What follows is almost daily aerial combat action. I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

The Erawan War by Ken Conboy

The events that Ken Convoy covers in The Erawan War: Volume 1: The CIA Paramilitary Campaign in Laos, 1961-1969 (Helion & Company, 64 pp. $29.95, paper) take place at a time when the Domino Theory was a key factor in American national security policy. That theory, which President Eisenhower first explained publicly in 1954, held that a communist takeover of one nation would inexorably lead to communist takeovers in nearby countries, which would “fall” like dominoes.

In 1961 the Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos was seen as a key nation under threat from communism as it bordered two communist countries, China and North Vietnam, as well as noncommunist Thailand, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Consequently, the Eisenhower Administration placed remote, landlocked Laos squarely on the Cold War chessboard.  

To thwart a communist insurgency in Laos the United States in 1961 became clandestinely involved in its largest-ever paramilitary covert operation (code-named Erawan) amid a civil war between Lao factions including the communist Pathet Lao. Convoy’s concise, heavily illustrated book—nicely supported throughout by photographs and maps—describes the CIA’s efforts to reverse the advances that the Pathet Lao and its ally, the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN), made throughout much of northern and central Laos.  

Similarly, important missions were conducted to counter the PAVN’s use of the Ðuong Trường Sơn (known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) in eastern and southern Laos, and the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia, which the communists used to move troops and supplies into South Vietnam.    

Demonstrating incredible initiative, a handful of CIA field officers, working with Thai Special Forces, successfully imbedded themselves in Lao tribes, including the Hmong, and built a formidable fighting force to counter the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.     

Equally impressive were the efforts to maintain trail-watching teams that collected intelligence on PAVN movements and assessed the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign.    

One of the most audacious operations—Codename Fox—inserted teams into the People’s Republic of China to tap phone lines. Another trained a team of Nung—Chinese tribesmen from Vietnam—to conduct direct action ops against the PAVN on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA operations in Laos also included superb air support provided by Air America and BirdAir, and a secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in 1964.  

The story of CIA operations in Laos, one of America’s longest-running Cold War engagements, as Convoy recounts it in this book, is a fascinating one.

However, I found it odd that U.S. Army Special Forces, although not central to this story, were barely mentioned even though they conducted parallel operations in Laos from 1959-62. Although this book is clearly about the CIA in Laos, you can’t give the complete picture without mentioning in some detail the Green Berets’ Operation White Star.   

Otherwise, The Erawan War is a great military and military intelligence history book. 

–John Cirafici

Spies on the Mekong by Ken Conboy

You might need a note pad to keep track of the characters and acronyms in Ken Conboy’s Spies on the Mekong: CIA Clandestine Operations in Laos (Casemate, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle). Be prepared, for one thing, to find names such as Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong, and Phoumi Nosavan in the same sentence.

Despite those potential obstacles, Conboy has written a mind-boggling, yet pleasingly informative, account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s operations in Laos before and during the American war in Vietnam. Conboy writes with a certainty that made me feel as if he had been present at all the many events he describes.

An expert on South and Southeast Asia, Conboy has written more than 20 books on military and intelligence operations in those areas. A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he has lived in Indonesia since 1992.

After World War II the U.S. saw the Kingdom of Laos as the key to stopping communism’s westward spread into Thailand—and beyond. In 1950, communist Pathet Lao forces deployed into Laos; the CIA followed in 1953.  

CIA agents—and there were hundreds of them—centered their activities in Vientiane, the capital. Most of the agents were World War II veterans with Ivy League educations and previous foreign postings. Despite that commonality, they had differing approaches to intelligence surveillance.

People in the book—friends and foes—come through clearly in Conboy’s thoughtful vignettes about them. He presents backgrounds of many men and a few women in a manner that personalizes each—for good or for bad. Some of them practically walk off the page and greet the reader.     

Through this chronicle of the CIA’s surveillance activities in Laos, Conboy offers an insider’s look at the country from the 1950s to 1970s. He shows us the nation’s leaders and their interactions with a multitude of opponents attempting to outwit the prime minister and gain control of the nation: agents, diplomats, and ambassadors from the U.S., North and South Vietnams, China, and Russia.

Conboy’s history lesson offers more intrigue than violence. The book begins with the 1954 Geneva Accords that “foisted a mantle of diplomatic neutrality upon Laos, theoretically exempting it from the Cold War rivalry,” Conboy says. But nobody abided by the Accords. The Lao National Army was not up to the task of defending the Royal Lao Government against communist Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces that refused to leave the country as agreed. The most heinous pitfall, according to Conboy, was the International Control Commission’s failure to adjudicate ceasefire violations.

JFK explaining U.S. policy in Laos, 1961

With so many nations working on contradictory goals, failures took center stage. As Conboy puts it: “The Lao soap opera irrevocably veered off script.” In his telling, events such as a tribal peasant leading a coup that temporarily controlled Vientiane played like a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Conboy writes in detail about the long and arduous ploys and counter ploys that pitted the CIA against the communists right through the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. He shows the problems of underwriting the Lao government’s budget, which often included bribes; as well as how the CIA promoted civic-action programs for rural development; resolved leadership strife; monitored elections; armed the Hmong hill tribe; enlisted Thai surveillance teams; coped with Japanese activists opposing the war; oversaw commando raids against the North Vietnamese; attempted to subvert foreign agents; dealt with the opium trade; challenged misinformation; helped to form a coalition government; and dismantled a vast paramilitary network.

Everything tumbled down with the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. At that point, “communist morale across Indochina began to skyrocket,” Conboy says. Laotian students and workers stormed U.S. facilities in Laos. Teens with guns controlled the countryside. Americans fled the country by air; Lao Royal Army soldiers and American cohorts evacuated the nation by boat across the Mekong River to Thailand. The Lao king abdicated, the Pathet Lao established the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and the last domino of Indochina toppled, Conboy says.

Based on what Conboy tells us, the CIA’s productivity in Laos boiled down to a delaying action. Similar to what happened in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the ending was always in sight. The defeat and exit of the French in 1954 and the positioning of Pathet Lao forces provided an unconquerable homefield advantage for the communists. Conboy’s book shows that spy-world operations are limited in scope, and that its practitioners understand that situation.

Along with 16 pages of photographs, Spies on the Mekong contains maps, a bibliography, and endnotes. I enjoyed reading the endnotes. For me, they were like a final chapter because they linked minor details about a few open questions. In that way, the endnotes provided a surprise package of gee-whiz facts.

—Henry Zeybel

Prisoner of Wars by Chia Youyee Vang

Learning intimate facts about how other people live is an enlightening experience. Once again, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Chia Youyee Vang fulfills that promise with Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life (Temple University Press, 168 pp. $74.50, hardcover; $24.95, paper and e book).

Although the book’s title highlights prison life, only one chapter is devoted to that experience. The book’s theme primarily deals with Pao Yang—who helped Professor Yang with the book—and his family’s survival under constant hardships. “A core condition among human beings across time and place is that of suffering,” Vang says.

This is her fifth book about the Hmong diaspora, preceded by Hmong in Minnesota (2008); Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016); and Fly Until You Die (2019).

She excels at storytelling by incorporating pieces of interviews verbatim into her narrative, a technique that amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. With Prisoner of Wars, she uses Pao Yang’s words to attain a new height of emotional insight. “What you will read are my truths,” Pao Yang says. Quotations tirelessly gathered by Vang from Paos Yang’s family members and friends strengthen his recollections from the past.

Capt. Pao Yang flew hundreds of close air support missions in T-28D fighter-bombers in Laos for Gen. Vang Pao. Shot down and captured in June 1972 at the age of 24, he was listed as missing in action. When he failed to return home following the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, his family decided that he had been killed in action. A botched prisoner exchange allowed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to hold Pao Yang as a slave laborer until October 1976.

Chia Youyee Vang

The decision to classify him as KIA deeply affected his family. His wife grieved, remarried, moved to the United States, and left their son in Laos.

Once he was finally released Pao Yang faced drama after drama: reuniting with his mother and son, a second marriage, a dangerous escape from Laos to Thailand, deprivation in a refugee camp, eventual entry to the United States, and a free life of hard work, low paying jobs, failed businesses, and illness in a foreign land. Sorrow accompanied the joy he found.

I have read similar tales, but none as intriguing as this one.

Many Americans might classify Prisoner of Wars as another reflection of the intricacies of America’s so-called Secret War in Laos. To me, the revelations those interviewed by Professor Vang make the book a valuable narrative about people everywhere who are dispersed worldwide because of war and other conflicts. Uncertain settlement in a foreign land and practically non-existent job opportunities often are lifelong and unwarranted hardships for such migrants.

The story of Pao Yang’s family clearly makes this point.

—Henry Zeybel

What We Inherit by Jessica Pearce Rotondi

Finding truth forms the foundation of What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers (Unnamed Press, 275 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle). In her first book, the writer and editor Jessica Pearce Rotondi has put together an excellent account of her family’s gradual unfolding of facts regarding her Uncle Jack Pearce’s fate following the 1972 loss of his AC-130 in the skies over Laos during the Vietnam War.

Jessica Rotondi describes the family’s effort by interweaving two quests. The first, which stretched from 1972 to 2008, was undertaken by her grandparents, Ed and Rosemary Pearce, and her mother Linda Pearce. Following Linda Pearce’s death in 2009, her daughter vigorously resumed the second: her search for the same answers after discovering a closet filled with boxes of material dealing with whether her uncle was initially killed or survived and went missing in action.  

Ed Pearce’s conviction that his son survived the destruction of his airplane had continually compounded the question. In World War II, Ed had been a B-17 gunner, and was shot down over Germany. He spent nineteen months as a prisoner in Stalag 17. He visited Laos in 1973, but found nothing confirming his son’s fate. His face-to-face discussions with American military authorities highlight the book’s many contentious episodes. Linda Pearce also was a tireless fact finder. During a 1975 trip to Paris, for example, she singlehandedly confronted the Vietnamese and Laotian ambassadors to France.     

Jessica Rotondi is an excellent writer—and one deeply involved with her topic. Much of what she reports in the book is based on official transcripts. She recreates the tenseness of the times and brings people vividly to life. She also provides insights into the work of the Pentagon’s Joint Casualty Resolution Center and the Central Identification Laboratory.

Jessica Rotondi’s involvement culminates in 2013 with a harrowing but fulfilling hike through the jungle in Laos where her uncle’s airplane had crashed. This part of the book offers a study in determination and fortitude—a fitting climax to all that the family endured.

The book’s website is jessicapearcerotondi.com/book

—Henry Zeybel

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon

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The American-born novelist Paul Yoon’s literary novel, Run Me to Earth (Simon & Schuster, 259 pp. $26), is set in Laos during the Vietnam War and the following decades. It focuses on Prany and Noi, who are brother and sister, and their friend Alisak.

The children do odd jobs in and around a large farmhouse that has been turned into a makeshift hospital on the Plain of Jars—the area of Laos named for its very large, tall stones that many believe were the playthings of giants who once roamed the hills. It’s also an area noted for the rain that falls frequently but usually for only about a minute at a time.

Most of the hospital’s patients are civilians and most were injured during the relentless bombing of the area by American planes. Dozens of people work in the hospital and all are sympathetic to the Royal Lao government.

Life for the children is one of near-debilitating stress due to the constant bombing and the equally constant threat from the violently cruel Pathet Lao communist troops. The Pathet Lao would sometimes force people to walk roads they knew were mined or were dotted with un-exploded cluster bombs, calling the children “bombies,” and placing bets on whether they would detonate a mine or bomb.

The youngsters often helped with the patients, sometimes during surgery, work Paul Yoon describes as done in a “panic that never seemed to end.” One of the ways they try to maintain their sanity is by discussing each day the places they plant to visit that night in their dreams. Paris seems to be a favored dream-destination.

A day comes when the hospital must be evacuated so quickly that a few patients have to be left behind. The teen-age friends become separated and much of the rest of the novel tells their individual stories.

We get a tale that includes captivity by the communists and mental and physical torture during seven years in the prison of a reeducation center. There is long-contemplated desire for revenge, then eventual release to work on a collective farm. Meanwhile, throughout Laos the numbers of un-exploded bombs continues to kill and maim. Young girls with their faces disfigured by shrapnel learn to consider the scars a sign of beauty.

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Paul Yoon

Then the story moves down a hall of mirrors and broadens throughout space and time, becoming a consideration of betrayal and the importance of dreams in a lifetime of memory. Yoon offers ruminations on separation, family, the loss of innocence, and the masks that people wear.

This novel tells a story that is much bigger than it may seem at first. In the end, it is a meditation on the meaning of humanity. You’ll be a better person for having read it.

The author’s website is paulyoon.com

–Bill McCloud

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

Battle for Skyline Ridge by James E. Parker, Jr.

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James Parker was a participant, from the Central Intelligence Agency side, in the so-called “secret war” in Laos. In Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95) he tells a very well-researched and annotated story of the history and development of the American attempt to fight the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War—an attempt that failed as Laos (along with Cambodia) became one of the dominoes that fell following the end of the American war in Vietnam.

Parker served a 1965-66 tour of duty as an Army infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He later joined the CIA in 1970 and served in Laos and Vietnam, helping evacuate Vietnamese CIA agents from Saigon in the chaotic last days of the war in April 1975. He has written a Vietnam War memoir—Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (1996)—as well as two previous books on the same subject as his new one: Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (1995), and Covert Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1997).

In his new  book, Parker includes conversations and operational decisions made by the CIA about the Vietnam War. Being on the ground, and in the thick of it, he offers a unique—and a few times, overly detailed—view of the whole battlefield. He also tells lots of small stories that humanize the narrative and the participants without becoming unnecessarily chatty. His wide use of acronyms at times sent this reader scurrying back a few pages to identify things.

After telling us of a defeat of Lao forces by North Vietnamese troops on the Plain of Jars, his main story is the tale of a hundred-day battle (the longest in the Vietnam War) between North Vietnamese troops and a combined force of regular Lao troops, Thai mercenaries, indigenous Laotian Hmong, and Mountanard tribes, U.S. airp power, Air America aerial operations, and CIA case officers, operatives, and advisers—what became known as the Battle for Skyline Ridge.

This force of fewer than 6,000 fighters, led by the famed Hmong war lord, Vang Pao (right), was ultimately successful in repulsing and defeating an NVA force of more than 27,000 troops. Remarkably, anecdotes about bravery, cunning, co-operation, and support abound throughout the book. The colorfully famous CIA, and the Air America, “can do” attitude, seemed to have permeated into the assembled forces, resulting in the NVA abandoning its battle plan in what could have been a version of Dien Bien Phu.

This is a very readable account, although a lot of what Parker covers has been written about in other books about the secret war in Laos.

–Tom Werzyn

Walker Bulldog vs T-54 by Chris McNab

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Once again, the author and editor Chris McNab and Osprey Publishing have pitted tanks against each other—this time in McNab’s latest Osprey Duel Series book, Walker Bulldog vs T-54: Laos and Vietnam 1971-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The tanks’ real-life confrontations occurred late in the American war in Vietnam during the 1971 Operation Lam Son 719 and the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive.

The United States provided the light Bulldog T41 for the South Vietnamese Army; the Soviet Union supplied the T-54 main battle tank to the North Vietnamese Army.

McNab presents a complete picture of each machine. An expert in military technology, he has written more than a hundred titles in his twenty-year career.

Johnny Schumate’s paintings of battle scenes and Alan Gilliland’s illustrations of the tanks’ interiors are complemented by many photographs. In particular, gun sight target views for each tank add authenticity to the narrative.

In essence, Bulldog vs T-54 is two books in one, with the first resembling a tech order. It reviews the tanks’ design and development and goes over performance specifications such as fuel consumption and armor reliability. An excellent visual layout with explanations of warhead killing power provides a thought-provoking comparison between the M41’s 76mm and the T-54’s 100mm guns.

A different comparison of the tanks and their crews fills the second half of the book. McNab briefly describes the strategic background leading to the ARVN move into Laos for Lam Son 719 and the NVA (aka, the PAVN)’s nationwide Easter Offensive. He then delves into manpower numbers, morale, and United States-versus-Soviet-and-Chinese methods of training tank crews.

Tank warfare during Lam Son 719 differed significantly from what happened during the Easter Offensive the following year. McNab’s coverage of combat is supported by statistics and analysis. His discussion of battlefield tactics finds weaknesses among both South and North Vietnamese leaders.

His first-hand accounts of battles were not as complete as I wanted, but they still revealed outcomes that surprised me. He indicates that much of the information I was looking for has not been made public by the PAVN. McNab’s final conclusions are evenhanded and somewhat predictable from the start, although both sides experienced extremely unpredictable short-time results along the way.

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I have not included the finer points of McNab’s observations and conclusions to avoid spoiling surprises for readers. I had never considered tanks as a significant part of the Vietnam War. McNab, however, woke me up to their role and taught me lessons about their use in different types of terrains.

On the other hand, I took part in Lam Son 791, and according to my flight log, our AC-130 Spectre gunship crew flew 27 interdiction and three TIC missions into Laos during the operation. The ARVN incursion backed up PAVN traffic to around Tchepone, and we shot 477 cargo and fuel trucks during the operation without finding one tank.

—Henry Zeybel