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

Spreading Ink Blots by David Strachan-Morris

During the Vietnam War the United States Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency program was successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless, still successful. David Strachan-Morris reaches that conclusion in Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ: The Origins and Implementation of U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Strategy in Vietnam, March 1965 to November 1968 (Helion, 158 pp. $49.95, hardcover).

This book takes on the heavyweight challenge of explaining the deeply felt conflict between the Marine Corps and U.S. Army early in the war. That battle matched the Marines’ emphasis on counterinsurgency practices against the Army’s preference for conventional strategies, primarily search-and-destroy missions.

The book originated as Strachan-Morris’ PhD thesis at the University of Wolverhampton. In expanding his study, he had full cooperation from Marine archivists, which resulted in a wealth of footnotes and a potent bibliography. Over the past decade, Strachan-Morris has written three other books on warfare and lectured at the University of Leicester School of History.  

The Marine concept of counterinsurgency, Strachan-Morris says, aims at uniting civil and military efforts in partnership with local indigenous forces to use economic and political means to pacify local areas. The idea is that these areas (“ink blots”) will gradually expand and link up until a whole region, or nation, is brought under government control.

These civil-military economic and political efforts are as important as the use of force. In other words, for some strategists, pacification and winning the hearts and minds of a citizenry are the most appropriate countermeasures for defeating insurgents such as the Viet Cong, Strachan-Morris says. 

The 1st and 3rd Divisions of the III Marine Amphibious Force operated under these principles in I Corps of Vietnam, the area of responsibility under Gen. Lewis Walt. Primarily, the Marines’ job was to secure and defend their bases at Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, and to conduct clearing operations in areas contiguous to those bases.

In 1965, Walt placed great faith in Combined Action Platoons, small Marine units that lived, worked, and trained alongside local Regional and Popular Forces in their villages. The CAP Marines sought to win the people’s support by patrolling the area, defending the villages, and carrying out small-scale civil projects to raise living standards for villagers. One platoon soon grew to a company of ten teams in the Phu Bia area. An immediate highlight of CAP was Operation Golden Fleece, which prevented the Viet Cong from extorting their biannual rice taxes from the villagers’ harvests.

Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded all U.S. forces in-country, judged the Marine approach as simply a smaller version of conventional war and largely unnecessary in the Vietnam War, Strachan-Morris says. Westmoreland preferred the search-and-destroy strategy to buttress President Lyndon Johnson’s overriding exhortations to kill more Viet Cong. Army leaders fomented animosity between the two services by accusing the Marines of “sitting back and waiting for the enemy,” according to Strachan-Morris.

Spreading Ink Blots examines the opposing viewpoints by providing a history of worldwide counterinsurgency efforts from well before the Vietnam War. Strachan-Morris cites successes and failures of the most influential thinkers and doers. He then discusses the development of strategy and the measurement of progress of pacification efforts in Vietnam in 1966-67. He explains how conditions fluctuated significantly and inter-service tensions deepened at the same time that the South Vietnamese political situation grew unstable.

And then came the 1968 Tet Offensive when Marine-Army relations reached their lowest ebb, Strachan-Morris says. He focuses here on the defense of Khe Sanh, which exacerbated tensions among American political and military leaders—and which distracted from the overall strategy of the war.   

Strachan-Morris’ concludes that counterinsurgency is “a useful operational level tool but it is not to be conflated with nation building, nor is it enough by itself to win wars.” His subtext, based on the Marine Corps’ experiences in Vietnam, rates counterinsurgency as effective at a tactical level to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.

At the same time, he contends that Marine CAP efforts prevented a “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese and aided “Project Recovery,” the South Vietnamese government’s post-Tet reconstruction plan.

I am amazed that a book this thin can foment so much controversy.

In my mind, analyzing and comparing military counterinsurgency operations from different wars in different eras provides limited guidance. For example, the British flaunt their success with counterinsurgency in Malaya after World War II, yet observers contend the British used force and human rights abuses to get results.

Similarly, no two counterinsurgency programs have been alike. Each was tailored through trial and error to fit specific situations. The nature of the insurgents, the terrain, and the political landscape differ in each situation, as Strachan-Morris says, so too do the counterinsurgents themselves. Experts on the strategy provide general principles, but they leave specific methodology to be determined by the situation.

Two recently published books also touch on Marine counterinsurgency operations. Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a grunt-level member of a Combined Action Platoon, tells of living with villagers near the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.” What’s more, the PF avoided maneuvers that involved risk taking. Palm, an extremely well-read and self-made man and a dean of two colleges, seems to have never stopped growing up and sharing what he learns. I trust him.

A Final Valiant Act by retired Marine Col. John B. Lang calls the CAP “a success wherever it was instituted.” Beyond counterinsurgency, Lang’s book describes two complex amphibious operations in 1967—at Duc Pho and along the DMZ—that validate the Marines’ willingness and ability to fight conventionally. The book is a good read about the Vietnam War, but Lang was not there and reports from a historian’s perspective.

That boils down the discussion to two Marines and two opposing opinions: Take your pick.

—Henry Zeybel

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam by Michael Green

fb25fa47d8a5bafb7d4788e6d31cf4c120000a35

Michael Green uses images as his building blocks for United States Marine Corps in Vietnam: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Pen & Sword, 205 pp. $2.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) and cements them together with a definitive narrative. Green, a prolific military historian, offers his version of the Vietnam War’s history in four sections: “The Opening Act” (1965), “The Fighting Increases in Scope” (1966-67), “The Defining Year” (1968), and “Coming to an End” (1969-75).

Green gleaned the photos and facts primarily from the Marine Corps Historical Center. His 150 pages of pictures alternate with 50 pages of analysis of combat from the American war’s start to its finish. Eight pages of photographs are in color.

The images include practically every weapon employed on each side of the battlefield: artillery, mortars, rifles, machine guns, pistols, flamethrowers, hand grenades, close support jet aircraft, helicopters, cargo planes, tanks, and other seldom-seen vehicles with tracks. The captions expand on what’s mentioned in the narrative and add finer details about the ebb and flow of the Marines’ war.

That said, the photographs convey little of the destructiveness of the weapons. They more resemble a catalog of military equipment.

Along with the weapons, personnel—mainly Marines, along with a few Vietnamese from North and South—appear in most of the pictures. They usually show Marines firing weapons or advancing through the bush. Green includes a handful of photos of the wounded and dead, but they are not horrifying images.

Although the images do not convey the intensity of combat, Green’s narrative does deliver that message. Citing archival accounts, he emphasizes the determination of troops on both sides and memorializes Marine Medal of Honor recipients.

His narrative discusses the difficulty of constant face-to-face encounters with the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ, a major part of the Marines’ responsibility in northernmost I Corps. He deplores the high casualty count resulting from search-and-destroy missions. Things would have been much worse, he says, if not for “Marine supporting arms that turned the tide of battle as almost always.”

ap_vietnam_4_kb_150303_23x15_1600

The first Marines landing in Vietnam, March 1965, Da Nang

Green takes a hard look at the pros and cons of contentious issues between Marine Corps leaders and Army MACV commanders who usually had the final word. He concludes that Army generals generally underappreciated the Marines.

The book would be an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War’s tactics, strategy, and equipment. Old timers might enjoy finding the faces of former friends.

I was not a Marine, but I flew many C-130 support sorties for them during Tet in 1968. The chapter covering that period brought back sad memories for me. Nobody had it tougher than the Marines.

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam is Michael Green’s twenty-first book in the Pen & Sword Images of War series.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle for Chu Moor Mountain by Fred Childs

In 2010 Fred Childs attended his first unit reunion of Charlie Company, 1/22 of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division. At that reunion he volunteered to complete some unfinished manuscripts written by a few of the attendees about a seven-day fight the company had at Chu Moor Mountain in northern South Vietnam in April 1968.

The result is Childs’ The Battle for Chu Moor Mountain As Told by the Soldiers Who Were There (Author House, 128 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a short, intriguing, and well-constructed book. In his acknowledgments Childs credits ten of his fellow Charlie Company veterans for helping get the book assembled, written, and into print.

He begins each chapter with a copy of the S-3 Duty Officer’s Log for each day of the battle. He uses the logs to help reconstruct the battle incidents of each day. From those administratively terse, concise entries he fleshes out the story with quotes and remembrances from the survivors who were willing and able to speak all these years later. At the close of each chapter, Childs gives us the battalion S-3 Duty Officer’s Logs. He also notes entries from the 4th Infantry Division Operations Summary.

The narrative moves along smoothly, with comments and quotes from troopers on the ground and in the thick of it for the duration of the battle. Personnel loses are noted as well as actions by supporting U.S. forces. Childs provides enough good details to move the story, but not too much minutia. He includes a bit of history of the 4th Infantry Division and lists the KIAs of the encounter and the major medals awarded.

This battle, developing not long after the 1968 Tet Offensive, took place in the far northwest corner of II Corps in Kontum Province near the borders of Laos and Cambodia along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The 4th Division had been charged with interdicting goods and war materiel flowing into South Vietnam.

If you hanker for a well-done battle tale, this is your book. There is a bit of redundancy in the quoted material, but all of these men were in the same place at the same time fighting the same enemy. So there was bound to be some overlap.

All in all, this is a quick, informative read.

–Tom Werzyn

The Freedom Shield by John D. Falcon

Retired U.S. Army Maj. John D. Falcon’s The Freedom Shield: The 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam (Casemate, 343 pp. $34.95) is a well-written, vividly descriptive, colorful, and highly detailed account of Vietnam War helicopter combat operations. Falcon tells that story through the eyes of a UH-1 Huey pilot and fellow members of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company.

Readers will truly understand the nature of combat at the tactical level during intense engagements and ordinary missions that abruptly became life-and-death struggles. Those who have been in a chopper inserted into a hot landing zone will understand every word in this book. For those who haven’t, it will be an eye opener as Falcon puts the reader on board flying into combat while the side door gunner is firing his M-60 machine gun at North Vietnamese troops.

Not long into the book I realized writing it probably was probably a catharsis for Falcon, and for others with whom he flew. The releasing of so many memories, perhaps painfully at times, is what makes this book authentic in its telling. Every vignette reminds us how hazardous flying combat missions in the Vietnam War could be. The terrain, the jungle, and the weather, as well as the enemy’s lethal tactics, challenged even the best pilots.   

That includes a mission Falcon describes in which one of his unit’s’ gunships flew a night special operations mission into Cambodia through a canyon with sheer walls to destroy North Vietnamese supply sampans as they surreptitiously smuggled weapons across the border into Vietnam. It was as much luck as skill that kept them alive that night.  

Another of the book’s strengths is that it goes beyond being a memoir of one man’s tour of duty with the 191st. Falcon graciously collected the reminiscences of many former unit members and allowed them to find their voices and recount their combat experiences.

He also describes the big advances made in war-fighting with the application of the air mobility concept developed less than two years before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He describes the critical importance of helicopters during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. after which air mobile operations became a mainstay for Army units in combat.  

With helicopter support, Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st/7th Cavalry was continually resupplied during that intense and prolonged battle, its wounded medevaced, and ultimately safely extracted by chopper. However, there was another aspect of the battle not mentioned in this book, which highlights what might happen when a unit is left exposed without access to air mobile assets. Moore’s sister 1st Cavalry Division battalion, the 2nd of the 7th, was decimated when they didn’t get helicopter support and went on a needless march to a distant extraction zone. 

In other words, the strength of being an air mobile battalion is lost when helicopters are not employed where and when they are needed. The unlucky battalion commander later summed up his unit’s painful experience as “the least air mobile operation in the entire war.”

This well-written and very interesting book is outstanding on three levels: It describes the rise of Army aviation and the strategy of air mobility as a game changer in contemporary warfare; it captures the Vietnam War at the combatant level; and it is a pitch-perfect unit history. Well done.

— John Cirafici

The Golden Brigade by Robert J. Dvorchak

In World Wars I and II and in the Vietnam War the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division earned the nickname “All American Division” and its 3rd Brigade became known as the “Golden Brigade” based on their combat performances. In the First Gulf War, Journalist Robert J. Dvorchak accompanied the 82nd in Kuwait and Iraq and wrote an Ernie Pyle-style book about it.

Thereafter, mutual admiration between Dvorchak and men of the 82nd’s Third Brigade led him to write The Golden Brigade: The Untold Story of the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam and Beyond (IBJ Book Publishing, 528 pp. $35.00).

With fifty years of experience as a journalist, author, and historian Robert Dvorchak is nearly as famous in military circles as the 82nd Division. He has won many awards for covering high-profile events during the past half century. He wrote The Golden Brigade after interviewing veterans from the 82nd who had fought in the Vietnam War, many of whom had not previously spoken about their war-time experiences. Based on the breadth and depth of its combat reporting, I rank the book a must-read. Containing more 500 pages, The Golden Brigade is a solid chunk of history.

Within days after the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong started their 1968 Tet Offensive, the 82nd deployed from Fort Bragg to the fighting in Hue. An estimated 80 percent of the 82nd personnel already had served a year in Vietnam. Undermanned, the division deployed as a single brigade under command of a colonel. For eight months the 82nd fought to control the countryside around Hue and then moved south for more than a year to protect Saigon against NVA infiltration from Cambodia.

The book contains 62 pages of excellent photographs and maps. Most of the photographs are in color and show troops in the field, which adds a you-are-there feeling to the text.

Dvorchak builds word pictures based on the memories of men of all ranks and backgrounds. He names plenty of names. When introducing veterans, he offers a clever bit of writing by paralleling the men’s activities with the war’s history. Readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War will find such passages valuable. The technique reveals the pronounced differences of operational thinking at different command levels.        

The stories of these men are captivating. They run the gamut of emotions under stress. While relating them, Dvorchak rounds out the men’s personalities by frequently flashing backward and forward to families left behind and other life experiences.

The stories also touch on controversial aspects of the Vietnam War, such as using drugs and reporting body counts.

As an honorary member of the 82nd, Robert Dvorchak tell us that some 200 veterans of the Golden Brigade attend the unit’s annual reunions. Above all else, he portrays the 82nd as an extraordinary brotherhood of warriors.

For more info on the book, go to the publisher’s website.

—Henry Zeybel

North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive by Stephen Emerson

Stephen Emerson’s message in North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive : Hanoi’s Gamble (Pen & Sword, 126 pp. $22.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam could not have defeated North Vietnamese Army invaders without airpower provided by the United States. He repeatedly cites B-52s—which averaged 76 sorties a day during June, July, and August 1972 and carpet-bombed within 600 yards of friendly forces—and Spectre AC-130 gunships as the deciding factors.

Emerson, a Ph.D. in International Relations/Comparative Politics, has written three other books about conflicts in Southeast Asia. He also has authored more than 100 classified and unclassified publications on topics ranging from American national security affairs and political instability to terrorism, African conflicts, and counter-insurgency.

He describes the Vietnam War in 1972 as a now-or-never situation. Four years of talks between American and North Vietnamese diplomats had produced little progress, Emerson says. Both sides felt a proclivity for a military solution to the war. Vietnamization had put the onus on the ARVN to defend its nation with help from a comparatively few American advisers.

Massing its largest concentration of troops, tanks, and artillery of the war, the NVA invaded, and drove the wavering ARVN to the brink of defeat in Military Regions 1, 2, and 3. Until American air power intervened.

An angry President Richard Nixon initiated Operation Linebacker to step up bombing inside North Vietnam. Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers crippled transportation and supply systems by collapsing bridges, cutting rail lines, and destroying stockpiles of war goods. However, the more immediate airpower need required killing enemy invaders on the ground in South Vietnam, which the B-52s and AC-130s did most effectively.

With support from maps, Emerson explains the ebb and flow of fighting during the middle six months of 1972. He presents detailed accounts of the fall of Quang Tri and the defense of Hue, the battle for Kontum, and the siege of An Loc.

To me, the most interesting part of the book he titles “Saigon Counterattacks.” in which the ARVN broke free from the Hue pocket, outlasted the NVA attackers at An Loc, and recaptured Quang Tri to end the Easter Offensive.

Emerson’s research principally relies on American sources. I would have appreciated more input about the thinking of North Vietnamese military and political leaders. Otherwise, North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive is an excellent summation of an averted disaster.

Practically every page of the book contains a black-and-white photograph, and an eight-page gallery in the middle of the book offers color photos. That collection of images ranks among the best I have seen in a Vietnam War book.

For several weeks during the Easter Offensive, I was part of a three-man team on special assignment from Hurlburt Field in Florida to locate NVA 130-mm artillery in a Spectre gunship. I went on two missions to An Loc and found the fighting more frantic than anything I had experienced during my previous year’s tour with Spectre, which included the Lam Son 719 debacle.

A B-52 unloading during Operation Linebacker

At the same time, in-country operations exuded a grim determination. Emerson’s extensive history helped me to realize why our mission failed: We had not seen the big picture all those years ago.

Emerson closes the book with discussions about diplomatic stalemates, Linebacker II, and a post-mortem. He did not need to do so. The ARVN’s poor performance during Lam Son 719 in 1971 and its inability to act independently against the 1972 Easter Offensive foreshadowed exactly what was to come after the NVA rebuilt its forces.

—Henry Zeybel

The Dragon in the Jungle by Xiobing Li

51vw1kcrodl._sx351_bo1204203200_

Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with sixteen years of research on the subject.

Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of the its army.

What this book brings to the discussion is a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.

Historically, China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, known as the French Indochina War and First Indochina War, and then continuing supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.

The worlds’ two largest communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, openly split with each other during the 1956-64 period,  known as the Sino-Soviet Rift. Each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.

Early in the American War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1965-73), Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the U.S. Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam

to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.

As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China then saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily, and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdraw all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns of getting into a war with the U.S.

e15-448

 “Oppose the American infringement upon the Vietnamese Democratic Republic!” – February 1965 Chinese Propaganda Poster

The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.

Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American war in Vietnam.

–Bill McCloud

Gators Offshore and Upriver by David D. Bruhn

50167691._uy400_ss400_

Gators Offshore and Upriver: The U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Ships and Underwater Demolition Teams, and Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers in Vietnam (Heritage Books, 418 pp., $40) is the latest book by David Bruhn, a retired U.S. Navy commander who served on active duty from 1977-2001 and has written more than a dozen books on U.S. Navy military history. Like On the Gunline, Bruhn’s previous book, Gators Offshore and Upriver contains an excellent historical account of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

Gators Offshore and Upriver focuses on the 142 amphibious ships known as Gators that took part in many engagements and operations during the war. That includes the long-running (1965-73) Operation Game Warden, the 1968 Tet Offensive, Operation Sealords (1968-71), and the 1970 Cambodian Incursion.

The Gators are World War II-era landing ships that were returned from mothballs to serve in the war in Vietnam. They performed many roles in-county, including as mobile support bases. They also delivered vital cargo to troops and, later in the war, placed mines to protect ports as part of the blockade of 1972.

The men on these ships faced many dangers, including ambushes and sneak attacks by swimmer-sappers. These enemy soldiers swam through the Brown Water rivers, and placed explosive charges on the hulls of the Gators. One such attack occurred on the USS Westchester County on November 1, 1968, near My Tho, when Viet Cong divers managed to attach two huge mines to the hull. Twenty-five sailors were killed and twenty three wounded in the resulting explosion.

westchester_county_lst-1167

The USS Westchester County (LST 1167)

In the book Bruhn also documents the role of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers, showing how they helped diffuse the damage of the swimmer-sappers. In the Postscript he goes into detail documenting the important role of that unit.

This book is meticulously researched and includes 190 photographs, maps, and diagrams. I recommend it, as well as On the Gunline, to anyone serving in the Navy during this period as well as those interested in Vietnam War and U.S. Naval history.

The author’s website is http://www.davidbruhn.com/

Mark S. Miller

Killer High by Peter Andreas

81qgzgh7t5l

The six drugs referred to in the subtitle of Peter Andreas’ Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs (Oxford University Press, $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) are alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine. Andreas, the John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University, begins by stating that he chose to study those substances because they have had the most intricate connections to warfare.

Andreas delivers a deeply researched, elaborately detailed, and carefully nuanced analysis of the relationships of war to drugs and drugs to war. Plus, Killer High is richly illustrated and moves the reader along with great energy from one surprising insight to the next.

For the reader who enjoys discovery, Killer High offers something on nearly every page. We learn, for example, that:

  • The Code of Hammurabi refers to twenty different kinds of beer.
  • Per capita alcohol consumption in Colonial America was twice what it is today.
  • At the height of the tsarist empire, alcohol taxes funded one-third of the Russian state budget.
  • The German advance in World War I was halted by French and African troops determined to defend vast caches of champagne, with which they were paid.
  • In 1917 alone, the French army consumed 1,200 million liters of wine.
  • Young William McKinley braved enemy fire to haul vats of hot coffee to exhausted Union troops at the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the beginning of his rise in politics.
  • U.S. troops consumed 75 million pounds of coffee during World War I.
  • The Blitzkrieg assault that collapsed the French Army so rapidly in May 1940 owed its success in large part to troops who were popping amphetamines, giving them the wherewithal to fight for four days straight with no fatigue.

The greatest gift of Killer High is not thousands of interesting facts, however, but the overriding themes that they support. One is that prohibition nearly always fails. Tsar Nicholas II’s efforts to stop vodka production after his drunken army’s defeat by Japan in 1905, for example, led to his bankruptcy. American Prohibition gave organized crime a boost. Mao Zedong closing down opium production in China chased the trade to the Golden Triangle before war caused production to shift to a Muslim country where it was little-known. That would be Afghanistan, which now produces 93 percent of the world’s supply of heroin. Making drugs illegal, Andreas shows, leads to a frustrating game of global whack-a-mole.

Another theme is that political ideology distorts our understanding of the economic forces behind the drug trade, especially when patterns of drug use go back centuries. When the collapse of the USSR in 1989 “deprived us of an enemy,” Andreas writes, political leaders of both parties turned the world’s best-equipped and trained military to chasing drug cartels and drug kingpins with little understanding of the intricacies of the problem.

12002132-16x9-xlarge

The pause that refreshes: U.S. troops in Italy in 1944 chugging Coca Cola

Controlling the drug trade “from the source” often ends up with supporting political elites that profit from the trade, as well as training and arming military and police who become traffickers. Along with hunting down peasant militias who may be inspired by communist or terrorist ideologies, but have little connection to illegal international commerce. The line between good guys and bad guys, which is necessary for effective military action, disappears when great wealth is generated through drug-dealing.

As long as the farmers in Afghanistan depend on growing poppies and those in Latin America rely on growing coca leaves, drugs and war, Andreas note, will continue to be codependent and addictive.

Andreas addresses the Vietnam War only sporadically, but does point out the role drugs played in that conflict. He notes that our war was the last during which the U.S. Army supplied free cigarettes in C-Ration packs and almost-free ones at PXs–at the came time that cigarette packs came with labels warning that smoking caused cancer.

Amphetamines, he notes, were “passed out like candy,” mostly in the form of more than two million Dexedrine pills, as well as what was readily available on the black market.  The Army alone ingested more amphetamines in Vietnam than all Allied forces combined did during World War II.

Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese military commanders made a very high-grade heroin from the nearby Golden Triangle available to American troops. In 1973, the Pentagon estimated that about a third of the troops in coutnry were using it. President Nixon began the nation’s first “war” on drugs, in part, to keep what he called our “crippled generation” from bringing their drug habits home and destroying the nation. He blamed the communists for the epidemic of addiction and blamed drug-addled Americans for not “winning” the war.

1

Vietnam War smoke break

Alcohol, a legal drug, took a much greater toll on Vietnam War veterans after the war—mainly, according to Andreas, because only expensive, low-grade heroin was available in the States, while alcohol was legal and comparatively cheap.

Killer High opens the door to understanding how we got where we are in a most convincing and entertaining book.

–Jack Nolan

The reviewer, with served with the 525th MI Co (JTAD) in the Vietnam War, is the author of novels Vietnam Remix and There Comes A Time.