Losing Binh Dinh by Kevin M. Boylan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I long for the simplicity of the Cold War.

—Henry Zeybel

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel

Grunt by Mary Roach

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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (Norton & Company, 285 pp., $26.95) exposes the sometimes absurd and gruesome but often fascinating science performed behind the scenes to develop and test new U.S. military technologies. Best-selling author Mary Roach investigates a new problem and its technological solution in each chapter. That includes how not to get eaten by sharks, how combat medics are trained, and diarrhea as a threat to national security.

Then there’s the chicken gun. Roach describes it as having “a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece.” However, “while a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun was designed to keep people alive.”

The chickens are launched in place of the thousands of geese, ducks, and other birds that crash into military jets every year, causing an estimated $50-80 million in damages. If a chicken gun sounds to you like an interesting and unusual piece of technology, then this book might be right up your alley.

Roach thoroughly reports on the development of these unusual technologies. She also doesn’t shy away from addressing their problems, limitations, and the difficulties of testing field equipment in a lab. In the case of the chicken gun, Roach explains that chickens are a poor choice to represent other birds that collide with aircraft since chickens don’t fly, are denser than other birds, and hit planes in a different way than flying birds would—with their wings outstretched and legs trailing.

“It hits like a flung grocery item,” Roach says. Her language rarely pulls any punches, which makes for exceptionally candid observations throughout the book.

Older and younger veterans will particularly enjoy Roach’s chapter on the military’s research into how to combat heat stroke in the field and whether some individuals are genetically prone to heat illness.  Roach cites the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Georgia-based Army Ranger School in the chapter.

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Mary Roach

To test how prone certain individuals are to heat stroke, soldiers are put into a “cook box,” in which they run on a treadmill in 104 degree heat for two hours with a rectal probe inserted to measure their core body temperature. Those stationed in the tropics lose roughly ten kilograms of sweat per day, Roach explains, so understanding how to better equip troops to withstand the heat is very important, particularly with today’s wars in the Middle East.

Roach’s integrity and background as a journalist guide the in-depth research, on-site observations, and interviews that inform Grunt. She has an uncanny ability to transform what could be boring scientific material into entertaining and informative accounts about the development of new military technologies that will keep you engaged—and probably make you laugh out loud.

—James Schueseler

Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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In 1983, former Green Beret Jim Morris (four Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts) wrote a book called War Story. In it he wrote about fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Morris convincingly made the point that the “Yards” were fighters unto themselves and never received the recognition they deserved.

In Tears Across the Mekong (Figueroa Press, 280 pp. $25, paper), Marc Phillip Yablonka does an excellent job claiming that the same holds true for Hmong warriors from the highlands of Laos. Yablonka tells the Hmong story through interviews with those who escaped from Laos after the Pathet Lao communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A large majority of the interviewees were soldiers who fought for the CIA and the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army during the so-called secret war in Laos. The men fought primarily in Northern Laos, but they also worked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, conducted raids into North Vietnam, and in at least one instance engaged Chinese infantrymen. Other interviewees had been schoolteachers and administrators—intellectuals the communists did not trust.

Hmong soldiers normally entered the army in their late teens and many fought for a decade or more. Hmong KIA numbered between 25,000 and 35,000. Misled by a false promise to build a free and democratic nation, 100,000 Hmong chose not to leave the country following the war’s end. They ended up in Pathet Lao re-education “seminars” that, for some, lasted more than ten years.

Life in the prison-like seminars consisted of hard labor and indoctrination lectures amid inadequate living conditions and occasional torture. Those who fell sick were allowed to die of “natural causes.” Little wonder that imprisoned Hmong fled at the first opportunity.

Escaping from the seminars and evading pirates when crossing the Mekong River into Thailand was merely half of the journey to freedom. Living conditions were only slightly better in Thailand where government officials stole from refugees, abused them verbally, and herded them into camps with minimal accommodations. Some Hmong spent years getting visas and resettlement agreements. All of the people interviewed by Yablonka reached the United States.

For students of the evolution of governments in what once was French Indochina, Yablonka’s interviews show that the communist tactics in Laos were comparable to those in Vietnam, but far less severe than those of the Cambodian Killing Fields.

Nevertheless, Hmong people who have found freedom still worry about relatives and friends remaining in Laos. They believe that the CIA and the U.S. government have forgotten their contribution to the war. Few have returned to Laos or want to do so. Yablonka echoes Hmong sentiments about the war and calls for worldwide programs to help them.

Interviews with two Air America helicopter pilots—Dick Casterlin and Allen Cates—provide histories of their unit’s organization and background of the secret war. The brief histories are valuable reading because, as Yablonka reminds us, Laos was the “most under-reported and least visited” theater of the Vietnam War era.

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Marc Phillip Yablonka

The two pilots emphasize that Air America worked for the government and not the Central Intelligence Agency, one of its “customers.” Both men flew in Laos during the 1960s. Their favorite memories are of search-and0-rescue missions.

Yablonka is a journalist whose articles have appeared in many military magazines. He served for eight years in the California State Military Reserve, a support brigade of the California National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserves, and did two tours with the Israeli Defense Force. Tears Across the Mekong evolved from his master’s thesis. He was in college and had a high lottery number and did not participate in the Vietnam War, but he did tour Laos in 1990.

Because the interviewees share similar experiences, their individual stories contain repetitions that tighter editing could have eliminated. Furthermore, although biographies of the two helicopter pilots, of an Air America fixed-wing pilot, and of two foreign war correspondents are interesting, they say little about the continuing plight of the Hmong.

A reminder: Read Jim Morris’ War Story. It’s an honest-to-goodness prizewinner—and it complements Yablonka’s perspective on Southeast Asian tribal warriors.

The author’s website is navigator-books.com/marcpyablonka

—Henry Zeybel

 

Storming the City by Alec Wahlman

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For readers interested in Vietnam War strategy, the battle for Hue should be the highlight of Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle) by Alec Wahlman.

The book answers a three-part question: “When the need arose to fight in urban terrain in the mid-twentieth century, how effective were U.S. forces, why, and how did that performance change from World War II to Vietnam?” Wahlman bases his findings on four battles: Aachen and Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War, and Hue in the Vietnam War.

He makes it easy to compare the battles by describing each with the same format: Operational Context; The Foe; The Assault; Command, Control, and Communication; Intelligence and Reconnaissance; Firepower and Survivability; Mobility and Counter-Mobility; Logistics; and Dealing with the Population.

In these victorious engagements that were fought in three wars over three decades, the Army and Marines were ill prepared for urban warfare, Wahlman says. Aachen and Manila were primarily Army operations. Winning at Seoul and Hue depended mostly on the Marines. Throughout the entire time, field manuals for both services presented little information on how to capture a city, and training for fighting house-to-house was minimal.

Despite winning, American tactical performance gradually grew less effective, according to Wahlman. At Hue, Americans failed to isolate the city. Therefore, throughout three weeks of fighting, North Vietnamese Army forces continued to receive reinforcements of men and supplies by night. American intelligence also failed to recognize the size of the NVA force and the complexity of the Hue Citadel.

“The precise location of enemy positions inside Hue was largely discovered through contact,” Wahlman notes. Prolonged fighting permitted the enemy to establish its own government within the city and to execute many South Vietnamese administrative personnel.

These victories resulted from outstanding leadership, mainly at regiment level. The leaders adapted tactics learned in the field to an urban setting. Commanders such as Lt. Col. Derrill Daniel and Lt. Col. John Corley at Aachen and Col. Lew “Chesty” Puller at Seoul had extensive combat experience. They knew how to fight side by side or drive right through the middle of an enemy.

Similarly, Wahlman concludes that America’s successes resulted from “transferable competence” and “battlefield adaptation.” Transferable competence included quality leadership in small units; heavy firepower with adequate logistical support; coordinated efforts between infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and air support; previous combat experience; and the design of American armored vehicles. Except for the last point, the other conclusions seem to be self-evident traits required for any successful military operation.

Battlefield adaptation is the ability of leaders to alter tactics based on a particular environments. Each battle area offers different problems. The greatest difference between urban and field combat is the shortening of lines of sight in the former. The resultant confined battle space often affects factors such as rules of engagement and population control. This necessity for adaptation is not unique to urban warfare; it was needed in earlier engagements such as fighting in hedgerows and forests.

Wahlman’s research claims to undermine two myths about urban warfare. First, the attacking force’s “traditional” three-to-one manpower advantage was proved unnecessary. Americans had only a three-to-two advantage in Manila, and at Aachen the Germans actually outnumbered Americans by three-to-one.

The second myth is that urban fighting is an infantry job. Wahlman challenges that by saying that infantry “is most effective when part of a combined arms team,” which relates to his transferable competence argument. Basically, he’s saying that a combined force is more likely to maintain an effective methodical advance with fewer losses.

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U.S. Marines at the Battle of Hue

In closing, Wahlman looks at urban warfare since Hue and into the future. Population migration into urban areas favors opponents of the United States, he says, and emphasizes the vulnerability of unsecured supply lines for forces attacking a city. Situations such as those encountered at Fallujah might easily bog down an attacker and slow the tempo of combat. Furthermore, as shown at Mogadishu, urban confrontations could reduce the effectiveness of superior technology. In such cases, the price tags increase steeply.

In preparation for possible future needs, the Army has built urban warfare training complexes and published a field manual. Adaptation is still considered crucial to success in this area. Technologies offer new avenues for tactics, but in many cases the enemy has access to the same or counter equipment, Wahlman says.

“Advances in sensors, protective equipment, and offensive capabilities notwithstanding, urban warfare is and will continue to be a nasty, difficult business,” he says.

Poor maps are the book’s major flaw. The maps are too small and lack contrast, which make them nearly impossible to read. Better maps might enhance the reader’s understanding of maneuvers at the battle sites.

Wahlman is highly qualified to write this book. For fourteen years, he worked as an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis, primarily for the Department of Defense, focusing on irregular and urban warfare. He holds a PhD. in military history from the University of Leeds. The book contains sixty-three pages of notes and thirty-five pages of bibliography.

—Henry Zeybel

By Honor Bound by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton with Dick Couch

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If you get your hands on a copy of By Honor Bound (St. Martin’s Press, 288 pp., $26.99; $12.99, Kindle), skip the blurbs on the book’s jacket as well as the Forward, Preface, Introduction, and Epigraph. The book’s subtitle—Two Navy SEALs, The Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage—provides all the background you need.

Start reading on the first page—”Part 1: Bat 21″–in which prolific author (and former SEAL) Dick Couch tells the story of Tom Norris and Mike Thornton so completely and seamlessly that if you are the least bit militarily inclined, he will instantly capture your full attention. His narration unreels with mounting suspense.

I was continually dazzled by the selfless dedication of Norris and Thornton, both of whom received the Medal of Honor for carrying out rescue and reconnaissance missions behind North Vietnamese Army lines near the Cam Lo bridge and inside the Demilitarized Zone in 1972.

Couch took me into the SEAL world and I simply could not stop reading. In one sitting, I finished the book’s first 170 pages, which describe Norris and Thornton’s heroic efforts. The magnitude of their dilemmas and feats left me teary-eyed and speechless, incapable of reading the best passages aloud to my wife.

Their operational principle was “Hope for the best but plan for the worst.” They encountered the worst of the worst. I won’t say more about what happened because I might lessen the impact for readers of the surprise, awe, and admiration produced by their actions. It is better to hear the facts from Couch.

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Dick Couch

Yes, other people have written about these men, but never with so much depth and detail. Norris and Thornton told their stories to Couch, and he expanded them with interviews from eyewitnesses and his own expertise as a SEAL veteran of the Vietnam War. Couch also flawlessly interweaves history lessons relevant to their heroic actions.

By Honor Bound is his twenty-second book related to military activities, eleven nonfiction and eleven fiction.

The last part of the book describes the post-war lives of Thornton and Norris, which include Navy and FBI adventures almost as fascinating as their earlier experiences. These accounts also include eyewitness testimony.

In a final tribute to Norris and Thornton, Couch says, “Not only were they incredibly heroic during these events, but they were almost superhuman—even by Navy SEAL metrics.”

If you read this book, I predict that you will agree.

—Henry Zeybel