Vietnam Vanguard edited by Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— John Cirafici

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam by Oscar E. Gilbert

At the heart of Oscar Gilbert’s compelling Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) are interviews with two dozen Marine tankers who served in the Vietnam War. Reinforced with a careful study of official (albeit limited) archives, Gilbert draws a clear line from the arrival of the Marines at Danang in 1965 to their departure from the country six years later. Through it all, he conveys the role of Marine armor in the war. 

From the start, Gilbert illustrates the differing strategies the Marines and the Army brought to the war. MACV’s approach was to draw the NVA and VC out into the open to defeat in decisive battles.The Marines sought to take ground and keep it, primarily in I Corps, where they worked with regional forces and ARVN units. It was only after prolonged pressure from above that the Marines went along with MACV’s strategy.

Gilbert, a former Marine who has written books about Marine tank battles in the Pacific in World War II and in the Korean War, describes the enormous problems tankers faced from the moment they arrived in Vietnam. Terrain ranging from coastal flats to mountains hampered freedom to maneuver and fight, especially in narrow streets during the 1968 Battle of Hue. Monsoon rains reduced fields to swamps, further restricting tank movements. Above all, U.S. military tactics for defeating enemies with tanks would prove ineffective against those without them. 

The book’s most sobering lesson illustrates how easily a tank can be disabled. Armor units were repeatedly ambushed by enemy units armed with RPG’s, satchel charges, and mines. Not once does Gilbert recount an action from which Marine tankers emerged unscathed.   

Using tactics that came to define the war, North Vietnamese units traveling by foot would attack the Americans, damaging and crippling tanks. Whether the units chose to stay and fight or withdraw, the results were often the same. Compelled to drive with hatches open for better visibility, countless tankers were killed and wounded. Tracks broke. Wheels were blown off. Machine guns jammed. And in an environment alive with fragments, tanks also were forced into duty as ambulances.

What’s more, tank maintenance problems were endless. Fine sand and dust wore down wheels, tracks, and suspensions. Air filters clogged quickly and required daily cleaning. Humidity clouded optics and caused water to accumulate in fuel tanks. Unless drained away, the water gave rise to algae that could kill engines. 

Despite those negatives, the North Vietnamese paid every time they engaged the Marine tankers, often suffering far more losses than the Americans. While the growing body count of enemy dead was ballyhooed by MACV, the declarations of victory rang hollow for the men who had earned them. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is a compelling piece of work. That said, Gilbert presents two challenges to less-informed readers.

First, to fully appreciate the book it would help to have a grasp of the Marines Corps’ chain of command at all levels. This knowledge is vital, given the frequency with which tank units were detached from parent companies or platoons to help Marines elsewhere. 

Second, the book has many photos, but only a handful of small-scale maps. Readers would need to look at a large-scale map of I Corps to fully comprehend the veterans’ accounts of the tank actions in the book.

To his credit, Gilbert readily acknowledges this. Actions fought by squads or even individual tanks are not easily documented. To that end, the book’s references include a link to the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association’s website and growing archive of maps. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is an often gut-wrenching account of brave, highly trained men doing their best under circumstances that defied them at virtually every turn. The book is a worthy addition to the library of any student of tank warfare and the United States Marines in the Vietnam War.

—Mike McLaughlin

Feeding Victory by Jobie Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Henry Zeybel 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st Cav Col. Hal Moore in Vietnam

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

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

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

This is a valuable reference tool.

–John Cirafici

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret MacMillan

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

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

—Henry Zeybel

Death in the Highlands by J. Keith Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John Cirafici

Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin by Eileen A. Bjorkman

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

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

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

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

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

Eileen Bjorkman in the cockpit

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

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

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

–Tom Werzyn

Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Henry Zeybel

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

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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.”

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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