The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 by Mervyn Roberts III

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The extent to which psychological warfare was used by all sides in the Vietnam War is staggering and so multi-faceted it almost seems like a barometer of the chaos and shifting strategies that occurred throughout the war.

There were leaflets—smuggled over borders, dropped from airplanes and fired from howitzers; radio and television campaigns; messages broadcast from helicopters and C-47s; newspaper accounts; disinformation and behavioral modification efforts by medical aid teams and brutal assault squads; blocks of ice dropped by parachute to persuade the enemy that troops had swept in overnight.

By the end of the war, psyops teams were employing thousands. Leaflets were distributed by the millions. And the goals were as varied as the methods.

There were efforts to boost defections; to destroy morale; to build support; to alter perceptions of success or failure; to taint image and credibility; to foment dissent or encourage resistance; to persuade opponents their war was being lost, and supporters that theirs was being won.

Mervyn Roberts III wrote The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 (University Press of Kansas, 432 pp., $39.95) originally as a doctoral dissertation after a career in the Army. He served two tours in the war in Afghanistan and was a psyops specialist. He’s a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

In his book, Roberts quickly traces the evolution of psychological warfare from its early use in the Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II and the Korean War. He shows that in the Vietnam War, psyops grew in fits and starts and that its uses shifted like the wind in a confusing cacophony. Why? Mainly because of inconsistent U.S. policies, bureaucratic chaos, and political instability on both sides of the border.

The American effort focused on selling the idea that U.S. troops were there to protect the country from communism and to bring peace and prosperity. From the North came the message that U.S. medicines were laced with fishhooks and that villagers could avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army if they amputated their trigger fingers.

There were battles over messaging and debates over psyops’ effectiveness. Roberts traces that evolution in enormous detail. He looks at campaigns that started and stopped and others that shifted emphasis and grew to unprecedented proportions. In the spring of 1965, for instance, U.S. teams were distributing 500 million leaflets per month to support a war Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of.

There were successes, such as the U.S. Chieu Hoi campaign to encourage Viet Cong defections, and the North’s assault on the Americans’ use of defoliants, calling it a toxic campaign designed to kill livestock and crops and force the population into concentration camps.170px-vietnampropaganda

Roberts details the shortcomings. In addition to the constantly shifting priorities, there was inadequate training, a lack of cultural understanding, and a lack of language skills and inadequate measurements to assess what worked.

On both sides troops who behaved badly fed new material to the other side’s propagandists. Plus, in Vietnam and in the U.S., support for the war shifted constantly.

Roberts’ grasp of the historical context is impressive, although some readers may find the treatment somewhat academic. But, as he points out, there has been no truly comprehensive look at psyops tactics and their role in the Vietnam War until this book.

The author’s website is https://mervynroberts.com/about-the-author/

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and an upcoming collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

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M113 APC 1960-75 by Jamie Prenatt

During the Vietnam War the military called them M113 Armored Personnel Carriers.The troops called them APCs or “tracks.” According to the DoD analyst Jamie Prenatt in M113 APC 1960-75: U.S., ARVN, and Australian Variants in Vietnam (Osprey, 48 pp., $18, paper), the “battlefield taxi” has become the most widely used armored military vehicle in the world since it was developed in 1960.

Prenatt’s book, profusely and well illustrated with color photos and art by illustrators Henry Morshead and Johnny Shumate, offers a concise, fact-filled, comprehensive look at his subject. The book concentrates on M113’s use in the Vietnam War by the Americans, South Vietnamese, and Australians. The first M113s–thirty-two of them—arrived in Vietnam in April 1962, were organized into two mechanized companies, the 7th and 21st, and deployed in IV Corps in southern South Vietnam. This marked the first time APCs were put to use in combat  situations.

The book goes on to explain the dozen M113 variants, including a Fire Support Vehicle. It then offers descriptions of the APCs’ role in ten Vietnam War battles, including the pivotal January 2, 1963, Battle of Ap Bac.

This is an excellent edition to Osprey’s extensive series of books on military hardware and materiel.

—Marc Leepson

Proud to be a Marine by C. Brian Kelly and Ingrid Smyer

Brian Kelly and Ingrid Smyer’s Proud to be a Marine: Stories of Strength and Courage from the Few and the Proud (Sourcebooks, 416 pp. $18.99, paper; $9.99 Kindle) is replete with Marine Corps historical accounts from before the Revolutionary War through today’s struggles in the Middle East. Some stories are well-known; many are not.

Kelly—a former editor of Military History magazine who teaches newswriting at the University of Virginia, and his wife Smyer, a free-lance journalist—are superior storytellers. Their writing is further enhanced by their dogged, in-depth research and their attention to detail. They also are the authors of the Best Little Stories series of history-based books.

Proud to be a Marine contains nearly eighty well-indexed short essays about Marines and the Marine Corps, arranged mainly in chronological order. It can be read leisurely, one story at a sitting, but I couldn’t put it down and read the book in record time.

To help new recruits build esprit de corps and self-confidence Marine Corps boot camp includes the mandatory study of USMC history. This training, plus a lifelong attachment to “Our Corps,” causes most Marines to believe we have a good handle on Marine Corps history. In this book, you are sure to expand your knowledge of that history.

Here are a few examples:

* Two Marine Corps officers who had fought side by side storming the Halls of Montezuma in 1847 found themselves fighting against one another in 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run.

* Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, was a true visionary and possibly the most important officer in the history of the Marine Corps.

* Capt. Michael Capraro, Information Officer for the 1st Marine Division in Korea, proved the doctrine that “All Marines are, first and foremost, 0311 Riflemen.”

* Canadian-born Capt. Bill Dabney, a Vietnam War infantry officer, married the daughter of the legendary Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller (in photo below). How intimidating would that be, stopping by Chesty’s house to pick up his daughter for a date?

* Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan. In this book we learn how he handled his call from the White House.

The final chapter, “And Never to be Forgotten,” contains abbreviated biographical sketches of twelve famous (and infamous) Marines, including John A. Lejeune, John H. Glenn, and even Lee Harvey Oswald.

Proud to be a Marine is an easy, enjoyable, and educational read for Old Salts and non-Marines alike.

—Bob Wartman

The Pentagon’s Wars by Mark Perry

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If you are looking for an inside look at the most important military discussions that took place in the last thirty years, read Mark Perry’s The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War Against America’s Presidents (Basic Books, 368 pp.; $30, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle).

Perry—a military historian, author, and a former editor of The VVA Veteran—presents behind-the-scene arguments based on his three decades of on- and off-the-record interviews with the nation’s highest civilian leaders and senior U.S. military officers. This book includes the fruit of eighty-two interviews Perry conduction with more than fifty military officers in the last two years.

Perry first explains the technical Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which began in the 1970s. He ties it to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. Combined, the two actions aimed to end inter-service competition and required the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps “to plan and fight together, or ‘jointly.”’ It didn’t always work that way, Perry explains.

Goldwater-Nichols took the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of the chain-of-command and reduced them to organizing, training, and equipping tasks. Thereafter, the chain went from the President to the Secretary of Defense and then to unified commanders worldwide. That included “functional” commands of special operations, strategic nuclear weapons, and global force projection.

In essence, the act gave the President a more direct link to men in the field. The change also increased the tactical and strategic advantages provided by RMA. But each general still sought a share of glory in his service, Perry says.

He goes on to lay out the story of civilian-military relations from Desert Storm to the rise of the Islamic State. That includes a wide variety of situations such as an evening meeting in the President’s limousine and an early-morning argument in a stuffy hotel room in Dayton, Ohio. In doing so, Perry conveys the emotions (and too often the pettiness) of American leaders. The scenes he describes—including the planning of Desert Storm—ring with authenticity

Naturally, Perry focuses on conflicts surrounding presidents, Secretaries of Defense, and strong military leaders such as Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, Tommy Franks, “Mad Dog” Mike Mattis, Mike Mullen, Martin Dempsey, and David Petraeus. Perry highlights confrontations between Bill Clinton and Powell and Donald Rumsfeld against nearly everybody.

The 2005 “Generals’ Revolt” against Rumsfeld makes a most interesting chapter. In it, Perry explains the difficulties that America, as the world’s lone superpower, endured in finding capable leaders and tending to “overreach” to “shape the world as it saw fit.” In these respects, more than thirty years after the end of the Cold War, military leaders still have not had their voices fully heard.

Although men in uniform retained the right of freedom of speech, they frequently were bypassed in decision making, particularly on subjects that civilian leaders saw as minor issues such as those involving gay and transgender service members. Problems compounded themselves when generals failed to have their thoughts considered on issues of greater importance, Perry says.

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Mark Perry

The Pentagon’s Wars closes by pointing out that today “American soldiers [are] fighting in more wars in more countries, and with less success, than at any time since the end of World War II.”

Perry concedes that civilians “elected by the people, choose which wars to fight and when.” But he champions a need for generals to have a more-influential voice. “Those in uniform deserve better,” he says. “And so do we.”

How does The Pentagon’s Wars relate to the Vietnam War? What happened there greatly influenced the thinking of the generals cited in the book. As young officers, they established reputations and proved their credibility in Vietnam, to which they refer repeatedly.

—Henry Zeybel

Improvising a War by Benjamin L. Landis

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If you want an accurate picture of how the United States Army General Staff functioned during the early years of the Vietnam War, you should read Benjamin L. Landis’ Improvising a War: The Pentagon Years, 1965-1967: Reminiscences of an Untried Warrior  (Merriam Press, 186 pp. $11.95, paper).

Landis, who graduated from West Point in 1946, wrote the book based on his staff work as a lieutenant colonel at the place and time of the title. The representative of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, his job was to see that requested and approved units went to Vietnam on their scheduled dates, he says.

That sounds easy: Cut the orders and ship the troops. But it didn’t work that way because President Lyndon Johnson would not let the Army use National Guard and Reserve troops. That left an undermanned and under-equipped Army to fend for itself.

From among a crowd of lieutenant colonels who filled junior positions in their section of the Pentagon, Landis ended up in a job for which he had no background or training. As the newest guy, he had led an ad hoc inter-staff committee designed to find, equip, and train enough men for deployment to Vietnam, a duty that no other LTC wanted.

By that time, four big combat units had been sent to Vietnam. But they were not in good-enough shape to perform their missions, as Landis saw it. The need to improve the system was exemplified by Landis’ “disillusioned and frustrated” boss, a senior colonel who told him, “If I’m going to go down because of this, I’m not going alone.”

With tacit approval from his superiors, Landis enlisted Maj. William Duba and together they “skirted [and] circumvented, rules, regulations, policies, chain of command. I exceeded my authority regularly,” he says. “We did whatever we had to do to get the required people into the units deploying to Vietnam. We were not always 100% successful. We were in a bureaucratic morass that at times engulfed us.”

During his first year at the Pentagon, Landis worked without a computer despite needing to search Army records worldwide to fill assignments. Guidance came from Army Regulation 220-1 Field Organizations Unit Readiness. Landis attaches a copy of that reg at the end of his book. He also includes photographs of the most important players involved in the deployment program.

Improvising a War is a good read because Benjamin Landis wrote it fifteen years after leaving the Pentagon when his on-the-job notes and vivid memories were fresh. In 2012, he pulled the draft from his files, edited it, and added anecdotes from his long military career, then published it this year.

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His writing style delighted me. He uses real names, and the guilty are not forgotten. Landis describes a fellow officer as “undoubtedly the worst lieutenant colonel I ever encountered” who “could very well have been the worst lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time.” He says an orientation talk about his new job from his new boss was “cordial, concise, and imprecise.” He tells a story about a major general who carried “tradition to the outer limits of absurdity.”

Landis, by the way, also lauds his heroes.

His insight into the dreams, schemes, and machinations of full and light colonels in quest of their next promotions validates the suspicions often held by lower-ranking personnel. The book also provides an eye-opening lecture on Army readiness in the mid-sixties.

Shuffling paperwork can be a lackluster pursuit, but Landis has turned his deployment task into a management adventure as entertaining as any I have read.

Vietnam veterans who served in the 9th or 25th Infantry Divisions or the 196th Infantry Brigade should find interest in Landis’  inside stories of the war-time deployment of their units.

—Henry Zeybel

MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

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Dr. Istvan Toperczer’s writing focuses on fighter pilots and their aircraft, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. In his latest book, MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 135 pp.; $23, paper), he writes that thirteen MiG-21 Fishbed pilots from the Vietnam People’s Air Force became aces during that war, with a combined total of eighty-six kills.

The Appendix lists Fishbed pilots with four or more victories as verified by VPAF official records. United States records, however, label many of these claims as “not confirmed” or “loss attributed to antiaircraft artillery or SAM.” The downing of AQM-34 Firebee drones also accounts for part of the VPAF total.

My brother-in-law calls Toperczer a “communist propagandist,” and refuses to read his work. Regardless of discrepancies in the numbers—and my brother-in-law’s opinion—in his new book Toperczer provides insightful and interesting stories about VPAF training, tactics, and encounters with American Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Toperczer is a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon. For the past twenty years, he has interviewed VPAF pilots and researched VPAF archives. According to his publisher, Toperczer is “one of the few individuals from outside Vietnam to be given open access to the files of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.”

His chapter on training somewhat duplicates information he presented in his MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union provided the most useful support in this area.

The interwoven tactics and combat story lines in the book describe and analyze air battles, frequently on a day-to-day basis. They explain the evolution of Fishbed interception practices against American fighter-bombers, which were sometimes based on recommendations from Soviet advisors. The stories explain both successes and failures of VPAF planners in 1966-67. The second half of the book covers VPAF operations from 1968 to Linebacker II.

Toperczer pays homage to USAF Operation Bolo led by Col. Robin Olds and the results that grounded the MiG-21 921st Fighter Regiment for several months “in an attempt to make good its losses.” According to Toperczer, for the remainder of 1967, the VPAF and Americans fought on even terms with both sides altering tactics but failing to gain a decisive advantage.

The best parts of the book occur when Toperczer explains the VPAF pilots’ actions and reactions to unusual situations. For example, the account of the encounters with the U.S. Navy’s RIM-8 Talos ship-to-air missiles was eye-opening. I had been completely unaware of the long-range capability and success of the Talos against MiG-21s.

Likewise, I had not realized how, as early as 1969, VPAF designed and practiced tactics to use against B-52s if they overflew the North. The VPAF also attempted but failed to attack B-52s over Laos.

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As far as I am concerned, Toperczer provides a great deal of information not found elsewhere.

Regardless of what my brother-in-law believes, overall MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War pays justifiable tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who flew against the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Brutal Battles of Vietnam edited by Richard K. Kolb

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Richard K. Kolb, the recently retired long-time publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW magazine, has spent more than a decade preparing the newly published Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (VWF, 480 pp., $29.95). This worthy book is the fruit of Kolb’s research, writing, and editing of a long-running series in his magazine called “Vietnam’s Deadliest Battles.”

Brutal Battles is a reader-friendly, heavily illustrated coffee-table-sized tome that, as Kolb puts it, stands as “the first and only” book that presents “a comprehensive U.S. battle history of Vietnam in a single volume.” Kolb and his team of writers (including the noted Vietnam War specialists Al Hemingway and Keith Nolan) do not deal with politics at home, geopolitics, the antiwar movement, life in the rear, diplomacy, strategy, accounts of the ARVN (or NVA or VC)—or any kind of in-depth analysis of tactics. In other words, as Kolb puts it, the book “is not Vietnam 101.”

Instead, Brutal Battles is a compelling, well-written compilation of on-the-mark reports on dozens of Vietnam War engagements that ended in significant casualties. In other words, that is, the deadliest, most brutal, of the war’s all-out battles and other engagements.

Each one gets a relatively short but meaty chapter told from the point of view of the Americans who did the fighting. We get the voices of everyday troops who fought in the battles, along with cogent descriptions of what took place, as well as tributes to those who perished and those who performed courageously under fire.

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Rich Kolb, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions in 1970-71, shaped the magazine series and the book to include actions involving every American infantry division, independent infantry brigade, and separate regiment that took part in the war. They are presented chronologically through 1972.

What follows is a section on Navy and Air Force engagements. Then comes a tribute to the war’s most highly decorated troops and statistical info, including a 1959-72 combat chronology.

For purchasing info, go to the VFW store.

—Marc Leepson