Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips

“This is an inside history of what really happened in Vietnam and why it matters.”

That’s the first line of one of the most important books on the early history of the Vietnam War, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips. This 2008 memoir—now out in paperback for the first time (Naval Institute, 448 pp., $24.95—is an insider’s account of the fateful 1950s and early 1960s decisions that set in motion the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Phillips, who turned 88 last month, was sent to South Vietnam in 1954 as a member of the first CIA team there, led by the legendary intelligence agent Edward Lansdale, a career USAF officer who worked with the OSS in World War II and the CIA after the war. Phillips spent most of the next decade doing undercover and pacification work in Vietnam. He played an important behind-the-scenes advisory role in the high-level power struggle that developed over how the United States would help South Vietnam defeat the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Rufus Phillips (who is a featured commentator in the new Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War documentary) was a strong proponent of what came to be known as the “hearts and minds” approach: helping build a stable democratic government in the south, one that the people of South Vietnam would put their lives on the line to preserve. At the same time, he (like his mentor, Lansdale) spoke out strongly and consistently against sending in American combat troops. That includes speaking face-to-face with President John F. Kennedy in the White House on September 10, 1963–a memorable meeting that Phillips describes in detail in the book.

As we wrote in our 2008 review, this is a revealing inside-baseball memoir, in which Phillips provides a fascinating look at how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never gave the pacification approach more than lip service.

Phillips in Vietnam in 1954

Phillips offers intimate, revealing portraits of the Lansdale, the colorful CIA operative Lucien Conein, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President JKennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a slew of other Kennedy and Johnson higher-ups.

Phillips clearly shows that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited “poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris” as they steered Vietnam War policy in a disastrous course. Phillips adds a short chapter on lessons learned from the Vietnam War calamity.

As I wrote in 2008, this book should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C. It still should.

The author’s website is whyvietnammatters.com

—Marc Leepson

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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

Afternoon Light by Ralph Beer

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Ralph Beer served for three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War.  He spent much of that time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He then was sent for a year to the “super-secret complex” at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand, Beer writes in Afternoon Light: A Memoir (Casey Peak Press, 340 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). He goes on to tell the reader that the Vietnam War “was the event of my generation, whether we think much about it now or not.”  He’s right.

Every chapter of this fine memoir is saturated with the Vietnam War. “The suffering it caused the Vietnamese and the American people,” Beer writes, “was biblical in scope and hellish in its lasting pain.” This book deals with the impact of the Vietnam War on Ralph Beer and his love, Sheila, and also with how difficult is to sustain love during times of trouble. And all times are times of trouble. Don’t doubt that for one moment.

Beer includes a long quote from Larry Heinemann’s classic war novel Close Quarters.  He also gives a major nod to James Crumley, who has written as seriously about the Vietnam War as both Heinemann and Beer have. I hope that a book will be forthcoming from Beer about his time in the Army, preferably set in Thailand.  It seems unlikely, as Beer makes the point in this book about how old and infirm he is.

Before his military service Ralph Beer ran off to British Columbia with Sheila—and with scarcely any preparation for the adventure. Things didn’t go smoothly. They filed a Canadian government mining claim and worked very hard to make a go of that project.

Beer failed to confront the realities of citizenship in Canada, though. That led to a disastrous interview with a Canadian immigration official who accused him of every crime short of mopery.

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Ralph Beer

The couple returned to the USA and Beer made things right with his draft board. That led to his service in the Army. Does the relationship survive? Spoiler alert: it does.

Ralph Beer spent much of his life working “for almost nothing” on his grandfather’s Montana ranch. He’s written four books dealing with that experience. They have not made him rich or famous. Far from it.

Beer’s final word on the Vietnam War: It “can only be seen as a tragic and senseless waste for us all,” he says.

He took the words right out of my mouth.

—David Willson

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

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation edited by Jean-Jaques Malo

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W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on April 11, 1966, while still in high school. He left for Vietnam on February 9, 1967, after receiving combat training at Camp Pendleton. When he arrived in Vietnam, Ehrhart served with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment as an intelligence assistant and later as assistant intelligence chief.

He took part in many combat operations including Stone, Lafayette, Early, Canyon, Calhoun, Pike, Medina, Lancaster, Kentucky I, II and III,  Con Thien, Newton, Osceola II, and Hue City. Ehrhart was promoted to lance corporal on April 1, and to corporal on July 1.

Bill Ehrhart is the author and editor of a long list of poetry books, memoirs, essays, translations, and chapbooks. Eight of his poems were included in the pioneering 1972 book, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. He edited two important and excellent poetry collections: Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War and Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War. His books of essays include Dead on a High Hill and In the Shadow of Vietnam.

Ehrhart is considered to be one of the major authors of the Vietnam War. I am on record as calling him a “master essayist,” which he is.

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation: Vietnam, America, and the Written Word (McFarland, 236 pp., $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by University of Nantes English Professor Jean-Jacques Malo, is a companion volume to Malo’s The Last Time I Dreamed about the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart.

In Conversation contains nineteen interviews of varying length and sophistication with Ehrhart done by folks from many walks of life. I enjoyed reading all of them, and was surprised how much I learned about Bill Ehrhart and his writing. I thought that after reading The Last Time I Dreamed and (full disclosure) having known him for decades, there would be no surprises in this new book. I was wrong.

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Bill Ehrhart

These interviews cover many subjects and three decades of Ehrhart’s life and career. Parades, Jane Fonda, being spat upon, Agent Orange, and many other subjects are covered. Ehrhart is not a cliché Marine. He didn’t want a parade; he was never spat upon; he has nothing bad so say about Jane Fonda.

Agent Orange is covered and in one of the interviews Ehrhart mentions that I am dying of multiple myeloma which the VA believes came to me via exposure to dioxins in Vietnam

If you have the slightest interest in Bill Ehrhart or the Vietnam War, buy this book and read it.  I read it in just a few hours and loved it.

—David Willson

Planet Vietnam By Steve Tate

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Planet Vietnam (CreateSpace, 132 pp., $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the account of Steve Tate, who served as a nineteen-year-old with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book follows Tate to Bunker 48, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh, and finally an aviation unit performing helicopter maintenance.

At the end of the book Tate questions whether he was “in the shit” or in “the rear.” He goes on to talk about “a new type of discrimination” in the Army in which many soldiers looked down on those with rear echelon assignments.

There are many interesting issues relating to the war that Tate addresses. He vividly describes, for example, the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. “Alcohol was responsible for more deaths and destruction than will ever be admitted,” Tate says. He also recounts how “they” planted two bags of pot in his grip when he was out of the barracks in hopes of framing him.

I found a couple of incidents in Planet Vietnam very interesting. In one, a friend of Tate tries to commit suicide when he receives a Dear John letter from his girlfriend near the end of his tour. Tate also writes about a buddy who shot down his own helicopter firing an M79 shell through the top of the chopper. He also mentions seeing UFOs in the spring of 1968 near the DMZ. “We were being buzzed by UFOs,” Tate says, “and never knew, or cared.”

This is a short book in which Steve Tate brings up many topics I wish he would have explored further. Overall, Tate describes the Vietnam War in a unique way, and I would recommend his book.

—Mark S. Miller

Eye of a Boot by Jerry Lilly

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Looking back to when he was twenty years old, Jerry Lilly tells his readers, “I know that to relax can get me killed. I treat the Vietnamese respectfully.”

Much of what he recalls in his memoir, Eye of a Boot (CreateSpace, 160 pp. $24.95, paper), is told in what Lilly calls “progressive present tense.” In this way, readers can get a better sense, he says, of the “urgency, confusion, and intensity of being there.” In other words, Lilly’s style creates the illusion that his men and he are performing their duties right before the reader’s eyes.

From November 1967 to December 1968, Jerry Lilly served as a Marine infantryman in I Corps, most of the time as a squad leader. At first, he resisted taking the position. Then, he says, “someone of higher rank gave me the responsibility. I had to accept it.”

A deep sense of responsibility for his men’s welfare infused Lilly’s behavior. His worries were purposeful and productive. He tried not to expose his squad to VC or NVA attacks, yet he pressed fights with the enemy. In the field, he constantly believed he was under surveillance from an enemy waiting for the most opportune time to pounce.

His description and analysis of this attitude make the book an outstanding study in leadership. Many chapters provide lessons about the right and wrong ways to work with superiors and subordinates. Lilly describes missions that caused him to question the logic and sanity of his company and platoon commanders, but he nevertheless gave them his utmost support and effort.

The intense manner in which Lilly depicts the flow of combat had me reading well into the night. In particular, Lilly describes a two-day recon mission that ended in daylight when he single-handedly pursued and killed with hate and rage. Compassion emerged at the end, of the fighting, though, when the young Marine realized that he must never forget what happened.

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The imbalance of tactical skill and training between Marines and Viet Cong upset him. He stared at bodies and thought, “My God, look what I did to you. I’m sorry.”

Minutes later, what Lilly did paled in comparison to the actions of a fellow Marine who vengefully and barbarously murdered a wounded VC prisoner. In despair, Lilly wondered, “What is shock?” and “What is real?” His concern for his men grew stronger.

Jerry Lilly’s mind, heart, and soul fill every page of Eye of a Boot.

—Henry Zeybel