Many people have written about their combat flying experiences in the Vietnam War. Some have also have gone as far as evaluating the successes and failures of the overall activities of American air power in that war.
One of the most recent analysts is Michael E. Weaver, an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force Command and Staff College. In his new book The Air War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 612 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $22.49, Kindle), Weaver reaches conclusions similar to those of other historians, and solidly supports his arguments with new evidence from little-known archival sources—primarily documentation from the Air Force with support from Navy and Marine Corps records.
In my estimation, Weaver’s book is nothing less than the final word in regard to the application of air power in the Vietnam War.
In 411 pages of tightly-packed text (some 265,000 words) and 158 pages of notes (3,000 citations), Weaver dissects the efficacy of American airpower in the war by weaving history and theory to the application of that power. He concentrates on air superiority, national policy, air support, coercion, and interdiction. The depth of his research makes his arguments, old and new, irrefutable.
Weaver blames Vietnam War air campaign problems on poor strategic choices made by American presidents and their generals. As he puts it in his concluding chapter:
“American air power was about as successful as it could have been given the character of the war. The main deficiency was the absence of a single manager for air operations. Most aircrews discovered from the start that their training had not prepared them for combat [of the type demanded].
“The North Vietnamese considered the war their highest national priority. The Americans did not really want to fight the war in the first place. The nature of the United States’ purpose for involvement placed a cap on American commitment and endurance that was below that of their enemy. The most fundamental failure of the war was not the misuse of air power but the lack of a competent understanding of statecraft on the part of the American executive branch.”
Weaver emphasizes that military and political actions should complement each other by having a common purpose, which was not a policy adopted by self-serving presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as Nixon’s National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Conversely, American generals too often unilaterally fought their own wars. For example, unrestrained bombing of an enemy’s homeland gains no meaningful outcome unless the destruction creates political repercussions favorable to the side doing the bombing.
In essence, Weaver says, the highest-level American decisionmakers relied on the myth of limited war that holds that a great power can easily defeat a small, backward country with a minimum of commitment, material, violence, and time.
My Vietnam War experience stretched from 1967-73, navigating 772 support sorties in C-130s during Tet ‘68 and 158 interdiction missions in AC-130s (including Lam Son 719), and undergoing two months-long assignments as a Special Operations adviser throughout the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker II in 1972.
On the flight line and in staff meetings I kept my eyes and ears open. Everything Weaver says about operations in which I participated parallels what I saw. That includes the repercussions of tactics based on erroneous planning. Additionally, I have read and reviewed more than 340 books about the war, many written by airmen; their opinions invariably coincide with Weaver’s. With that understanding in mind, I cede to his conclusions about operations less familiar to me.
America’s final major operation of the war—Linebacker II—perfectly exemplified the disassociation between high-level thinking and on-scene performance. On the first two nights of the bombing of North Vietnam, I saw how betrayed the B-52 crewmen felt after being ordered to perform questionable tactics dictated from SAC headquarters half a world away.
The B-52 flyers felt as dispossessed as American fighter pilots who, for years under similar misdirected guidance, had met the challenge of on-again, off-again missions as strategic bombers against North Vietnam. In both cases among the crews, dedication to duty too often became a fatal flaw.
The thirty photographs of airplanes and six maps in The Air War in Vietnam provide excellent memory jogs to those of us who were part of that aspect of the conflict more than a half century ago.