1968 by Richard Vinen

“The single most important cause of change in the tone of politics in the 1960s was the Vietnam War,” Richard Vinen writes in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $29.95). The war, he writes, “seemed to focus and incarnate all the other conflicts—about race, imperialism, militarism and capitalism.”

The book came out in July, a half-century after the cataclysmic year that saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon.

Vinen examines the twelve months of 1968 primarily in the context of the years just before and after, what he calls “the long ’68,” and he focuses on the West. “My version of ’68,” he writes, “involves affluent countries in which radical protest came up against elected governments.”

A professor at King’s College London and a recipient of Britain’s Wolfson History Prize, the author distills an extraordinary amount of information into about 340 pages of jargon-free text. He takes a thematic, rather than a linear, approach. So while the book can profitably be read straight through, it may be more valuable as a reference work.

Beyond the United States, Vinen concentrates on three countries: France, West German, and Britain. France experienced  intense activity—worker strikes and student demonstrations—in May 1968 in Paris. In West Germany, the “number of the most committed radicals was relatively small,” he writes, and “terrorism took its most extreme form.” In Britain, 1970s radicalization “extended beyond the campus [to] political violence in Northern Ireland.”

Richard Vinen

Vinen examines phenomena that, in addition to the Vietnam War, influenced “the long ’68,” such as economic growth, the increase in the number of college and university students, and the Civil Rights movement. Throughout, he substitutes complexities for clichéd dichotomies—young/old, new/traditional, outsiders/authority—and shares many intriguing details, among them:

  • “The largest live audience that John F. Kennedy ever addressed was not in Washington or Berlin but in Berkeley, California, and Berkeley illustrated the hopes that many placed in America during the early 1960s.”
  • “Many who had been radicalized in the late 1960s or ’70s turned to writing works that were inspired by American crime fiction. Most famously, Stieg Larsson, the Swedish creator of the Millennium series, had been a very young ’68er, campaigning against the Vietnam War when he was 14 and joining a Trotskyist movement six years later.”
  • “Some American women who opposed the war made much of their status as mothers. Not all feminists felt comfortable with this. Betty Friedan said: ‘I don’t think the fact that milk once flowed in my breasts is the reason I am against the war.’ A group of anti-war feminists staged a ceremony to bury ‘traditional motherhood’ at Arlington National Cemetery.”

–Angus Paul

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The 31st Infantry Regiment by The Members of the 31st Infantry Regiment Association

Stories are the way people pass knowledge from one generation to another.

The late Karl H. Lowe, with help from James B. Simms and Grady A. Smith, has passed down a century of military stories in The 31st Infantry Regiment: A History of “America’s Foreign Legion” in Peace and War (McFarland, 519 pp. $45, paper). The three men were career soldiers who served in the 31st Infantry Regiment. They know combat.

As the unit’s Regimental Historian for twenty years, Karl Lowe recorded the 31st from its activation in the Philippines in 1916 through the Vietnam War. In this book James Simms expands on the unit’s action in Vietnam, and Grady Smith reports on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. An excellent selection of photographs from archives and personal sources supplements their writing.

The Regiment’s first battle took place during a deployment to Siberia in 1919 after Bolsheviks captured five American enlisted men following the Russian Revolution. That far north adventure earned the unit the nickname “The Polar Bear Regiment.” World War I had ended in Europe in 1918, but skirmishes between Russian, European, Asian, and American military forces continued in Siberia until 1920. Lowe’s account of the scale of interaction north of Vladivostok provided a new history lesson for me.

The same holds true for the Regiment’s deployment to Shanghai when that city became an International Settlement in 1932. This time the Americans stood aside with the British while Chinese and Japanese troops battled on the city’s fringes.

The entire book is a history lesson. Lowe writes about old encounters as if they had happened yesterday. Simms and Smith have a similar talent. Their stories tie troops, regardless of rank, to situations so that a reader fully understands what occurred and why. Best of all, the authors provide a feel for the moods of the troops and organizations.

Stationed in Manila from 1932-41, the undermanned and poorly equipped 31st Regiment followed a slow motion pace of activity, culminating in a series of ignored war alerts in November of 1941.

A few weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 31st Regiment in combat: in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The authors recreate battle scenes with great authenticity. Extensive chapter notes support their work. Many of the Regiment’s war stories have become high points in U.S. military history and the authors do justice to them.

31st Infantry Regiment troops in Vietnam in 1970

The Vietnam War is reported in two sections: 4th Battalion (1967-71) and 6th Battalion (1967-70). The latter includes operations in Cambodia. Again the reporting is personalized and describes actions and attitudes of individual infantrymen.

The book’s closing pages pay tribute to 31st Infantry Regiment troops killed in action in all wars.

The authors’ combat expertise, their fluid writing style, and the depth of their reporting make The 31st Infantry Regiment a worthwhile reading experience.

The book tells it like it was.

—Henry Zeybel

The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel

Combat at Close Quarters edited by Edward J. Marolda

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Combat at Close Quarters: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 2018, 360 pp. $39.95) is a compilation of essays on the topic edited by Edward J. Marolda. The five are all military historians who have written about the various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War: Norman Polmar, R. Blake Dunnavent, John Darrell Sherwood, and Richard A. Mobley. The book also includes more than two hundred photos and maps.

Dunnavent is a Louisiana State University history professor who has done a lot of work on the brown water Navy in Vietnam. He and Marolda in 2015, for example, co-wrote the 82-page book, Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam as part of the official “U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War” series, which Marolda co-edited.

Marolda served as an officer in the US Army’s 4th Transportation Command in Vietnam in 1969-70. A former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy, he is the leading historian of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

The four chapters in this book chronicle:

  • The Air War: close-air support, bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
  • Riverines: fighting throughout the Mekong Delta and north to the DMZ
  • Blue Water War: gun fire, interdicting trawlers, mining Haiphong Harbor
  • Intelligence Gathering: recon photo flights, radio and radar sweeps, SEALs

One aspect of the war that these historians note is the stark difference between the strict Rules of Engagement promulgated by the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the more flexible ones that the Nixon administration used.

The book as excellent accounts of the heat and terror of battle. There are descriptions of aerial dog fights, rescues of downed aviators, and fighting along the rivers and marshes of the Mekong Delta. The book also explains how the war was orchestrated by its supporting players. There’s information on monitoring and interdicting movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; joining Intel efforts of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps into a single, cohesive stream of information; and behind-the-scenes communications, politics, and negotiation strategies.

111111111111111111111The authors argue that U.S. lost the Vietnam War because its citizens and politicians lost the will to fight it while the military forces consistently won virtually every battle.

Most Vietnam veterans know about actions in which they had participated. They witnessed and appreciated the close air support and the artillery and Naval gun fire, yet many are unaware of all the behind-the-scenes activities needed to make those long-range bombs so timely and so accurate.

To help learn how it all came together, Combat at Close Quarters is a must-read.

— Bob Wartman

Political Tribes by Amy Chua

22bookchua1-superjumboAmy Chua is best known as the “Tiger Mother.” That not entirely complimentary moniker came from her 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Chua described and espoused her (and her husband’s) super strict child-rearing methods. Not coincidentally, reaction to the book brought her a mountain of media attention.

But Amy Chua is much more than a mother with strong ideas about kid discipline. She graduated from Harvard and its law school, clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and went on to work in a big law firm. Today she is a professor at Yale Law School.

Chua’s specialty is ethnic conflict and globalization. Her books include World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall.

Which brings us to her latest provocatively titled book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (Penguin, 293 pp., $28). In it, Chua takes an American-centered look at the impact of “tribal instinct,” aka “ethno-cultural rivalry,” on U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, including the 2016 presidential election.

Chua devotes a twenty-page chapter in the book to the Vietnam War–and why the United States came out on the losing end. But you won’t find anything in here about military tactics or strategy. Or the American media or the antiwar movement.

Chua instead concentrates on her specialty, giving us a tribal-centered answer to a question that has been debated for a half century: why “superpower America, with its formidable military,” as she puts it, lost a war to “what Lyndon Johnson called a ‘piddling, piss-ant little country.’”

Chua gives a nod to the “widely recognized” answers as to why the war ended the way it did: that the U.S. greatly underestimated the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and that Cold War myopia caused us to seriously misunderstand the nature of Vietnamese communism and its threat to U.S. national interests. But, Chua tells us, those two factors do not make up the “complete picture.”

What’s missing, she contends—“the core reason we lost in Vietnam”—in her words, is that American leaders from the Truman to the Ford administrations “failed to see the ethnic dimension” of Vietnamese nationalism. Amy Chua’s definition of the Vietnam War’s “ethnic dimension” in a nutshell: the multi-millennial conflicts between China and Vietnam.

U.S. policymakers’ gross ignorance of Vietnamese history (particularly the long-time enmity with China) caused us to blunder into the conflict for the wrong reasons. “Astonishingly,” she says, the U.S. was “so oblivious to Vietnamese history” that our State Department, Pentagon, and presidential policymakers “thought Vietnam was China’s pawn<_/>merely a ‘stalking horse’ for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’” This, she says, “was a group-blind mistake of colossal proportions.”

Chua makes her case with a brief recap of Vietnam’s enmity toward China, and an even briefer look at how the U.S. got into the Vietnam War, starting with fateful decisions made at the end of World War II. She delves deeper into the strong impact of ethnic Chinese people living in Vietnam. This, she says, is a good example of a “market-dominant minority,” a term Chua coined that describes the many entrepreneurial ethnic Chinese Vietnamese citizens who all but controlled South Vietnam’s “lucrative commercial, trade, and industrial sectors” for centuries, including during the American war.

All of this rings true.

Chua’s contention, however, that the fact that ethnic Chinese people dominated South Vietnam’s economy had a significant impact on the war’s outcome is harder to swallow. Yes, our South Vietnamese allies were generally not very effective fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. But to put the lion’s share of the blame for that on the South Vietnamese government asking its people “to fight and die—and kill their northern brethren” in order to keep the [local ethnic] Chinese rich” seems to be a huge exaggeration.

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Amy Chua

To her credit, Chua notes that many South Vietnamese were less than willing to fight their communist brothers for another reason: They had little love for a seriously corrupt regime that was asking them to do so, a regime—not coincidently—backed by the U.S.

“The group identity America offered the Vietnamese was membership in a puppet state,” Chua says. That amounted to “the ultimate affront in a country where many Vietnamese soldiers wore trinkets dedicated to the Trung sisters, symbolizing resistance to foreign invaders at all costs.”

No arguing with that.

And there’s no arguing with her conclusion that “virtually every step [the U.S] took in Vietnam was guaranteed to turn the Vietnamese against us. The regimes we supported, the policies we promoted, the money we spent, and the attitudes we brought made the Vietnamese hate us, hate capitalism, and only enhanced the appeal and status of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh.”

Chua’s website is amychua.com

—Marc Leepson

To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 by Peter E. Davies

Fans of military aircraft cannot ask for more than what Osprey Publishing provides with its Combat Aircraft Series. The series authors and illustrators are historians who focus on specific models of aircraft and their crews during a narrow period of warfare.

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 (Osprey, 96 pp.; $23, paper; $18.40, Kindle) is author Peter E. Davies’ twenty-third book in the series. For it, he interviewed Navy and Marine Corps fliers who operated from aircraft carriers.

Illustrator Jim Laurier, who has worked with Osprey since 2000, contributes thirty color profile paintings of F-4 Phantom IIs with distinct markings of their aircraft carriers. A history of each plane complements his artwork.

Nearly every page of the book contains a photograph of crewmen or an airplane. Captions provide related facts to enhance readers’ knowledge of Navy operations.

Davies first explains the fighter aircraft environment before the 1969-73 period that he concentrates on. He examines changes in the F-4 II airframe, its missiles and tactics, as well as the political climate—for good and for bad. Comments by pilots provide an insider’s view. For example, when discussing a Phantom-MIG Fresco duel, he quotes Lt. Cdr. Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, who says, “It’s like a knife fight in a phone booth.”

This format continues through the book. Vivid accounts by fliers who fought the war support theories and practices of the time—again, for both good and ill.

Davies presents a clear picture of what it was like for F-4 II crewmen when they hit problems in air-to-air, interdiction, and close support sorties. Along with striking targets in South Vietnam, carrier-based planes bombed North Vietnam and Laos. In addition to normal survival concerns, crewmen coped with problems ranging from frustration due to complex rules of engagement to the dealing with the rationale behind awarding medals. Davies emphasizes stories involving hunting and killing MIGs, the premier accomplishment of fighter jocks.

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To keep the ledger honest, Davies includes successes and failures of MIG pilots who challenged U.S. aircraft and ships.

Insights from the Navy fliers brought back many memories. Anyone with even a minimal interest in military tactics or warfare should find satisfaction with this book.

Davies has a talent for finding and reporting what is important. I especially enjoyed reading about idiosyncrasies of aircraft carrier operations. They reconfirmed my appreciation for my flying career with the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel