Drawn Swords in a Distant Land by George Veith

History is not kind to losers. Those who appease, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, or step down like President Richard Nixon, become exemplars of not only defeat, but of moral failing as well. In Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (Encounter Books, 660 pp. $40.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the historian George Veith attempts a rehabilitation of South Vietnam’s longest-serving president, Nguyen Van Thieu.

Thieu resigned his post in the spring of 1975 as the North Vietnamese advanced on Saigon, ensuring that the nation of South Vietnam was resigned to the pages of history. The military historian Lewis Sorley wrote that Thieu was “arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson, and—given the differences in their respective circumstances—quite likely a more effective president of his country,” suggesting that Veith’s revisionism is meaningful.

Veith, a former Army captain, is a PhD candidate who has written two books on American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War. His most recent book is Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975 In that 2012 book, he argues that the South Vietnamese were “quite capable of defeating the North Vietnamese,” but failed mainly because the U.S. Congress didn’t support them adequately because of the influence of “antiwar crusaders,” “major media institutions,” and the “Left around the world.”

Drawn Swords in a Distant Land is a monumental achievement in its breadth and scope. The massive tome is divided into 24 chapters and supported by 43 pages of endnotes. In addition to many American and Vietnamese primary and secondary sources, Veith interviewed an array of former South Vietnamese officials.

In the past two decades, some Vietnam War historians have emphasized the South Vietnamese experience, though most of this literature has focused on the regime of the first President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. In his book, Veith covers the Diem regime and the rotation of South Vietnam governments after his 1963 assassination before spending the bulk of the book on Thieu.

The book is primarily a political biography of Thieu and his effort to build a democratic republic with a viable economy and rule of law. He had to accomplish this while fighting a war against an indigenous communist enemy and the well-armed and well-trained conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army. The book contextualizes the role of the United States through the South Vietnamese perspective, which effectively lessens the American role.

Veith posits that Thieu’s role has been unfairly relegated to that of the losing and last President of South Vietnam, effectively devaluing many of his accomplishments. He implemented land reform, returned political power to the local level, oversaw several elections, and held together a fractured nation, all while leading the armed forces. Vieth’s sympathetic portrayal of Thieu reveals a resilient individual who was transformed from a modest military general to an inspired yet practical politician.

Though under his regime regional and religious allegiances dissipated, Thieu could never unify the competing groups of South Vietnamese nationalists. Veith portrays him as a model of probity who nonetheless oversaw a government plagued by corruption and scandal that he was unable to control.

LBJ and Nguyen Van Thieu

These issues are endemic to all fledgling democracies, and, though there was dissatisfaction among the South Vietnamese with Thieu’s government, it remained preferable to communism. In the end, Thieu could not both build a nation and fight an enemy after it lost the support of its American patron.

Though a generous depiction of Thieu — at times too sympathetic as many historians would challenge Veith’s contentions on Thieu’s land reforms and fair elections —Veith concedes that when South Vietnam needed Thieu to be at his best, he was at his worst.

Veith’s ambitious undertaking is worthwhile in its reassessment and a challenge to the belief that South Vietnam was a corrupt American puppet in a Cold War drama. But this perspective may be slightly off-balance by overly diminishing the American role. Vieth’s commitment to his subject leads to indulgent rhetorical flourishes, and the level of detail he provides allows the narrative to meander.

Given the large cast of characters, the book would benefit from a dramatis personae, and would have been enhanced by a more robust conclusion.

But these are minor quibbles in an important revisionist history in understanding America’s South Vietnamese ally.

–Daniel R. Hart

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM by Peter Caldwell

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM (Taote Publishing, 150 pp. $9.95, paper; $4.25, Kindle) is Dr. Peter Caldwell’s take on what happened during the American war in Vietnam. He therefore opens the book by asking: “How difficult is it for someone who wants to try and get up to speed on the history of American involvement in Viet-Nam?”

My experience reading this book was just that—difficult. It’s a wonderful book, but there is so much diverse material with many outside references in it that I had to re-read a few sections to understand the full picture Caldwell was trying to paint.

He has packed nearly 100 excerpts from publications written by Americans (both war hawks and doves) and Vietnamese (from the South and North) into this short book. The endnotes and bibliography lend credence to his observations and comments, causing me to rethink my opinions about the war.

From 1966-67 Caldwell served as a Navy Battalion Surgeon for the Marines in the Hue-Phu Bai area. He later made several trips back to Vietnam on volunteer medical missions and to visit his in-laws. In 1960, Caldwell’s Vietnamese wife Olga Hoang Hai and her family had moved to Hawaii where and met her and they later married.

Here are a few strategic changes that Caldwell believes could have reversed the outcome of the war:

  • Periodically invading southern areas of North Vietnam and moving into sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Pursuing the enemy into Cambodia and Laos
  • Continuing support for President Ngo Dinh Diem
  • Expanding the USMC’s Combined Action Platoon program
  • Integrating the ARVN command structure with ours and giving the South Vietnamese military more autonomous responsibilities
  • Reducing access to untruthful news outlets

I enjoyed reading Up to Speed on VIET-NAM and feel I now have a more well-rounded understanding of the Vietnam War. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

A Shau by Jay Phillips

Six years before he went to Vietnam and became an infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1967, Jay Phillips began studying the war. Wounded three times, he spent 21 months in-country. In 1976, he received a BA in history from the University of Denver. Fascinated by the war and its outcome, he accumulated a library of some 1,300 books on the topic and did a large amount of research in the files of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University to write A Shau: Crucible of the Vietnam War (Izzard Ink, 542 pp. $39.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).

Phillips characterizes the A Shau Valley as “one of the most consequential pieces of real estate in all of South Vietnam.” In the book he analyzes how the United States never controlled the Valley after the North Vietnamese overran a U.S. Special Forces camp at A Luoi in March 1966, and how that influenced the war’s outcome.       

The book focuses exclusively on what happened in I Corps from 1961-72 in the area between A Shau and the nearby Laotian border to the west. The North Vietnamese Army used the 28-mile long valley as a supply route into South Vietnam. This greatly benefitted NVA activity, particularly the extended fighting in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive—a turning point in the war.

Although he never set foot in the A Shau—which Phillips states for the record in the book—his familiarity of time and place is admirable. U.S. Air Force CHECO Reports primarily provide his source material, but he also cites other official reports, award citations, secondary sources, memoirs, and interviews. I applaud the scope and intensity of his research.

Phillips offers up his interpretations of successful and unsuccessful actions in the field and at leadership at all levels of command. He speculates. He contradicts. He finds fallacies and corrects errors. To put it simply and bluntly: He calls bullshit when necessary.

Despite not maintaining a permanent force in the A Shau Valley, American forces conducted large- and small-scale, short-term incursions there. Phillips brings to life epic operations: Delaware, Somerset Plain, Dewey Canyon, and others. He takes the reader to the infamous Hamburger Hill.

In the A Shau Valley, 1968

Phillips recreates operations with details that should more than satisfy military history lovers. He describes the glory—and the suffering—of American combatants in the A Shau: primarily the 1st Cavalry, 101st Airborne, and the 9th Marines. Those units used reconnaissance and search-and-destroy tactics in forested mountains, much like Americans in the rest of South Vietnam did. At the same time, he weaves in the actions of smaller groups such as Rangers and LRPPs to complete a picture of the complex and fluctuating U.S. tactics.

A Shau has no photographs beyond the dust jacket, but includes maps that clarify each operation.

Jay Phillips now works with support groups for victims of Parkinson’s disease, which he contracted from exposure to Agent Orange. The Parkinson’s Foundation named him 2020 Volunteer of the Year

—Henry Zeybel

Air Power’s Lost Cause by Brian D. Laslie

Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.

Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.

I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.

Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.

Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.

To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.

North Vietnamese Army truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.

I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.

“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.

With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:

Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.

The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.

Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.   

In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”

Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking. 

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam 1972: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South by Charles Melson

Charles D. Melson’s Vietnam 1972: Quang Tri: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is interesting on several levels. It’s about the hard-fought battle to retake Quang Tri during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive and the crucial role the South Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) played in defeating the NVA. It also is an account of the U.S. Marine Advisory Unit’s role during the offensive. 

Charles Melson, as a former Marine Corps Chief Historian, has an in-depth familiarity with his book’s subjects, especially the Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers. Before jumping into the central thesis of the battle for Quang Tri, Melson dwells on the culture and traditions of the VNMC. As a side note he addresses the political alliances between elite units and their benefactors. 

In 1972 the VNMC had a special relationship with South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The Vietnamese Airborne, in contrast, was aligned with Ky’s rival, President Nguyen Van Thieu. That situation likely played a role in the poor command relationships in the Marines, including senior officers who were more political than professional.

Both units were highly reliable combat forces that formed the strategic reserve of the South Vietnamese military. Before the narrative moves on to the Easter Offensive Melson provides a detailed account of the orders of battle of both sides and descriptions of key personalities.  

The pace of the book picks up once Melson begins his play-by-play description of the Easter Offensive’s thrust across the DMZ and the fall and recapture of Quang Tri. The rapid NVA divisions heavily equipped with armor and air defense systems brought out the very best—and the disgraceful worst—in the South Vietnamese forces. Most glaring was the lack of effective leadership and operational sense at the most senior levels of command.  

This happened as some South Vietnamese units, mainly the Marines, tenaciously fought to prevent a North Vietnamese breakthrough to Da Nang and Hue and what would have been an envelopment of South Vietnamese forces. The fall of Quang Tri City was a major setback for the South Vietnamese because it had tremendous symbolic value for the North and was a humiliation for the South.

South Vietnamese troops entering Quang Tri City, late July 1972

The final chapters of this history capture the bitter struggle by both sides as the South’s Marines and Airborne Division supported by Rangers defeated the North’s best units in ferocious fighting. After 138 days of occupation, Quang Tri was finally liberated by South Vietnamese forces.

For some, it may be an eye-opener to learn about South Vietnamese units that had no reluctance to take on the best the North had to offer—and to defeat them. For that alone, it’s worth the time to read this short, heavily illustrated book. The excellent maps, illustrations, and photos are a real plus.

–John Cirafici

Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency by David Zarefsky

“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Coming at the end of a 45-munite speech on the Vietnam War on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s words sent a shockwave through America. Veteran reporters, including Roger Mudd, were speechless. Given the day before, many believed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. In the days before DVRs, viewers couldn’t rewind to watch what they’d just heard, and incredulously turned to each other asking, “What did he just say?

The origin story of the speech is the basis for David Zarefsky’s new book, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency: The Speech of March 31, 1968 (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp., $45). Zarefsky is a professor emeritus of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author or editor of twelve books, including President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History.

My first thought is that the title and subtitle ought to be reversed since as the book is an in-depth analysis of the March 31 speech. This is a minor quibble, though, about this well-researched and accessible volume of 190 pages of text and 36 pages of end notes. Zarefsky divides the work into seven chapters. The first two provide the historical context of the speech and the subsequent ones detail the design of the speech and its three main components: the bombing halt over much of North Vietnam, the limited increase in the number American troops, and Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race. The conclusion examines the speech’s afterlife.

Zarefsky’s contextualizing of the speech suffers from a few unforced errors: after World War II, there was no widespread consensus on avoiding nuclear war, but rather a nuclear arms race; President Kennedy did not send the first military advisers to Vietnam, President Truman did in 1950; and though Kennedy was shocked at the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, there is no record of him weeping after he learned about it.

Zarefsky hypothesizes that when Johnson became president he believed the American people would simply support his actions in Vietnam. But that is belied by LBJ’s obfuscations and his refusal to place the country on the war footing. Johnson proved that a skeptical warrior can be a committed warrior.

The analysis of the speech is where Zarefsky is on surer ground, expertly tracing the development of it through eleven drafts. Johnson ultimately decided upon a “peace” speech over a more belligerent “war” speech. The analysis goes into granular detail on the disagreements among his advisers and the conflict within Johnson himself, providing a thorough analysis on how the sausage was made.

Due to declining health, LBJ was considering withdrawing from the race as early as the fall of 1967. But Zarefsky may be too deferential to Johnson in discounting the importance of the strong showing of Eugene McCarthy in the March 12, 1968, New Hampshire Democratic party presidential primary and the entrance of Robert F. Kennedy into the race soon thereafter.

Johnson believed that withdrawing from the race would provide gravitas to his Vietnam War policy, and he did enjoy a brief boost in the pools and in the media. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just four days after his speech and the country erupted in a violent spasm.

Johnson’s speech proved to be a temporary salve for his fractured psyche. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam in April and May of 1968 was greater than that in February and March. By December, the military had dropped more bombs in the eight months since his speech than the prior three years combined.

A broken Johnson then all but handed the presidency over to Richard Nixon.

–Daniel R. Hart

No Wider War by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith, the first book in his two-volume history of the Vietnam War, covered 1945-65. No Wider War: A History of the Vietnam War, Volume 2, 1965-1975 (Osprey, 528 pp. $40) immediately takes the reader deeper into the war with the first American combat units that arrived in 1965 and engaged enemy forces. As you read about the steady flow of U.S. units, you are made aware of the big lie: Combat troops were sent there, at least initially, to provide base security after a series of Viet Cong attacks, and not to Americanize the war. The nature of the war, however, quickly changed as hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into South Vietnam in the next five years and aggressively sought out the enemy.

Miller covers the seemingly endless engagements between American forces and the elusive North Vietnamese Army—officially known as PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam)—leaving the reader wondering how either side could ever have hoped to achieve a military victory.

On one side, we have Americans trained for a conventional war, transported 10,000 miles, and then thrust into the frustration of fighting an elusive enemy in rugged, jungle-covered terrain and the marshes of the Mekong Delta. With the mobility of helicopters, American generals hoped for surprise and fluidity on the battlefield, and with immense firepower resources, the means to annihilate the enemy once he had been fixed in place. Yet, one cannot help but have a sense of awe at the NVA’s tenacity, endurance, and commitment to a conflict from which many would not return alive.

The American war depended on body counts as a key metric for success; in the end, however, the number of enemy dead had little impact on the war’s outcome. The North also used body counts, but as a political device that had an impact on American public opinion and the national and political will to continue to continue the fighting. NVA troops would roam battlefields looking for wounded Americans to execute to elevate the numbers of dead that would be reported in the increasingly troubling news sent back home.

Gen. William Westmoreland’s 1967 speech before a joint session of Congress reflected optimism that the United States was clearly on the road to victory. Then the Tet Offensive of 1968 significantly altered America’s belief in that victory. 

Miller, a former British Army intelligence corps officer who served in the Persian Gulf War, revisits the NVA’s strategy for the Tet Offensive and explains how it played out. From a military perspective, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. However, it turned into a political victory for them because of the images broadcast on the nightly news in American homes. That visual evidence flew in the face of the optimism Westmoreland expressed to Congress.     

The American attempt to win the war militarily ended when President Nixon began withdrawing troops, what became known as Vietnamization. The 1970 Cambodian incursion was as a key part of the plan to cripple the NVA’s offensive capabilities, as was the subsequent move into Laos.

This well-researched book takes the reader through the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, the convoluted four-year-long peace negotiations in Paris, the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and finally the face-saving Paris Peace Treaty allowing the United States to extricate itself from a war it should have never entered.    

No Wider War covers quite a bit of ground, yet successfully captures the essence of the American war with all its blemishes, including the My Lai massacre and the military’s serious drug addiction problem during the last few years. The closing chapter recounts the sudden collapse of South Vietnamese resistance and the end of a very long war. As predicted, the South Vietnamese people then entered into a very difficult period under the North Vietnamese during which even many former Viet Cong did not escape Hanoi’s wrath.

We are now some five decades from that highly destructive war that was damaging in so many ways. For one thing, it would take years for the U.S. military to recover from discipline and morale issues in the war’s final years. Yet much of this is barely known or understood by many Americans today.

This book and its earlier companion provide a handy reference to that war and how America fought it—militarily and politically.   

–John Cirafici

Courage Under Fire by Ed Sherwood

Retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Sherwood’s Courage Under Fire: The 101st Airborne’s Hidden Battle at Tam Ky (Casemate, 360 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) takes a close look at that virtually unknown 1969 Vietnam War battle. The combat at Tam Ky very much resembled what happened during the controversial American frontal assault on Hamburger Hill a few weeks earlier, which is why political and military leaders kept what happened at Tam Key under wraps fearing more negative repercussions.

A highly organized researcher and writer with the reader constantly in mind, Ed Sherwood writes for the moment, as well as for posterity. His book provides a clear picture of what infantry fighting in the Vietnam War was really like. In doing so, Sherwood fulfills one of his goals: by presenting a picture of frontline camaraderie, he aims to encourage young people to serve in the military. Before being wounded and incapacitated early in the battle at Tam Ky, Sherwood led a Delta Company platoon in the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry in the 101st Airborne Division.

As a retiree, Sherwood saw that historians had ignored his men, and so he devoted five years to rectify that situation. He searching the official Tam Ky military records and interviewed more than 40 veterans who fought there. Sherwood summarizes his findings in the book in nine important appendices. Of particular note is his twelve-page analysis of newly elected President Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. Sherwood’s take on the political maneuvering involved with the transition of leadership from Lyndon Johnson’s administration would delight Machiavelli.

He writes about Delta Company’s operations in Hue, the A Shau Valley, and Tam Ky as part of Operation Lamar Plain. Sherwood initially limited his study to Delta Company, but expanded his history lesson by including the Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie companies of 1st/ of the 501st, as well as the Recon and Headquarters Company medical platoons.

Sherwood provides vivid insights into the operation by describing activities from both individual and unit perspectives. His findings illuminate the difficulty of operating in unfriendly territory without a definitive objective. His writing reignited my hostility toward political and military leaders who persisted in using unsound tactics.

He describes Americans, with an emphasis on Delta Company, as well-trained, physically and mentally tough men who lacked experience in extended firefights with NVA units. Mostly the men were young enlistees and draftees. Climate and battle attrition reduced the companies to two platoons each with junior sergeants leading understrength squads. Sherwood suggests that the odds were stacked in favor of North Vietnamese, who had better knowledge of the terrain, support of the local population, and many concealed and complex fighting positions in South Vietnam. The Americans depended heavily on support from artillery and air firepower, which eventually turned the tide at Tam Ky. 

During a short assignment near Hue, Delta performed one recon-in-force mission, a new name for “search and destroy.” The men assaulted a mountainous area by helicopter, killed two enemy soldiers on the first day, and during the following week swept the area for caches of food and weapons. They did “a lot of looking, but not much finding,” Sherwood says.

Delta also spent a month conducting operations in the A Shau Valley from Firebase Pike. During that time Delta suffered casualties from errant friendly artillery rounds. Contact with the enemy was sporadic.

For each month of combat operations, Sherwood charts what was going on back in “The World,” and each chapter concludes with a table of casualties and medal awards.

***********************

The heart of the book focuses on the initial combat operation and the decisive battle of Tam Ky and Hill 376. The battalion traveled to Tam Ky in C-130s on May 15, 1969, and made its first combat assault by helicopter the next day. Initially, Bravo Company took the brunt of punishment, losing six of the battalion’s 12 KIAs on the first day. Charlie Company took the next beating.

Delta entered the thick of the fight on May 21. From there, Sherwood describes extended American sacrifices, suffering, and heroism against an enemy force of unknown size and location. As he puts it: “In a straight-up infantry fight at close quarters, the weapons, skill, and determination of NVA infantry is equivalent to our own.”

Nevertheless, with a frontal assault from June 3-12 that felt like one continuous day, the Americans murderously slogged through mud and rain and fought through ambushes and small unit engagements on its way to the top of Hill 376, Sherwood says. The number of casualties was too high for public release. After securing the area, the men raised an American flag at the highest point.

Then, exactly as the troops had done at Hamburger Hill, they walked away from the battle site—but without public attention.

Sherwood offers seven conclusions that justify non-disclosure of the Hill 376 encounter for political convenience, which I found questionable particularly in light of present-day controversies over partisan political distortions of the truth..

—Henry Zeybel

Allies in Air Power edited by Steven Paget; Educating Air Forces edited by Randall Wakelam, David Varey, & Emanuele Sica

Four editors working for the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies have developed a spellbinding format for evaluating the past, present, and future value of military air power. They have put together two books that resemble think tanks of facts and opinions from twenty-two authorities about the worldwide efficacy of airpower. In essence, the two books bond practical and educational approaches to air war.

In Allies in Air Power: A History of Multinational Air Operations (University Press of Kentucky, 314 pp. $70, hardcover; $52.99, Kindle), editor Steven Paget ties together case studies written by ten scholars and himself about coalition performances of air forces around the world. The essays, he says, “predominant[ly] focus on the experience of Western forces, not least because of the frequency with which they have engaged in multinational endeavors.”

Paget is the University of Portsmouth’s director of academic support services at Royal Air Force College Cranwell in the UK, and a member of the editorial board of Air and Space Power Review. In dissecting coalition operations, he follows a historical course that differed from what I expected. His subject matter often parallels the fringes of major events, which opened my mind to situations of which I had no knowledge. All of the entries definitely held my attention.         

The most pragmatic essay in Allies in Air Power is Paget’s detailed analysis of the Royal Australian Air Force Canberra bombers in the Vietnam War which illustrates the pros and cons of coalition operations, in this case with the U.S. Air Force.

Both the Australians and Americans made drastic changes to facilitate cohesion, Paget explains. The Canberra’s drawbacks—an inability to dive bomb, a complicated level bombing pattern, and restrictions against bombing Laos or Cambodia—were offset by its four hours of on-target loiter time and its ability to drop a stick of bombs singly and in pairs at extremely low levels with pinpoint accuracy.

Extensive tactical changes by RAAF Canberra crews and USAF FACs made the bombers highly desired close support aircraft. From 1967-71, the RAAF also used squadrons of Iroquois helicopters and Caribou transports in Vietnam. Although they depended on the USAF for their basic needs, the Aussies nevertheless maintained independence by paying their own way for everything, particularly for rations, fuel, and bombs. Mutual respect sealed the partnership.

Allies in Air Power also includes an essay on the ill-fated coalition between the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force (l’Armee de l’Air) in 1940 and the drastically one-sided pact between the Royal Hungarian Air Force and the Luftwaffe during World War II. These examples confirm that even at high levels personalities have an impact on relationships.  

Paget’s selection of articles about the first Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War could serve as a training manual for coalition operations. Basically, all participants in the operations had a voice and contributed the most they could. The value of combined air power was virtually incalculable. However, the main point is that “the widely differing social, cultural, and religious perspectives of various partners that colored and influenced day-to-day operations and relations” are always a challenge in coalition warfare.

In Educating Air Forces: Global Perspectives on Airpower Learning (University Press of Kentucky, 254 pp. $70, hardcover; $52.99, Kindle), three editors—Randall Wakelam, David Varey, and Emanuele Sica—present the writings of a dozen eminent international military leaders and scholars. Their thesis is that “an understanding of air power education would enhance aviators’ abilities to develop the intellectual capability and capacity of their particular service.”

The three editors possess a wealth of university teaching experience. They present concise histories of past and present “education philosophy and practice” predicated on events from the interwar years, the Cold War, and post-Cold War. By citing experts, they solidify the “logical link between education programs and the development and transmission of air power concepts and practices to members of the profession among European and English-speaking nations.”

Educating Air Forces also offers lessons that broadened my knowledge. From the traditional thinking of in “Giulio Douhet and the Influence of Air Power Education in Interwar Italy” to the near-revolutionary theories of “Square Pegs in a Round Hole: John Boyd, John Warden, and Airpower in Small Wars,” I enjoyed reading everything the book offered. New wars and new types of warfare demand rethinking about what the military too frequently accepts without question.

The experts in Educating Air Forces begin by examining the early development of military-run schools in the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. They go on to note that secret German Luftwaffe programs and training that stressed joint operations were the best approach—one that led to the overwhelmingly successful 1941-45 Stuka-Panzer blitzkrieg. English, Canadian, and Australian military historians describe their services’ approaches to education over the years.  

The book emphasizes the United States’ delays in forging air education schools because of struggles between generals and differences of opinions among politicians. Today, the U.S. Air Force has an array of sophisticated schools for officers of all ranks. The book makes a good case for civilian-run schools that teach graduate-level military history courses to investigate “war and society.”

The book examines the classic issues of “strategic versus tactical employment of forces” and the differences between large and small wars. The arguments come full circle by emphasizing famed Gen. Billy Mitchell’s idea that “the airplane’s role in war is the product of decision-making peculiar to each state.” To be blunt, reading Educating Air Forces left me with the impression that after a century of military air operations, the best approach to teaching its history is still highly debatable.

Separating theory and practice has always been a formidable task. In the early 1960s, I was both a student and faculty member at squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College. Many times, I questioned exactly what we were teaching our students and why.

–Henry Zeybel

Rogue Diplomats by Seth Jacobs

“Diplomacy,” said the writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, “is the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

In Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in American Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 406 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $17.20, Kindle) Seth Jacobs examines the role and conduct of diplomats in the shaping U.S. foreign policy. American diplomacy—often overlooked by historians and political scientists who concentrate on executive power and the military—has had a profound impact on the many achievements that have helped establish contemporary America.

Seth Jacobs is Professor of History at Boston College. His books include Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam and America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia.

Jacobs’ opening thesis statement is striking; he contends that the most important triumphs in American history came a result of American diplomats disobeying orders. Using a case-study approach, Jacobs uses six examples:

  • John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War
  • Robert Livingstone and James Monroe bargaining for the Louisiana Purchase
  • Nicholas Trist ending the 1946-48 war with Mexico
  • Walter Hines Page as Ambassador to England during the World War I
  • Joseph P. Kennedy in the same post in period immediately preceding the Second World War
  • Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963.

In all five of the six cases, Jacobs argues, insubordination was ultimately the correct course of action.

Of particular interest is the case study on Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The patrician Republican Lodge was a curious choice for the Democratic President, John F. Kennedy, as the new U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963. Aside from their party differences, Kennedy had defeated Lodge for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952, and again when Lodge was Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960.

When Lodge arrived in Saigon in August 1963, the embers of the Diem Administration’s raids on Buddhist pagodas in South Vietnam were still smoldering. A lone wolf who kept his own counsel, Lodge soon dominated the diplomatic scene in South Vietnam and forged his own policy in the wake of vacillation from Washington.

Henry Cabot Lodge looming large over Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963

In Saigon, the South Vietnamese populace had tired of Ngo Dinh Diem’s autocratic rule, and there were as many as twelve coup d’état plots against his government. Lodge delicately walked the tightrope of not thwarting any of the coups while maintaining plausible deniability of American involvement.

Jacobs overstates the case of Lodge’s perfidy, but there is no doubt that he, as much as any American, helped cause the overthrow of the Diem government.

Lodge’s rogue quality rested more on his unmanageability than dishonesty. Despite Jacobs’ characterization of Lodge’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador as one rife with disobedience and insubordination, he credits Lodge with ultimately making the right choice in helping oust the Diem government.

Jacobs’ book is an original piece of scholarship that is written in a manner that makes it entertaining, informative, and relevant. It is a rare book of American foreign policy that is accessible to both the casual reader and the academic.

The diplomats he writes about were both a reflection and a refraction of the culture of their times, rendering a distinctly American approach to foreign policy. In the end, Jacobs proves his provocative thesis that America was made by knaves and scoundrels who went their own way.

–Daniel R. Hart