Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam by William C. Haponski with Jerry J. Burcham

Retired U.S. Army Col. William C. Haponski presents his interpretation of the outcome of the Vietnam War in Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam (Casemate, 336 pp. $32.95). “The Vietnam War,” he says, “was lost before French expeditionary corps or American combat units came ashore. Said another way, there was never a war there which could be won. The reasons lie in the history of Vietnam and the character of its people going back more than 3,000 years.”

Haponksi makes his case with a tight package of facts based on extensive research, supplemented by his experiences as a 1968-69 Vietnam War commander with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1/4 of the 1st Infantry Division.

Haponski is the author of three other Vietnam War books: One Hell of a Ride: Inside an Armored Cavalry Task Force in Vietnam, Danger’s Dragoon: The Armored Cavalry Task Force of the Big Red One in Vietnam, 1969, and An Idea and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam. 

Col. Jerry J. Burcham, a retired Vietnam War brigade commander, worked with Haponski on Autopsy.

In the book’s three parts, Haponski analyzes what he calls the French War, the American War, and the Vietnamese War stretching from 1945-75. He contends that independence and unification were virtually the lifeblood of the Vietnamese people during that time. “Events show that neither the French nor the Americans nor the South Vietnamese governments and militaries could ever have won a war in Vietnam regardless of who led the efforts,” he writes.

His analysis of the French War focuses on leadership. Continuity of command greatly benefited the Viet Minh, he says. From 1945-56, Ho Ch Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap controlled the North politically and militarily, while France practiced revolving-door leadership. At times, his account of French activities resembles a novel of international intrigue—except no fiction writer could have imagined the trickery he reveals.

Haponski emphasizes Ho’s opposition to colonialism by tracing his communist affiliation back to World War I. Haponski notes that Ho “was particularly enamored of Lenin,” and recognized the necessity for “revolutionary violence.”

The book’s account of the American War could be titled “Good Intentions, Poor Execution.” Haponski analyses each stage of U.S. involvement: Advisory, Search-and-Destroy, Big Unit Warfare, and Vietnamization. He describes operations written about by many other authors.

The historic value here comes from descriptions of difficulties he encountered as a commander. Problems compounded: new clear-and-hold plans reverted to search-and-destroy operations; Americans tortured prisoners during interrogations; a Vietnamese district chief refused to cooperate; American soldiers shot civilians; strategic hamlets failed to materialize; the Pacification program failed; and the MACV commander fell asleep while Haponski briefed him.

The final third of the book covers the ultimate encounter between North and South—NVA versus ARVN. Haponski describes the struggle in a fresh and straightforward style. He emphasizes that the North’s communism “was uniquely Vietnamese” and followed no monolithic control from Moscow. Yet, after the communist victory, Haponski says, a dedicated cadre of doctrinaire believers ruled the nation while “lower down” motivation was mostly patriotism produced by compulsion.

Although the book is flawlessly organized and a pleasure to read, I cannot agree with Bill Haponski’s conclusion that the North’s victory was based on a long Vietnamese desire for independence. To me, the communist takeover of the nation boiled down to another twentieth-century dictator’s success. Ho Chi Minh followed the paths of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Today the Vietnamese people live under ideas formulated by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century—not ones based on their three-thousand-year-old temperament.

Haponski says he presents “as succinctly as possible the essence of the contest itself inside the political and social framework that constrained and guided it on both sides—that is, within Vietnam,” and he leaves it “to the reader to discern what lessons could have been learned.” In that manner, he ignores the violent communist re-education of Southerners that followed the North’s victory.

A book of this magnitude should offer guidance for the future—at least a warning to wake up members of Congress. Otherwise, America could become entangled in another misdirected war, one lasting perhaps as long as nineteen years.

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam provides a challenging thesis that stirs the mind.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

Brotherhood in Combat by Jeremy P. Maxwell

 

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The presence of death on a constant basis reduces other parts of life to insignificance. That truism is at the heart of Jeremy P. Maxwell’s Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 224 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, Kindle). Historians have previously studied the book’s topic; Maxwell reconfirms that front-line soldiers who shared war-zone dangers transcended racial biases and successfully integrated.

“This project started out,” Maxwell—the first Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society—says, “as a dissertation for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast.” The final product reflects extensive research in many archives across America. Maxwell often proves a point by citing twentieth century historians; his judicious choice of their material livens old text.

Brotherhood in Combat limits its focus to an evaluation of African American experiences in the Army and Marine Corps beginning with Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It centers on Maxwell’s premise that racial tensions in combat units did not mirror those in rear units—and throughout America.

In a long Introduction, Maxwell puts segregation in United States military history into perspective from its beginnings, and sets the stage for the entire study. From there, his research details the nation’s political and social climates prior to the Korean War to show why and how President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military. Maxwell then cites Korean War battlefield behavior that finalized the bonding between races.

That was during the war. Afterward, in peacetime, African Americans still faced direct and institutional discrimination in the military.

Concentrating on the actions of President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War era, Maxwell finds similarities in Truman’s actions before and during the Korean War. Sharing dangers of combat did the most to break down racial barriers in Vietnam, he says, even while such tensions persisted in America.

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As part of showing that the constant presence of death changes attitudes, Maxwell describes the environments of the Korea and Vietnam wars as background for clarifying the teamwork and heroics performed by front-line African American fighting men.

By the time “U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam,” Maxwell concludes, “the military was a completely integrated force.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Capture of the USS Pueblo by James Duermeyer

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The Capture of the USS Pueblo (McFarland, 209 pp. $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by James Duermeyer is an efficient and instructive review of one of the all-but forgotten events of 1968. As with many books these days, there is a longish subtitle which, in this case, is a helpful summary: The Incident, the Reaction, and the Aftermath.

It is important to remember that in January 1968 (when the Pueblo was captured) the Korean War was a recent memory in the American psyche. When you add to this the nation’s turmoil in 1968 over the Vietnam War, then the possibility of this series of foreign policy and military blunders involving a poorly designed spy ship was, in retrospect, almost inevitable.

Within a week after the capture of the ship, the Tet Offensive was unleashed. By the time the crewmen were released in December, Richard Nixon had been elected president, after LBJ chose not to run for re-election. The Vietnam War was a constant presence in the Johnson Administration’s deliberations about how to respond to the capture of the Pueblo. Military options were considered. But in the end, negotiations assured the release of the crew.

Duermeyer. who has master’s degree in U.S. History from the University of Texas, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. After the war, he continued his Navy career in the Reserves, reaching the rank of Commander. Duermeyer has written five historical novels she he retired from the Navy. In this book, he writes about a time and a subject (naval history) for which he seems well qualified.

The Capture of the USS Pueblo comes in at a compact 172 pages of text, with an excellent preface, introduction, and epilogue. These short sections book-end six chapters, which are a bit over-analytical. What’s more Duermeyer does not provide a compelling narrative arc in the book.image090

On the other hand, he includes several interesting facts and stories, including some dealing with the negotiations. However, one wishes that he humanized the main players a bit more, especially the Pueblo’s captain, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher. The book jumps around chronologically, with many references to post-release reviews and findings that disrupt the flow of the story.

North Korea remains a mystery, but Duermeyer does shed some light on North Korean political thought. He devotes an entire chapter to “Juche,” an ideology that demands independence and “self-sustainability” in foreign policy.

Duermeyer also provides interesting background and analysis of the Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung, which could inform our nation’s thinking as we continue to struggle in our relations with North Korea.

—Bill Fogarty

Bait by James D. McLeroy & Gregory W. Sanders

baitThe title of James D. McLeroy and Gregory W. Sanders’ Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc Special Camp (Hellgate, 318 pp., $26.95) refers to Gen. William Westmoreland’s use of a “lure and destroy” defensive attrition strategy, which he believed complimented his search and destroy offensive attrition strategy. Both were later called into question.

McLeroy was on the ground, participating in the May 1968 battle at Kham Duc. Sanders came arrived in-country a bit later. Their ten-plus years of research and collaboration has resulted in this excellent book. It’s been a good while since this reviewer has read such a superbly researched and well-written Vietnam War military history book.

A prologue and a fact-filled preface detail the people, places, and things—from both sides of the battlefield–covered in the book. Visits, interviews, searches of archival records, and many personal conversations are woven into the book. The authors provide more than twenty tightly spaced pages of sources. The end notes following each chapter are as interesting as the narratives they support.

The story takes us into meeting rooms in the White House, the Pentagon, MACV, and on down through levels of field command, right to the battlefield. McLeroy and Sander, without rancor, correct errors that have been allowed to stand as fact and provide insights into operational decisions and their results.

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A CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down while attempting to land during the fighting at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak Special Forces Camp airfield.

They begin with a modern-day visit to the battle site, then flesh in the back-story leading up to the May 10-12, 1968, engagement at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak U.S. Army Special Forces Camp in western I Corps up against the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also touch briefly on the SOG operations that operated out of this camp.

In a telling worthy of the best Tom Clancy and Brad Thor thrillers, the authors recount earlier skirmishes and the subsequent Mother’s Day battle with a tightly packed and crisply flowing time line, toggling among at least a half dozen locations. We follow decision trees and commo exchanges that had an impact on all the players on the ground and in the air.

The story of the encounter in which at least two NVA regiments tried to overwhelm the heavily outnumbered defenders kept this reader turning the pages.

Bait is a great read—a fact-filled telling of a largely unremembered battle.

–Tom Werzyn

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty

The Third Force in the Vietnam War by Sophie Quinn-Judge

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In September 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, U.S. Army Major Allison Thomas turned to the leader of the Vietnamese guerrillas he had led in training with one question: was he a communist?  “Yes,” replied Ho Chi Minh, “but we can still be friends, can’t we?”  Unfortunately for the Vietnamese people, the answer to that query turned out to be a resounding no.

Sophie Quinn-Judge in her book, The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace, 1954-1975 (I.B. Tauris, 336 pp., $110, hardcover; $29, Kindle) probes an often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War: Was there a neutral coalition of Vietnamese citizens that could have brought peace to that country?

Quinn-Judge, the author Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, concludes that a neutral coalition was active in South Vietnam and would have been able to either avoid the war, or bring it to a peaceful conclusion once the violence had started—if it had been given legitimacy.  t best, members of this Third Force were ignored or marginalized by autocratic South Vietnamese political leaders and American policy makers; at worst, they were exiled or imprisoned as communists or communist sympathizers.

Quinn-Judge rejects the claim made by both sides that war was inevitable. The Vietnamese had a legitimate stake in their nation; they were not mere pawns in a global war between Sino-Soviet communism and American democracy. She introduces a myriad of South Vietnamese political and religious leaders who organized around the idea of a neutral South Vietnam, and a peaceful conclusion to the war. Though the American public—and most American policymakers—viewed communism as an evil monolith, Quinn-Judge reveals the evolutionary nature of North Vietnamese communism and the varying degrees of Soviet and Chinese influence over the long course of the conflict.

She uses utilizes state archives from more than eight countries and draws upon her own experience as a volunteer in Vietnam with the American Friends Service Committee from 1973-75.  The early history of French colonialism in Vietnam, the rise of the communist party in North Vietnam, and the split of the country in 1954 as a result of the Geneva Accords, are summarized succinctly. The book then follows two parallel narratives, that of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, concluding with North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in April 1975.

Although the book is entitled “The Third Force” implying a military solution, Quinn-Judge quickly discards that term for “Third Way” or “Third Segment,” reasoning that a military solution for peace was disabused as early as 1956. It is curious for the book’s title to be discarded so early in the narrative.

In South Vietnam, Quinn-Judge focuses on the “non-violent political and social forces that attempted to play the role of intermediaries.” However, she admits that this group is difficult to define, because a tactic of the North Vietnamese communists was infiltration into South Vietnamese political, social, and religious groups. Though Quinn-Judge describes individuals espousing South Vietnamese neutralism, she struggles with a definition for neutralism, before defining it as the embodiment of “a concept of Third World spiritual exceptionalism.”

It is uncertain if “neutralism” here meant an independent, Democratic South Vietnam, or an eventual reunification with the North Vietnamese.  It is clear what many neutralists were advocating against; at times, it is unclear what they were fighting for.

Quinn-Judge does a skillful job summarizing the transforming Vietnamese nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. She cites communism as an aspect of the quest for change and identity, but only a facet of the broader cultural, political ,and religious shifts in society.

Ho Chi Minh, who is mainly a figurehead in Quinn-Judge’s telling of the tale, led the formation of the Viet Minh during World War I, and received help from the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Though Quinn-Judge points out that the relationship was severed as a result of the United States’ backing of France’s colonial aspirations after the war, Ho’s unapologetic allegiance to communism was at least as responsible.

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Ho Chi Minh in 1951

She correctly discloses the fluctuating nature and influence of the Chinese and Soviets on the North Vietnamese. China aggressively espoused an armed a revolt against the West, while the Soviets believed in revisionism, or the peaceful co-existence with capitalism and an eventual end to the class struggle.

In the summer of 1963, the Americans seemingly listened to what the South Vietnamese people were telling them. They replaced Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who was sympathetic to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge wimmediately distanced himself from Diem, demanded that Nhu be removed from power, and openly sided with the oppressed Buddhists. Diem was soon replaced in a violent coup by the moderate and popular Duong Van Minh.

However, in this critical time period, the North Vietnamese were most influenced by the Chinese, and advocating for peace or revisionism was a crime. That left any Third Segment in the South without a partner in the North. But the North as a peace partner is discounted, as Quinn-Judge argues that by 1964, “the decisions leading to war had already been made in Washington.”

Though they have a minor role in her book, Quinn-Judge saves most of her vitriol for American politicians and policymakers, saying that “crushed” peace campaigns. She sympathizes with some of the communists, whom she believes were closer in their “ideological outlook” to a Third Segment than to Stalinism or Maoism.

However, even if some Vietnamese communists desired peace, neither their rhetoric nor their actions matched that sentiment. She notes, for example, that as early as January 1959, the 15th Plenum of the Communist Party espoused a “violent struggle” as the path to revolution in South Vietnam.

Quinn-Judge places great importance in the 1968 Paris Peace Accords, which were perhaps known best for the long argument over the shape of the conference table. She blames Presidential candidate Richard Nixon for illegally interfering with the talks, though historian Robert Dallek wrote Nixon’s actions “probably made no difference.”

She also points out that the majority of the scholarship on the “missed opportunities” for peace in Vietnam is from a Western perspective.  n that regard, Quinn-Judge’s work—along with recent scholarship from Jessica Chapman, Philip Caton, and Edward Miller—is an important one in understanding the efforts of the Vietnamese people who desired peace.

Nguyen Manh Ha, a noncommunist Catholic who served in Ho Chi Minh’s government; Ngo Ba Thanh, an attorney educated in America; and Tran Ngoc Chan, the Secretary General of the Lower House, are among the many leaders that are too briefly portrayed. Duong Van Minh, the leader of 1963 coup, is the veritable Forest Gump of South Vietnamese society—present at most every important event, including assuming leadership before the unconditional surrender of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

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Sophie Quinn-Judge

Was he a leader or a survivor? A patriot or an opportunist?  Quinn-Judge does not explore those questions.

It is disheartening that Quinn-Judge believes that by the 1966, just over a year after the entry of American ground forces, the Third Segment had eroded. Quinn-Judge does not analyze the apparent lack of leadership or organizing principle among the Third Segment, and she laments that neutralists had no Western sponsor, which belies the central tenet of her work.

Nevertheless, The Third Force in Vietnam is a worthwhile contribution to the field, providing an understanding of the desire for peace of many Vietnamese.

–Dan Hart