The Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was one of the most misidentified and misnamed special operations units in the American war in Vietnam. With his 2017 book, SOG Chronicles, Volume I (SOG Publishing, 210 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), former Army Green Beret John Meyer gives us the first of a series telling the stories of the men who took part in the secret SOG actions.
Changing some names “to protect those involved,” Meyer tells us of the birth and mission of SOG, which was in place under MACV from 1964-72. He also includes some of the history that drove its inception and goals.
The Special Forces troops of SOG and their Vietnamese comrades, including Montagnards, went where they weren’t supposed to go and did what they weren’t supposed to do with the knowledge that the U.S. government would disavow their existence and missions into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam if they were discovered.
SOG Chronicles focuses on the 1970 Operation Tailwind, in which 16 Green Berets and some 120 Montagnard fighters went deep into western Laos to draw the NVA’s attention away from another operation being run by CIA forces in eastern Laos.
This operation turned into a four-day fight, a greater-than-expected engagement with more than a few casualties. The men were finally extracted with 60 wounded, all of whom were kept alive by the sole medic in the unit, Gary Mike Rose, with the help of an indigenous assistant. In 2017, Rose belatedly received the Medal of Honor for those beyond-the-call-of duty actions.
Meyer also includes a rundown of other SOG operations, as well as details about some of the minutia and high jinx that took place in camps and on the trail. He heaps great praise on the airborne assets assigned to SOG, those who transported the men out and back and provided air support.
This is a well-written, well-edited, and informative book and a tribute the men of SOG.
Robert Thompson’s Clear, Hold, and Destroy: Pacification in Phy Yen and the American War in Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 330 pp. $39.95, hardcover: $29.95, Kindle) is, above all, about the Vietnam War’s U.S. pacification effort and how it failed. The question addressed by Thompson is: Why is it important that we understand this failure?
As I read this book, I wondered why Thompson’s case study of events that took place fifty years ago would be relevant today. It would seem more natural to look at the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Vietnam experience and analyze similar philosophical and operational errors to understand why we have repeated the same flawed philosophy. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Thompson’s study of the pacification program in the Vietnam War examines the effort in Phu Yen Province south of Qui Nhon. His goal is to show how Americans advanced pacification and why the program ultimately did not work. He grapples with the impact of conventional warfare on pacification during a war by looking at the North Vietnamese Army, along with the Viet Cong, who were primarily fighting an insurgent war with the goal of winning over the South Vietnamese people.
The tragedy for the Vietnamese sandwiched in the middle was that the American search-and-destroy strategy was all but inseparable from U.S. pacification programs. At the same time, the often ruthless methods of the Viet Cong to control the population were no less harmful. However, it was not lost on the people that the Viet Cong would always come back after being forced away and reassert themselves.
Thompson, a historian with the Films Team at the Army University Press, argues that the ultimate objective of pacification during the Cold War was the defeat of communism, a goal not quite consistent with the traditional definition of “pacification,” which is to establish peace.
Therefore a dichotomy existed in the inconsistent and confusing use of the term and, more importantly, its consequences in actual practice. It has been said that pacification is about power—ultimately control over a population while isolating it from insurgents. In other words, it requires a major military component.
In the 1960s the Field Manual 31-22 Counterinsurgency Forces’ definition was “to destroy the insurgent’s ability to use the population for support.” That has proven, because of the destructive nature of war, to be a fundamental contradiction. Witness how incredibly destructive the war in Vietnam was for the Vietnamese people when airstrikes and artillery were used to blast hamlets and repeatedly dislocate those who lived there.
In an apparent effort to make the mission appear more benign to the public, a cascade of names was used for the program such as nation building, rural reconstruction, revolutionary development, winning hearts and minds, and civic action. Yet, in the end, pacification in the Vietnam War was never free from violence and destruction.
hompson could have looked at the American pacification of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and in the 19th century Indian wars in the West to illustrate the consequences of pacification. This summer, in his speech announcing the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, President Biden said it was the end of the era of “nation-building.” That reference reflects how much the concept has become associated with wrong-headed policies.
Thompson should be applauded for his excellent scholarship in approaching a very difficult subject and accurately describing the reality of pacification programs in the Vietnam War. His book is perceptively written, informative, and well worth reading. His website is drrobthompson.co,
Men of the U.S Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam volunteered to live with and protect South Vietnamese villagers in I Corps. Ideally a CAP was made up of fifty men—14 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and 35 South Vietnamese Popular Forces troops, although in reality the teams often fell below those numbers. The program, designed to fight guerrillas during the night and help villagers during the day, was in place in Vietnam from 1965-71, and was the subject of controversies between upper echelon Marine and U.S. Army commanders. In essence, the Army favored the search-and-destroy strategy, and the Marines wanted to emphasize hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency programs.
In War in the Villages: The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 247 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $23.95, Kindle) Marine Vietnam War veteran Ted Easterling tells the story of the effectiveness of CAPs against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Easterling holds a doctorate from the University of Akron where he taught history. Relying primarily on secondary sources in his book, Easterling concludes that CAP never realized its potential.
The book’s lengthy introduction details the principles of guerrilla warfare, communist ideology, and revolutionary warfare to show the formidable military challenge posed by the communist forces in Vietnam. Easterling also explains a range of counterinsurgency tactics designed to meet the challenge, the core of which fostered disagreement between Marine Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak and his boss, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland.
Easterling conscientiously takes the reader through all the stages of CAP’s existence, a struggle intensified by the program’s limited size and insufficient support from the South Vietnamese government. Even when CAP became a separate command, a lack of supplies hampered progress.
Several recently released books about the CAP have reached conclusions similar to Easterling’s. In Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ, for example, the British military historian David Strachan-Morris rates CAP as successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless successful. For him, counterinsurgency is an effective way to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.
A more personalized view of CAP comes from Tiger Papa Threeby Edward F. Palm, a former CAP Marine who lived with villagers between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers south of the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.”
What’s more, he says that the South Vietnamese Popular Forces avoided taking risks, and the U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”
Regardless of the degree of CAP effectiveness, War in the Villages provides an in-depth study of a controversial program that once again shows the high degree of commitment by the U.S. Marine Corps.
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.
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.
Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon, Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam: The Beginning of the End, January 1974–March 1975 (Helion, 104 pp. $29.95, paper) is a concise history of the final chapters of the decades-long American war in Vietnam. Ironically, it all takes place after the signing of the so-called Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.
South Vietnam, going into its death spiral, was burdened by several disadvantages—unlike North Vietnam. For one thing, South Vietnam was competing for munitions with Israel as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which all but drained the pipeline of promised U.S. military aid. In contrast, the Soviet Union and China replaced most of the North’s materiel losses from the 1972 Easter Offensive.
It also was Saigon’s misfortune that President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation in 1974 put an end to his promises of aid and support if the North launched a campaign to crush South Vietnam’s government. His successor, Gerald Ford, faced with a Congress opposed to renewed involvement, was not going to re-commit the U.S. to the conflict in order to save the South Vietnamese regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.
Beyond external factors, there President Thieu’s lack of strategic vision and poor decision making. In contrast, the strategic goal of the North—reunification under a communist regime—always remained the same despite years of horrendous combat losses. With the United States no longer a player in the war, the North totally applied itself to developing and implementing a final campaign.
Grandolini, a historian and aviation journalist and author who was raised in Vietnam, effectively uses primary source documents to discusses another part of the equation: an unanticipated sideshow that caught the South off balance. In January 1974, South Vietnam suddenly found itself in conflict with the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Paracel Islands. After several naval engagements, China prevailed and took control of the islands.
The North’s leaders relied on a centralized and highly disciplined command structure with combat-experienced generals to form a strategy for ending the war in total victory. The resulting plan called for corps-sized phased regional offensives to begin in 1974 with the aim of probing for exploitable weak points that could be followed by breakthroughs.
It was of great interest to learn about the successful concealment efforts by the NVA, including the use of bogus transmissions and hidden movements of major units, some advancing well over 300 kilometers. On the other hand, the South Vietnamese Army’s reaction to the Spring 1974 NVA thrust into the Parrot’s Beak must have surprised the North’s planners. In a multi-corps armored counterattack, the ARVN swung through Cambodia to outflank and outmaneuver the NVA while supported by highly effective airstrikes. They mauled the NVA units and sent them into retreat.
But that would be the last ARVN offensive operation during the war. Although ARVN units often put up heroic resistance to NVA attacks, the fact remains that without American aid the South was forced to fight defensively with limited resources.
In 1975 things irreversibly fell apart for the South. The North’s operational plan originally called for two stages, destroying the ARVN in 1975 and victory in 1976. The South’s fate was sealed, however, when in March 1975 Thieu abruptly—and without proper preparation at the tactical level—ordered the evacuation of military forces from northern South Vietnam. The withdrawal soon became a rout swollen with countless thousands of civilians blocking the way.
This well-researched and well written volume closes on that rout and sets the stage for the final battles and the fall of Saigon.I strongly recommend Target Saigon to anyone with an interest in the final two years of the Vietnam War.
Arrigo Velicogna revisits an overlooked portion of the Vietnam War with Into the Iron Triangle: Operation Attleboro and the Battles North of Saigon, 1966 (Helion, 88 pp. $29.95, paper). Attleboro was the largest American operation of the war to that date.
Part of British publisher Helion’s Asia@War Series, this large-format book overflows with graphics. Classic color artwork of armored vehicles, aircraft, and troops on the ground enhance a wealth of black-and-white photographs. Maps appear when needed. The graphics could almost stand alone in telling the story of Operation Attleboro.
Velicogna holds a doctorate in war studies and has taught military history at King’s College London and Wolverhampton University. He also has worked for several British defense-related organizations.
After opening the book setting out the causes of the Vietnam War, Velicogna provides background on the forces that engaged in Attleboro. In his description of, as he puts, it, “the U.S. Army that fought the Vietnam War,” Velicogna covers the infantry battalions; mechanical, artillery, and aviation units; airpower; Mobile (Mike) Strike Forces; and gets into specifics examining the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 1st Infantry Division, and the 25th Infantry Division.
In this section—a book in itself—Velicogna amazed me with his ability to combine a multitude of minor points and form a complex picture in each category. He also has an unquestionable talent for research. His background material perfectly prepares the reader for the combat action that fills the second half of the book.
The time frame is November 1965-December 1966 when the South Vietnamese Army was incapable of assuming military security adequate to American expectations. MACV Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland therefore opted to forego counterinsurgency tactics until the U.S. decisively defeated enemy troops in hidden camps north of Saigon.
As a result, at Hill 65, Ap Bau Bang, Trung Loi, and Nha Mat, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division faced off against the Viet Cong’s 9th Division in encounters that preceded—and paved the way for—Operation Attleboro. That’s because the VC had planned to target ARVN forces, but the Americans got in the way. Velicogna crisply and concisely summarizes the fighting in which the U.S. troops prevailed.
The spontaneity of these battles and frequency of smaller ones caused the opposing Attleboro commanders—American Gen. Edward DeSaussure and VC Col. Hoang Cam—to modify their tactics erratically. What began as routine search-and-destroy missions rapidly expanded as Americans discovered many enemy base camps, ever-larger tonnages of rice, and large quantities of enemy supplies.
De Saussure eventually outmaneuvered himself, and Cam altered his tactics to meet the Americans head on. A stalemate ensued until the Big Red One’s commander, Gen. William DePuy, replaced DeSaussure and redeployed his scattered units. The fighting turned into a pursuit of Cam’s men to Cambodia. Velicogna describes these these events as if they happened yesterday.
He includes a box score of the 72-day-long Operation Attleboro in which friendly versus enemy losses in personnel and material are so disproportionate that they seem questionable. However, U.S. airpower and artillery swayed the outcome of many encounters, including more than 200 B-52 sorties against suspected command and logistics positions. To me, the greatest success of Attleboro was the discovery and destruction of 68 enemy base camps.
Velicogna ranks Operation Attleboro as “the precursor of the later, larger, operations in [III Corps], especially Junction City.” The U.S. Army, he writes, “had found a way to grapple and maul enemy main force units in areas where unrestrained firepower could be brought to bear, in turn reducing their influence on pacification efforts.”
That conclusion sounds extremely self-evident. To wit: If, in some isolated spot, I can beat you mercilessly, I will win—and help others.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..