Dragon’s Jaw by Stephen Coonts & Barrett Tillman

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Stephen Coonts flew A-6 Intruders for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Since then, he has written sixteen bestselling aviation techno-thrilling novels, the first of which was the  Flight of the Intruder. Barrett Tillman, an authority on air warfare, has written more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind.

Coonts and Tillman’s Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 304 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is a book that editorializes about flying and Vietnam War diplomacy as much as it tells a war story.

The war story is the targeting of the strategically vital Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam by U.S. Navy and Air Force fliers. From March 1965 to the November 1968 bombing halt, the unproductive sacrifices made by these airmen—killed and missing in action, wounded, or captured as prisoners—were stunning.

The book’s title covers the flying action. In that regard, if you can imagine Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in a five-gravity landscape while strangers fling sharp-edged rocks at him, you have a hint about the story’s drama. Note: A few philosophers argue that such a task made Sisyphus happy.

To complete that imagery, here’s what Coonts and Tillman’s have to say about Rolling Thunder, the bombing program to interdict supplies from North to South Vietnam: It was “fatally flawed from the start. There were a great many fool’s errands in Vietnam—arguably the entire war was one—and the pressure from the top was excruciating.”

They address that pressure by classifying the diplomacy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara as misdirected, self-serving, and ineffective. They also shred John Kennedy’s decisions about South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended in the portentous November 1963 assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu. Many of their arguments reference previously published sources.

Coonts and Tillman dissect Johnson’s diplomacy by comparing it to Machiavelli, Thucydides, and contemporary thinkers—a no-contest encounter.  The authors fault senior military officers who “realized that the fuel and ordnance expended on Thanh Hoa missions and the losses incurred were wasted effort” against “the most heavily defended area in the world.”

Navy and Air Force fliers faced constantly improving North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG interceptor defenses. Their improvisation in maneuvering aircraft through dangerous situations was unimaginable—until it happened. Their inability to destroy the bridge symbolized North Vietnamese resistance and American impotence, the authors say.

A major argument against the war was the fact that, afterward, it was evident that all of the reasons not to pursue it were obvious before the war began, according to Coonts and Tillman.

The authors identify both American attackers and North Vietnamese defenders and quote their oral and written testimony about battle. Dragon’s Jaw honors the lives of brave men who otherwise might be forgotten. The war can be judged as ineffective in solving an international dilemma, but the depth of dedication by participants on both sides is unquestionable, as this book plainly shows.

Along with recreating bombing and dog-fighting missions, the authors describe operations and life aboard aircraft carriers; fliers’ constant quest for better tactics, equipment, and weapons; and the ordeal of American POWs. Given their antipathy to the antiwar movement, it’s not surprising that the authors disparage Jane Fonda for her wartime visit to Hanoi. They also devote a chapter to the evolution of aircraft carrier design as planes grew larger and heavier.

The authors depict Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as diplomatic wizards for befriending—or perhaps economically bribing—China while undermining South Vietnam in 1972. The bargaining received a boost from the development of laser-guided, three-thousand-pound bombs that finally collapsed the Thanh Hoa Bridge into the Song Ma River.

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 Tanh Hoa Bridge after American F-4 Phantom fighter bombers knocked its western end into the Song Ma River in April 1972.

The book broadened my knowledge of Navy air operations. But its arguments frequently are vitriolic, rehashing reasoning that is at least fifty years old. Old conclusions are still largely ignored, however, and I would have preferred to see the authors apply them to today’s military commitments.

In their final pages, the authors do mention the advantages of today’s guided munitions designed for the Vietnam War, and they tie an unsatisfactory Vietnam War targeting episode to Desert Storm as part of a Note.

Navy and Air Force leaders fought a “sortie war” to impress McNamara and gain personal recognition, according to the authors. The resultant lack of inter-service effort leads Coonts and Tillman to call the fighting in Vietnam a “shitty little war.”

They conclude with an idea from Henry Kissinger that they judge to be “perhaps the ultimate lesson” of the war: Victory in war is essentially meaningless unless it leads to a political settlement that will endure.

Think about it.

—Henry Zeybel

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Operation Linebacker I – 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

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In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a three-pronged attack against South Vietnam: from the Demilitarized Zone, the Central Highlands, and Cambodia. With few Americans remaining in country working primarily as advisers while Nixon’s Vietnamization was in full swing, the South Vietnamese were expected to protect themselves. That appeared impossible in face of the North’s disproportionate number of personnel, tanks, and artillery.

President Nixon responded by deploying massive American air power in “an almost unrestrained way” against the North, according to Marshall L. Michel III in Operation Linebacker I 1972: The First High-Tech Air War (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper: $9.99, Kindle). Using new technology in Linebacker I, Michel says, the United States “brought to bear the start of an air power revolution.”

Linebacker I and II coincided with Michel’s Air Force career. From 1970-73, he flew 321 combat missions as part of both campaigns. Last year he wrote Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s Are Sent to Hanoi, which is an excellent companion to this book.  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/operation-linebacker-ii-1972-by-marshall-l-michel-iii/

In this look at Linebacker I Michel provides a detailed account of political and military actions prior to and during the bombing operation, including explaining Nixon’s changing diplomacy. Linebacker I concentrated on interdicting North Vietnamese supply lines, much like Rolling Thunder had done from 1965-68. Linebacker I had broader approval to target airfields, SAM sites, and GCI radars than Rolling Thunder did.

To buttress his claim that this was the start of “an air power revolution,” Michel describes the use of new equipment on Linebacker I missions from April through October 1972.

He calls precision guided munitions (PGM) “the most important Air Force weapon in the campaign.” These 2,000-pound smart bombs either were laser guided (LGB) by a designator in the back seat of an F-4 or they were electro-optically guided (EOGB) by a Pave Knife external pod.

Delivering LGBs required two aircraft: one to lase and one to bomb. Pave Knife allowed an aircraft to deliver and track its own EOGBs, as well as those dropped by the rest of an attacking flight. Full-page illustrations in the book help explain this maneuver and others tactics, such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Smart bombs were not new in 1972. When I flew with Spectre in 1970, our F-4 escorts occasionally carried LGBs, which our slowly orbiting gunship targeted with lasers against antiaircraft sites or road intersections in the relative safety of Laos. The advantage enjoyed with smart bombs during Linebacker I occurred from marrying them to sophisticated electronic gear that permitted aircrews to guide their munitions while flying at high speeds in extremely hostile environments.

The new technology’s many successes included new accuracy that destroyed the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa (Dragon’s Jaw) bridges, vital transportation links that had survived years of attacks.

During Linebacker I, chaff received fresh life. Chaff bombs established corridors one hundred miles long, allowing aircraft in these paths to become invisible to equipment on the ground.

Improved technology did not solve every problem, though, according to Michel. The USAF and Navy used different air-to-air tactics, which created dissent, he says. Navy pilots who had trained under the Topgun program scored a high victory ratio over MiGs, while USAF crews suffered losses as a result of poor tactical maneuvers. Michel show how MiG domination against the Air Force pilots brought about the creation of the Red Flag training program and modernized tactics.        

Along with technological gains, command-and-control changes further increased air power effectiveness. B-52s delivered their “incredible number of bombs day or night in any weather conditions,” as Michel puts it, and “changed targets quickly to meet the ground tactical situation very close to allied troops.” As a result of these capabilities, the 200 B-52s from Guam and Thailand concentrated their strikes on close air support in South Vietnam during Linebacker I.

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Bombing a bridge in North Vietnam, May 1972

What’s more, the Navy’s Red Crown GCI system provided instant information to attacking aircraft. On the other hand, Teaball—a new USAF GCI system—proved of “limited usefulness” because communications broke down and caused “high value losses,” Michel says.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese improved defenses by moving SA-2 launch sites closer to the DMZ and employing shoulder-launched SA-7s on the battlefields.

From start to finish, Michel repeatedly lauds the less glamorous C-130 combat support sorties that kept South Vietnamese forces supplied at An Loc and Kontum. In conclusion, he cites an over dependency by the ARVN on American air power, a point proved when North Vietnam again invaded the South in 1975. The ARVN “collapsed,” he says, “ending the conflict once and for all.”

Michel excels as a military historian because he impartially presents well-researched views of observers and participants from both sides of the war.

As usual, this Osprey Publishing book includes outstanding images. Artist Adam Tooby provides three dazzling double-page pictures of aircraft. Additionally, virtually every page has one or more evocative photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

Topgun by Dan Pedersen 

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Selected to create an advanced training program for U.S. Navy fighter pilots, Dan Pedersen operated in accordance with an afterthought from his commander: “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose an airplane.” Otherwise, Pedersen was on his own.

In his memoir, Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 320 pp. $28, hardcover and Kindle; $35, audiobook), Pederson tells how as a lieutenant commander in 1969 he handpicked eight highly experienced F-4 Phantom crewmen—four pilots and four backseaters—to develop the program.

First, they named it “Topgun.” Then, after analyzing the combat capability of the F-4 Phantom “well beyond the parameters set by McDonnell Douglas,” they designed a curriculum that taught crew members how to use the airplane and its armament to become “the best sticks in the sky,” as Pedersen puts it. They also taught their students “how to teach other pilots” the same skills.

In measuring their success, the facts speak for themselves. From the beginning of Topgun to the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio against MiGs was 24:1. Its ratio for the entire war was 12:1, but that was still far better than USAF’s overall ratio, Pedersen says.

The intensity of Pedersen’s commitment to perfecting aerial combat skills makes this book exceptionally interesting. He shares his learning experience. Living to dogfight, he flew any plane available at every opportunity. Part of Topgun’s success was due to his access to Area 51 (the highly classified section of Edwards AFB in Nevada) to fly MiGs that the U.S. government had acquired clandestinely.

Although flying took precedence over everything else in his life, that characteristic did not diminish Pedersen’s worth as a compassionate leader. In the book he frequently memorializes friends killed in combat or accidents. He also hero-worships flyers from World War II and the Korean War.

He concedes that death waits only one mistake away and says, “When you’re a fighter pilot, alone in that cockpit, your fate is in your hands.”

Prior to his Topgun assignment, Pedersen flew F-4s from the U.S.S. Enterprise on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam in 1968. He describes sorties that provided close air support in South Vietnam, day and night interdiction of traffic in Laos, and strategic bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Repetitive and unproductive targeting dictated by Washington created discontent among Navy flyers, particularly when losses multiplied, he says.

In 1973, Pedersen flew a shorter second tour from the Enterprise, bombing trucks in Laos after the Paris Agreement halted U.S. combat action in South Vietnam.

Along with him telling of the creation of Topgun, Pedersen also recalls historic world events and personal trials and tribulations as they relate to flying:

  • Dogfights over North Vietnam in 1972.
  • Israel’s desperate battle for survival in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • The costly maneuvers to rescue the U.S.S. Mayaguez crew that same year.
  • A sorrowful depiction of people fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
  • Development of the F-14 Tomcat.
  • Technology that gave Topgun even greater superiority over USAF training.
  • Duty as “Skipper” of the U.S.S. Ranger.
  • A near-demise of the Topgun school.
  • Politics leading to his retirement as a captain in 1983 after twenty-nine years of service.
  • Making the movie,”Top Gun.”

Plus, buried among these spellbinding recollections, there’s a love story with a happy ending.

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Capt. Pedersen

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Pedersen’s Navy views with those of USAF pilot Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. in his new book, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Both books cover the same times and events.

Pedersen’s memoir left me disappointed (not quite to his depth, of course) that he never shot down a MiG. At the same time, I envied his powerful influence on improving the combat skills of so many flyers.

In my eyes, a great teacher is a great man.

—Henry Zeybel

Uncommon Valor by Stephen L. Moore

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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company That Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret (Naval Institute Press, 422 pp.; $23.14 Hard, $21.96 Kindle) is a Vietnam War history book for the ages.

More bluntly put: The book is a helluva good war story. In this recon world things went right about half the time. Sometimes a well-conceived plan would fail and people died. Sometimes an audacious plan would work like a charm. That world was no reasonable place to go, but it was exactly where young, fit, tough guys wanted to be.

Stephen L. Moore, the book’s author, really has his stuff together. Readers will find interesting stories of combat or intrigue on page after page. He assembled this history based on interviews with men who were on the scene, along with citations for awards, official reports, archival material, newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs, secondary sources, and personal records. Moore has written seventeen other history books about World War II and Texas.

Uncommon Valor portrays the exploits of a small collection of American men from Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force personnel, and CIA field agents in the Vietnam War supplemented by indigenous people. They all secretly operated behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia.

Code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) and stationed at Forward Operating Base No. 2 (FOB-2) near Kontum in the Central Highlands, SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs and the White House. The main mission was to disrupt North Vietnamese operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also took part in downed pilot and POW rescue missions.

The book recreates the history of FOB-2 beginning with its original thirty-three Green Berets. Because a significant amount of paperwork was destroyed to maintain secrecy, Moore centers his account on the activities of five Medal of Honor and eight Distinguished Service Cross recipients whose actions were thoroughly documented.

Moore bestows the greatest recognition on SFC Robert L. Howard, one of America’s most decorated warriors. Howard served in the Army for thirty-six years and retired as a colonel. His exploits, along with similar actions performed by other men from FOB-2, defy logic and the odds. As Moore tells the story, every man from FOB-2 was a hero.

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Stephen Moore

The SOG program demanded the most competent warriors available, and fortunately those who were best qualified volunteered for the task. Photographs, a glossary of terms, notes, bibliography, a roster of SOG troops at FOB-2, and an index round out the book’s structure.

I was only vaguely aware of SOG before reading Uncommon Valor and found it highly informative. I believe even those familiar with SOG might be enlightened by the insights provided by Moore’s nearly one hundred interviewees.

The author’s website is stephenlmoore.com

—Henry Zeybel

Saving Bravo by Stephan Talty

By now, the story is well-known. Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton, a 52-year-old USAF navigator, assigns himself at the last minute to fly on a bombing run below the DMZ in April 1972.

He’s shot down behind enemy lines. And Gene Hambleton might just be an intelligence gold mine for the NVA—and for the Russians and Chinese.

A former missile squadron commander for the Strategic Air Command, Hambleton knows stuff, lots of it. And so, a rescue operation begins. And not just any rescue op. It will become what author Stephan Talty calls the greatest SEAL rescue in history—and one of the deadliest.

This mission was the subject of the book Bat-21 and the Hollywood movie of the same name starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. That fictionalized drama captured some of the essential information.

But now we get the full story. In Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History (Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp, $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), Talty has interviewed fliers, survivors, families, friends, and reviewed previously unpublished documents, as well as published secondary sources. And he’s pulled together a thrill ride.

Hambleton is sitting behind and just to the right of the pilot of an EB-66 electronic countermeasures aircraft on what’s expected to be a fairly routine mission. His flight suddenly finds itself under a staggering artillery and missile attack.

There’s a protocol for evading SAMs, risky but useful. But the missile that takes down Hambleton’s plane is sent up under optical control, without radar guidance until the last moment, so it’s nearly impossible to detect.

Iceal “Gene” Hambleton

A huge explosion. Hambleton bails out into a dense, life-saving fog, hides in the underbrush and then is stunned by the rumble of mechanized vehicles, infantry, and the clash of mortars. The only survivor, he has landed in the midst of an enormous ground invasion force.

The NVA called it “red fiery summer,” but it soon would earn another name, the 1972 Easter Offensive, an invasion of South Vietnam. Hundreds of Soviet tanks, 30,000 NVA troops, artillery, and missile batteries. To Hambleton, it looks like Stalingrad.

One of the first rescue aircraft on the scene, a Cobra, immediately encounters a thundering barrage, thousands of tracers stretching upward. In seconds, the chopper pitches nose-up and plummets to the ground.

Hambleton calls in airstrikes on the invasion force that surrounds him, believing rescue is no longer an option. The sky above him is a curtain of shrapnel. It will be eleven days before he escapes. During that time, in a single day, the NVA will launch 83 missiles at American pilots.

Ultimately, five branches of the service will be involved in the rescue effort. Hundreds of officers and airmen—and millions of dollars. All for one guy. Hambleton thinks they don’t have a chance.

Talty does a masterful job of building tension throughout this suspenseful tale. Yet he takes time to paint subtle images.

“Flying above Vietnam at night was magical: the wandering sliver glint of the rivers, the black foothills folded back on one another in serried, ghostly rows gripped by thin fingers of mist. The country was lush even in darkness. The only signs of war from this distance were the innumerable bomb craters, now filled up with rainwater. The pilots looking down would see them flash with moonlight as they flew over.”

And Talty offers savvy acknowledgement of the conflicting emotions of Americans who weren’t sure what they were fighting for, whether they had support back home, which way their leaders were leaning, or whether they were even talking to each other.

To protect Hambleton, a huge swath of the invasion area was marked off-limits for U.S. counterattacks. As the NVA assault pushed on, there was ignorance–and denial–that resources that might have been used in battle were committed to the desperate rescue of one man. For some troops, it seemed their leaders had gone completely crazy.

Eleven men and five aircraft would die trying to reach the navigator.

After days of failure, the Air Force finally realized an air rescue was out of the question. At this point, no one south of the DMZ knew that two downed fliers also had been taken prisoner.

Enter the guys who slip behind the lines to bring someone back. Navy Lt. Tommy Norris, a SEAL who looks “like a mongoose that had just spotted a brown water snake,” volunteers.

Lt. Tommy Norris, in the background at center, as just-rescued Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton (on stretcher) is evacuated. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The NVA may not know precisely where Hambleton is hiding, but they are listening to his radio communications. To connect him with his rescuers, the Division team develops an incredible code that must be read to be believed.

Norris, along with a Vietnamese commando, will make a daring trip into the bush, repeatedly evading enemy patrols, to bring out another flier. Remarkably, they will go back once again, to bring out Hambleton, sick and delirious after his ordeal.

Hambleton will win a bucket of medals and live until 85. Norris will be awarded the Medal of Honor. Talty has put together a great read on a remarkable moment in history.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Operation Linebacker II 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

The best military historians present the thoughts and actions of troops from both sides in a battle. Marshall L. Michel III aspires to fulfill that high bar as he writes about the massive bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 in Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s are Sent to Hanoi (Osprey, 96 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book).

Michel flew F-4 escorts for the bombers, a small slice of his 321 combat missions. In 2001, following a fact-finding trip to Vietnam, he wrote The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle, although he was not happy having to rely on translations from government sources for the North Vietnamese view of the action. After contacting men who had battled the B-52s, he returned to Vietnam and met with North Vietnamese Air Defense surface-to-air missile (SA-2) crewmen and fighter pilots. He also read The Red Book, a manual filled with years of observations about bomber tactics that taught the enemy how to shoot down a B-52.

Based on this insider information, Michel wrote his new book, which might be the final word on the eleven-day air-to-ground Linebacker II campaign.

During Linebacker II, flexibility in tactics determined success and failure for both sides. When the bombing began, Americans were unaware of how much information the North Vietnamese had about B-52 tactics. That’s why in the first four days of battle the B-52s used compromised maneuvers and SA-2s destroyed twelve of them.

Leadership conflicts also hampered American decision making. Planners at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha—who owned the bombers—were out of touch with crewmen half a world away and miscalculated the B-52s’ electronic jammers’ efficiency, which gave a tactical advantage to SA-2 missile teams.

Michel clearly explains the ploys and counter ploys used by both sides. By night eight when the need for SA-2s far exceeded their rate of production—and the B-52s bombed at will—the North Vietnamese sought to resume the Paris peace talks.

Prior to walking the reader through each night of Linebacker II, Michel describes the available weapons and their associated systems on both sides; and offers analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and plans; the political climate; and the campaign’s objective.

Thanks to the talent of illustrator Jim Laurier, Operation Linebacker II 1972 has the outstanding graphics we expect of Osprey publications. His double-page paintings of night operations made me long for flying dangerous missions. Well-chosen photographs, many from Michel’s collection, further enhance the text.

In 1972 I spent half of Linebacker II as a Special Operations liaison at U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand and the other half monitoring daily briefings in Saigon. I believed that experience had given me a solid understanding of the campaign, but Michel’s account significantly broadened my knowledge, particularly about the North Vietnamese mentality and initiative.

Books such as Operation Linebacker II 1972 renew my admiration for historians’ ability to recreate events from long ago. In the summer issue of Air Power History, Darrel Whitcomb wrote an article called “Rescue Operations During Linebacker II.” His account of helicopter search and rescue missions that recovered thirty bomber and fighter crewmen perfectly closes the circle for Michel’s work.

You can read the article on line. Read it. You won’t regret it.

—Henry Zeybel

 

War Stories by Conrad M Leighton

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Conrad M. Leighton’s War Stories: A GI Reporter in Vietnam, 1970-1971 (MacFarland, 340 pp., $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a jounal of Leighton’s year in Vietnam where his main assignment was with the 1st Cavalry Division as a Public Information Office reporter. Leighton bases the book on the many detailed letters he sent home from the war. The result is more a series of vignettes than a narrative.

Leighton did a 1970-71 tour in Vietnam, and he describes the entire spectrum of his in-country experiences. The reader can see the the changes in U.S. forces and tactics from the beginnings of the war until nearing the end of direct combat involvement.

Leighton worked as an embedded reporter with different 1st Cav brigades and his orders were to report back what he saw from the Army’s point of view. He details the struggles of conscience he had with superiors who wanted particular slants on his articles. Leighton spent time in the field and with every aspect of military life during that year, from the humdrum to the profane—from hunkering down under incoming enemy fire to the travails of traveling dentists who visited fire bases, to the problems with waste disposal.

He is honest in his reporting and does not pull punches as he writes about drug use—in particular, marijuana—among the troops. He is frank in his dislike of new officers with stateside ideas and discipline. His main joys were to be published in either the division or brigade newspapers, and occasionally having a story picked up by Stars and Stripes.

Leighton paints the GI’s lives in detail, including the humor and grit and grime that goes with an unpopular war in a foreign country fought primarily by draftees. A constant theme running through the book is how tiring it all was.

For anyone interested in details about the later aspects of the war in Vietnam, this is a good book. It captures the frustrations of the soldiers and the spotty leadership at the troop level.

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The book also will be helpful to historians as it provides another look at the units that fought in different places in earlier times in the war. The generational changes in attitudes and tactics will enlighten readers and help understand why so many veterans had widely varying experiences during the long Vietnam War.

For the acute observer, it is possible to extrapolate this story and interpret it to reveal the result of poor management from top U.S. political and military leaders. Reading between the lines, you can sense a lack of purpose, and a lack of clear direction from the top.

No wonder so many men on the ground kept asking:  Why take risks? Why am I here? What good am I doing?

–J.L. Bud Alley