No Wider War by Sergio Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–John Cirafici

Courage Under Fire by Ed Sherwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Henry Zeybel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Henry Zeybel

Moral Imperative by Darrel D. Whitcomb

Darrel Whitcomb’s Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 368 pp. $27.95, paper; $20.49, Kindle) 2021 is a well-written, researched, detailed, and informed book filled with accounts of incredible search and rescue missions. Whitcomb, a USAFA graduate who served three Vietnam War tours as a cargo pilot and forward air controller, begins with the earliest phase of American involvement in Southeast Asia as a backdrop to the evolving SAR mission. That quickly leads to the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive and Operations Linebacker I and II, the centerpieces of the book. 

Reading the details of these rescue missions I was repeatedly awestruck by the courage and perseverance of the rescue crews—especially when so many were shot down, riddled with fire, killed, or captured. 

On the eve of the 1972 Easter Offensive North Vietnamese antiaircraft units were heavily equipped with the latest Soviet technology and concentrated around sites targeted by U.S. forces. Facing an array of weaponry that could defend at all altitudes and weather, attacking aircraft were always in danger of being brought down.

The Russians had supplied the North Vietnamese with an abundance of artillery and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles with supporting radar, as well as fighter aircraft. Most telling was the large-scale introduction of portable, heat-seeking, shoulder-fired SA-7’s. Those weapons brought about U.S. losses practically every time they engaged attacking American aircraft. And nearly every attempted rescue mission took place in a high-risk environment.

The North Vietnamese monitored the American radio net, and set traps for inbound rescuers using downed flier as bait. Many rescuers and pilots consequently were hit by intense fire.   

The questions then arose: When is this tradeoff too costly to continue a rescue effort? Is it ethical not to try to rescue a downed crew?  If so, what was the morale impact on others who continued to fly high-risk missions? 

Perhaps the BAT-21 episode, which is described in this book, has been written about extensively, and was the subject of a Hollywood movie, best illustrates cost-versus-gain. BAT-21 was an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft that was shot down. Only one crewmember, the navigator, survived, and he wound up in a highly dangerous sector saturated with ground-to-air missile sites, SA-7s, and antiaircraft artillery.  

An HH-43F hoists a downed airman in Southeast Asia. U.S. Air Force Photo

The effort to save him resulted in the loss of five additional aircraft and the deaths of eleven airmen. What’s more, U.S. planes scheduled to help embattled South Vietnamese troops in desperate need of airstrikes were diverted to the rescue effort. After an extensive effort the navigator was rescued by a determined and courageous two-man SEAL team backed up by South Vietnamese Navy commandos.

Was saving the navigator worth the losses? As Air Force Gen. John Vogt said about ordering highly risky SAR missions: “The one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that was ever in doubt, morale would tumble.” Hence, the “moral imperative” of the book’s title.

One comes away from this book with a deep-felt admiration for the crews who willingly put everything on the line to rescue others in the Vietnam War.

— John Cirafici

Logistics in the Vietnam Wars by N S Nash

“Logistics,” the British Field Marshal Viscount Wavell of Cyrenaica once said, “are a function of command.” In the Logistics in the Vietnam Wars, 1945-1975 (Pen and Sword/Casemate, 224 pp., $34.95) N S Nash examines the processes, resources, and systems involved in generating, transporting, sustaining, and redeploying or reallocating materiel and personnel in the twenty century wars in Vietnam. Nash looks at three distinct wars: the war of the Vietnamese against the French (1946-54), the Vietnamese against the Americans (1956-73), and a civil war pitting North Vietnam against South Vietnam (1973-1975).

N S “Tank” Nash received his MA in Military History from Birmingham University and was a member of the British Army Catering Corps for thirty years, rising to the rank of Brigadier. He is the author of several books on military history, including Valor in the Trenches. This is his first book on the Vietnam wars.

Nash presents this work in an accessible, colloquial manner, often employing derision and sarcasm while analyzing the actions of French and American military and political leaders. During the First Indochina War, AKA, “the French war,” Nash details how France’s initial use of wheeled transport proved vulnerable given the terrain, climate, and, ultimately, the adaptability of their enemy. The French military leadership’s desire to engage the Vietnamese in a set piece battle ended disastrously when they were routed by General Vo Nguyen Giap at the famed 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

After the partition of Vietnam as a result of the Geneva Accords that year, the Americans supported the pro-Western South Vietnam government. The mobility of American forces with the use of helicopters solved most of the logistical problems the French had encountered. The American problems in Vietnam proved to be more tactical than logistical, with the only logistical issue being an overabundance of amenities and comforts for the troops.  The use of chemical defoliants and bombing proved ineffective against the guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal in 1973, Nash describes the civil war between the North and the South as a fait accompli, noting that the North Vietnamese Army was far better prepared for the largely conventional war that ensued.

Though the thesis and title of the book are about the logistics of the Vietnam wars, Nash also delves into the political, diplomatic, and social machinations of the wars. When he sticks with the logistics, the book is solid. His analyses of the 1968 Siege at Khe Sahn and the M-16 are particularly noteworthy. When Nash veers into diplomatic or political history, however, the narrative is less convincing. Errors of fact diminish the storyline and distract the reader.

For example, President Kennedy did not approve 200,000 American advisers in the summer of 1961. He approved providing funding to increase the South Vietnamese Army from 170,000 to 200,000 troops. And In 1956, there were, in fact, many “pressing issues” between the North and South, as evinced by that fact that nearly a million North Vietnamese people fled to the South between 1954-56.

U.S. Marines hunkering down during the 1968 Siege at Khe Sanh

Nash is effusive in praise of Gen. Giap as “the master logistician,” and his plan for the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu is worthy of praise. But Nash also details how Giap lost the Siege at Khe Sahn due to logistical failures, led the disastrous Tet Offensive, and provided logistical support for the failed Easter Offensive in 1972. His side won the war, but his record was far from “undefeated.”

Bum Phillips once explained the brilliance of fellow football coach Bear Bryant, explaining that he “can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.” Without access to an incredibly devoted workforce of indefatigable porters and without what Nash describes as a “total disregard” for the lives of his own troops, one wonders about the genius of Giap.

Though he would have benefited from a steadier hand, Nash writes with great aplomb in exploring an under researched aspect of the wars in Vietnam.

–Daniel R. Hart

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam by Oscar E. Gilbert

At the heart of Oscar Gilbert’s compelling Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) are interviews with two dozen Marine tankers who served in the Vietnam War. Reinforced with a careful study of official (albeit limited) archives, Gilbert draws a clear line from the arrival of the Marines at Danang in 1965 to their departure from the country six years later. Through it all, he conveys the role of Marine armor in the war. 

From the start, Gilbert illustrates the differing strategies the Marines and the Army brought to the war. MACV’s approach was to draw the NVA and VC out into the open to defeat in decisive battles.The Marines sought to take ground and keep it, primarily in I Corps, where they worked with regional forces and ARVN units. It was only after prolonged pressure from above that the Marines went along with MACV’s strategy.

Gilbert, a former Marine who has written books about Marine tank battles in the Pacific in World War II and in the Korean War, describes the enormous problems tankers faced from the moment they arrived in Vietnam. Terrain ranging from coastal flats to mountains hampered freedom to maneuver and fight, especially in narrow streets during the 1968 Battle of Hue. Monsoon rains reduced fields to swamps, further restricting tank movements. Above all, U.S. military tactics for defeating enemies with tanks would prove ineffective against those without them. 

The book’s most sobering lesson illustrates how easily a tank can be disabled. Armor units were repeatedly ambushed by enemy units armed with RPG’s, satchel charges, and mines. Not once does Gilbert recount an action from which Marine tankers emerged unscathed.   

Using tactics that came to define the war, North Vietnamese units traveling by foot would attack the Americans, damaging and crippling tanks. Whether the units chose to stay and fight or withdraw, the results were often the same. Compelled to drive with hatches open for better visibility, countless tankers were killed and wounded. Tracks broke. Wheels were blown off. Machine guns jammed. And in an environment alive with fragments, tanks also were forced into duty as ambulances.

What’s more, tank maintenance problems were endless. Fine sand and dust wore down wheels, tracks, and suspensions. Air filters clogged quickly and required daily cleaning. Humidity clouded optics and caused water to accumulate in fuel tanks. Unless drained away, the water gave rise to algae that could kill engines. 

Despite those negatives, the North Vietnamese paid every time they engaged the Marine tankers, often suffering far more losses than the Americans. While the growing body count of enemy dead was ballyhooed by MACV, the declarations of victory rang hollow for the men who had earned them. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is a compelling piece of work. That said, Gilbert presents two challenges to less-informed readers.

First, to fully appreciate the book it would help to have a grasp of the Marines Corps’ chain of command at all levels. This knowledge is vital, given the frequency with which tank units were detached from parent companies or platoons to help Marines elsewhere. 

Second, the book has many photos, but only a handful of small-scale maps. Readers would need to look at a large-scale map of I Corps to fully comprehend the veterans’ accounts of the tank actions in the book.

To his credit, Gilbert readily acknowledges this. Actions fought by squads or even individual tanks are not easily documented. To that end, the book’s references include a link to the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association’s website and growing archive of maps. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is an often gut-wrenching account of brave, highly trained men doing their best under circumstances that defied them at virtually every turn. The book is a worthy addition to the library of any student of tank warfare and the United States Marines in the Vietnam War.

—Mike McLaughlin

Feeding Victory by Jobie Turner

Lake George in the eighteenth century. The Western Front in Europe in 1917. Guadalcanal in the Pacific and Stalingrad in Russia during World War II. Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War.

With case studies of these five battlegrounds, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jobie Turner examines logistic support advancements from preindustrial times to the modern era in Feeding Victory: Innovative Military Logistics from Lake George to Khe Sanh (University Press of Kansas, 400 pp. $39.95). The depth of Turner’s research is the foundation for the highly informative framework he uses to analyze modes of transportation and materiel delivery under bitterly contested combat conditions.

Turner holds a PhD in military strategy with an emphasis on logistics. During his twenty-four-year USAF career he served mostly in airlift operations as a pilot and commander of C-130J Super Hercules squadrons. During that time he logged 3,200 flight hours. Today he works for NORAD’s U.S. Northern Command as a J8 Program Analyst.            

Improved modes of transportation have brought about great changes in logistics, Turner says. The military has benefitted from advances in technology ranging from wooden wagons and ships in the French and Indian War, to railroads and aircraft in the industrial age, and nuclear weapons and computers today. Across sea, land, and air, logistics have experienced a 165-fold expansion in cargo capacity since the late eighteenth century, thereby altering the critical relationship between logistics and warfare—and, ultimately, geopolitical dynamics.

Better transportation also has increased economic activity between nations. Following World War II, American technological dominance and a robust economy supported by a vast industrial base allowed the nation to dominate logistics worldwide—and made the President of the United States the leader of the free world, according to Turner.

Each of his five studies in the book emphasizes the advantages gained by the side that best controlled the period’s dominant mode of transportation. Turner’s analysis of the 1968 Siege of Khe Sanh, for example, reveals a turning point in logistical theory. The United States supplied the base primarily (totally at times) by aircraft; the NVA relied on 2.5-ton trucks or materiel moved on foot. Both sides managed to fulfill their troops’ basic needs.

“What the North Vietnamese Army lacked in technology,” Turner notes, “it made up for in sheer numbers of soldiers and support groups.”

Turner thoroughly explains the thinking of logisticians from the U.S. and North Vietnam and how geopolitics influence them. At Khe Sanh, the deciding factor was that “the line of communication through the air equated the capacity of land and water,” Turner reports. Air then became an equivalent mode of transportation in war.

Although Khe Sanh was a tactical victory for the United States, it became part of a geopolitical setback at home among the American population.

Troops awaiting Medevac helicopters at Khe Sanh
(Dana Stone/United Press International)

Feeding Victory leaves its reader somewhat stranded in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, over a half century ago. More-recent cases, such as the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, could have made Turner’s arguments even more conclusive. He suggests the idea, but does not pursue it.

The book is not a casual read. It provides many facts and history lessons that provoke questions. Occasionally, I had to reread a section to fully understand Turner’s reasoning. He includes a dissertation-like density of material on all sides of each study. Nearly a hundred pages of tightly packed notes, a bibliography, and an appendix support the text, which contains many figures and tables.

Although logistics are the book’s primary theme, Turner also includes detailed accounts of military tactics and strategies, particularly in the last three studies.   

Above all, Turner’s work proves the timeless value of studying the past.

—Henry Zeybel 

Death in the Highlands by J. Keith Saliba

J. Keith Saliba’s Death in the Highlands: The Siege of Special Forces Camp Plei Me (Stackpole, 280 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $15.39, Kindle) is a well-written book does not begin with the title’s October 1965 siege by North Vietnamese Army on a remote U.S. Special Forces camp. Rather, Saliba starts with the siege’s back story, which more fully explains the event from a wider perspective of all the participants and at all levels of strategic thinking.   

Saliba, a journalism professor at Jacksonville University who has specialized in writing about the Vietnam War for two decades, starts with these questions: Why this battle when Plei Me was so far away from much more important South Vietnamese population centers? Why was a Special Forces camp even built at Plei Me? What was Hanoi’s greater goal beyond eliminating a small, remote camp? 

To answer these questions Saliba steps back to give the long view of the war and the strategic goals of the North Vietnamese. Paralleling this, he examines the Cold War policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies and how they led to deploying American Special Forces troops early in the Vietnam War. 

U.S. Special Forces arrived in Southeast Asia in 1961, and once there, Saliba explains why they developed the CIDG (Civil Irregular Defense Group) concept using fighters from local indigenous tribes. Ultimately, these camps become a thorn in the side of the enemy. Their presence thwarted the North’s goal of cutting South Vietnam in half.  

Consequently, the North Vietnamese decided that the camps had to be eliminated. They also believed assaulting these remote camps would enable the NVA to draw American and South Vietnamese troops into a meat grinder and strip away the forces needed to defend far-more-important urban centers.

After laying out the background, Saliba describes the operational and tactical levels of the North Vietnamese 1965 Monsoon Offensive in the Central Highlands and their Tay Nguyen (Western Plateau) Campaign. The core of the book is Saliba’s detailed account of the attackers and how Americans and CIDG fighters at Plei Me defended the camp.

We learn that the NVA commanders and their units arrived at Plei Me after a long and difficult march south, and how they planned to annihilate the camp. I came away impressed with the enemy’s detailed planning, including using sand-box models of targeted sites and rehearsal exercises. Paralleling that, the book identifies the Special Forces team members and aviators who showed incredible leadership, courage, and determination defending the camp.

Several people who became famous after the Vietnam War appear in the book. Norman Schwarzkopf, an adviser to South Vietnamese airborne units in 1965, would become the commanding general of American forces in the Persian Gulf War. Two months prior to the Plei Me Siege, Schwarzkopf had been involved in the defense of a CIDG camp at Duc Co against an equally ferocious attack.

Charlie Beckwith, who later led a Delta Force unit and was ground commander of the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, was directly involved in Plei Me’s fight for survival. Beckwith was, according to Saliba, a flawed and thin-skinned leader who was greatly impressed with himself.

The portrayal of the actual battle is rich in detail and never tedious. Saliba captures all the action. He describes sustained close air support missions coordinated by low-flying forward air controllers with flare ships overhead to light up the enemy positions, along with heroic work by the medevac and resupply crews who flew through intense ground fire.   

On the ground, Beckwith arrived as the leader of a small relief force to augment the camp team and take command. A much-delayed South Vietnamese relief column reached the camp just as the mauled NVA regiments withdrew and the siege ended.

Plei Me Special Forces Camp, December 1965 (Joe Schneider/Stars and Stripes photo)

The book closes with the 1st Cavalry Division, newly arrived in Vietnam, pursuing the remnants of the NVA units. This is at the beginning of escalation of the American war in Vietnam, and anticipates the Cav’s famed Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, which took place less than a month later.

Death in the Highlands is great book—not just because of the depictions of heroism on all sides, but because it also shows what the war was like before half a million U.S. troops arrived and changed the nature of the Vietnam War.    

Kudos to J. Keith Saliba for writing an easy-to-read and informative book.

—John Cirafici

Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

William P. Head’s fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the number 176 he drew in the 1969 Selective Service lottery, which put him on the verge of being drafted into the U.S. Army. Many of his friends did serve, and some never came home, he says. Head had entered college in 1967, eventually earned a doctorate degree, and became a United States Air Force historian—as a civilian—and Chief of the Office of History at Robins AFB, Georgia. Over the past thirty-plus years, concentrating mainly on the Vietnam War, he has written and edited many books and articles about warfare.

Head’s latest book, Storms Over the Mekong: Major Battles of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 480 pp. $40.00, hardcover; $24.99, Kindle), approaches the war by presenting and analyzing “the most significant and game-changing combat events” as he sees them. Head chose the events he says, based on the consensus of “the opinions of reputable participants, scholars, and analysts.”

The book begins in 1963 with the Viet Cong defeating the South Vietnamese Army at Ap Bac. It ends with the North Vietnamese Army capturing Saigon in 1975. The battles fit into two categories: “War on the Ground” and “War in the Air.” Head presents them chronologically, thereby pretty much telling the story of the entire war. He looks at ground encounters at Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Saigon and Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and Xuan Loc. Interspersed air battles describe Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, Commando Hunt, and Linebackers I and II.

Some of the accounts previously appeared in other places, Head says, but he has revised them with “current data and historical information.” His studies of Rolling Thunder and the Easter Offensive are new work.

The book repeatedly claims that, despite America’s extravagant investment of manpower and money at the start of its military commitment, national unwillingness to fight a protracted war against a determined enemy was the fundamental reason for the conflict’s outcome.

Head recreates the self-defeating hesitancy of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to apply air power over North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder in 1965-68. Head describes the operation as “Too Much Rolling and Not Enough Thunder.”

Johnson’s fear of greater Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war dictated his reticence throughout this time, Head says. Paralleling that feeling was Johnson’s contemptuous disregard for his generals’ opinions, which contradicted the respect shown to them in past wars. At the same time, Head faults the generals’ acceptance of unimaginative and ineffective strategies.      

The voices of political and military leaders from the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam are heard throughout the book. Background on North Vietnam’s planning and execution of Tet are particularly enlightening.

Head typically analyzes battles from high levels of command. Even the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which American infantrymen paid an enormous toll, is overwhelmingly viewed from the battalion commanders’ level. In recalling the “senseless nature” of eleven attacks in ten days, Head quotes just two sentences from grunts.   

When editorializing, Head stays within reason, and his conclusions are to the point. For example, in the chapter about Hamburger Hill, he calmly names and indicts certain commanders for starting—but mostly for continuing—a battle in which significant casualties resulted and nothing was gained. He concludes that the defeat at Ap Bac was “a wake up call that the United States would have to take over the fight, the path American leaders chose twenty months later.” He summarizes the frustration bred by presidentially decreed air strategy as “what you get when airmen do not fully control air assets and run an air war.” 

His assessment of the battle of Ia Drang Valley concisely consolidates the opinions of American and North Vietnamese thinkers. McNamara’s perceptive interpretation of the battle’s outcome is a high point of the book.

Bill Head’s overall conclusion about the war chastises America for not learning the primary lesson from its involvement and thereby committing itself to duplicating similar protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He judges this as a betrayal of all those killed in the Vietnam War.

Storms Over the Mekong provides a package of facts supported by voluminous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Well-placed maps and photographs enhance the discussions. The book should serve as a handy reference for old timers, as well as a textbook for students and others newly interested in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Spreading Ink Blots by David Strachan-Morris

During the Vietnam War the United States Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency program was successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless, still successful. David Strachan-Morris reaches that conclusion in Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ: The Origins and Implementation of U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Strategy in Vietnam, March 1965 to November 1968 (Helion, 158 pp. $49.95, hardcover).

This book takes on the heavyweight challenge of explaining the deeply felt conflict between the Marine Corps and U.S. Army early in the war. That battle matched the Marines’ emphasis on counterinsurgency practices against the Army’s preference for conventional strategies, primarily search-and-destroy missions.

The book originated as Strachan-Morris’ PhD thesis at the University of Wolverhampton. In expanding his study, he had full cooperation from Marine archivists, which resulted in a wealth of footnotes and a potent bibliography. Over the past decade, Strachan-Morris has written three other books on warfare and lectured at the University of Leicester School of History.  

The Marine concept of counterinsurgency, Strachan-Morris says, aims at uniting civil and military efforts in partnership with local indigenous forces to use economic and political means to pacify local areas. The idea is that these areas (“ink blots”) will gradually expand and link up until a whole region, or nation, is brought under government control.

These civil-military economic and political efforts are as important as the use of force. In other words, for some strategists, pacification and winning the hearts and minds of a citizenry are the most appropriate countermeasures for defeating insurgents such as the Viet Cong, Strachan-Morris says. 

The 1st and 3rd Divisions of the III Marine Amphibious Force operated under these principles in I Corps of Vietnam, the area of responsibility under Gen. Lewis Walt. Primarily, the Marines’ job was to secure and defend their bases at Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, and to conduct clearing operations in areas contiguous to those bases.

In 1965, Walt placed great faith in Combined Action Platoons, small Marine units that lived, worked, and trained alongside local Regional and Popular Forces in their villages. The CAP Marines sought to win the people’s support by patrolling the area, defending the villages, and carrying out small-scale civil projects to raise living standards for villagers. One platoon soon grew to a company of ten teams in the Phu Bia area. An immediate highlight of CAP was Operation Golden Fleece, which prevented the Viet Cong from extorting their biannual rice taxes from the villagers’ harvests.

Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded all U.S. forces in-country, judged the Marine approach as simply a smaller version of conventional war and largely unnecessary in the Vietnam War, Strachan-Morris says. Westmoreland preferred the search-and-destroy strategy to buttress President Lyndon Johnson’s overriding exhortations to kill more Viet Cong. Army leaders fomented animosity between the two services by accusing the Marines of “sitting back and waiting for the enemy,” according to Strachan-Morris.

Spreading Ink Blots examines the opposing viewpoints by providing a history of worldwide counterinsurgency efforts from well before the Vietnam War. Strachan-Morris cites successes and failures of the most influential thinkers and doers. He then discusses the development of strategy and the measurement of progress of pacification efforts in Vietnam in 1966-67. He explains how conditions fluctuated significantly and inter-service tensions deepened at the same time that the South Vietnamese political situation grew unstable.

And then came the 1968 Tet Offensive when Marine-Army relations reached their lowest ebb, Strachan-Morris says. He focuses here on the defense of Khe Sanh, which exacerbated tensions among American political and military leaders—and which distracted from the overall strategy of the war.   

Strachan-Morris’ concludes that counterinsurgency is “a useful operational level tool but it is not to be conflated with nation building, nor is it enough by itself to win wars.” His subtext, based on the Marine Corps’ experiences in Vietnam, rates counterinsurgency as effective at a tactical level 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.

At the same time, he contends that Marine CAP efforts prevented a “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese and aided “Project Recovery,” the South Vietnamese government’s post-Tet reconstruction plan.

I am amazed that a book this thin can foment so much controversy.

In my mind, analyzing and comparing military counterinsurgency operations from different wars in different eras provides limited guidance. For example, the British flaunt their success with counterinsurgency in Malaya after World War II, yet observers contend the British used force and human rights abuses to get results.

Similarly, no two counterinsurgency programs have been alike. Each was tailored through trial and error to fit specific situations. The nature of the insurgents, the terrain, and the political landscape differ in each situation, as Strachan-Morris says, so too do the counterinsurgents themselves. Experts on the strategy provide general principles, but they leave specific methodology to be determined by the situation.

Two recently published books also touch on Marine counterinsurgency operations. Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a grunt-level member of a Combined Action Platoon, tells of living with villagers near 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, the PF avoided maneuvers that involved risk taking. Palm, an extremely well-read and self-made man and a dean of two colleges, seems to have never stopped growing up and sharing what he learns. I trust him.

A Final Valiant Act by retired Marine Col. John B. Lang calls the CAP “a success wherever it was instituted.” Beyond counterinsurgency, Lang’s book describes two complex amphibious operations in 1967—at Duc Pho and along the DMZ—that validate the Marines’ willingness and ability to fight conventionally. The book is a good read about the Vietnam War, but Lang was not there and reports from a historian’s perspective.

That boils down the discussion to two Marines and two opposing opinions: Take your pick.

—Henry Zeybel