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

The Dragon in the Jungle by Xiobing Li

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Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with sixteen years of research on the subject.

Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of the its army.

What this book brings to the discussion is a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.

Historically, China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, known as the French Indochina War and First Indochina War, and then continuing supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.

The worlds’ two largest communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, openly split with each other during the 1956-64 period,  known as the Sino-Soviet Rift. Each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.

Early in the American War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1965-73), Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the U.S. Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam

to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.

As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China then saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily, and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdraw all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns of getting into a war with the U.S.

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 “Oppose the American infringement upon the Vietnamese Democratic Republic!” – February 1965 Chinese Propaganda Poster

The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.

Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American war in Vietnam.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory edited by Mark Pavlick with Caroline Luft

Who controls history? How is collective memory formed? In the case of historical accounts of the Vietnam War, the famous maxim most widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors,” is problematic. While the North Vietnamese won the war, the Americans have had both the resources and the freedom to win the proverbial battle for the memory of that conflict.

It is within this context that The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory (Haymarket, 450 pp. $22, paper) is written. The book, edited by Mark Pavlick, a longtime activist in the U.S. antiwar movement, and Caroline Luft, is the second edition of a work originally published in 2007. It consists of thirteen chapters: eight essays, two Noam Chomsky articles from the 1970s, one book excerpt, and two interviews.

Curiously, the editors never define historical memory. For the record, historical memory is the way groups of people or nations create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events.

The book’s epigraph provocatively quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address before the Nuremberg Tribunal of November 21, 1945, with a clear implication that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Southeast Asia on par with those committed by Nazi Germany. The works of Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman fall within the vein of this polemical perspective.

The balance of the book, however, belies this overtly hostile style, with six essays that are scholarly in nature, promoting cogent theses without provoking raw emotion.

The essays on cluster bombing in Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell  and the use of Agent Orange by Tuan V. Nguyen are scholarly and thoughtful. The former even acknowledges the legitimacy of the bombing—if not its proportionately.

“Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia” is well considered even if its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between the American bombing in Cambodia and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge is tenuous. “The Indonesian Domino” by Clinton Fernandes proffers a thought-provoking thesis: that due to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party by 1967, that domino could no longer fall, invalidating the justification for the war predominant during the Kennedy Administration.

Gareth Porter’s treatment of the My Lai massacre, written from a definitive perspective, is authoritative in its research. Nick Turse’s essay is a powerful, if completely personal, indictment of the war. Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on U.S. policy toward Indochina since 1975 treads the familiar ground that this country is responsible for the stagnancy of Vietnam in the postwar years.

An interview and republished essays by Noam Chomsky, as well as the introductory essay by Fred Branfman, are the raison d’etre for the book. Polemics aside, these essays are problematic in their exploitation of history, which weakens their arguments.

Providing a different perspective to the perception of American mass propaganda is incredibly important, but it cannot be justified at the expense of its context. The thesis can fall into Manichean simplicity: America and its allies were unjust; therefore, North Vietnam and its allies must be just.

Chomsky makes no comment on the morality of North Vietnam’s execution of up to 25,000 “class enemies” in the mid-1950s, other than to point to the American exaggeration of the figure. He quotes Bernard Fall, but omits his estimate that the Viet Cong assassinated eleven South Vietnamese officials every day during the early 1960s.

The premise of moral equivalency is decidedly unhelpful in analyzing the Vietnam War. But Chomsky indulges irresponsibly in this matter, even taking a decidedly paternalistic and ahistorical view that communism in Vietnam was a monolithic movement among all Vietnamese people. But one million people fled North Vietnam in 1955 rather than live under communist rule, and two million left the country after the communists took in 1975.

Vietnam remains a closed society in which historians are denied access, and in which journalists are routinely imprisoned. They seemed to be rewarded for their totalitarian lack of transparency.

No matter one’s politics, this book will provoke and outrage.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Men and the Moment by Aram Goudsouzian

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The velocity of events in 1968 are staggering. Their importance is underscored by the need for only a word or a phrase to appreciate their significance. The events remain not just historically important, but cultural touchstones. Tet. LBJ not running. MLK in Memphis. RFK at the Ambassador. Chicago Democratic Convention. Columbia University sit-in. Nixon’s comeback. Earth rise aboard Apollo 8.

In the midst of this upheaval, America not only elected a new president, but also witnessed a change in how the candidates were chosen—and the birth of a profound realignment of the party system.

Aram Goudsouzian, a University of Memphis history professor, examines the eight men who vied to be the next president in The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America (University of North Carolina, 240 pp., $25). This brisk and accessible (147 pages of text) study focuses on the character of the candidates and their responses to the moment.

Despite its brevity and its heavy reliance on secondary sources, the sixty pages of end-notes evince the book’s meticulous research. Goudsouzian leans particularly on contemporary articles from the New York Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek, among others.

The 1968 political cycle marked the final stand of the political machines in choosing a candidate. Strong showings and even victories in the primaries did not translate into delegates, as the party leaders had the ultimate discretion in choosing their candidate. This fact cannot be emphasized enough, for despite Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic insurgency, Robert Kennedy’s star power, Nelson Rockefeller’s muddled efforts, and Ronald Reagan’s patient opportunism, the eventual candidates always were likely to be Nixon and, after LBJ’s decision not to run, Vice President Humbert Humphrey because of their work in securing the delegates.

Even though he announced he would not run, Lyndon Johnson remained the de facto leader of the Democrats, which meant that Humphrey’s delegates were actually Johnson’s, effectively handcuffing Humphrey’s campaign. Mixed into this mélange was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran one of the most successful—albeit the most despicable—third party campaigns in American history.

Goudsouzian proficiently explores each man’s character and ambitions, though the work’s concision and use of anecdotal evidence can at times veer into sensationalism. Were the Chicago police really chanting, “Kill, kill, kill” at the Democratic Convention? Did Johnson yank out his penis in response to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. was in Vietnam? Though entertaining, these seem apocryphal.

Goudsouzian proffers a fine analysis of the “New Politics” campaigns directed to the people through rallies and modern technology, but he all but ignores the critical William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal television debates. It is telling that Buckley is grouped in with the John Birch Society, the right-wing group he helped de-legitimize, and that there are more references to Stalin and Hitler (three) than to Vidal and Buckley (one).

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The chapter on Nixon is, perhaps ironically, titled “The Loser,” and this moniker is repeated throughout the book. Goudsouzian frequently invokes Nixon’s use of the “silent center,” but Nixon did not use this phrase until November 1969. Though credited with the greatest comeback in American political history, there is perhaps too much presentism on Nixon, the eventual winner of this consequential campaign.

There is a reason that this is at least the fourth book in as many years devoted exclusively to the 1968 election. While the material is well trod, Goudsouzian has provided a useful perspective and enjoyable precis on the candidates and their times.

–Daniel R. Hart

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War by Ingo Trauschweizer

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As the commanding general of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Maxwell Taylor parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He later became an architect of Vietnam War policy during his tenure as a White House military adviser and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Kennedy Administration, and ultimately as ambassador to South Vietnam from 1964-65 under President Johnson. Taylor died in 1987.

He was called a hero, an optimist, a manipulator, a micro-manager, a wise man, and by some, a liar. He never wavered in his belief that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front.

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam (Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, 328 pp. $45, hardcover and Kindle) by Ohio University historian Ingo Trauschweizer examines Taylor’s role in developing U.S. military strategy and doctrine. It is an academic work that chronologically recounts policy debates and bureaucratic conflicts in detail. The book is based extensively on newly declassified government archives.

This is not a biography. The book seeks instead to provide a “more complete” picture of “military, strategic, policy, institutional, intellectual, international, and diplomatic history”—a rather tall order that sometimes gets as bogged down as the Vietnam War itself. Ultimately, what stands out is Taylor and other decision-makers’ arrogance, mis-assumptions, and wishful thinking, particularly with Vietnam War policymaking.

Maxwell Taylor stepped into controversy in 1960 when his book, The Uncertain Trumpet, came out after he’d retired from the military as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. Trauschweizer describes the book as a “scathing indictment of the national security system and the shortcomings of massive retaliation” as a deterrent defense strategy.

In the book, Taylor called for building capacity and flexibility for “limited wars” with graduated pressures. Vietnam became the stage on which to test components of the doctrine as a “layered structure” of air war, ground war, counterinsurgency, and pacification. One major flaw in Taylor’s argument, Trauschweizer points out, was the failure to anticipate the dynamics of escalation. Another was a fatal misreading of the resolve of Hanoi’s leadership—and the Vietnamese people—in refusing to be figuratively and literally bombed into submission by the United States.

Later, in hindsight, Taylor cited several factors that led to the failure of his doctrine in the Vietnam War: the lack of a formal declaration of war, the lack of hard intelligence data, and the lack of “a comprehensive media information campaign” directed at the American people—something that also might be called a massive propaganda campaign.

For decisions to go to war in the future, Trauschweizer describes Taylor’s idea of a clear-headed, four-point test of the “national interest”:

  • The gain to be anticipated by success
  • The probable cost to achieve success
  • The probability of failure
  • The additional costs that failure would impose

Taylor also emphasized, in Trauschweizer’s words, “the need for a president to be absolutely certain of sustained popular support and to rely on a military prepared to win quickly and decisively.”

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Secretary of Defense McNamara, Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, and President Kennedy at the White House, January 15, 1963 – JFK Library photo

One is tempted to respond: “If pigs had wings had wings, they could fly,” or at least to add that it would be advisable that every president contemplating war has a perfect crystal ball. For Taylor’s scenario to work, limited wars probably require the massive application of military power at the outset to avoid the risk of becoming protracted wars. Unforeseen consequences are also often inevitable.

If nothing else, Maxwell Taylor’s prescription can be used to assess the Unites States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and today’s risk of war with Iran, whether intentional or miscalculated.

–Bob Carolla