A War of Logistics by Charles R. Shrader


Historian Charles R. Shrader borrows a quote to describe the First Indochina War between Viet Minh and French Union forces as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” His research backs up the quote in the sense that poor logistical support can defeat an army.

There’s no doubt about the depth of Shrader’s research; it’s evident in the seventy pages of notes in his book,  A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 (University Press of Kentucky, 488 pp., $60, hardcover and Kindle).

The book is based on “declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material,” as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies, Schrader says. Viet Minh sources are limited to contemporary documents captured by the French, POW interrogations, and the writings of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Maps, tables, figures, and photographs abound to support the text.

The book’s first half explains the influence of Vietnam’s terrain on troop movements. Most of the fighting took place in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin. The rugged terrain stymied the development of a system of highways, railroads, and waterways capable of supporting large-scale military activities such as those used in World War II.

Shrader goes on to discuss the disproportionate sizes of the opposing combat forces, then explains how their logistical systems were organized and operated, and compares the opposing transportation systems. He presents detailed summations of the dependency for war supplies that the Viet Minh had with what was then known as Communist China and the French Union with the United States.


Viet Minh fighters during the French Indochina War

Helicopters were scarce and used primarily for medical purposes. Poor weather conditions, widely scattered airfields, limited numbers of aircraft and aircrews, and constantly improving Viet Minh antiaircraft capability minimized the effectiveness of the French Union air force. The Viet Minh had no air support.

The book’s second half describes the war itself and how logistical factors influenced the outcome of combat operations. Initially, a series of political and military actions forced the Viet Minh to find refuge in the countryside while the French occupied the cities. From there, differing military philosophies pitted the mobility of the self-sufficient individual Viet Minh soldier against the mobility of the technologically dependent French Union army.

What began as mere ambushes by the Viet Minh grew into head-on collisions with the French. The titles of Shrader’s chapters tell the war’s story: “The Campaign for the Lines of Communication,” “The Limits of Aerial Resupply,”  “The Triumph of the Porters.”

Logistically the French relied on mechanized transportation and awaited air and sea supply shipments from France, which were often four months away. Meanwhile, day by day, Viet Minh porters carried supplies on their backs from the border with China.

Shrader presents a continuous string of eye-opening stories and facts. For example, the French Union employed a third of its infantry forces in Indochina keeping roads and waterways open to traffic. Both sides had about ninety battalions in Tonkin, but the French assigned sixty-four of theirs to protecting lines of communication and rear areas, leaving only twenty-five battalions for mobile offensive operations.

Basically, the French Union’s logistical effort went mainly toward resupplying posts where the troops protected trucks and boats from ambush in order to resupply themselves. Meanwhile, dispersed groups of Viet Minh porters moved nearly unopposed along trails hidden in the jungle.

Accounts of the Viet Minh invasion of Laos and of the battle of Dien Bien Phu are as fresh and interesting as if they occurred yesterday. “The Viet Minh refused to recognize the theoretical limitations on their logistical capabilities,” Shrader says, “and they frequently surprised the French by their rapidity of movement, their ability to concentrate men and supplies undetected, and their logistical stamina.”

The Viet Minh proved decisively , he says, that “even in the mid-twentieth century, a lack of superiority in material could still be overcome by the intelligent application of sheer manpower and a determined will.”
Reading this book saddened me—again. Much of what Shrader tells us reminded me of the American war in Vietnam.

Every fact in his book was available before the United States committed itself to the Vietnam War and then more or less duplicated the French Union’s effort. What more is there to say?

—Henry Zeybel

Moment of Battle by James Lacey and Williamson Murray

Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World (Bantam, 478 pp., $30) immerses the reader into the epicenter of world-changing battles. Authors James Lacey and Williamson Murray are acclaimed military historians. Their attention to detail and flowing narration make the book both worthwhile and enjoyable. They are very clear in explaining how each battle affected world history.

All the battle descriptions depict the evolution of military tactics and equipment. The authors also show how human error and dumb luck often made the difference between victory and defeat. Wrong decisions were often based on incorrect information and sometimes decisions were just a matter of ego.

The book also reveals the evolution of military tactics. While some methods of combat might be practiced the same way for decades or even hundreds of years, successful leaders seem to be the ones who were able to change tactics in the midst of the fighting and to take advantage of the enemy’s weaknesses or mistakes.

Moment of Battle never drags. It’s more like twenty adrenaline rushes. I would suggest that the reader allow a bit of time between chapters and not read this book straight through. That way you can take time to appreciate the contributions made by so many. Having a global map at hand to identify locations as we know them today also would be helpful.

The book begins with the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Readers are caught up in a battle in which the victors overcame incredible odds that allowed democracy to maintain its foothold in the world. The screams of the wounded and dying can almost be heard emanating from the pages.

Cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe still exist today due to the battle of the Teutonberger Wald in the first century A.D. In that battle the seemingly undefeatable Romans were stopped by a German army. The legacy of that fight would continue to play its part in two world wars and the Cold War in the 20th century.

Williamson Murray

England and Spain had their turn at being the most powerful nations on earth. The battles of Hastings in 1066, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 are vividly described here. It is not an exaggeration to say that blood flowed like water and the dead piled up in both engagements.

Lacey and Murray have us travel with Grant to Vicksburg in 1863 and into the Battle of the Marne to open World War I in 1914. We are invited to fly with the pilots in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and in the battle of Midway in the Pacific in1942.

While storming the beaches of Normandy in 1944, we relive the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime. Savagery, blunders, brilliance, heroism, and indescribable suffering are all part of all the fighting, regardless of the century.

France lost its colonies in Indochina to the Viet Minh in 1954. The reader witnesses the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh under Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The authors do not discuss the American war in Vietnam. Perhaps not enough time has elapsed for historians to judge if the outcome of the Vietnam War made a big difference in the world. I believe that the Vietnam War has made a tremendous difference in the attitude of the American people toward their own government. It remains to be seen if that change makes a difference throughout the world.

The book concludes with the American military’s drive to Baghdad in 2003. Although this battle took place relatively recently, the authors make predictions of the world-wide effects of the Iraqi defeat and their that nation’s attempt at democracy.

Col. Marcone of the 69th Armor Battalion could be speaking for most Americans who fought in that war.  “They kept coming, rolling over their own dead,” he said of the Iraqi army troops. “They should have learned. Fighting for us was easy. Killing at close range, though, is very hard and unforgettable I am still dealing with having to kill so many people. Destroying the 10th brigade still bothers me.”

—Joseph Reitz