Storming the City by Alec Wahlman

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For readers interested in Vietnam War strategy, the battle for Hue should be the highlight of Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle) by Alec Wahlman.

The book answers a three-part question: “When the need arose to fight in urban terrain in the mid-twentieth century, how effective were U.S. forces, why, and how did that performance change from World War II to Vietnam?” Wahlman bases his findings on four battles: Aachen and Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War, and Hue in the Vietnam War.

He makes it easy to compare the battles by describing each with the same format: Operational Context; The Foe; The Assault; Command, Control, and Communication; Intelligence and Reconnaissance; Firepower and Survivability; Mobility and Counter-Mobility; Logistics; and Dealing with the Population.

In these victorious engagements that were fought in three wars over three decades, the Army and Marines were ill prepared for urban warfare, Wahlman says. Aachen and Manila were primarily Army operations. Winning at Seoul and Hue depended mostly on the Marines. Throughout the entire time, field manuals for both services presented little information on how to capture a city, and training for fighting house-to-house was minimal.

Despite winning, American tactical performance gradually grew less effective, according to Wahlman. At Hue, Americans failed to isolate the city. Therefore, throughout three weeks of fighting, North Vietnamese Army forces continued to receive reinforcements of men and supplies by night. American intelligence also failed to recognize the size of the NVA force and the complexity of the Hue Citadel.

“The precise location of enemy positions inside Hue was largely discovered through contact,” Wahlman notes. Prolonged fighting permitted the enemy to establish its own government within the city and to execute many South Vietnamese administrative personnel.

These victories resulted from outstanding leadership, mainly at regiment level. The leaders adapted tactics learned in the field to an urban setting. Commanders such as Lt. Col. Derrill Daniel and Lt. Col. John Corley at Aachen and Col. Lew “Chesty” Puller at Seoul had extensive combat experience. They knew how to fight side by side or drive right through the middle of an enemy.

Similarly, Wahlman concludes that America’s successes resulted from “transferable competence” and “battlefield adaptation.” Transferable competence included quality leadership in small units; heavy firepower with adequate logistical support; coordinated efforts between infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and air support; previous combat experience; and the design of American armored vehicles. Except for the last point, the other conclusions seem to be self-evident traits required for any successful military operation.

Battlefield adaptation is the ability of leaders to alter tactics based on a particular environments. Each battle area offers different problems. The greatest difference between urban and field combat is the shortening of lines of sight in the former. The resultant confined battle space often affects factors such as rules of engagement and population control. This necessity for adaptation is not unique to urban warfare; it was needed in earlier engagements such as fighting in hedgerows and forests.

Wahlman’s research claims to undermine two myths about urban warfare. First, the attacking force’s “traditional” three-to-one manpower advantage was proved unnecessary. Americans had only a three-to-two advantage in Manila, and at Aachen the Germans actually outnumbered Americans by three-to-one.

The second myth is that urban fighting is an infantry job. Wahlman challenges that by saying that infantry “is most effective when part of a combined arms team,” which relates to his transferable competence argument. Basically, he’s saying that a combined force is more likely to maintain an effective methodical advance with fewer losses.

Tet Offensive, Battle of Hue, Vietnam

U.S. Marines at the Battle of Hue

In closing, Wahlman looks at urban warfare since Hue and into the future. Population migration into urban areas favors opponents of the United States, he says, and emphasizes the vulnerability of unsecured supply lines for forces attacking a city. Situations such as those encountered at Fallujah might easily bog down an attacker and slow the tempo of combat. Furthermore, as shown at Mogadishu, urban confrontations could reduce the effectiveness of superior technology. In such cases, the price tags increase steeply.

In preparation for possible future needs, the Army has built urban warfare training complexes and published a field manual. Adaptation is still considered crucial to success in this area. Technologies offer new avenues for tactics, but in many cases the enemy has access to the same or counter equipment, Wahlman says.

“Advances in sensors, protective equipment, and offensive capabilities notwithstanding, urban warfare is and will continue to be a nasty, difficult business,” he says.

Poor maps are the book’s major flaw. The maps are too small and lack contrast, which make them nearly impossible to read. Better maps might enhance the reader’s understanding of maneuvers at the battle sites.

Wahlman is highly qualified to write this book. For fourteen years, he worked as an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis, primarily for the Department of Defense, focusing on irregular and urban warfare. He holds a PhD. in military history from the University of Leeds. The book contains sixty-three pages of notes and thirty-five pages of bibliography.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hidden History of America at War by Kenneth C. Davis

Maybe I take things too literally, but I expected to find both hidden and untold information in Kenneth C. Davis’s The Hidden History of America at War: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette, 416 pp., $30). Davis, the author of the best-selling “America’s Hidden History” book series, in this book offers up his interpretations of six pivotal battles in U.S. history. In addition to Yorktown and Fallujah, he discourses on the Battle of Petersburg in the Civil War; the Balangiga Massacre in the Philippine War; Berlin in World War II; and Hue in the Vietnam War. Each entry is well written, decently researched, and cogently analyzed.

In the Vietnam War chapter, however—and this is a big “however”—there wasn’t anything “hidden” or “untold” in Davis’s dissection of the 1968 Battle of Hue and its impact on the course of the Vietnam War. During the last four decades there have been many examinations of that pivotal battle. Davis, in fact, leans heavily on two of them: Don Oberdorfer’s Tet!: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1971, and Stanley Karnow’s classic one-volume history of the war, Vietnam, A History, which was published in 1983. He also makes use of Neil Sheehan’s brilliant A Bright, Shining Lie, a biography of John Paul Vann and a history of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1988.

These and other secondary sources are the only works that Davis cites as sources in this chapter, another strong indication that nothing new, hidden, or untold appears on these pages.

Even the title of this Vietnam War chapter—“The ‘Living-Room War’”—is not new. “Living-Room War” was the title of an article by Michael J. Arlen that appeared in the October 15, 1966, New Yorker magazine and the 1969 book of the same name. In the article and book Arlen examined the impact of the barrage of nightly TV coverage of the Vietnam War on American TV.

In his introduction, Davis infers that the 1901 Massacre at Balangiga took place during the Spanish-American War, which began and ended in 1898. Ironically, a lot about the 1899-1902 Philippine War—which Davis never mentions by name—can be considered hidden, if not untold.

Few Americans today can remember the barest details of that conflict, in which some 4,200 U.S. military personnel perished fighting a guerrilla-type insurrection in the Philippines after we handily defeated the Spanish there.

Around 126,000 Americans fought in that controversial guerrilla war, which history books today treat as little more than a footnote to the short, bombastic Spanish-American War that preceded it.

The author’s website is http://dontknowmuch.com/books/the-hidden-history-of-america-at-war

—Marc Leepson

Run Between the Raindrops by Dale Dye

Dale Dye served multiple tours in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He rose through the ranks and retired as a Captain after putting in twenty-one years. In Vietnam, Dye survived thirty-one big combat operations—including the Battle of Hue during Tet ’68. In his novel Run Through the Raindrops (Warriors Publishing Group, 254 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) Dye writes brilliantly about the long, bloody fighting in Hue City.

That battle is familiar to those who have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket or read the novel upon which the movie was based, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers. It is almost as though the main character of Dye’s novel, also a combat correspondent, is a character from Hasford’s book.

The scenes, language, and action have much overlap with Full Metal Jacket. If you loved Hasford’s book or the movie, this new Author’s Preferred Edition of Run Between the Raindrops will please you on every page.

About a sixth of the way through, there is a friendly fire incident in which two Hueys roar up a canal and strafe Marines trying to cross on a makeshift bridge. The scene is described so cinematically it is hard to believe that I’ve not seen it in a movie. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see this book made into a movie.

Our hero carries an NVA pack crammed with the stuff he needs to be a combat correspondent—everything he owns, he tells us. There is room in there for canteens full of vodka. The vodka came from a trade with rear-echelon troops for war souvenirs.

Dye writes that REMFs would take bartered war materiel home and claim they got the stuff in combat. This is a universal trope in novels about the Vietnam War. I never met a valor-stealing REMF, but there must be one or two out there somewhere.

Dye fills his novel with memorable characters such as Philly Dog, his partner Willis, and Reb the Southerner. The action and the language are a delight, and I’ve read too many novels to be easily impressed. I wish all the Vietnam War writers who have come late to the game would read this novel and try to do as well as Dye does.

Dye wrote this novel long ago; when it was published in 1985, it was mostly ignored. I hope this new edition will get more attention. It deserves to be on the small shelf of classic books about Marine Corps battle action in the Vietnam War.

Run Between the Raindrops has a lot of dark humor. That makes it easier to read the many violent scenes and not wince too badly when characters suffer serious wounds.

Combat correspondents, Dye writes,  are “just glorified grunts, my man.  We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe even write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”

The book also contains trenchant observations on the nature of war.  Dye writes: “That’s what counts in a war of ideas. How the fight turns out is less important than the fact that you forced it on the enemy and made it as bloody as possible.”

Dye does not forget about John Wayne, “saddle up,” those “chicken-shit ARVN’s”, the Phantom Blooper, the problems with M-16s, and the Black Syphilis. But the freshness of his language elevates this book above 90 percent of Vietnam War novels.

When he tells us of “dragging the dead along like floppy pull-toys” and has his main character adapt a Bill Cosby riff on Custer and the Indians to Gen. Giap vs. General Westmoreland, the book enters new territory.  Also, this is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that compares the look of worn out American troops to Coxey’s Army. I enjoyed that one.

Dale Dye

I loved the ironic lament near the end about “no parades, no free beers, nothing but pity which is worse than being ignored. There it is and thanks very much for your service.”

That ranks right up there with Dye’s comment on the Marine Corps: “That’s a lot of tradition but not much progress.”

Those who want to read more about the Marine Corps in Vietnam, especially in the Battle for Hue City, are advised to seek out and buy this fine novel most ricky-tick.

—David Willson