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