Air Power’s Lost Cause by Brian D. Laslie

Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.

Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.

I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.

Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.

Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.

To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.

North Vietnamese Army truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.

I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.

“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.

With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:

Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.

The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.

Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.   

In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”

Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking. 

—Henry Zeybel

Sherman Lead by Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.

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With the exception of compassion for the deaths and disappearances of fellow flyers, Gaillard R. Peck Jr. presents a lighthearted insider’s view of his Vietnam War experience in Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam (Osprey, 304 pp.; $32, hardcover; $22.40, Kindle).

As a pilot in the 443rd Tactical Fighter Squadron—aka Satan’s Angels—at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1968-69, Peck flew 163 combat missions into North Vietnam and Laos to destroy the enemy transportation system, day and night. He describes many close calls with disaster, some caused by North Vietnamese Army antiaircraft defenses, and others by his mistakes. He recounts several dangerous misadventures with humor and wonderment about his youthful good luck.

Although the book is Peck’s memoir, he includes a few long passages describing bombing missions written by his pilot systems operator Steve Mosier. For his part, Peck unhesitatingly names names. Occasionally, his appreciation of his crew members’ and buddies’ advice, friendship, and devotion to the mission nears adoration.

When citing a few incompetent individuals, Peck—whose nom de guerre was “Evil”—graciously hides their identities. He expresses intolerance for their ineptitude, especially those who jeopardized his safety simply to qualify for monthly flying and combat pay.

His thoughts on offensive tactics following Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 bombing halt of North Vietnam appear throughout the text. For example:

  • “We roamed the area looking for lucrative targets for our ordnance. By this point in the war there weren’t many.”
  • “Lack of feedback on effectiveness [from intelligence sources] added to our cynical attitude about these missions.”
  • “We joked about the fact that we seldom caused much apparent damage. The results didn’t seem to amount to much—especially given the risk involved in making the attacks.”
  • “It was just the continuation of another mind-numbing mission attacking an unseen target that would be defended with a lot of aggressive AAA.”

Peck convincingly shows the difficulties of flying the F-4D under the often-combined challenges of enemy gunfire, clouds and rain, and using the wrong weapons against, as he puts it, “whimsical” targets selected by higher-ups.

Several times, Peck assumes a teaching role and, in great detail, explains techniques of visual, radar, and laser-guided bombing. He taught me a lot with these and other interludes.

The first third of the book deals with Peck’s education at the U.S. Air Force Academy, pilot training, and preparation for deployment to Vietnam. His descriptions of POW, water, and jungle survival training closely parallel my memories of attending the same courses. Similarly, his accounts of off-duty activities at Ubon—on base and downtown—perfectly coincide with what I saw and did there in 1970-71.

Peck refers to letters he wrote and received while with the 443rd. His writing style has a casual conversational tone, and he often repeats facts to refresh a point. This is his second book, following 2012’s America’s Secret MiG Squadron, based on his flying and evaluating captured and stolen Soviet aircraft as part of a twenty-six-year military career, from which he retired as a colonel.

Significant overlap exists between Sherman Lead and other memoirs by USAF Vietnam F-4 jocks such as David R. “Buff” Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War. Each book reveals dedication and camaraderie within the fighter pilot trade that was unequaled anywhere else in the Air Force at the time—for good and bad.

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Peck’s USAF views with those of Navy pilot Don Pedersen in his recently published Top Gun: An American Story. Both books cover the same times and events.

—Henry Zeybel