The Vietnam War from the Rear Echelon: An Intelligence Officer’s Memoir, 1972-1973, by Timothy J. Lomperis, University Press of Kansas, 2011
Now, author Timothy Lomperis is a political science professor who has written several books about the Vietnam War. Then, Lomperis was an Army lieutenant in Saigon, a REMF (a rear echelon mother—you know the rest) who did two tours of duty. By combining a history of the war and personal memoir, the result is two narratives woven into one. The author’s service covers the period from the 1972 Easter Invasion to the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement and its aftermath. He offers a “mid-level perspective of the rear-echelon war in Saigon.” Lomperis writes that macro accounts of strategy and diplomacy as well as combat memoirs are plentiful, while mid-level accounts have been largely neglected.
Raised by Christian missionary parents in India, Lomperis enlisted in 1969 and after training, volunteered for Officer Candidate School. His worldview was conservative and religious. He writes that he viewed the antiwar movement with “revulsion” and believed a particular Army chaplain was “an angel sent from Heaven directly to me.” While President Richard Nixon is said to have had a secret plan to end the war, Lomperis had a secret plan to avoid the war: stay stateside until the fighting was over. His plan failed and on March 12, 1972, he arrived in Vietnam. He was assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) headquarters, where the central decisions for the ground war were made. An intelligence analyst during the 1972 battles, he was privy to tactical, operational and strategic level intelligence. Later he was involved in selecting targets for B-52 attacks against the NVA.
Lomperis spent as much time off base as he could, and came to know Saigon and the Vietnamese quite well. The food was “delicious and very cheap,” and eating it was “the central quest of my daily existence.” His descriptions of life in Saigon are excellent, and read more like a travel guide than a war memoir. After the 1973 peace agreement, which put restrictions on the number of uniformed American personnel who could remain in Vietnam, Lomperis became a civilian. He continued to work in the field of military intelligence. He was dissatisfied with the diminishing U.S. support for South Vietnam and considered it a tragedy. He disliked the “antiwar direction of American politics” and considered the antiwar movement treasonous. He left Vietnam in August 1973 “in deep moral despair.” Lomperis felt more loyalty to the South Vietnamese than he did for the United States. According to him, South Vietnam was betrayed by Nixon, Congress and the American people. He is much less critical of South Vietnam, the shortcomings of its institutions and the South Vietnamese role in the fall of South Vietnam.
Rear Echelon is memoir and history. The memoir is the best part. The history relies too much on a few revisionist secondary sources and contains numerous errors: a division of Marines did not splash ashore in 1965, it was one battalion. The “Street Without Joy” is not Highway 1 between Saigon and Hanoi, rather, it is a 20-mile stretch of that highway. Lomperis claims that Hanoi admitted its losses from the December 18-29, 1972, Christmas bombing “were crippling.” His source is an English translation of a Russian translation of a Vietnamese report dated December 1, 1972, which is before the bombing began.
Although Lomperis writes, “All in all, it was a bad war,” retrospection and his strong religious beliefs allowed him to find peace with his role in it. In spite of his occasional missteps, Lomperis’ keen observations and wit makes for a good read.