Search and Destroy: The Story of an Armored Cavalry Squadron in Viet Nam, 1/1 Cav, 1967-1968
by Keith W. Nolan, Zenith Press, 2010
In Search and Destroy, the late Keith Nolan has written yet another masterpiece on the Vietnam War. This, his 12th and final book, tells the intimate, courageous and, at times, painful story of the 1st Squadron, 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment’s first year in Vietnam. Deployed to I Corps, South Vietnam’s northernmost military region in the summer of 1967, the 1-1 Cavalry patrolled the countryside, worked with U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units; and, as the title suggests, participated in dozens of “search and destroy” missions, the centerpiece of General William Westmoreland’s operational concept for defeating the Viet Cong. The problem in I Corps was that the Viet Cong were not alone. The North Vietnamese Army also had units stationed nearby, which surged into the region to strike; and then generally withdrew to Cambodian and Laotian safe havens when a decisive engagement loomed. The result was a frustrating war against two types of foes: a guerrilla force that used booby traps and mines and hid among the villagers who the allied forces were there to protect; and a highly trained light infantry force that was equally adept at conventional combined arms operations as it was at guerrilla tactics. Nolan notes that high casualties were the price of admission to I Corps, and his very personable account of the 1-1 Cavalry bears that out.
Few authors blend personal accounts with official records better than Nolan, who began writing on the Vietnam War when he was 19 years old. In Search and Destroy, he has provided a compelling narrative of combat actions and the people who fought them. The enemy’s insights are included where available, providing context and impact often missing from other battlefield accounts. Absent are the flowery phrases and synthetic drama of adroit phrases used to entice and embellish; replaced by the participants’ direct and blunt descriptions of who did what and why they did it, softened or modified only to maintain the flow or flesh out the verbal imagery to ensure the reader’s understanding. The actions and the soldiers speak for themselves, leaving the reader with a clear picture and message; America’s flawed strategy, operational concepts and policies inflicted a heavy price on its soldiers and the South Vietnamese. Nolan closes the book with an epilogue that provides the status of the battle sites, the soldiers and the affected communities today. It also lists those 1-1 soldiers who died that year.
Ultimately, Search and Destroy is a human story that includes the dirty details of combat and some men’s reactions to it. The troop’s views of their officers and their response to command decisions exist alongside descriptions of battle. Some readers will be offended, possibly shocked despite the absence of dramatic language. For example, the emphasis on “numbers of enemy dead” deterred some from taking prisoners. The individual rotation policies and the effort to compensate by cross-pollinating personnel among units destroyed unit cohesion and reduced discipline. Nolan exposes the impact of those policies in human terms, without embellishment, exaggeration or passion. It simply is there.
As with any depiction of a military unit’s operations over time, Nolan discusses the unit’s noncombat activities where doing so provides informative background and context. The glossary, index and lexicon make it a useful reference as well. Traditional historians and those who simply want to learn about the war will find it a useful narrative of a unit’s year in Vietnam, while those seeking only tales of “derring-do” may be disappointed.
At 418 pages, Search and Destroy is not a book you will read in a single setting, but it is not intended to be. Keith Nolan was too young to have served in Vietnam, but this, his final book, written just before his February 2009 death, reflects both his admiration for those who fought and died in America’s most unpopular war and his hope that presenting the war’s human cost will ensure we approach the next war better informed than we entered that one.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.