With the holidays encroaching upon us, Vietnam magazine has pulled together some recommended reads to make your literary season bright (or at least more interesting). Here are 5 of our favorite books from fall and winter 2020 about the Vietnam War and those who served.
By Joseph L. Galloway and Marvin J. Wolf, Nelson Books, 2020
By the time this reviewer returned home from a tour in Vietnam as an artillery battery commander circa 1970, the stereotypical image of Vietnam veterans was well-established in the consciousness of the general public. We were all assumed to be incurably and permanently traumatized by the war: drug-addled, unemployable, homeless misfits; or soulless, psychopathic killers deserving of fear. The typical villain-of-choice in Hollywood films and TV “cop shows” of that era was a “deranged Vietnam vet” driven by combat experiences to commit homicidal mayhem. Years of daily bombardments by “all the bad news that’s fit to print” media coverage of the war convinced the public that those who fought in Vietnam were poor, ignorant dupes who should be either pitied or feared—no “in-between.”
In They Were Soldiers, co-author Marvin J. Wolf explains this egregiously mistaken perception: If Vietnam was a lost cause and ‘a bad’ and ‘unnecessary war,’ that was hardly the fault of those who left homes and loved ones behind to fight for objectives that a lawfully elected government chose to pursue. Nevertheless, the false and misleading generalization persists that Vietnam veterans are a legion of broken soldiers, sailors, and marines, a lost generation, warped and wounded by wartime experiences and rejected by the greater society.
No one I served with in Vietnam expected to come home to a national “Thank You” of ticker-tape parades down Main Street, passing through cheering crowds of grateful Americans waving flags and throwing bouquets. Yet no one I personally know was spat upon, denounced as a “baby killer” and viciously taunted by mobs of war protesters as is so often told by vets who claim to “distinctly remember” such abuse. Maybe it happened; it just didn’t happen to me or anyone I served with. It seems such claims have become some obligatory Vietnam War vet cliché, a “must-repeat anecdote” required of all vets, regardless of whether it happened to them or not. Myself and most vets I know arrived home quietly and anonymously (in my case at Travis Air Force Base in California during the middle of the night), caught a connecting flight to an airport near home, kissed our wives, proceeded to get on with our lives.
Overwhelmingly, the nearly 3 million Americans who served in Vietnam (over two-thirds volunteers) have lived productive and successful lives making the United States a better place for all Americans to live and prosper. However, documented proof of the successes and contributions of Vietnam vets has been sparse and not widely publicized—until now.
Thankfully, authors Wolf and Joseph L. Galloway tell the stories of nearly half a hundred Vietnam vets who served nobly—sometimes heroically—and went on to forge outstanding careers in private and public life, much like the heralded “Greatest Generation” of World War II vets. Wolf explains: “[But] now…it is possible to see the real accomplishments of America’s Vietnam generation. Like [their] parents, the so-called Greatest Generation, [their] efforts have transformed America in myriad ways: America is immeasurably richer, fairer, and better because of the Vietnam generation’s contributions. [In this book] you will meet some Vietnam veterans, men and women who sacrificed for their country, who returned to a nation that turned its back on them, and who nevertheless went on with their lives, made further sacrifices and important contributions to their families, to their communities, and to the commonweal. [They] are living proof that the Vietnam generation is every bit as worthy of respect and admiration as the generations that preceded [them].”
The authors present 48 Vietnam vet stories in four categories: Artists and Professionals; Healers; Officeholders; and Government Service. The interesting and inspiring stories comprise both men and women, American-born and Vietnamese, united by their distinguished service in Vietnam and later outstanding contributions to the United States. I personally worked for or with three of the book’s vets: Colin Powell, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and secretary of state; Barry McCaffrey, commander of the U.S. Southern Command and director of National Drug Control Policy; and Dick Armitage, deputy secretary of state for Powell.
Other vets whose names will be recognized by many include Jan Scruggs, who came up with the idea for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Oliver Stone, Academy Award-winning filmmaker; Frederick W. Smith, founder of FedEx; Charles “Chuck” Hagel, former U.S. senator and defense secretary; and Diane Carlson Evans, a nurse who led the effort to build the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. These inspiring stories of Vietnam vets’ “sacrifice and contributions” are heartfelt and authentic.
The authors clearly know of what they write. Galloway, co-author with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young and We Are Soldiers Still, served four tours in Vietnam as a reporter, received the Bronze Star Medal for his actions in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang and is the “Ernie Pyle” of the Vietnam War. Joe epitomizes the character, courage and commitment to the humble “GI serviceman” exemplified by the beloved WWII reporter Pyle until he fell to Japanese machine-gun fire during the 1945 Okinawa campaign. Wolfe received one of only 60 battlefield promotions from enlisted man to officer during the Vietnam War and has published 17 books.
By Stephen H Donovan and Frederick Borchardt
Anyone who has seen the movie or TV show M*A*S*H knows the show’s setting is in Korea but its spirit is in Vietnam. Well, imagine M*A*S*H actually set in Vietnam. That’s what the authors of Long Daze at Long Binh do with the anecdote-filled story of their time as medics at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, a large military base about 20 miles northeast of Saigon.
Steve Donovan and Fred Borchardt alternately prod each other to revive the details of one amusing memory after the next. Their tales may raise a nostalgic smile among the vast majority of American participants in the Vietnam War since there has to be something among the succession of shaggy dog stories to which everyone in that war can relate.
For that small band of brothers who humped the boonies and wonder what gives support troops in the rear the right to say anything about the war, need I remind you of the roles they played when you were wounded or came back to a semi-edible meal or needed more ammo or lined up for your paycheck or handed in the paperwork for your trip home?
In any case, if one of the authors’ attempts at Vietnam humor falls flat, there’ll be another around the next corner that may not.
By William P. Head, Texas A&M University Press, 2020
Military historian William Head’s latest book on the Vietnam War was an enormous undertaking. Head, the chief historian at the 78th Air Base Wing History Office at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, took on the complex task of researching and analyzing what he calls nine of the war’s “most significant and game-changing combat events.” All battles in the book were significant during the American effort in Vietnam and each changed the course of the war.
Head dives deep into these battles. His portrayals of four of them could easily stand on their own as concise books about their subjects, including the chapters on the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. The other two longest and most detailed chapters deal with Head’s longtime Vietnam War specialty: the U.S. air war. Those chapters cover Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and what Head terms the “air battles” after Rolling Thunder: Operations Arc Light, Command Hunt I-VII, Menu, the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive and Linebacker I and II.
Head delves into the best secondary and primary sources to describe and analyze each engagement in detail, including maps. He presents each battle predominantly from the American military perspective, covering overall strategies and battle tactics and summarizing what historians, politicians and pundits have to say about them. He then comes to his own conclusions about why the battles took place and why they turned out as they did. Head also offers his judgment on each battle’s impact on the overall struggle in Vietnam. The last chapter takes a big-picture look at the war.
Head believes most of these engagements were tactically successful but strategically disastrous—especially true of the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Khe Sanh siege.
“There is truth in the U.S. claim of victory at Khe Sanh and during the Tet Offensive,” he writes. However, “the unintended psychological victory of the Vietnamese communists during this period led to the beginning of the end for the American presence in Vietnam.”
According to Head, the infamous Battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969 was “another bloody tactical victory” for the United States, yet also “another that became a strategic defeat.” After so many troops lost their lives taking that hill, the brass almost immediately gave it back to the enemy, creating “a public outrage,” Head writes. That reaction “led to a reassessment of U.S. policy and its commitment to South Vietnam.” Consequently, U.S. Army Gen. Creighton Abrams was forced by President Richard Nixon to end his policy of “maximum pressure” against the North Vietnamese Army.
Soon Nixon began withdrawing U.S. ground forces under his “Vietnamization” program to gradually turn all combat operations over to South Vietnamese forces.
Head offers a similar critique of the air campaign. The U.S. “did not lose in Vietnam for lack of an air effort,” he states, “even though one can argue the lack of a focused air effort over the North from 1965 to 1968, and the collateral damage wrought in the South due to the air campaigns, cost the allies popular support and squandered any real possibility of military success.”
One minor criticism is that the title and cover art—a painting of two infantrymen in the field with helicopters roaring overhead—do not reflect the breadth of the book’s subject. The subtitle, however, resolves that.
Storms over the Mekong is a valuable book. It is a good starting point for anyone seeking to learn the main military lessons of the Vietnam War and how major engagements during the war contributed to its final outcome. — Marc Leepson
By David Strachan-Morris, Helion & Co., 2020
Counterinsurgency was one of the American military’s few strategic programs that seemed to have some success in Vietnam. The primary tool of the Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency effort was the Combined Action Platoon. CAP units tried to counter the influence of the Viet Cong in rural villages and turn their allegiance to the South Vietnamese government, a process known as “winning hearts and minds,” or pacification. To gain a village’s support, the CAP Marines created defense plans for protection against Viet Cong attacks, provided medical care, built schools and helped establish local entrepreneurial enterprises.
British army veteran and University of Leicester history lecturer David Strachan-Morris analyzes the effectiveness of those programs in Spreading Inkblots from Da Nang to the DMZ. He explains that the CAP counterinsurgency method began with joint military and civilian projects done in concert with “local indigenous forces” employing “economic and political means” to “pacify” an individual village. Once that was accomplished, those pacified villages ideally would “gradually expand outwards until the areas linked up and a whole region, or even country, was brought back under government control,” like spreading ink blots.
Strachan-Morris gives the general concept of counterinsurgency a passing grade, with the caveat that it is “not enough by itself to win wars.” Looking at the Marine Corps program specifically, he sees only middling effectiveness. He concedes that CAP and other hearts-and-minds programs often constituted an “effective tool” at the “operational or tactical level,” but they had little impact on the overall war effort. Most of the positive results occurred “within a specific area” for “a specific period of time.”
Strachan-Morris attributes the limited success of the Marines’ CAP initiative and other
pacification efforts to interservice rivalry between the Army and Marines in setting American strategy. Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander as head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, during the critical years 1964-68, famously was no fan of the hearts-and-minds approach, or the Marines for that matter.
Westmoreland “did not believe that pacification had no place in the ground war in Vietnam, he just didn’t necessarily believe that it was a matter for the U.S. military,” Strachan-Morris writes. That’s why Westmoreland was lukewarm at best to Marine commanders’ plans to divert significant resources to counterinsurgency programs.
Additionally, Westmoreland—at least at the start of the big American troop buildup—resented having to deal with his Marine brothers-in-arms. Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, the commander of naval forces in the Pacific, told Marine Commandant Gen. Wallace Green in June 1965 that Westmoreland and Maxwell Taylor, then U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam and a senior adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, “do not like Marines and will do everything to prevent the Marine Corps from getting credit for their accomplishments in South Vietnam,” as Strachan-Morris recounts.
The 158-page book, which began life as the author’s doctorate dissertation, is not exactly a rapid-read, page-turner. Readers will encounter some dense sentences and detailed charts and graphs. On the other hand, Spreading Inkblots is filled with facts and analysis based on solid primary-
source evidence. It provides a valuable overview of a comparatively little-known aspect of the American war in Vietnam and an in-depth assessment of how the counterinsurgency effort’s plusses and minuses fit into the military’s overall strategic picture. —Marc Leepson
By Marshall L. Michel III, Osprey Publishing, 2019
On March 30, 1972, a dozen divisions of North Vietnamese soldiers and armor entered South Vietnam, not as an infiltrating supplement to the Viet Cong in the south, but as a conventional invasion force. With almost all American ground forces withdrawn from the country and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam hard-pressed in all sectors, the only recourse left to the United States was air power.
But in contrast to President Lyndon B. Johnson and his ill-executed Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68), President Richard Nixon unleashed Operation Linebacker with none of its predecessor’s restrictions on bombing North Vietnam. Besides making strategic strikes on the North, B-52 Stratofortress aircraft rained death on whatever they caught out in the open, while close air support helped ARVN forces to hold onto Kontum in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands and An Loc farther south and to eventually retake Quang Tri in northern South Vietnam.
In a prequel to his earlier offering in Osprey’s Air Campaign series, Operation Linebacker II 1972, U.S. Air Force veteran Marshall L. Michel III takes a hard look at the motivations and miscalculations on both sides in Operation Linebacker I 1972.
Aside from being an all-out aerial confrontation, Linebacker I was noteworthy as “the first high-tech air war,” Michel contends.
North Vietnam had honed its triad of MiG-21 fighter jets, SA-2 surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, coordinated by ground control, into the world’s most formidable air defense system. On the American side, the aircraft attacked with an unprecedented arsenal of electronic tricks up their sleeves and Navy fighters were ready to take on the MiGs with air crews schooled in air-to-air combat through the Top Gun training program.
The result, Michel believes, was not a complete U.S. victory but enough of a tactical success to save Saigon and bring Hanoi back to the Paris peace talks. The Linebacker I campaign also field-tested a deadly array of advanced weapons for future conflicts.
One curious oversight in the author’s otherwise excellent research is attributing the North Vietnamese invasion plan primarily to Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, without so much as a mention of Le Duan, who had politically outmaneuvered both Giap and Ho Chi Minh to advance his own costly agenda of waging war with “big battles” rather than guerrilla fighters. —Jon Guttman
Each of these book reviews has been featured in Vietnam magazine.
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