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Praising ‘Unparalled’ Pioneers of Tactical Innovation

Lieutenant General Julian Ewell, who died in August 2009, is one of the most controversial of the senior American commanders of the Vietnam War. A genuine hero of World War II who commanded 101st Airborne Division battalions during the D-Day and Market-Garden drops, and earned a Distinguished Service Cross at the Battle of the Bulge, Ewell commanded the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam from February 1968 to April 1969, and then commanded II Field Forces until April 1970.

Rightly or wrongly, Ewell is widely regarded as one of the foremost exponents of what has become known as the “body count syndrome.” From December 1968 to May 1969, the large-scale operations of the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta claimed almost 11,000 enemy dead—but only some 750 weapons were actually recovered. Critics claim this as an indication of a high number of civilians dead. Among General Ewell’s most vocal critics was the late Colonel David Hackworth, and even an Army Inspector General report in 1972 concluded that “a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand.”

As a colonel, Maj. Gen. Ira A. Hunt Jr. served as Ewell’s chief of staff, and his book is based on his first-hand experience and the records that he compiled at the time. Hunt directly addresses the problems of weapons retrieval and “collateral damage,” but he also offers a number of extremely significant insights to many of the tactical innovations pioneered by the 9th Infantry Division and the unique problems of military operations in the Mekong Delta. Those key innovations include: air/ground tactics for operating in the Delta, specifically “Bushmaster” and “Checkerboard” tactics; the “Constant Pressure” operational concept; night operations in the Delta; the “Safe Step Program” to reduce the effects of booby traps; and the measures to deal with the problem of immersion foot while operating on terrain almost completely covered by several inches of water. Another key topic is the 9th Infantry Division’s sniper program. It was the only Army division to make widespread use of snipers in Vietnam. The Marine Corps conducted all other significant sniper operations. In fact, the 9th Infantry Division’s Sergeant Adelbert Waldron was America’s top-scoring sniper of all time with 109 confirmed kills. Receiving two Distinguished Service Crosses, Waldron also became the most decorated sniper.

General Ewell and Hunt were strong believers in using quantitative analysis to study, improve and focus military operations. In support of his arguments, General Hunt provides extensive statistics and tables. Many believe that the “bean-counter approach” to military operations was thoroughly discredited in Vietnam, but Hunt offers compelling evidence that systematic analysis can be applied to good effect. Thus, Hunt’s book will generate plenty of controversy, but his arguments deserve detailed consideration. This volume should be read by all serious students of the Vietnam War.

University of Kentucky Press, 2010