One potentially frustrating thing about being a brilliant warrior is that others may not share your tactical grasp of a situation and your resolve to act on it. Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, a bright and idealistic Virginia native whose commitment to South Vietnam’s survival drove him to pathological extremes, learned this the hard way during his stint as an adviser to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) before the United States had officially committed its own forces there.
After months of watching President Ngo Dinh Diem abandon joint offensive operations with U.S. forces in favor of moving rural folk into “strategic hamlets” that were theoretically off-limits to the Viet Cong, Vann saw a chance to reverse that policy on January 2, 1963, when electronic eavesdroppers located a VC radio transmitter near the village of Ap Bac, and Saigon ordered a strike. In Vann’s scheme, the South Vietnamese would assault the VC from three directions at once, using their superior firepower to hand the Communists a stinging defeat. Fog delayed the second and third choppers, however, and when Saigon’s civil guards moved up from the south, the VC were prepared. Heavy fire tore into the civil guards and killed their commanders. ARVN troops belatedly leapt out of the second and third helicopters and promptly hit the dirt instead of advancing on the VC, which downed two of the choppers.
Circling in his Cessna L-19 spotter plane, Vann radioed the U.S. adviser attached to the ARVN armored personnel carriers and requested immediate assistance. Vann got back the message: “I’ve got a problem, Topper Six. My counterpart won’t move.” Vann then explained that it was an emergency. The adviser conveyed the Saigon commander’s reaction: “I described the situation to him exactly as you told me, Topper Six, but he says, ‘I don’t take orders from Americans.’” When the ARVN armor finally did move, on orders from the South Vietnamese 7th Division’s commander, it advanced too haltingly to make a decisive difference in that battle. ARVN paratroopers who joined the fight after 6 p.m. did not land on the east side of the battlefield, where Vann wanted them to be in order to trap the VC. Instead, they had on Brig. Gen. Huynh Van Cao’s orders landed on the west side to back the assault troops. Vann later said, “They chose to reinforce defeat.” The battle ended with 191 ARVN and U.S. casualties and five helicopters destroyed, for the loss of 57 VC.
This wrenching account in Max Hastings’ Warriors: Portraits From the Battlefield (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005, $27.50) is one of 15 stories, some tragic, some comic, all illustrative of the trials facing those who aspire to distinguish themselves as warriors. The urge to rise above and beyond the call while others are content to languish on history’s margins does not always have as tragic an outcome as in Vann’s story. For example, one of the most gripping chapters in Warriors deals with Audie Murphy, the Texan of modest build who helped pave the way for Allied victory in France, earned the Medal of Honor and reprised his exploits on film 10 years later, playing himself in To Hell and Back.
Hastings expertly evokes the psychology of the driven warrior. Some of his tales are cautionary, some are inspiring and others present an image of military, political and moral ambiguity. Take the story of Guy Gibson, the Royal Air Force’s 24-year-old bomber hero, born in Punjab in 1918. A tough officer, driven by what Hastings calls “Hun-hate,” Gibson lashed out at men for any act that carried a trace of fear or insufficient resolve in the face of the enemy. When one Avro Lancaster crew aborted a takeoff after the self-destruct device on its Gee radar-navigational aid exploded, Gibson told them, “You’ve got four good engines, you’ll bloody well go and bomb Germany.”
At the end of March 1943, Gibson met Barnes Wallis, the scientist who invented the “bouncing bomb,” which had the potential to wreck the Möhne, Sorpe and Eder dams on Germany’s Ruhr River, resulting in incalculable problems for German industry. Gibson obsessed over preparations for the attack, but when he dropped his payload on the night of May 16, 1943, it failed to put a hole in the Möhne dam.
At a point when other commanders might have turned and headed home, Gibson flew the attack route twice more in order to divert fire from the other Lancasters. The second bouncing bomb cracked the dam, and the fifth punched a hole in it, releasing tens of millions of gallons of water onto the countryside. Then Gibson directed the three planes still carrying bombs to the Eder dam, which also came apart. Only two bombers made it to the Sorpe, which withstood the attack. Although Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading what would become known as the “Dambuster Raid,” Hastings is sober about the results of the mission, which cost more than just eight planes and 53 crewmen. The destruction was not as final as it could have been, but by the author’s count, nearly half of the 1,300 people killed in the flood were slave laborers or prisoners of war.
These are a few of the portraits—tragic, comic, awesome and squalid—that fill the pages of Warriors. Hastings wants the reader to see the degree to which some of the warriors’ gifts or ambitions exceeded those of others they had to deal with, and to realize how ill-equipped they sometimes were to deal with problems in other areas of life. Warriors may be willing, even eager, to risk their lives, but they can be tragically presumptuous about the lives of others. Some still mourn Guy Gibson’s navigator, James Warwick, who in September 1944 had the ill luck to fly with a man whose ego far exceeded his skill at piloting a twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito Pathfinder, which crashed in an attack on the German city of Rheydt, with no survivors.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.