Reviewed by Robert L. Bateman
By John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991. First paperback edition, 2004
We all have our cultural blinders, even in military history. In the modern U.S. Marine Corps, very little attention is paid to the 1943 Operation Husky, despite the fact that it constituted the single largest opposed amphibious operation in all of history, with the simultaneous landings of eight entire divisions.
Why? Because Husky was an all-Army operation. For similar reasons many in the Army know very little about the siege of Khe Sanh, even though it was a conventional ground operation fought far from the sea with the same equipment and munitions that the Army used at the time. To help remove the accidental blinders, I strongly recommend Valley of Decision to all former Army personnel reading this magazine.
This is a classic conventional battle narrative, but with unusual depth. Many such accounts start just a few weeks or months before the events of the actual battle. Valley of Decision starts, appropriately in my opinion, with the arrival of the first permanent European settlers into the area in 1926. The reader learns about the original French coffee plantation owners and how they struggled in the back country of French Indochina. One gets a feel for the ebb and flow of war across this location over time.
The United States arrived in 1962 in the form of a Special Forces team. It was a different war then. On their way to Khe Sanh, two of the American soldiers were captured by the Viet Cong, but were released and returned to their peers. Thus Prados and Stubbe’s book is not just about one battle; it is about the changing political and social atmosphere of a place.
Valley of Decision brings to the reader an appreciation for the inherent complexity of war, especially a war in which there were a lot of combatants and a fight that riveted the attention of so many. Whereas Prados’ textual contribution brings to light the “big picture,” taking the reader into the War Room underneath the White House where President Lyndon Johnson obsessed about the siege, Stubbe provides the human counterpoint by drawing on the stories of individuals in the foxholes on the ground.
This reissue in paperback is long overdue, as it will make the work that much more accessible to a broader audience. Although there are now several dozen personal memoirs and generalized works on the history of the battle, none of them has yet unseated Valley of Decision for pride of place as an authoritative source on the siege of Khe Sanh.