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American Warrior: A Combat Memoir of Vietnam

by Brig. Gen. John C. “Doc” Bahnsen Jr. with Wess Roberts. Citadel Press, New York, 2007, hardcover $24.95, softcover $16.95.

American Warrior, described in the frontispiece as a “combat memoir of Vietnam,” is this—but so much more. It is a story of courage at all levels, a lesson in small-unit and higher-level leadership, and above all a wonderful story about the Army as a whole, at its best. As General H. Norman Schwarzkopf says in his foreword: “No one I know ever doubted [Bahnsen’s] undaunted valor and boundless energy for mixing it up with the enemy. I found the true stories about Doc much more amazing than any of the legendary tales about him.”

Doc Bahnsen is praised by all who knew him in Vietnam, from combat medics on the ground to warrant officer pilots to General Creighton Abrams. The Georgia boy became a fearless soldier. He received our country’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, as well as five Silver Stars, two Purple Heart medals and 48 Air Medals.

On his departure from command of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Blackhorse), then Colonel (later Maj. Gen.) George Patton said in Bahnsen’s efficiency report: “He is the best, most highly motivated and professionally competent combat leader I have served with. He is one of those rare professionals who enjoys fighting the enemy, a personal leader com – manding, both from the air and on the ground by example as opposed to direction.” George S. Patton IV, like his famous father, was not given to praising lightly.

Co-author Wess Roberts was very astute to let Bahnsen tell his story firsthand rather than paraphrasing it in lofty prose. Bahnsen is brutally honest in his self-criticism, but his love of soldiers flows out on every page. American Warrior is replete with accounts by troops who were there with him during fierce combat actions. The Army’s educational system should make these examples of small-unit tactics required reading in our noncommissioned officer and junior officer classes. Much can be learned here on just how important “leadership by example” really is.

The photographs that accompany vignettes of combat actions are fuzzy but illustrate just how difficult the fighting was in this jungle terrain. Those taken by Spc. 4 Rex Saul of the Aero Rifle Platoon are magnificent, and help capture the intensity of the combat actions. If there is anything to criticize, it is the absence of maps to illustrate just what took place. Those familiar with the area to the north and northeast of Saigon will recall that it was perhaps one of the most difficult places in Vietnam in which to conduct operations.

Midway through the book, Bahnsen offers his philosophy of command when he says: “Commanding in combat involves more than taking the fight to the enemy. You have to take care of your soldiers’ needs the best you can and do whatever you can to keep their spirits high.” He goes on to say: “…whether commanding in combat or garrison, leaders are never equals with their soldiers. One minute you’re a father, the next you’re a big brother. You can’t be one of the boys and an effective leader at the same time. The dividing line between a leader and the led must always be maintained for the sake of military discipline.”

The book has an excellent glossary to assist those unfamiliar with terms used in Vietnam or in the Cavalry Regiments. As another mark of the man about whom the book is written, the appendix is a complete listing of soldiers killed in action while serving under Bahnsen.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here