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The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam: They Did Everything But Learn From It

by David M. Toczek. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2007, $19.95

David Toczek, a serving U.S. Army officer and former history professor at the United States Military Academy, has written the definitive treatment of the battle of Ap Bac, a minor action in January 1963 that had major implications. Toczek puts the battle in the larger historical context, maintaining that its implications were completely ignored. He describes it as “an interesting historical paradox,” saying that “its greatest importance lies in its perceived unimportance to American policy makers.”

The book is divided into three distinct parts. The first sets the stage by discussing the belligerents and the events that led to the battle. Clearly and concisely, the author provides a good appreciation for the problems that confronted the early American advisors.

The second part is a detailed description of the outcome of the battle, in which a small group of VC stood their ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the larger and much better-armed South Vietnamese forces. Despite what Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, senior advisor to the 7th ARVN Division, called “a miserable damn performance” by the South Vietnamese, the U.S. command in Saigon touted the battle as a great victory for the ARVN.

The third part focuses on why the American military leadership failed to learn the lessons it should have gleaned from the battle’s outcome. Rather than see it as emblematic not only of the ills that beset the South Vietnamese armed forces, but also the “advisory system’s limitations,” senior military and government officials adhered to the official optimistic line, refusing to draw any connection between the ARVN’s poor performance and those limitations. Accordingly they “missed the warning signs of a flawed policy in Southeast Asia.”


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