Expendable Warriors: The Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War
by Bruce B.G. Clarke. Praeger Security International, Westport, Conn., 2007, hardcover $49.95.
The Battle of Khe Sanh was the best-known battle of the war. Six thousand Marines fought tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. The fighting lasted for weeks, ended inconclusively and finally passed into history.
Khe Sanh was also the name of a nearby village, the capital of Huong Hoa district of Quang Tri province. About 25 Americans were there in 1968, along with a Vietnamese militia force. Some of the Americans were Marines attached to civic actions units. The rest were Army advisers assigned to help Vietnamese government officials win civilian “hearts and minds.”
On January 21, an NVA battalion attacked the village. Author Clarke, then an Army captain and district adviser, coordinated the defense of the village. Fighting was fierce and lasted about 24 hours. This battle is the focus of the book. The advisory force expected the Marines at Khe Sanh to provide relief. Instead, the Marines considered the village not defensible and ordered an evacuation of the advisers to the base. Clarke considers this decision a huge mistake as it was the first time a district headquarters was abandoned. (Later, the base itself was abandoned, which must have left the village government even more vulnerable.)
Clarke discusses the inability of Army and Marine commands to share intelligence and work together generally. He faults the political decision not to allow the 1st Cavalry Division to invade Laos and “shut down” the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The epilogue describes the fate of the Bru Montagnards who were caught up in the fighting.
The book contains several errors of fact. The lack of a bibliography and useful footnotes makes it frustrating for the reader who wants more information. The three themes (defense of the village, invading Laos, fate of the Bru) are not well connected. However, the fighting in Khe Sanh village is covered in great detail not available elsewhere, making this slim volume a useful contribution to our larger understanding of the most controversial battle of the Vietnam War.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.