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Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam

by Mark Moyar. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1997 first ed., 2007 current ed., softcover $23.95.

This is a schizophrenic review because, frankly, its subject is a schizophrenic book. Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, by Mark Moyar, is an account and analysis of the oft-maligned but poorly understood programs that fell under the broader title “Phoenix,” as in the Phoenix Program. These operations, mostly conducted by various organizations of the government of the Republic of South Vietnam, were also overseen and coordinated at various times by different American organizations. Most notably, and most successfully, the Central Intelligence Agency over – saw the program for several years before eventually disassociating itself from the effort in 1970. What gives Moyar’s book its dual personality, however, is a combination of some solid scholarship about tactical and operational level events that occurred almost 40 years ago, with some contemporary political venom about domestic U.S. politics. In other words, what makes this book unique is not just the scholarship (more on that in a moment) but the angry partisan political inclinations of the author.

Moyar is an academic historian with a light grounding in military history. He first came to national attention when an April 2007 article in the hyper-conservative newspaper the New York Sun described his unsuccessful attempts to gain a faculty position. In that story Moyar is described as a long-suffering and aggrieved party. According to Moyar and the article’s author, he could not get a job in academia because the schools were all stuffed to the gills with staunch liberals and Moyar is screamingly conservative.

One might note that among those liberal bastions that rejected young Dr. Moyar were Texas A&M (where even the dean is a retired lieutenant general), those lily-pads at Texas Tech and the U.S. Air Force War College at Maxwell Air Force base. Hmmmm.

Phoenix and the Birds of Prey originally came out in 1997. It is, essentially, Moyar’s undergraduate college thesis. This edition has some additions, a new preface and a new concluding chapter. One cannot avoid seeing this as the product of a very gifted, very determined and very closed young mind.

Overall the book suffers from three fundamental problems. The first of these is Moyar’s blatant insertion of his own rampant political bias into a topic that is not political. The actions of individual CIA agents, junior U.S. Army officers and most of the American side of the structure that we now call “Phoenix” had nothing to do with politics. Yet in Moyar’s world, it is essential that he tell you about his undergraduate professors who were so liberal and wrong in the early 1990s. OK, Mark, we get it. Let it go. Deal with the history, please.

The second issue, which is also apparent throughout, is that Moyar rushed through this book. His sources reflect the fact that at the time of his writing he was an undergraduate with little academic education and therefore an inability to plumb some sources from Vietnam that might have been useful.

These direct and valid criticisms, however, should now be set aside, because for all of its faults, this is an indispensable book. Indeed, bearing these critiques in mind, it is the best book on this topic of which I am aware.

Moyar delves—and does so quite deeply compared to some other works—into a topic that is both inaccurately mythologized and generally misunderstood. The work is all the more important because the subject matter does have relevance and applicability to the war that we have been fighting for seven years now, with no end in sight. Further, the vacuous criticisms that he slings at his old professors and academia in general do fall away once one gets into the meat of the book. Instead of the polemicist Moyar, one finds there a much more mature assessment. Indeed, the degree of honest and stark criticism of faults, and the celebration of successful efforts, give hope that Moyar is more than the political-type he seems to be.

In the end, with caveats firmly in place, this reviewer strongly endorses Phoenix and the Birds of Prey as an addition to the personal library of anyone interested in the Vietnam War.


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