- - Monday, February 6, 2012

BLACKHORSE RIDERS: A DESPERATE LAST STAND, AN EXTRAORDINARY RESCUE MISSION, AND THE VIETNAM BATTLE AMERICA FORGOT
By Philip Keith
Foreword by Gen. George Casey Jr.
St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 331 pages

This book recounts in great detail - sometimes too much detail - a 1970 battle in Vietnam in which soldiers of the 11th Armored Cavalry, known as the Blackhorse Regiment, risked their lives to rescue U.S. infantrymen who were surrounded and outnumbered 7-1 by North Vietnamese troops.

Author Philip Keith writes: “Had these men not tackled the rescue, an entire company of infantry, over 80 men, would have been killed or captured. This would have been one of the worst single-unit, single-day losses for the American military in Vietnam.”

Mr. Keith has tracked down and interviewed many of the survivors - both the rescued and the rescuers. As he notes, “Many of the memories shared here are as vivid to these veterans as if the events had happened yesterday.” Mr. Keith adds, “The bottom line to this recounting is that these ‘average Joes’ took deep breaths, ignored the dangers, and did what they thought was right.”

I wanted to like this book. I covered the Vietnam War for NBC News in the 1960s and 1970s. I reported on many experiences like the one recounted here. I have a deep emotional attachment to the troops who fought in that war.

But in reading “Blackhorse Riders,” I often was turned off by the sheer mass of detail - often extraneous detail - with which the author has larded his account. He reprints the entire texts of some of the soldiers’ letters home. He offers long biographies of many of the officers and troops involved and then even longer accounts of their lives after the war ended.

He explains at great length military organizations and structures. He gives the names and biographies of officers at every level. He describes in minute detail the contents of the soldiers’ food, MCI’s - Meal, Combat Individual, the Vietnam equivalent of World War II C rations. He offers equally detailed descriptions of various tanks, trucks and weapons.

The author offers many vivid analogies. For instance, here’s how he describes the scene after one battle: “It was the Seventh Circle of Dante’s Hell brought to the surface and given its own churning, palpitating life.”

On the other hand, some of his analogies are odd. Here’s how he describes U.S. armored vehicles encountering North Vietnamese troops along a jungle trail near the Cambodian border: “It was as if an armadillo had knocked over an angry anthill.” In another odd analogy, Mr. Keith describes the rotation of troops this way: “Officers, NCOs, and men were being swapped as rapidly as tires at the Indy 500.”

Obviously, the author has done a great deal of research on what happened in the battle 40 years ago. Still, I wonder how he knows certain things. For instance, the specific words of voice messages exchanged over walkie-talkies. Or that “little rivulets of sweat” ran down the mud-caked face of an American officer, “creating the appearance of a war-painted chieftain ready for an all-out battle.”

Mr. Keith also seems overly focused on drug use by some soldiers in Vietnam.

The broader point that Mr. Keith makes is that the bravery of the soldiers and officers of the Blackhorse Regiment was not officially recognized at the time. In the book’s introduction, the author notes, “For reasons never discovered, the recommendations for some of the medals and, indeed, even the record of the battle itself, were either lost or misplaced in a haze of Army paperwork.”

Finally, 30 years later, one of the officers involved in the Blackhorse rescue operation launched a campaign to win the long-delayed recognition. On Oct. 20, 2009, in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama presented the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation to surviving members of the 11th Armored Cavalry. Now in their 50s and 60s, some used canes, some used walkers, and some were in wheelchairs.

In recounting the episode, Mr. Obama declared at the medal presentation ceremony, “This is the story of what soldiers do - not only for their country, but for each other: troopers who put themselves in the line of fire, using their tanks and vehicles to shield those trapped; the loaders who kept the ammunition coming, and the gunners who never let up; and when one of those gunners went down, the soldier who jumped up to take his place. … Now, these men might be a little bit older, a little bit grayer. But make no mistake - these soldiers define the meaning of bravery and heroism.”

Despite its faults, this book is a riveting account of tragedy and death in Vietnam - and of wrongs ultimately righted.

Ron Nessen is Journalist in Residence at the Brookings Institution. As an NBC News correspondent, he covered the Vietnam War. As President Ford’s press secretary, he announced the final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.