BRUTAL BATTLES OF VIETNAM: AMERICA’S DEADLIEST DAYS, 1965-1972
Edited by Richard K. Kolb
Veterans of Foreign Wars, $29.95, 480 pages, illustrated
During the Paris Peace talks in the early 1970s, American Col. Harry Summers was talking to his North Vietnamese counterpart during a break. Summers reportedly told the Vietnamese that we had won every battle in the war. The Vietnamese replied, “That is true, but it is also irrelevant.” It is not irrelevant to the surviving veterans who fought those battles or to the families of Americans who did not return.
With the exception of Hue City and Khe Sanh, most of the big battles have faded into history. We are as far in time from Vietnam today as we were from World War I in 1967, and the sacrifices of those who fought the war are in danger of being forgotten by the majority of the American people. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) strive mightily to keep those memories alive. “Brutal Battles of Vietnam” is an attempt to recreate those desperate battles largely in the words of those who fought them.
The book is the culmination of a seven-year project of articles from the VFW magazine. Each chapter focuses on a specific battle and there are separate chapters on the naval and air wars. The book is edited by Richard K. Kolb, who wrote the majority of the magazine articles that make up the anthology. Each chapter is painstakingly researched and the interviews with participants of the battles represent primary sources in a way that has not been done in any of the literature of the war that I have come across. In addition to some excellent photographs, this readable volume lists the award winners of the highest medals for heroism.
Battles such as Dak To, Hoc Monh and Lang Vei did not get much attention in the press even in their immediate aftermath. The names were strange to the American ear and probably ran together in the minds of even those who tried to follow the war closely, but each remains indelibly imprinted in the memories of those who fought them.
This is not a comprehensive history of the war in Vietnam. It is a grunt’s eye view supplemented by the stories of the airmen and sailors who supported them. However, the authors are unsparing with the generals and civilian leaders whose misguided strategic and operational decisions occasionally led whole battalions and even regiments into ambushes that the soldiers and Marines on the ground had to fight their way out of.
Because of its size and volume, it is meant to be read selectively. It does a great service to the warriors who lugged huge packs through jungles, swamps and mountains to confront the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese masters. When they returned home, many of them met with disinterest or even outright hostility from many of their own generation and found that even sympathetic family members could not understand what they had endured. Many of the survivors will now be able to point to a particular chapter and say, “I was there.”
No book is perfect, and some of the most famous warriors are not mentioned because they did not fight in the big battles. People like James Webb and Francis “Bing” West fought in the brutal little fights for forgotten villages and hamlets known only by numbers that constituted the bulk of the war and caused the majority of the casualties. However, these guys have contributed immeasurably to the literature of the war. This book is about those who would otherwise be forgotten as the sands of time drift on.
The book makes no pretense of being fair and balanced toward the enemy or even our South Vietnamese allies. This is an American story, seen through American eyes. College courses on Vietnam tend to concentrate on the strategic mistakes and miscalculations of the leaders. Professors would be well advised to include this volume to show the human cost of decisions made in Washington and Saigon.
When Americans think of Vietnam, they generally see it as a tragic mistake. A few years ago, I talked with a former Soviet-era Russian general who had another view. He told me that the fact that we had fought for so long to contain communism in Vietnam, and recovered so quickly that in four years we would wage a counterattack against the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan, had a profoundly sobering effect in the Kremlin, and may well have contributed materially to the decline of the Soviet Union. At least someone was paying attention.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who lectures on alternative analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.