Reviews of books (both fiction and non-fiction) relating to the Vietnam War




The 13th Valley

John Del Vecchio, Published by Sphere Books, ISBN 0-7221-8837-4

This book has been heaped with praise and I must admit with some justification, Charting the events of a company, though more through the eyes of a cherry, it deals with the events leading to a climatic battle. The author, a vet himself, very vividly portrays what life is like in the hot jungle, His action scenes of ambushes, artillery actions and overrunning night positions are very good, However I must admit what a lot of rubbish he has the men talking about, okay some of his soldiers do talk about home, beer and sex, but heavy debates on politics and philosophy in the middle of a rotting jungle? I thought it to be really out of character.

This book though is a wargamers dream. It is also still in print, though I found a copy in a car boot sale... ignore the conversations and read it for the action and operational descriptions.

My rating =  4/5

Simon Haines

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Operation Buffalo - USMC Fight for the DMZ

Keith Nolan, Published by Dell, ISBN 0-440-21310-X

This author, though a teenager at the time, has to be rated one of, if not the best, authors on the Vietnam war. After talking to Vets who had been in the action, this book tells it from there point of view, His books are not dry history, you get into the hearts and minds of the men. You suffer there pain and enjoy their laughter. This book deals with a battle which is more like World War Two, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, air and sea support, Marines on a sweep are overrun and slowly picked off. The relief column, like the cavalry, is hit hard, Single men or squads are surrounded and fight off NVA regulars. The only downside is that during the book I feel more maps could have been used. Keith Nolans books are very highly recommended and, on a more personal note, it is also the book which recounts my cousins role in the battle and subsequent death.

In memory of Corporal Robert L. Haines 1/9th Marines

A tribute to my cousin from someone who knew him just prior to his death has been posted at

http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/2311/illfind.html

Simon Haines

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The Magnificent Bastards

Keith Nolan, Published by Dell, ISBN 0-440-22162-5

This book covers an action near the DMZ with the NVA and initially Marines of the 4th Division and then men of the Americal Division. Once again Nolan has interviewed the men on the ground in that action of 1968. The NVA had been planning on trying to overrun the Dong Ha supply base, when, during a night action, they literally crossed the path of the 2nd battalion 4th Marines. This set into motion an amazing and bloody battle.

This book is, as I have said about another book by Nolan, a wargamers dream if he studies it... well entrenched NVA fight off whatever the Marines throw at them so throw your morale rules out. This is close quarter action with lots of fire raining down on both sides.

It's through Nolan that you understand how these men felt, lived and unfortunately died. I also have great respect most of the time for the NVA, what they suffered and threw back is amazing. The characters are real, this is no story.

Since the first book of Nolan's that I read, I have been captivated by his writing and the willingness of men to have their good and bad bits put into print. His book Operation Buffalo treated my cousins death with, I suppose, respect in what appears to have been a massacre. Nolan never over glorifies or glamorises the action as he allows the men to tell their tales

The Americal Division has had some pretty unsavory things written about it. These are, as most myths, without foundation, Their actions at Nhi Ha in this book show how well they fought against the palace guard, as with most battles through history there is utter confusion. Unfortunately the maps in the book do not help as they give no real scale or terrain. The Navy and Air force get a look in, and I feel that a special mention should be made of the corpsmen and the doctors who worked in terrible conditions and with overwhelming casualties. I am also surprised that in '68 the M16 was still as bad as it had been initially. At one stage a company of the Gimlets (Americal Division) had nearly all their M16's jammed (not something I would be too happy about). I wonder if the M14 couldn't have been upgraded, or if the old SLR could have been used. At most stages the grunts are trying to get their hands on an AK47. It is Nolan's use of the survivors words that help these books, nothing is either added or removed.

Sometimes the truth will hurt, but this is better than it being hidden. His books also give us a painful truth about the lead figures we push around; we should respect the memory of the fallen and not treat what we are doing too lightly Remember, the man next to you may be a Vet.

Simon Haines

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DAK TO... 173rd Airborne in the Central Highlands

Edward Murphey, Published by Pocket Books, ISBN 0-671-52268-X

Written in the style of Keith Nolan, this book charts the actions around the mountain hamlet of Dak To in the Central Highlands. The action forced 3 NVA regiments to miss the Tet offensive of '68. Operating without food and water and surrounded, US platoons fought literally hand to hand with the NVA.Tthe book manages very well to convey the fighting and the events that led up to it, With almost fictionalized quality, the book does suffer from lack of maps, and sometimes I felt lost trying to remember who was where. It also gives a where are they now section and a brief background to the sky soldiers. All in all a book to get, although I fear it is now out of print, Maybe Bol or Amazon may be able to help.

Simon Haines

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Chickenhawk

Robert Mason [New York : Viking, 1983 / London : Corgi Books, 1984], ISBN 0-552-12419-2

Like so many other books, this one is dubbed "the best book to come out of the Vietnam war" by none other than John Del Vecchio (I suppose that the author of the "finest novel to come out of the Vietnam war" quote which appears on The 13th Valley's cover is Bob Mason ;-). Hype notwithstanding, it is in fact a very good account of a slick pilot's tour in the 1st Air Cavalry Division's 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion between August 1965 and July 1966. The names of the men described have been changed, as seems to be the name of the second unit the author served with (49th Aviation Company "Prospectors" in Phan Rang) which is not a unit I was aware of, but both the chronology and geography appear to have been respected.

Nowfel Leulliot

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PAVN : People's Army of Vietnam

Douglas Pike (Novato : Presidio Press, 1986 ; reprinted New York : Da Capo Press, 1991)
ISBN 0-306-80432-8


This is an excellent synthesis of the doctrine, strategy, leadership and internal workings of the PAVN during and after the Vietnam War. The core of the book is the lengthy analysis of the political and military dau tranh strategy which made the PAVN's way of waging war so different to what the US Army had planned and trained for. Relying on extensive North Vietnamese primary sources, Pike goes a long way towards clearing up several misconceptions about the PAVN. Although you won't find anything about squad level tactics and weaponry in this book, I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Vietnam war. As a matter of fact, I'd say that this is one of few books in the "must read" category.

Nowfel Leulliot

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Once a Warrior King : Memories of an Officer in Vietnam

David Donovan (pseudonym) [New York: Ballantine Books, 1986], ISBN0-345-33316-0

Written by a lieutenant assigned to a Mobile Advisory Team in Dong Tieng district (MACV Team 84, Kien Phong province) in April 1969 and later District Senior Advisor, this is a rather good account of the war in the villages, far from the large US units, air and artillery support. Despite its rather awful cover (I was expecting the worst when I picked that one off the shop bookshelf), it is in fact quite readable and offers some very good insights about the other war, the one fought by ARVN local forces. This book makes a welcome change from the more "typical" American accounts of hot LZs and major search and destroy operations. It would also make a good source of unusual scenarios or an interesting mini-campaign.

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All Guts and No Glory: the Story of a Long Tan Warrior

Buick B & McKay G. (Allen & Unwin, Sydney. 251p), ISBN 1-86508-274-0, $A27.50

I was pleasantly surprised to find this book at my local bookstore. The principal author, Bob Buick, was a key player in Australia's bloodiest battle of the Viet Nam War, the Battle of Long Tan, 18 August 1966. Whilst this battle has been covered in detail before, Bob Buick uses his presence at the battle to dispel myths and present a very personal point of view.

For the uninitiated, Long Tan saw a company patrol bump into a far larger Vietnamese force, around two thousand strong. The VC attempted to overrun the company, but were prevented by the discipline and artillery support of the Australians. The final casualty ratio has been estimated at 40:1. The battle ranks as one of the world's great military stands, and earned the company the US Presidential Citation.

The book does not solely concern Long Tan, but covers Buick's role in the 6th Royal Australian Regiment's 1966-7 tour, with a little bit before and after. Buick was the Platoon Sergeant of 11 Platoon, Delta Company 6RAR. This platoon bore the brunt of the action at Long Tan, and ended up suffering heavy casualties. The Platoon Commander was killed, and Sgt Buick had to take over, earning the Military Medal in the process.

The Long Tan battle was only a few months into 6RAR's tour, so the book feels as if the climax comes earlier than it should. Nevertheless, the description is vivid: tracer like fireflies, incessant noise and a monsoonal thunderstorm. 11 Platoon is down to nine effectives from a starting strength of thirty-three, with a broken radio and less than five rounds each. They prepare for a last stand by having their machetes and shovels to hand. As the VC pull back, 11 Platoon makes a dash for safety, with only seven making it back to the Company.

The Long Tan battle is the highlight of the book. Bob Buick was not only a combatant there, but a key player. His account is unpolished. He speaks his mind in best enlisted Digger fashion. He has little thrift for the protesters he still considers 'traitors'. He tells how he punched out an officer who was disrespectful to the dead the morning after Long Tan. He describes a few friendly fire incidents, and the recollections he has of shooting severely wounded VC. Buick makes a strong campaign for better recognition of South Vietnamese awards and decorations.

Buick presents a background to the conflict, and also his thoughts on the different methods employed by the American and Anzac forces. This is well presented and is good reading for those interested in overall tactics and strategy.

A good aspect of this book is the references to forms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In particular, Buick himself found that at reunions he had trouble recognizing many of his former soldiers because he had not wanted to get emotionally close to them and then see them killed. This comes out in the text: there are few references to his men and it is here, in my opinion, that the book is weak.

Buick constantly uses the phrase, 'survival in war is 95% training and 5% luck'. The other phrase which caught my attention was that 'being in the artillery is like making love with the lights off: you never get to see how much joy you give the other person'.

Other features include the inclusion of many photos I had not seen before, an index and a glossary of terms and acronyms.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the action at Long Tan, or the Australian involvement in the war. I would not recommend this as the first book to read on the conflict, preferring Gary McKay's 'In Good Company', and Lex MaCauley's 'The Battle of Long Tan'. However, this makes excellent accompanying reading.

Rating: 8/10

John Barker

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Telltale Hearts - The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

Adam Garfinkle, Published by Macmillan 1995, ISBN 0-333-69843-6

The primary thesis of this book is that the results of the radical anti-war movement were not that which is commonly held by both 'hawks' and 'doves'. Instead of it helping to turn the American public against the war, it served to prolong US involvement by marginalizing the anti-war perspective.  Many who would have spoken against the continuation of US intervention in Vietnam at an earlier stage in the war did not do so because it would have meant being associated with the radical fringe whose 'drugs, radical left politics and free love' image was distasteful to a large section of the American public.

Garfinkle argues that the public opinion was led predominantly by the administration itself.  When support began to degrade in 1968, it was not the Tet itself which triggered the slide.  A month later in February a Gallup poll, which asked whether people considered themselves hawks or doves, resulted in 61% rating themselves as hawks and only 23% as doves. It was a dominant view that as a considerable cost in lives and dollars had already been incurred, the only way was forward. However after LBJs speech in March 1968 when he announced that they would attempt negotiations to end the war and halt the bombing, public support plummeted. The government had shown that it did not believe itself that the war could be won, and that the best outcome that could be hoped for was that the US could disentangle itself with as little further pain as possible. In spite of this in 1970 the majority of the public still opposed a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam, a stance more hawkish than the government.

He further believes that the war was winnable, and not through giving the military a free hand, as is now commonly argued.  Much of US strategy ignored the principal objective - that of a non-Communist, democratic government in South Vietnam.  The very scale of the US involvement undermined and corrupted the Saigon government and destroyed any nationalist credentials which it was entitled to claim.  Furthermore military objectives are of little value if the ultimate victory which is sought is primarily a political one.  If every military asset of the VC had been destroyed, but in the process the populace had been alienated and made hostile to the US and pro-American Vietnamese politicians, then the US would have failed.  Success should have been counted in terms of friendly populace, not dead Communists.

Although this book has few military facts that would be useful to wargamers, its unusual approach to the politics underpinning the US administration's strategic decisions makes fascinating reading. It could also provide useful themes and political information for a Matrix style game or a map based campaign where the players control the whole of US involvement in RVN and juggle military and political objectives.

Aidan Boustred

 

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The Riflemen: Unit History of 3RAR in Vietnam 1971

Michael C. English, Australian Military History Publications (1999). ISBN 1-876439-54-8.

Firstly, I've never reviewed anything before, but have decided to give this a shot, given the excellent web site that Mike Ruffle has here and what appears to be interest in the Australian involvement during Vietnam, outside of Australia itself. So if you're reading this, good on you and here it goes...

The author Mike English served in 3 battalion on the units' second and final tour in 1971, as an infantry section commander. But don't get the idea this is one of those 'about my personal war in...' type semi-autobiographical histories. It's as simple as ' this is what the blokes in the unit did - and this is how they did it'. Don't expect a ton of blood pouring off the pages, with heroic exploits of western soldiers holding off the screaming hordes of Uncle Ho and the 'glorious revolutionary' sons of the Viet Minh either.

This book is pure fact and pure military history, written by a participant in that history who has researched his topic from all sources, including plenty from the official military history. The Riflemen tells the unit history of the battalion, from the soldiers' level - low to the ground and tactical based. No-nonsense facts about the battalions soldiers and their role on operations. The book is written in such a manner that the reader might require a little foreknowledge of basic tactical principles, given that this is a wargames site, I don't imagine that would be a problem.

Mike takes you through from a bit of the strategic situation, a bit of political background and pre-Vietnam involvement in the theatre, to an operational deployment overview at the start, with a geography/terrain brief. This is followed by a description of the enemy and the battalions preparation prior to deployment - you get the feeling you've gone from the Staff room, down through the battalion int section for a sitrep and finally, your section commander is giving you an orders group. I like the way that's done, because from then on you're working with the sections and platoons out scrub...

The Riflemen contains a roll of honour, a nominal roll, complete bibliography and appendices including after action reports, plus more. There are plenty of diagrams, maps and photographs (all black and white), within the 182 pages of this hard-backed documentary. At the time of writing this review, Mike is working on a book about the Battle of Balmoral - another study of 3RAR, this time on the first tour in 1968.

I'll leave it up to someone more qualified to give a rating, but put it this way - this is the type of book any infantryman in any army should have read prior to going on operations. I don't know where you would buy it off the shelf, but the site address from where I got my copy is: www.warbooks.com.au or e-mail warbookshop@bigpond.com. Price at this time is AUS $33.00, including Australian post and that lovely new GST...which shouldn't bother anyone from overseas given the current value of the Aussie dollar.

Regards, Craig Burnett 08/11/2000

 

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Company Commander: Vietnam

By Col. James Estep. ISBN 0-89141-410-X

"Candid and vivid……An impressive book." Publishers Weekly

Having read this book several times I would have to agree with the above statement, Company Commander: Vietnam (CCV) is an excellent book and deserves a place in any Viet-philes library.

CCV chronicles the four tours in Vietnam taken by it's author James Estep. It commences with his third tour in late 1967 with the Fifth Cav. He takes over a 'hard luck' company operating in and around 'Happy Valley'. The narrative and interactions between the author and his platoon commanders and especially his company NCOs gives a flavour of the optimism still felt among the majority of the troops and the frustration felt by career soldiers (some WW2 and Korea vets) at the nature of the conflict.

The middle section of the book covers his two previous tours in '63 and '65 with Special Forces Command in the 'advisory' phase of the War. This section deals with the use of Montagnard forces in the attempted control of the Ho Chi Minh trail and the difficulty in operating in such dense terrain with next to no support.

The third section covers his fourth and final tour with the ' the Cav ' starting in January 1968, just in time for Tet! This section covers the operations through the Tet period up to his medevac in March 68. This section has a lot more combat and shows the slow decrease in troop morale although it has to be said that the whole book is written in a relatively upbeat style.

The concluding part of CCV deals with his hospitalisation and final return to 'Nam as part of the Army Advisory Group in '72.

CCV is excellent in its descriptions of the engagements between combatants and conversations between officers and NCO's within the company. Even when it becomes slightly anecdotal in the middle section, it holds the readers interest throughout. As mentioned, the book is predominantly written in an upbeat and positive style and, while not what has become expected of a Vietnam memoir, offers an interesting counterpoint to the bleaker and pessimistic books that have gone before. Quite simply, a must read book.

Matt Spooner

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The Battle of Long Tan

By Lex McAuley. ISBN: 0-09-952530-5

"The heroism, fanaticism and fear come alive" – Queensland Times

Long Tan is the most famous of the battles involving ANZAC troops in Vietnam. A single company of Australians was engaged by a force of VC approximately 25 times as strong but supported by judicious artillery, the Australians fought them off for three hours until the VC were beaten and retreated.

Lex McAuley's book chronicles this battle and provides a comprehensive overview of the build-up to the battle and the aftermath of the engagement.

The book begins with an introduction to the conflict as a whole and the Australian commitment. It also provides background to the particular area of operations in which the battle took place.

McAuley's descriptions of the battle itself are excellent due to the fact that they remain largely objective but are lent a human touch by his use of the recollections of actual combatants involved in the battle. Their own testimony of the emotions and events of the battle give a superb insight into the chaos and bravery that occurred during those hectic 3 hours.

The narrative of the book is clear and reasonably concise and this coupled with a chronological layout makes for a very exciting read. A section at the end of the book where some of the 'myths and memories' of the battle are debunked through research or testimony of the survivors makes particularly good reading and additional information is laid out in the appendices including a full list of ANZAC personnel involved in the action.

The Battle of Long Tan is an excellent book and is of particular interest to anyone interested in the Australian involvement in Vietnam.

Matt Spooner

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