24 July 2011

All out in Vietnam?

Jeffrey Record, The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998, 217 pages.

The Wrong War is not a book about the Vietnam War, but rather a book about everything that has been said about the Vietnam War since it ended. Author Jeffrey Record reviews each of the arguments that have emerged for why America failed in Vietnam, and then challenges each of them on their merits. The book is light on history of the war itself; it assumes some entry level of knowledge about the particulars of the war. Instead, it concentrates on surveying multitude of conclusions writers have drawn since the end of the war, from those who blame the anti-war movement and the press to those that feel the US never truly tried to win.

While he mentions the book only once, Jeffrey Record dwells quite extensively on the arguments in Harry Summers’ On Strategy, along with a number of other authors that, like Summers, argued that the United States did not go “all out” in Vietnam. The Wrong War also lingers on the argument, championed by H.R. McMaster and others, that Johnson’s failure to call up reserves or rally the American people behind the war doomed it to failure. It is in refuting these two, complementary arguments that The Wrong War truly shines. Record dismantles both of these arguments by placing the reader in the context of the times in which the Vietnam War was fought. In the context of the Cold War, Record concludes, limited war was the logical means to reach the limited ends sought in Vietnam.

After examining these and many other arguments, Record writes that America failed in Vietnam because it misunderstood the nature of the war on which it had embarked, the relative will of the North Vietnamese and American people, and the fundamental lack of legitimacy of the South Vietnamese regime. Record rejects the contention that the war was unwinnable, yet concludes that winning would have required massive, unrestricted bombing of the North Vietnamese populace or an invasion of North Vietnam, neither of which was politically feasible, domestically or internationally.

The Wrong War covers so much ground and so many different schools of thought that it would have been helpful to have an additional chapter just to catalogue all of the arguments and the people that have made them. Likewise, the reader could benefit from a longer, more thorough explanation of the arguments these authors make. Record does his best to describe and attribute the arguments as he goes, but the sheer number of opinions with which he deals quickly becomes overwhelming. The Wrong War, in its current form, assumes the reader comes having already read many of the cited work. However, these are minor problems with an excellent book. Jeffrey Record’s conclusion on the reasons for America’s failure in Vietnam are as sound as any yet written.

05 July 2011

On the Ground in Cambodia

John M. Shaw, The Cambodian Campaign: The 1970 Offensive and America’s Vietnam War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005, 222 pages.

Much of the history that has been written about the Cambodian incursion in 1970 examines the event through the lens of the domestic upheaval it produced in the United States. Such is not the case with The Cambodian Campaign, which largely ignores the uproar the operation caused in Congress and on college campuses across America. Instead it focuses on the operation itself and the units--both US and South Vietnamese--that executed it. Where The Cambodian Campaign does discuss strategy, it provides just enough detail to help the reader understand why operational decisions were made. The commentary on national politics the book does include is focused mostly on how it affected actions on the ground in South Vietnam and Cambodia.

While the period covered in The Cambodian Campaign begins and ends in 1970, President Lyndon Johnson is still the book’s villain. According to Shaw, because Johnson sought “to build the Great Society and secure his own place in American history, he begrudged anything that diverted attention, energy, or resources from his programs. Johnson could not ignore Vietnam, but he was unwilling to pay the necessary price to win decisively there” (p. 2). Gen. Westmoreland is excused culpability for the war because Johnson defined “victory as ‘not losing or interfering with the Great Society,’ and [tried] to do it on the cheap without forcing the Congress to choose between guns or butter, [which] set an impossible goal for his commanders” (p 7). Shaw’s Nixon, on the other hand, unleashed his commanders and allowed them to fight the war without restraint. As a result, Shaw concludes, “The Cambodian incursion was, as Nixon correctly described it, ‘the most successful military operation of the Vietnam War’” (p. 153). As for the protests that the incursion sparked back in the US, Shaw concludes that the ends justified the means. The Cambodian incursion, he writes saved lives in Vietnam and “those soldiers’ and South Vietnamese civilians’ lives were no less valuable because they were not American college students” (p. 155-6).

The Cambodian Campaign shines as a military history of the operational and tactical decisions made at the corps and division level during the Cambodian incursion. But this detailed, clinical history is sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion packed with opinionated assertions about political leaders that the body of the book does nothing to support. The efficiency with which the campaign was conducted and the losses it inflicted on North Vietnam are in no way connected to whether the incursion was the justified. Not once in over 200 pages does Shaw address the question of the Nixon’s congressional authority to prosecute the incursion, a central question in the domestic debate at the time. John Shaw’s strident political judgments seem out of place next to the otherwise well-executed campaign history in the middle of the book.

01 July 2011

"Task Force Patriot" to be published by Scarecrow Press

“Iraq in 2009 was a strange netherworld, not quite war but not yet peace. The country teetered on the threshold of great change--the impending national elections and the promised withdrawal of all US combat forces. These changes would usher in either an era of irreversible stability or a return to the sectarian carnage that nearly destroyed Iraq in 2006. It was during this period of uncertainty that Task Force Patriot arrived to take over as the last US combat force to occupy Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.”

Government Institutes Press, an imprint of Scarecrow Press, will publish Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq. The expected release date is in November 2011.

For more, click here.