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.

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