28 August 2011

The American Way of War

Donald J. Mrozek, Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam, Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2002, 216 pages.

Much has been written about the particulars of the air war in Vietnam, from the massive bombing campaigns over North Vietnam to the use of strategic and tactical bombers in support of ground forces in South Vietnam. But the majority of work in these areas has been focused on the technical aspects of the use of air power--tactics, types of aircraft, and types of munitions. In Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam, Donald Mrozek goes beyond the “how” of the use of airpower in Vietnam to answer the much more interesting question of why it was used in this way.  In the process, Mrozek ends up using air power as a tool to illustrate a much larger point about the American way of war.

Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam begins by examining the evolution of air power theory up to the start of the Vietnam War.  The book then delves into the struggle to make profoundly conventional American air power fit with the various conceptions of the nature of the Vietnam War.  Where Mrozek takes a fascinating turn is when he departs from the well-worn discussion of tactics for the use of air power and delves into the organizational pressures, both internal to the Air Force and between the services, as they fought for predominance in the control and use of various types of air assets inside the Southeast Asian theater of operations.

Mrozek concludes, among other things, that American air power was in some circumstances a poor fit for Vietnam.  For instance, helicopters used in air mobile operations were antithetical to counterinsurgency, which required a clear-and-hold methodology.  In other circumstances, Mrozek concludes that air power was misused.  The Johnson administration, in particular, repeatedly tried to use strategic bombers as a method to send political signals to the North Vietnamese--messages that were often inscrutable to the communists.  Finally, Mrozek concludes, “The starting point for all appraisals of the Vietnam War on the tactical and operational level--the realm of means and instruments--must be that it was fundamentally a failure in conception and vision on the strategic level” (p. 155).

In this final conclusion lies the only problem with an otherwise excellent book.  At the end of an in depth examination of why air power was used as it was in Vietnam, Mrozek then concludes that the strategic ends America chose for the war were fundamentally flawed.  The concluding chapter of Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam raises a number of excellent points about the basic strategic conception of the Vietnam War that the rest of the book, because it is ultimately a book about uses of air power, is not able to explore.  One is left wishing for another book to discuss these broader conclusions in detail.

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