20 February 2019
This is a heck of an effort from Mr. Hastings. I have previously read Armageddon, Overlord, The Battle for the Falklands, All Hell Let Loose, The Secret War and Nemesis. He and Atkinson, Beevor and Evans have produced fantastic work on the military and war, specifically, World War Two.
The Vietnam War has always fascinated and will continue to do so. Ken Burns’ fantastic 10-part documentary has exposed a new generation to what Hastings calls, “an epic tragedy” where “peasant revolutionaries had prevailed over American will, wealth and hardware.” It could be argued that will was actually lacking but hubris and flawed strategies were present in liberal supply.
It is easy to be awed by the statistics of this conflict. By doing so, you fall prey to the same problem that America’s “best and brightest” did at the time…relying on metrics like body count. Meanwhile, despite horrendous casualties, the North Vietnam did not bend and America and the South relinquished control over huge swaths of the country.
It is hard not to talk stats. In 1996, America built 59 airfields and shipped 600,000 tons of supplies every month. For every American serviceman there was a hundred pounds of stuff shipped every day. At its height, the U.S. had 550,000 troops in country…that is a lot of bullets and toilet paper. Only one in ten actually fought. The rest were in support. One of these soldiers admitted to gaining forty pounds during his one year of service due to a diet of lobster and steak (two half-gallons of Gilbey’s gin cost $1.65 as all goods were subsidized).
Hastings gives due to what led to America’s involvement and the section on France is fantastic. In most histories, you get a few pages of Dienbenphu (which is an extraordinary slice of history – the Vietminh dragged five tons of weapons 500 miles to engage the French) but the author goes much deeper. This includes character critiques of French leadership in the field (he was “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance’).
Like America to come, the French had an “extravagance of firepower” but it did little good. Within the ranks of their vaulted legion were former members of Hitler’s SS and Wehrmacht who knew little of restraint. That did little good as well. Hastings dispels the notion that the French fought just a few key engagements. There were many and the loss of material should have given America an education.
Vietminh, Vietcong, NVA regulars fought with “discipline, patience, ingenuity, a genius for fieldcraft and especially camouflage, tolerance of hardship and sacrifice. Above all their was motivation.” Meanwhile, the US bombed the crap out of the country and played ‘silly bugger’ in the jungle while never holding onto land won...“Weapons, vast armies, never outdo commitment and sacrifice.”
If you are familiar with the war you will recognize the names Edward Lansdale (a former advertising executive of notable persuasive charm who used his skills in the CIA), Robert McNamara who applied managerial science to prosecuting the war (Donald Rumsfeld was like a reincarnation in how he dealt with Afghanistan and Iraq), and the colorful Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann (a troubled professional who lost his life in Vietnam) all who played unbelievable roles. Reporters, too, like Halbertsam, Arnett, and Sheehan had huge influence as the conflict dragged on.
Hastings covers the terrible event of My Lai and many more that I had never come across. Atrocities happened on both sides but American claimed moral superiority making their efforts that much more damning. The account of Pfc John Potter is an eye-opener.
Defoliants, IEDs, corruption (off the charts!), drugs (11,000 arrests in 1969), the extent of bombings (O’Hare airport in Chicago was doing 690,000 flights a year, just three airports in Vietnam were doing 2.5 million), The Tet Offensive, desertion (in 1969, 2,500 soldiers were loose in the country “mostly engaged in crime”), and Nixon’s use of the war as a political benefit.
This is an amazing contribution to the war’s study. The conclusions are consistent and the arguments strong. It was the wrong war, fought wrong. Unfortunately, America appears to have learned very little from the experience.