THE RISE AND FALL OF AN AMERICAN ARMY; U.S. Ground Forces In Vietnam, 1965-1973. By Shelby L. Stanton. Presidio. 411 pp. $22.50.
ONE OF THE MOST oft repeated observations about the Vietnam War in recent years has been the one about American forces never losing on the battlefield but being defeated by loss of will and nerve at home. Perhaps the popularity of this line of thinking helps explain the surprising lack of interest, on the part of both the military and the public, in seriously examining the record of American ground combat operations in Vietnam. For that reason Shelby L. Stanton's new book is especially welcome and timely.
Stanton takes ground operations in Vietnam very seriously. A former small-unit commander, retired due to wounds received in Vietnam, he is the author of the highly acclaimed Vietnam Order of Battle, which has become a standard reference work on the war. His latest book is a detailed history of the organization, deployment and operations of the American Army and Marine Corps combat units that served in Vietnam.
Many of the battles and engagements described by Stanton were, and remain, virtually unknown at home. Some of the most sanguinary encounters have, in fact, no names at all, but can only be described as incidents which occurred on a certain date, involving such and such units (usually platoons or companies), near a certain village, mountain or river during one of the endless "Operations" of the Vietnam conflict. There is a common scenario for most of these nameless battles: American commanders receive word of the presence of a Vietcong or North Vietnamese army unit. A U.S. battalion or battalions are lifted in by helicopter and begin a search of the area. An American company or platoon stumbles upo a bunker complex or is ambushed and pinned down, suffering serious casualties. A second company, sent to their aid is also ambushed or lands in a "hot" landing zone. Heavy U.S. firepower in the form of artillery and air strikes is brought to bear on the enemy force which eventually breaks off the action and slips away. Although U.S. ground units involved may have suffered severe losses, the "kill ratio" is proclaimed to be in the U.S. favor because of communist losses to American firepower.
In these nameless battles, American soldiers and Marines fought with the same courage and resourcefulness as their fathers in World War II -- and they faced many of the same problems. Stanton's descriptions of the enemy's superb use of camouflage, mortar and rockets, interlocking fields of fire and skillfully constructed bunker complexes, almost impervious to artillery, remind the reader forcefully of Tarawa, Biak, Peleliu and Papua. The difference, of course, was that, whereas U.S. troops in World War II stomed an island or a hill, took their objective and moved on to the next, American troops in Vietnam often seemed to be in the situation of storming Tarawa over and over again.
AS FOR ALWAYS winning on the battlefield, anyone who actually believes that stuff will profit from a careful reading of this book. On page 169 can be found an account of how a company of the 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry (Airborne), was virtually annihilated in a battle with a North Vietnamese army battalion; on page 175 one can read about the destruction of an entire battalion of the 173d Airborne Brigade, on page 186 one can find an account of a communist ambush which cost a Marine company 273 killed or wounded out of 300 engaged. There are plenty of other examples in this vein. This is not to argue that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were unbeatable, merely to suggest that generalizations about one side "winning all the battles" are as inappropriate to Vietnam as to most earlier wars.
The Rise and Fall of an American Army is more than an account of battles, however, for Stanton is aware that more was involved in determining U.S. successes and failures in Vietnam than weapons and tactics. One of his main themes is that the way in which U.S. units were raised and deployed to Vietnam actually mitigated against their combat effectiveness. In many cases, as he observes, "The rapid deployment of fresh brigades, formed in haste, without the proper training base that mobilization could have provided, directly impaired their combat performance." Far worse than the hasty and piecemeal deployment of units to Vietnam was the constant turnover of personnel caused by the limit of 12 months (13 months for Marines) in tours of duty in Vietnam.
If Stanton's chronicle of seemingly endless and repetitive battles supports any conclusion, it is that in Vietnam, as in other wars, experience and familiarity with the terrain could often make the critical difference between success and failure. For example, his book contains a number of accounts of attempted ambushes by U.S. forces. In the one wholly successful action of this type described there, we find that the U.S. platoon involved "moved through the countryside just off a trail they knew by heart. They had been in the area so long that they navigated by moonlight." Likewise, in an account of two platoons of the 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry, which successfully fought off a series of attacks by a much larger North Vietnamese force, Stanton observes that "the cavalrymen were experienced enough to expect difficulties and innovative enough to work around them." Yet the 12-month tour institutionalized inexperience and personnel turbulence in the U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps learned anything about the value of experience, training, unit cohesion and continuity of leadership from the unhappy experience of Vietnam? Let's hope that it will be a good long time before we really have to find out.