Those expecting a book about Americans in battle will not be disappointed by the detailed descriptions of how the fight unfolded. Marine participants from private to colonel were interviewed during the book's research phase. The battle is seen from the mud level, by those who were at the point of the spear. But this is not just another war story told exclusively from the American side. In researching the book, the author talked with and walked the battlefield with men who fought with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment. All were accomplished combat veterans years before the U.S. entry into the war.
The reader is planted squarely in America in 1965, the year that truly began the long American involvement. Operation Starlite sent the Viet Nam War into the headlines across the nation and into the minds of Americans, where it took up residence for more than a decade. Starlite was the first step in Vietnam's becoming America's tar baby.
The subtitle of the book is: Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam. Blood debt, han tu in Vietnamese, can mean revenge, debt of honor, or blood owed for blood spilled. The Blood Debt came into Vietnamese usage early in the war with the United States. With this battle, the Johnson Administration began compiling its own Blood Debt, this one to the American people.
The book also looks at the ongoing conflict between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines about the methodology of the Vietnam War. With decades of experience with insurrection and rebellion, the Marines were institutionally oriented to base the struggle on pacification of the population. The Army, on the other hand, having largely trained to meet the Soviet Army on the plains of Germany, opted for search-and-destroy missions against Communist main force units. The history of the Vietnam War is littered with many "what ifs." This may be the biggest of them.
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The First Battle
Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam
By Otto J. Lehrack
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2004 Otto Lehrack
All rights reserved.
Inching Toward the Abyss
The United States came to this pass in baby steps, characterized more by Cold War fears, hubris, and inattention than by level-headed policy examination. The Soviet Union, China and, lately, Cuba, occupied the attention of planners at the White House, the Pentagon and in Foggy Bottom. For the twenty years since the end of World War II the thinkers in Washington had bigger fish to fry; Vietnam was little more than a footnote among the larger events of the Cold War. Very few American policy makers had even a vague understanding of Vietnam, its history, and recent events there. And those who did know anything about Indochina found their voices drowned by the choruses of Cold Warriors who kept the dangers of the Soviet Union and China at the head of the agenda.
The Vietnamese had been itching for self-rule for decades, and their patriotic movements gained speed and strength during World War II. After the defeat of the French Army by Hitler's Wermacht in the early days of World War II, the pro-Nazi Vichy government agreed to joint rule by the Japanese of the French colony of Indochina. Vietnamese guerrillas fought the Japanese during the Pacific War with the assistance of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the proto-Central Intelligence Agency. A handful of Americans advised and fought side-by-side with Vietnamese against the common foe. The arms and training America provided were a boost to the fledgling Vietnamese guerrilla forces that would later take on the French and the Americans.
After the defeat of Japan in 1945, Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh hoped to leverage his country's role against the Japanese into independence from postwar recolonization by France. He appealed to President Harry Truman to make Vietnam an American protectorate along the Philippines model. Ho was a charismatic intellectual who was widely read and traveled. He had lived in New York, where in 1918 he wrote a pamphlet about appalling conditions among the Italians in Harlem; and in Paris, where, in 1920, he became a founding member of the French Communist Party. But it was not just Ho's political beliefs that led to the rejection of his proposal to the United States. The major piece of the equation was French President Charles DeGaulle's desire to regain France's former colonies. France, after all, was a major American ally, and De Gaulle's vision of a French renaissance in Asia, to say nothing of his promised assistance in Cold War Europe, won the day with the American president. The seeds of American involvement in Vietnam were planted in the little-noticed recognition of French ambitions in Indochina. A handful of years later, these seeds germinated as Cold War anxieties prompted the Eisenhower Administration to provide the French with arms and financial assistance in their war against the Vietnamese communists. By 1950 the American taxpayer was footing the bill for 80 percent of the war's costs. Few Americans knew or cared that millions of U.S. dollars were going to help the French. A debt not written in the blood of our young men is a debt easily ignored or forgiven.
The French, however, had internal problems as a result of the war. The people were suffering from casualty fatigue. World War II was not that far behind them, and the growing numbers of killed and wounded in both Algeria and Indochina fanned the flames of public discontent. The French government attempted to attenuate mounting criticism by using pro-French natives and the French Foreign Legion to bear the brunt of the struggle in Southeast Asia. This policy bought but little time. The average French citizen had had enough of bloodshed and wanted the war to end. This was a sentiment reflected fifteen years later in the United States, when American citizens brought intolerable pressure to bear on the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations.
France's short-lived and sad epilogue in Indochina collapsed in 1954 at the siege of Dien Bien Phu. The French actually sought this battle. The whole reason for establishing the garrison at Dien Bien Phu was to draw the Vietnamese into a set-piece contest, which the French thought they would surely win. Dien Bien Phu was strong and it was occupied by the best French troops in Indochina. They underestimated the determination of the Vietnamese. Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap's Viet Minh reduced the fortified French position piece by piece with human-wave tactics, massed artillery fire, even siege works. The artillery fire came from guns hauled by hand, under conditions of extreme hardship, into the mountains surrounding the stronghold. Under unrelenting barrages of artillery fire, the Vietnamese attacked again and again until all thirteen thousand defenders were killed or captured. This was a major military and psychological defeat for the French at the hands of an army that began as a single twenty-four man platoon a mere decade earlier. The French public had had enough.
In the treaty that ended the war and dictated France's withdrawal, Vietnam was "temporarily" partitioned. The agreement also called for a general election within all of Vietnam in 1956 to determine under what sort of government the country would be unified. The Emperor Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem to head a Western-style government in the south while Ho Chi Minh's forces took over the northern portion of the country.
Diem and Ho, like most Vietnamese, longed for the ultimate unification of their country, but each was determined to see that the unification took place under his own brand of government. Each side immediately began efforts to undermine the government of the other. The Americans, who had fought the communists in Korea and were well into the Cold War, wasted no time in shoring up the government of the southern, non-communist, half of the country under President Diem. Diem was an educated westernized Catholic and a member of the old social elite that ruled a country whose citizens were largely ancestor worshippers or Buddhists in religion and peasants by occupation. Supporting Diem seemed at the time an easy and bloodless way for America to contain communism in Southeast Asia.
Diem and his family were corrupt and more interested in maintaining personal power than in turning the country into a democracy. In November 1963 unrest among the population shook the foundations of government and the Viet Cong guerrillas, southerners who wanted to liberate the South Vietnam from Diem, threatened to take over the country. A coup led by South Vietnamese Marines removed Diem from office with American acquiescence. Hours later he and his hated brother were murdered by those who had plotted against them.
A period of coup and counter-coup followed. Policy makers in the United States, still enamored with the idea of a cheap defense against Asian communism talked themselves into supporting one general after another as each boarded the Ferris wheel of power, rode to his own brief apogee, and came to ground in yet another chapter of the continuing power struggle. There were nine different governments in South Vietnam between November 1963 and February 1965.
The chaos brought on by the tumultuous days of revolving governments opened doors for increased activity by communist insurgents in the south at the same it hobbled the effectiveness of the Saigon government. The United States, sensitive to the fragility of its South Vietnamese ally and frustrated in its inability to control events in the south, began action against the north instead.
In February 1964, the United States and South Vietnamese initiated OPLAN 34A, a series of clandestine measures against North Vietnam, including sabotage and commando raids against military installations along the coast. Although South Vietnamese conducted the actual raids, they were planned and supported by the United States. The U.S. Navy also began Operation DeSoto, sea patrols in the Tonkin Gulf. The dominant thinking was that if the Americans and South Vietnamese punished the north a little, the communists would stop their activities in the south. This naive notion persisted for years despite the lack of any evidence that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would give in to this type of pressure. The Americans were looking for an excuse to do more when the so-called Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964 provided it.
Assistance for the South Vietnam military persisted, first in the form of equipment, and then with advisors and yet more equipment. American casualties in Vietnam began with the deaths of Maj Dale Buis and MSgt Chester Ovnand on July 8, 1959. The two U.S. Air Force special intelligence personnel were watching a movie when a Viet Cong hurled an explosive charge into the room in which they were relaxing. For the next six years the butcher's bill slowly grew and then, almost imperceptibly, accelerated. In ones and twos at first, and then in larger numbers, the flow of body bags from Southeast Asia increased.
The U.S. Army general in charge, Paul D. Harkins, began his tenure as the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), in 1962. Harkins looked and talked like a successful general, and he was always over-brimming with optimism about the course of the war in Vietnam. Those who got out of Saigon and went into the field did not share his confidence. Among those who did go to the field were members of a new generation of American journalists who felt determined to report what they saw. These journalists—Homer Bigart, Neal Sheehan, and David Halberstam among them—became increasingly vocal about what they perceived as the real course of the war and the weaknesses of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). At about this time, too, many of the junior American officers in the field, where they served as advisors to the ARVN, warned of impending crises due to the inadequacies of their hosts, particularly the Vietnamese officer corps. Gradually, it became evident to the Johnson Administration that something in Vietnam was wrong, so General Harkins was quietly retired and replaced by General William C. Westmoreland, U.S. Army.
Lewis Sorley, in his penetrating biography of General Harold K. Johnson, chief of staff of the United States Army from 1964 to 1968, offers some interesting observations about the appointment of Westmoreland. Sorley makes the point that Generals Johnson, Creighton Abrams (who was eventually to be Westmoreland's successor), and Bruce Palmer (who relieved General Johnson as the Army deputy chief of staff for operations) all understood the key task in an insurgency environment was to mobilize the population. Westmoreland himself, according to Sorley, did not. His training, and therefore his thinking, was oriented around set-piece warfare with the Soviet Army on the plains of Germany. The names of all four generals were submitted to President Lyndon Johnson as possible successors to the discredited Harkins. Westmoreland was a protégé of Gen Maxwell Taylor, at this time U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, and Sorely believes it was Taylor's influence that led to Westmoreland's appointment as COMUSMACV.
Having made their choice, the Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave Westmoreland a free hand as to the conduct of the war for the next four years. It was a period in which the war would evolve from a fight against pajama-clad guerrillas into one against a uniformed and well-equipped foe, one of the best infantry forces in the world, the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The NVA was an army, it should be noted, that retained an important guerrilla element: It did not fight set-piece battles; it operated in an insurgency mode.
Westmoreland's tenure was also the period in which the war would lose its popularity, or at least its acceptability, with the American public and lead to the destruction of a presidency.
It may or may not be that the newly appointed American commander in Vietnam was well grounded in the requirements of warfare in an insurgency environment. But his opponents, the Vietnamese communists, understood them very well. Their countrymen had spent centuries in opposition to invaders and occupiers.
Douglas Pike, a distinguished scholar of Indochina, calls the Vietnamese the "Prussians of Asia." "The alarums and excursions of war echo like an endless drumroll down the corridor of Vietnamese history. In vast and rhythmic cycles the Vietnamese experience for two thousand years has been invasion, siege, occupation, rebellion—interspersed with lesser moments of dissidence, covert militant opposition, and other forms of social sabotage. Mentally, the Vietnamese have always lived in an armed camp."
For most of its history, Vietnam has struggled to resist foreign occupation. A unique and thriving civilization that was known as Nam Viet had been in existence for several hundred years, and was a kingdom under a regent named Choa To when, in 111 B.C., the Chinese Han Dynasty sent an expeditionary corps southward and conquered it. For a thousand years the Vietnamese struggled to free themselves from the yoke of Chinese domination. During this millennium, patriots by the score made their way into the pantheon of Vietnam's heroes and achieved national status. Every Vietnamese school child knows their names. In the First Century it was the Trung sisters, who led a rebellion against the might of the Chinese Empire. Their insurrection was overwhelmed and crushed in A.D. 43, but it lasted for three years against Asia's most formidable military force. In the Sixth Century, Ly Bi took back part of the country from the Chinese, made himself king, and reigned for six years. In the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth centuries, Vietnamese rebellions continually rocked the southern borders of the Tang Dynasty. Finally, in the Tenth Century, Ngo Quyen freed the Vietnamese from a millennium of foreign domination when he sank the Chinese fleet at the battle of Bach Dang. Three hundred years later the Vietnamese twice defeated the Mongols, conquerors of the Eurasian continent from the Pacific shores to central Russia. Tran Hung Dao, victor in the twelve-year war against these daring horsemen, is credited with being the progenitor of the type of warfare that his successors would wage against the French and the Americans. He conserved his strength while taking advantages of the enemy's weaknesses. He always sought the support of the population. He did not try to hold territory but willingly evacuated towns, and he even evacuated the capital when necessary. He avoided combat when the enemy was too strong, resorted to guerrilla harassment, and took the offensive whenever the circumstances were favorable.
The enemy relies on numbers. To oppose the long with the short—therein lies our skill. If the enemy makes a violent rush forward, like fire and tempest, it is easy to defeat him. But if he shows patience, like the silkworm nibbling at the mulberry leaf, if he proceeds without haste, refrains from pillaging, and does not seek a quick victory, then we must choose the best generals and defensive tactics, as in a chess game. The army must be united and of one mind, like father and son. It is essential to treat the people with humanity, so as to strike deep roots and ensure a lasting base.
In the Fifteenth Century, it was Le Loi who ejected China once more following yet another invasion and twenty years of exploitive rule. Nearly every Vietnamese city today has a Le Loi street or a statue of the great hero, or both.
In the Nineteenth Century the Vietnamese met another invader against whom they struggled for nearly a century to expel. This time it was the French. The new intruder captured Danang in 1858 and laid siege to Saigon in 1859. Quickly driven back from Saigon, they returned two years later to stay. By 1883 France completely controlled all of Vietnam, and in 1887 they formed the French Union in Indo-China, which by 1893 included five regions in Southeast Asia. In addition to the three Vietnamese states of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China, the new union incorporated the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos.
The French administration of the country was extremely repressive. Archimedes Patti, an American OSS officer who served in Vietnam during World War II, summed it up: "I confirmed in my reports that French colonialism in Indochina had been one of the worst possible examples of peonage, disregard for human rights and French cupidity and that for more than three-quarters of a century, the Vietnamese had been cruelly exploited, brutally maltreated, and generally used as French chattel.... The socioeconomic conditions generated by the French colonial system fostered discontent and rebellion...."
Excerpted from The First Battle by Otto J. Lehrack. Copyright © 2004 Otto Lehrack. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Colonel John Ripley,
The Trumpet Sounds,
Prologue: America 1965,
1. Inching Toward the Abyss,
2. America Touches the Tar Baby,
3. The Field Called "Little Man",
4. Continuing Escalation,
5. The Battle,
6. "Land the Landing Force!",
7. Assault from the Air,
8. The Taking of An Cuong 2,
9. Heavy Fighting on All Fronts,
10. The Call for Reinforcements,
11. The Situation at Late Afternoon,
12. The Second Day,
13. The Reaction,
14. The Blood Debt,
Appendix 1: Medal of Honor Citations,
Appendix 2: Glossary,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"So Blackenedpaw. Try the belly rake." <p> Blackenedpaw perfects the belly rake. <p> "Good job sister." I mew proudly. "You should become a warrior soon." <p> Her eyes sparkled. <p> "I will talk to Jaggedstar."
Dips her head. "When we meet again." Leaves Bloodclan territory.