16 April 2014

Book Review: Valor in Vietnam

Paul Robinson comes in with a wonderful book review of Casemate's Valor in Vietnam, which describes the entire war through participants that experienced the events.

Published on 2 MAY 2013 10:26pm by Paul Robinson

Here is a Vietnam book with a difference. Valor in Vietnam tells the story of the Vietnam War from just before large scale intervention in 1965 to the final fall of the South in 1975.  However it tells it through the stories of participants in the war, with each chapter being used to describe an element of the war with the next chapter moving us forward chronologically.   It is worth quoting the author at the outset, from the book’s Introduction:

“This is the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of people who experienced it.  It is my hope and prayer that these stories reflect the commitment, honor and dedication with which we performed our duty in the Vietnam War”

The author is Allen B Clark, a Vietnam veteran who served from August 1966 to June 1967 as a military intelligence officer assigned to 5th Special Forces Group.  At Dak To he lost both legs following a mortar barrage.   He earned the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman’s Badge.  So he’s been there and done that and knows what he’s talking about.

Mr. Clark has used this experience and that gathered since the conflict to select an excellent set of stories.  These bring a war which ended almost 40 years ago alive again in all its visceral aspects.  But they also place a very human face on a controversial war.

The book is made up of nineteen chapters preceded by a very short historical overview setting out the war in brief for those who have no previous knowledge of the subject.  The stories are connected by a commentary at the start of each chapter by Lewis Sorley.  These mainly shortish paragraphs cover the historical setting of the particular period of the war about to be described, along with the geography, setting and strategy.

The stories told are a varied lot; some are action stories of the frontline grunts and Rangers and Special Forces soldiers in the “boonies”, some are from the perspective of more senior officers and some from the civilian officials who took part in various pacification programmes.  Flyers, sailors, nurses and prisoners of wars all tell their tales and give us their perspective on their service.   In some of the chapters there are sections headed Combat Leadership Lessons.  These are exactly what you would imagine them to be but these do not appear consistently throughout the book.  This is one of my few criticisms; that some of the book’s layout within and between chapters is inconsistent.  It feels like the book has been put together over an extended time period and the author hasn’t been back to revisit earlier chapters and give the book a thorough sense check. 

In a number of chapters there are a number of Meanwhile Back at the Whitehouse paragraphs that describe the political machinations back home.  This is a nice touch juxtaposing the politicians with the warriors. Also, and this gives the book a certain moral backbone, each chapter finishes off with what happened to the individuals after they left Vietnam and/or the Services.  Most of the endings are uplifting but some are not.  When reading about war it is necessary from time to time to remind yourself about its costs!

The chapter that opens the book properly is a cracker.  The main subject is Captain Ramon “Tony” Nadal, a Puerto Rican West Pointer who joined the Special Forces (SF).   Nadal’s story is all action, with him very successfully leading a unit that in turn led and trained a South Vietnamese strike force aided by Nung tribesmen and South Vietnamese SF.  The chapter is also used to explain the development of the deployment of U.S. Special Forces into South Vietnam during the early 1960s.  The next chapter is fascinating in that it tells the story of Colonel Clyde Russell who was mainly responsible for the setting up of SOG, the euphemistically named Studies and Operations Group which became the deep cover for clandestine operations against North Vietnam.  This chapter is quite a complex one as it weaves Colonel Russell’s story with the Tonkin Gulf incident that led to large scale U.S. intervention in South Vietnam.  The chapter necessarily involves a lot of consideration of the convoluted relationship between the political side of events in the US and the actions of Colonel Russell and his command in Vietnam.  Indeed to quote the author: “It was complicated in mid 1964 from a socio-political standpoint”!  

The next chapters move us to the Central Highlands in 1965-66 with Lieutenant Gary Coe who, on paper at least advised South Vietnamese Popular Force troops; then back with Captain Nadal and Captain Joel Sugdinis.  Nadal, now with 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry-Garry Owen!  And we have their experiences in the famous Ia Drang valley operation (popularised by the book We were Soldiers Once and Young and the film starring Mel Gibson) and the first chance to talk about Air Mobile operations during the war.  The next two chapters are all in a similar vein detailing the actions of various individuals in combat as the war moves on through 1967.   Chapter seven brings the (fixed wing) air war in for the first time.  There is a slight twist with the two stories in this chapter showing very different aspects of the war; firstly the experiences of a pilot who crash landed his Skyraider into the sea and then a “suicide” mission to destroy North Vietnamese Beagles that had had the temerity to attempt to bomb the U.S. base at Khe Sanh!  We then continue through 1967 with the 173rd Airborne on Hill 875.   This tells us Sergeant Robert Fleming’s story.  The combat sequences are intense but even more so is his description of how he replays the horrors of the combat everyday on a “videotape” in his head.  And in this videotape “you don’t even have control over the remote”.  Next David Pickett of the U.S. Marine Corps takes us through 1968-69 and Khe Sanh and the infamous Operation Phoenix.  Then we have the story of Staff Sergeant Patrick Tadina, a Ranger and five year veteran.    For me this is one of the best stories of the book -describing one of those rarest of breeds, a warrior’s warrior! 

We are taken into the seventies by the harrowing story of what it was like to be a (female) nurse in the war; the rescue mission at Son Tay; a civilian’s story of winning hearts and minds (and finding love); the man who joined up and wanted to perform his duty to his country but did all he could to avoid killing anybody in combat (he had spent part of his childhood in South Vietnam) and still ended up re-living the horrors of war afterwards.

There are two further stories of the medics and doctors in Vietnam; one is the story of a Corpsman with the Marines and one of a Flight Surgeon.  The latter was captured after a helicopter crash and so relates that very unpleasant side of the conflict.  The final two chapters deal with the final evacuation of U.S. forces and personnel and the aftermath for the South Vietnamese left behind.

The book is illustrated with a few black and white photographs.  These at least allow you to put faces to some of the men (and women) in the book.  There is also a map at the start of the book showing the geography of South Asia from 1963 to 1977; again useful for orienting yourself.

Overall if you are into NamLit then you’ll enjoy this book.  The author has brought together a very well balanced set of stories and successfully uses these to tell the story of the Vietnam War.  For me the best thing is the balance.  The majority of the stories are about soldiers in combat but bringing in a few accounts about the work of others not on the frontline directly gives fully rounded picture of the military aspects of the war (the impact on Vietnamese civilians is not told directly but is referred to throughout the text).  General students of warfare will also find this book to their liking for the same reasons-the overview of different aspects of men and women at war.

Available now in hardback from Casemate Publishers, normal price £18.99/$29.95 (ISBN 9781612000954)

Official website

 

Review written by: Paul Robinson