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Recommended Military Books: Vietnam War

173d Airborne Brigade Sky Trooper keeping track of time on his 'Short Time' M1 helmet
173d Airborne Brigade Sky Trooper keeping track of time on his 'Short Time' M1 helmet.

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21 Apr 1945 Soviet Red Army reaches Berlin.
21 Apr 1945 In Northern Italy, Bologna falls to the US 34th Infantry Division.
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Books About the Vietnam War and Aftermath

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. 272 pages (August 30, 2011) Atlantic Monthly Press. The author is a highly decorated Marine Lieutenant, a veteran of combat in Vietnam where his platoon suffered severe losses and he was wounded. He has been shot at and he has killed. This book reflects his introspection over the decades about those experiences as he suffered his own PTSD and emotional turmoil. He struggles with the meaning of it all and what can and should be done to better prepare young men going into combat as well as how to support them after they return home. His own experiences are augmented by studies of wars past and present to find workable and effective practices. Marlantes is also the author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War , a New York Times Top 10 Bestseller published in 2010.

This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive by James S Robbins. 360 pages (September 14, 2010) Encounter Books. The common understanding of the Vietnam War is still that the U.S. lost. The Tet Offensive is cited as the battle that proved the U.S. could not win and that Vietnam was truly a quagmire. But the facts to not support that narrative and its time for the true history to emerge, not only to redeem the costs of Vietnam but also to prevent the misunderstood "lessons of Vietnam" from distorting decision making in the present. The author goes deeply into details of the Tet Offensive, destroying the myths and bringing forth the real lessons of Tet. See also: Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyar, Ph.D.

Ruff Puff: A MAT Team Leader's Story by Phil Tompkins. Kindle Edition, File Size: 361 KB. The author's personal combat experiences in Vietnam with the Vietnamization program, winning the war at the local level.

Luminous Base: Stories about Corpsmen and Helicopters, Courage and Sacrifice by Bruce Williams-Burden. 314 pages (March 22, 2010) CreateSpace. Bruce Williams-Burden was an FMF MEDEVAC Corpsman with the 1st Marine Air Wing in Vietnam during 1969 and early 1970. For four years he researched and wrote this book about other Navy Corpsmen who were also associated with helicopters. Out of the seventy-two that he wrote about, fifty seven died in the line of duty.

The corpsmen who died were aircrew members, grunts, recon team members, SEALs, a corpsman diver on an MIA mission, and a corpsman in the 'Brown Water Navy' in the MeKong Delta. Some of these men were flying on MEDEVAC missions, participating in Reconnaissance or SPECOPS missions, troop inserts or extractions, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The sixteen remaining include one female corpsman who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but all flew as aircrew members on MEDEVAC missions.

LUMINOUS BASE also includes background information for the reader to better appreciate the corpsmen’s work environs. This book provides an in-depth look at the evolution of the Navy's medical evacuation system, the levels of care from the battlefield to back home and the type of care provided at each level and a review of many of the helicopters used by the Marine Corps over the years, from the UH-34D to the Osprey. Finally, it also discusses the training opportunities of the past compared to those that are offered to today's Navy Corpsmen.

Surviving Hell: A POWs Journey by Leo Thorsness. 250 pages (October 25, 2008) Encounter Books. First person account of Col. Leo Thorsness, including his experiences as a USAF fighter pilot, the F-105 Wild Weasel missions over North Vietnam, being shot down on 30 April 1967 while on his 93rd mission, and his six years in the Hanoi Hilton POW camp from 1967 to 1973. After the Vietnam War ended, Thorsness was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his selfless actions supporting the rescue of the crew of another downed aircraft.

In Love and War: The Story of a Family's Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years by Jim Stockdale. 576 pages (June 1990) Naval Inst Press. Vice Admiral James Stockdale is greatly admired for his personal heroism and integrity. The book details his experiences as the highest ranking POW of the North Vietnamese for eight years. Chapters written with his wife reveal the Stockdale family's life on the homefront during his long years of captivity.

Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyar, Ph.D. 542 pages (August 28, 2006) Cambridge University Press. This is a profound book that not only provides deep insight into the origins of the Vietnam War but also serves as an important case history of American government decision making. Heroes and villains abound as political, military, geo-strategic, and personal motives of the many players from the United States, North and South Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union, and other countries interact. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson struggled to balance the need to contain aggressive international Communism against domestic political concerns and public apathy. Many in the press, particularly Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam of the New York Times, were idealists angered by government and military secrecy and alarmed by what they saw as oppressive, undemocratic actions of the regime of S. Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. They distorted reality as they emphasized the negative in their dispatches (and later books) and fed the appetites of the ambitious and opportunistic opponents of Diem and the U.S. policy. Many Asians, unfamiliar with the U.S. free press, interpreted what they read in influential American publications as reflections of U.S. policy, thereby undermining the real policy. Opposing camps within the White House, State Department, CIA and DoD railed against one another and even acted in open defiance of their orders, particularly Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Diem's army was actually doing well by 1962-1963 in resisting Communist military action and had organized the strategic hamlet program to give the rural populations some security. Diem remained a reasonably popular leader and progress was being made on many fronts. But Ambassador Lodge was not satisfied with Diem and opposed President Kennedy politically. As Moyar amply documents, Lodge's unauthorized machinations led directly to the November 1963 coup against Diem, the murder of Diem and his brother, and all the sequels that forced the U.S. into a massive commitment of ground troops in 1965.

Using primary sources, including Communist government papers and many Vietnamese sources, Moyar reveals the tangled strands of this fabric. He illuminates with fresh insight how good intentions, strategic calculus, and important policy imperatives became mixed with incompetence, ambition, faulty intelligence, intentional bad press, bureaucratic infighting, political backstabbing and in some cases hopeless naivete, determining the actions and failures to act that shaped the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Defeat was twice snatched from the jaws of victory in Vietnam: once in 1963 when the relatively successful Diem was deposed and later, after Tet in 1968, when success on the ground was squandered by political retreat on the homefront.

There are many lessons in this book, for understanding at a deeper level what happened in Vietnam and also as a guide to the present day's dilemma of Iraq. There is a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam, but its not the oft-repeated Q-word (quagmire). Rather, the lesson is that resolute action can be decisive but requires strong leadership and a shared sense of purpose that unites all the forces and players behind victory. Fractious half-measures almost guarantee failure.

Mark Moyar is classed as a revisionist historian since he does not follow the orthodox story line of Vietnam as a disastrous American mistake. At this point, it is up to the orthodox historians who disagree with Moyar to prove him wrong. Meanwhile, to the extent that the problem is, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it (Santayana)" this book is the antidote.

Note: For further understanding of this book and the issues raised, click on the title link to read many important reviews posted on Amazon.com including some words from Dr. Moyar.

The Big Story by Peter Braestrup . 632 pages (June 1, 1994) Presidio Press. The media coverage of the Vietnam War created the public perception of the situation on the ground and the probability of success. In this well researched and documented book, the author analyzes in detail the media treatment of the Tet Offensive in 1968, an American/ARVN victory on the battlefield, and shows how the press distorted it into a strategic and political defeat.
My Tour in Hell: A Marine's Battle with Combat Trauma by David W. Powell. 204 pages (July 2006) Modern History Press. This is a wrenching book to read as the author bares his soul, revealing the gruesome details of his combat experiences and the personal aftermath as he struggled for decades to deal with the PTSD blighting his life. His final recovery through innovative therapy is a triumph and a new beginning. Read it to better understand the Vietnam Vet and the little support they got after their tour in Hell.
Dak To: America's Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam's Central Highlands by Edward Murphy. The all-volunteer paratroopers of the 173d Airborne Brigade fought many of the bloodiest battles of the entire Vietnam War at the small mountain hamlet in the Central Highlands called Dak To. During the five months from June to November 1967, they fought the NVA in some of the worst terrain and weather conditions Vietnam had to offer, culminating in the battle at Hill 875. The men of the 173d fought bravely and gained ground but at horrific cost and often despite the f---ups by superior officers. This book gets to the heart of what it was like and what it took.
The Hard Ride: Vietnam Guntrucks (Volume 1) by James Lyles. The story of the Vietnam Gun Trucks and their crews by James Lyles is the most concise collection of photographs and information ever compiled about these unique hybrid vehicles of the Vietnam War. See also Hard Ride- Vietnam Gun Trucks (Volume 2) .
A Better War : The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley . 528 pages (June 1999) Harcourt Brace. While the press and public in the US thought the war was lost, military commanders were making steady progress toward victory. Sorley uses newly declassified briefings and interviews to put together the real "facts on the ground" of the final phase of the Vietnam War.
4/4 : A Lrp's Narrative by Gary Douglas Ford. Mass Market Paperback - 274 pages (March 1993) Ivy Books; Long Range Patrol in Vietnam.

Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet by Lewis B. Puller Jr. 400 pages (April 19, 2000) Grove Press. The author is the son of famed WW II Marine Corps officer Lt. General Lewis 'Chesty' Puller , a hard act to follow if there ever was one. Lewis Jr. also became a Marine officer, going to Vietnam in 1967 where he was gravely injured by a land mine that took his legs, most of his hands and much else. The book reveals his painful, prolonged partial recovery and restart in life as a lawyer, his unsuccessful run for Congress in Virginia, and work on the Pentagon legal staff. He was close to his father and many stories of Gen. Puller in his later years are included. But the author's wounds never really healed, especailly the emotional ones. Although the first edition of this book was highly successful, it was not enough to lift him above his losses. After seperating from his wife, his last act was to commit suicide in May 1994. He is buried at Arlington, another man lost in Vietnam.

Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. (September 1998). Anyone interested in the Vietnam War should be aware of this book. Here, a lot of the fraudulent history and negative images of US troops in Vietnam are rejected and the facts are presented. Not the least of the issues is the misrepresentation of Vietnam service for personal advantage. Based on publicity about this book, the Stolen Valor Act was signed into law in late 2006. It is now a Federal crime, with jail time and hefty fine, to falsely claim to have earned a medal for valor. While such false claims are surprisingly widespread, enforcement is not a priority and few have been prosecuted.
Dereliction of Duty : Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H. R. McMaster. (June 1998). This book presents a new analysis of how the United States became involved the war in Southeast Asia. Researched based on recently released transcripts and personal accounts of crucial meetings, confrontations and decisions, the author fully re-creates what happened and why. His conclusion is quite pointed. Referring to Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara, President Lyndon Johnson, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he says, "The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C." For a full understanding of the dynamics of the decisions that lost the war, this book is a must.
The Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War provides a penetrating and comprehensive analysis of Vietnam based on both U.S. and Vietnamese postwar accounts, visualized with more than one hundred color maps supplemented by photographs and reconstructions. Far deeper than most accounts.

An excellent condensed history is The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War , by Chris McNab and Andy Wiest, a book with all the essential facts plus a wealth of photos and maps.

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is a book by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese peasant woman who endured all the hardships of war including torture, rape, prison, loss of home and family, and more. Initially she supported the VC Communists, like many peasants of the countryside, but eventually came to know, understand and support the Americans. She ultimately emigrated to the U.S. as a soldier's wife, then returned to Vietnam in 1986 as a visitor to try to heal herself and family. The ground level insights of this book are priceless.

Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan. 752 pages (February 23, 2010) Random House. Although the crucial battle of Dien Bien Phu has been the subject of other books, at least since Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place, author Morgan provides an excellent review of the battle and its complex context, adding recently available material from French and other archives.

Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu by Bernard Fall. 568 pages (April 16, 2002) Da Capo Press. The May 1954 defeat of the French Army at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh guerrilla force brought the end of the French imperial domination of Indochina (Vietnam) and convinced the Communist leaders of the Viet Minh that the United States could be beaten by the same methods. Author Fall provides richly detailed documentation of the motivation and moves of both sides to prepare for and to fight the final stunning battle of the French phase of the war. This is the definitive book on the subject of Dien Bien Phu. Fall, a historian who traveled to Vietnam mulitple times starting in 1953, was "embedded" with French troops before the term was invented. Even though new sources have opened up in the years since first publication of Fall's work in 1966, this is still the seminal book on the subject.

Street Without Joy: The French Debacle In Indochina by Bernard Fall. 408 pages (June 10, 2005) Stackpole Books. First published in 1961, Fall's book is a perceptive and broadly applicable history and "lessons learned" from the French war in Indochina (Vietnam). Combined with Fall's "Hell in a Very Small Place" there is no better way to learn what the United States should have known before venturing into the Vietnam War.

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