I mentioned in an earlier post that I am reading Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966 written by John M. Carland. This is another series of books funded by the U.S. Army chronicling the Army’s experience in Vietnam. Like the two shorter works I looked at before, these are for sale by the government (roughly the same price as on Amazon) but are freely available as a download. After all, we here in American did already pay to write the thing so we might as well have access to it.
In contrast to Buying Time, 1965-1966, which covers the same period, Stemming the Tide is a full-length book. As such, it talks both about the high-level, strategic issues but also gets down into individual engagements with far more detail. It’s not quite the level that a book dedicated to an individual battle, like The First Fight, would be, but it is obviously (with five times the page count) more detailed than my previous foray.
It is a good read and a fairly easy read. Still, it does impress me as a book written by the military for the military as opposed to the outreach to the public that the U.S. Army Campaigns series seems to be shooting for. Of course, that is an opinion coming from a non-military person so take of it what you will. The fact is, the book details items, like command structures, that would seem to be far more interest to someone “in the biz” than an outside observer. There were also a number of cases* where I noticed the use of “insider” language.
Like before, this one also is a very informative companion to the Vietnam 1965 Combat Operations scenarios. I’ll not dwell on that any further.
One unique insight I got from reading this book is the amount of effort that goes on behind the scenes to make the war happen. This book gets into a level of detail that begins to demonstrate the amount of work involved with moving, for example, the 1st Infantry Division from the U.S. into Vietnam and to begin operations. Whereas the shorter versions did talk about “security operations” and the like, Stemming the Tide gets into more specifics. It gives me a new appreciation of the difficulties involved.
A division doesn’t just move, load up their rifles, and start hunting commies. Locations have to be chosen and then the actual base must be constructed. When the division in question is one of the early deployments, that means that the engineering and construction support isn’t available yet, so arrangements have to be made. Local contractors, from a third world country mind you, are needed to construct a base that not only must serve as a secured military outpost, but also as a home to gaggles of teenagers and young-adults for up to a year. Supplies have to be sent in from overseas and delivered across inadequate infrastructure. Most critically, somebody has to figure out all the things that need to be done and the right order in which to do them. The role of a commanding general, in this, is far more than any combat planning required of him.
It also explains the outsized requirement for support forces over combat forces. Stemming the Tide explains, “[o]ut of a total of 82,300 U.S. soldiers and marines in South Vietnam in August 1965, no more than 20,000 served in maneuver battalions. By the end of the year 155,000 soldiers and marines had arrived, but only about 31,000 were in maneuver units.”
The book also includes political factors. One that stood out for me is the polling data collected toward the end of 1965. In Vietnam, the U.S. had entered a sort-of-truce and was preparing a series of sticks in case the North Vietnamese were unwilling to come to the peace table’s carrot. The plan, which was very much what was subsequently executed, was presented to the public at large and was polling at about 60% in-support.
We’re too early in the war (and I’m still only part way through the book) to decide whether the U.S. had already made the fateful decisions that will ultimately cost them this war. At the start of the year in 1966, the Generals assumed that, given the resources they requested, they would prevail. The civilian leadership had promised the resources as requested. It is evident that the text criticizes Johnson for not making the acceleration of force build up happen, though either the call-up of reserves or an extension of commitments. The analysis of the book is that the slower build-up of forces, constrained by political considerations, allowed the communists to match and exceed that build up with additional forces of their own. Therefore, the U.S. never achieved the advantage in forces that the plan was counting on.
From the flip side, we also can never know whether Johnson was right. Perhaps it is true that the avenues available to him that would meet the requested force build up were, in fact, so politically unpalatable that they would have caused a collapse in support for his presidency, his social programs, and (likely) his prosecution of the Vietnam War.
*One that I just now remembered to look up is the repeated use of the laager. This is a Afrikaans variation on the Dutch word for army camp that describes the result of “circling the wagons.” For students of Boer history, this might invoke the 1838 Battle of Blood River where the use of the laager defensive formation resulted in an overwhelming defeat by the Voortrekkers of a Zulu army 20-50 times their number. It’s an intriguing word to use in the context of small U.S. formations holding out against superior Vietcong numbers, but perhaps not one that most people without a West Point history class under their belts would readily understand.