Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc is an unforgettable account of a bloodbath in May 1968 when two regiments of North Vietnamese troops beseiged a Special Forces outpost defended by an unlikely combination of Green Berets, indigenous mercenaries, U.S. Marines, Special Operations Group (SOG) commandos and their fierce Nung bodyguards, American infantry, and other odd lots to a total of about 900 Americans, 3 Australians, and 500 indigenous troops, along with 272 civilians. Among them was a Special Forces lieutenant, James McElroy, the lead author of this book, which he wrote with Gregory Sanders, himself a Vietnam vet; each has a master's degree in history, and their account is carefully sourced even as it is intensely personal. One American officer endangered the defenders' lives through his "tactical incompetence"; another "considered himself a non-combatant and refused to carry a weapon." As for the indigenous troops, a majority were criminals given the choice of prison or the military, and predictable deserted their posts, while others -- especially the Nung -- fought and died heroically. I was continual astonished, reading this book, at the bravery of men fighting against hopeless odds, and likewise impressed by the terrible weight of American airpower. "Most readers," the authors justly say, "including most Vietnam battle veterans, have no concept of the magnitude of destructive power inflicted on the massed [North \Vietamese] troops at Kham Duc on May 12, 1968." They estimate 2,000 enemy dead -- far more than the official total -- as against 45 Americans, 207 indigeneous troops, and about 150 civilians killed, captured, or missing in action. The rather odd title, "Bait," refers to what the North Vietnamese hoped to accomplish at Kham Duc, for another Dien Bien Phu, and also to the post-battle spin put on the battle by the U.S. military in Saigon. Altogether, the book is a powerful counterpoint to the Ken Burns / PBS version of the Vietnam War. Even General Westmoreland comes out looking good. Note that the Kindle ebook is only $2.99 -- the price of a cup of coffee!
Ian Ona Johnson's Faustian Bargain: The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War is an eye-opener. I was familiar with the Hitler-Stalin pacts of August and September 1939 that divided Europe into German and Russian spheres and left the two despots free to invade and occupy most of the lands they coveted. (I wrote about the consequences in Poland's Daughter.) But the extent of the Russo-German partnership, and that it began soon after the ink was dry on the 1919 Versailles treaty that ended the First World War, was mostly new to me. It's a great story, which the boyish-looking Mr Johnson has ably researched in American, British, German, Polish, and French archives over many years. I've reviewed Mr. Johnson's book for the Wall Street Journal and will post it on the Annals of Poland next month. The hardcover is available on Amazon and I assume elsewhere; there is no digital edition. See the Annals of Poland for my review of this book for the Wall Street Journal.
Japan's Pacific War: Personal Accounts of the Emperor's Warriors is by far the best of war-memory collections I have read from the Japanese side. It also has a significant flaw. Both derive, I think, from the interviews that Peter Williams conducted over the years: because the interviews were all done by the same man, they have a verve and a common logic that's missing from memoirs previously published in the veterans' own language -- but because Mr Williams is an Australian, they treat a very skewed sample of the men who fought on the losing side. You'd never know from this book that American, British, and Chinese soldiers, sailors, and airmen contributed anything significant to the Pacific War. Japanese are famously polite, and they obviously play to Mr Williams' sensibilities, dismissing the Americans they met as cowards compared to the brave Australians, whose only fault appears to be they were so well equipped, fed, and armed compared to the Japanese. I've posted an excerpt on the Annals of the Brewster Buffalo.
What's really scary about this book is how cold-blooded the vets are, when they speak of killing prisoners, expecting their wounded to make a graceful exit with a grenade, and eating one another to survive. One even assures Mr Williams that, if a prisoner did survive, he would be well cared for at notorious hellholes like Rabaul, where Allied soldiers and civilians were routinely murdered, beaten, and starved. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford
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