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ANNALS OF VIETNAM

Welcome to the Annals of Vietnam, a collection of articles, reviews, and images dealing with America's misadventures south and north of the 17th parallel. I have a particular interest in the early years, because that's when I was there as a reporter for the left-liberal magazine, The Nation, which was so financially strapped that it would even publish reports even from a Republican like me.

A spellbinding book about a bloody battle

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. (Most of the civilians died in the crash of a transport plane taking them to safety, along with some of the CIDG deserters who'd crowded in with them.)

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. Of special interest to Vietnam buffs are the authors' introductory chapters about the nature of the war and of U.S. media coverage, and a concluding critque Note that the Kindle ebook is only $2.99 -- the price of a cup of coffee!

The Medal for a Green Beret

Capt Davis in 1965
There weren't many draftees or black soldiers in Vietnam in 1964 -- indeed, I met only one African-American in the months I was there, a sergeant-advisor to the ARVN 21st Infantry Regiment. That changed the following year as Lyndon Johnson sent American ground forces to fight the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese reinforcements. Among them was Captain Paris Davis, shown above (center) as he escorted General Westmoreland on an inspection of the Bong Son Special Forces camp northeast of Saigon. Davis disarmed prejudiced soldiers by telling them: "You can call me Captain, but you can't call me a nigger." On June 18, 1965, he and his team sergeant and two other NCOs led a force of South Vietnamese "Puffs" on a patrol that was ambushed by a reinforced company of Viet Cong. The Popular Forces militia were poorly trained and poorly equipped, and they seldom did well in a firefight. But Davis pressed the fight, "keeping the VC off balance and providing lucrative targets for RVNAF and USAF aircraft," according to a Special Forces website. "Approximately 200 VC were killed by the combined ground/air action."

Davis was wounded by a grenade and by rifle fire, and Master Sergeant Billy Waugh was badly hit, as was Spec-4 Robert Brown. "I could actually see his brain pulsating," Davis now says of his team sergeant's head injury. "He said, 'Am I gonna die?' And I said, 'Not before me.'" Indeed, the captain was twice ordered to leave, but he stayed on the field through the eighteen-hour battle. He was later awarded the Silver Star for heroism, and apparently nominated for the Medal of Honor, only to have the nomination lost, as often happened to injured men in Vietnam, hurriedly evacuated to Saigon or Japan for treatment. Now the MOH award is alive again, and awaiting action by the Biden administration. Altogether, 261 Medals of Honor were awarded for heroism in Vietnam, the first going to another Special Forces captain, Roger Donlon, one year before Captain Davis's fight. One account says that eight percent of those medals went to African-Americans.

Now 89, Davis retired as a colonel, and of course he encountered racism during his military service. But "when you're out there fighting," he recalls, "and things are going on like that, everybody's your friend, and you're everybody's friend ... the bullets have no color, no names." Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Incident at Muc Wa

For students:

'I need to know everything about Vietnam by Thursday!'
The Vietnam reading list (John Tegtmeier)

From life to fiction to film:

The Only War We've Got (a reporter's journal, 1964)
Incident at Muc Wa (the novel, 1967)
Burt Lancaster takes charge (filming, 1978)
Go Tell the Spartans (the movie, 1978)
The critics look at Go Tell the Spartans
A Vietnam slide show

Early days in South Vietnam:

'They just fall apart in mid-air' (Vietnam dispatch, 1964)
How was the American soldier trained? (Fort Dix 1956)
Was America losing in Vietnam under JFK?
A Special Forces team under threat of attack
The Tonkin Gulf incidents, summer 1964
Philippe Drouin--aka Cowboy--interpreter and warlord
'Aggression from the North' (State Department White Paper)
Did Japanese soldiers fight for the Vietminh?
How the AR-15 became the M-16 (DARPA Report)

Remembering the quagmire:

Spad Two goes missing in Laos
'The Collapse of the Armed Forces' (Col Robert Heinl)
Remembering the Phoenix Program (Larrry O'Daniel)
The Media and Vietnam (Erin McLaughlin)
The myth of the girl in the photo (Ronald Timberlake)
Joseph Ellis: the Vietnam vet wannabe
'My Heart's Content' (Pat Conroy)
To what extent is the US experience in Iraq comparable to their experience in Vietnam? (long essay, spring 2008)

Books and stuff

Ten best books about the Vietnam War (broadly defined
Nam-a-Rama: a wonderfully funny novel
Stolen Valor: Vietnam, lies, and the media (Burkett)
Clark Welch and the battle of Ông Thanh
The Village (Bing West)
The Vietnam War on video
When Thunder Rolled: F-105 over Vietnam (Rasimus)
Green Berets in the Vanguard, 1953-1963 (Archer)
Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam (Ford)
Incident at Muc Wa (Ford)
War Story (Morris)

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

The Only War We've Got

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