Tuesday, 29 July 2014
Book of the Month: Seven Firefights in Vietnam
The battles are of varying scale and the contributors to the book include officers who participated in the actual actions. Given that the accounts have been written only a few years after the engagements were fought, they include a startling amount of intelligence about the decision making process and actions of the Vietnamese commanders, many of whom would still have been on active service when this was published.
The authors start with the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, which was also the subject of the book by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once And Young, later made into a film with Mel Gibson. The Ia Drang was notable partly because it was one of the very first major battles in which the Americans made liberal use of helicopters to move infantry into the battle. The North Vietnamese were surprised by the speed at which the US Cavalry was able to deploy troops into a very limited area, under heavy fire.
The account in Seven Firefights only covers the first 48 hours of the battle at LZ X-Ray, and leaves out the more catastrophic battle that occurred subsequently to the east of LZ X-Ray, near LZ Albany. In some respects this subsequent engagement was a different battle, but was part of the bigger Ia Drang operation, so you could argue its inclusion is irrelevant to the object lesson of the original heliborne assault.
Also included is a convoy ambush on Highway 1, east of Saigon, and a smaller scale night ambush by a single squad of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade at Phuoc An. This latter engagement is of a much smaller size and is no doubt included to illustrate a typical small unit action, contrasting with the larger company-scale battles elsewhere in the book.
Chapter 4, Fight Along the Rach Ba Rai is an account of an amphibious operation in the Mekong Delta region by the 3/60th Infantry, again an example of the communist forces coming out fighting and slipping away before the Americans can close the trap on them.
At this stage I must admit that I am still reading Seven Firefights, and am now on number five, Three Companies At Dak To, about fighting in the hilly region up near the border with Laos, in Kontum province. This is of particular interest to me, as it is the setting for the Savage Worlds RPG mini-campaign I've been working on, using Tour of Darkness.
Seven Firefights is a good book to dip into, as each chapter is a stand alone account of a single engagement. It is written from a very practical perspective, as it is obviously intended partly as a text for officer cadres. At the time of publication, the war in Vietnam was still ongoing, and consequently the book spends very little time on the ethics of the conflict, seeming keener to analyse the errors made by officers and NCOs on the ground, and why they failed or succeeded at their tasks.
Also, at time of publication, the Vietnamese side of the story had still to be told, so while the authors can speculate on the decision making process of the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese, much of this is still conjecture of based upon physical evidence found when policing up the battlefield or interviewing prisoners. Still, they do an impressive job of putting the pieces together, and I'm not sure, even with the officers from the communist side actively contributing, a clearer picture could be achieved.
For the Vietname history or the Vietname wargamer with a level of interest in recreating the ground battles, this is a very intriguing book. Look out for it in the second hand market.