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A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

By Lewis Sorley
A Harvest Book, 507 pp, 1999

This is a very serious book. It's packed with detail and analysis from previously unrevealed sources and first-hand interviews. That's both a good and bad thing. Good because Sorley makes his case very well, bad because sometimes the detail gets a bit monotonous and tedious. But, overall, this is a fine book that is sure to challenge some commonly held beliefs about the Vietnam War.

As the subtitle makes clear, Sorley deals exclusively with the latter half of the war, namely from General Creighton Abrams' promotion to commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968 to the final U.S. pullout in 1975. Sorley concludes that this period of the war was vastly different from the first half - different tactics, different strategy, different and better results. It was, in essence, a better war.

Abrams' successor was General Westmoreland, and he preferred large divisions that searched for the enemy in the jungles. This caused high casualties, confusion among the ranks, logistical difficulties, and lowered morale, especially among the enlisted men.

Abrams arrived with a different strategy. Rather than search-and-destroy with large divisions, he preferred secure-and-hold with smaller units. He believed that the war would be won at the village level. The villages must remain safe from North Vietnam Army (NVA) attacks and Viet Cong infiltrations. Once that happened, the larger cities like Saigon could go on the offensive and secure themselves from enemy shelling. With the cities and villages secure, the South Vietnamese could organize their own forces, units that included village, city, and regional troops. Once that was done, the U.S. Army could slowly leave the ground fighting to the South Vietnamese while supplying air cover, supplies, and advice.

According to Sorley, by 1972 this strategy had succeeded, so well that the war could have been considered won. The villages were safe and secure, the VC was no longer a factor, and the NVA was nowhere in South Vietnam. Massive U.S. air strikes had slowed the flow of NVA troops and war equipment to the South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

So if all this is true, then what happened? Why did the communists win the war? Several reasons, according to Sorley:

  • Lack of support from the politicians at home. Congress and the Nixon Administration were more concerned with pulling out and less concerned with victory. By 1972, Abrams had fewer than 50,000 troops at his disposal, which makes his achievements even more impressive.
  • Unflagging support for the North from China and the Soviet Union. When the Paris agreement was ratified, and the North immediately violated it by flooding the South with troops and tanks, the U.S. failed in its promise to punish the North with air support. The Communists proved better allies than the U.S., because they kept the North well-stocked, while the South steadily ran out of supplies.
  • North Vietnamese officials kept in constant contact with the anti-war movement in America, using it to spread communist propaganda and lies. This undermined public support for the war, which at one time was high.

This is the essence of Sorley's book. It's a powerful case. What I found sad was America's total abandonment of South Vietnam. We had fought for years to keep the country from communist domination and then threw it all away when victory was so close.

It was not our finest hour.

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