Latest read: A War of Logistics

What really caused France’s humiliating loss to the Viet Minh in the French Indochina war? To understand we must focus on logistics. Charles Shrader’s A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945–1954 reveals the true staggering failures of the French were simply the result of poor logistics.
A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945--1954 (Foreign Military Studies) by Charles R. ShraderOn the surface it may not make sense. A western power falling to an agrarian band of guerrilla fighters? No author has precisely examined Viet Minh and French military logistics in great detail. This is an impressive view. Shrader has taught at West Point, the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and at the Army War College.

He is a former executive director of the Society for Military History. His metrics and well written history document those French military pillars that collapsed triggering their retreat not only from Indochina but from the world stage.

Many respected books point to Dien Bien Phu as the surprising French loss and subsequent defeat in the war. Shrader documents how this battle was the culmination in a series of shocking logistical failures that plagued their efforts against the Viet Minh.

The shift benefitting the Viet Minh developed after the Korean War. China began delivering overwhelming logistical resources to the Viet Minh. While French and CIA intelligence captured communications confirming numerous deliveries of infrastructure, France did not adjust to this threat.

In retrospect the logistical failure to support the French effort should have been sending strong signals to American military advisors that success against this communist enemy would be a long and difficult task.
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Latest read: Operation Vulture

Operation Vulture by John Prados reveals President Eisenhower’s plans to use nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu to “rescue” the French garrison. An analyst of national security based in Washington DC, he is a Senior Fellow and Project Director with the National Security Archive at George Washington University where he leads the Archive’s documentation projects on Vietnam and CIA.
Operation VultureThe US National Archive has released multiple classified documents since 2000. We now understand Eisenhower’s deep involvement. He ordered the US military into the First Indochina War in 1953. Prados reveals startling details of Eisenhower’s wish to use nuclear weapons and his order to the US Air Force and Navy bringing a nuclear weapons attack upon the valley as the French garrison was being quickly suffocated by the Viet Minh.

The details of those military actions moving men and arms throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia along with the international political maneuvering by Allen Dulles in the early 1950s dispels any myth that America simply went to war in Vietnam under President Kennedy.

Prados stitches an enormous amount of Eisenhower’s actions regarding Vietnam beginning in 1953. Eisenhower acted on his view of the world that required a strong American confrontation in Asia to offset China.
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Latest read: Who the Hell Are We Fighting?

Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars is the story Sam’s incomplete memoir War of Numbers could not deliver. Sam Adams died suddenly in 1988 at the age of 54. Sam was a gifted analyst at the CIA. Author C. Michael Hiam delivers a well written narrative of Sam’s life.
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence WarsSam displayed the uncommon trait of speaking truth to power. As history often suggests Sam was in the right place at the right time.

His truth revealed outcomes that pitted him against the White House, MACV and even senior leadership within the CIA.

What also made Sam unique was his inability to backdown to the highest offices in the government. Sam created a point of great turmoil by discovering and confronting repeated MACV intelligence failures. His analysis was not supported by CIA Director Richard Helms. Nobody wants to make their boss look bad.

Haim traces Sam’s life from Harvard to a rising star within the CIA to a disillusioned analyst. War of Numbers did not shed light on Sam’s death. Realizing Haim was going to address his passing at the close of the book I dreaded the final chapter to the life of Sam Adams.
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Latest read: None So Blind

Regarded as one of the CIA’s premiere Vietnam intelligence experts George W. Allen wrote a 2001 memoir None So Blind: A personal account of the intelligence failure in Vietnam that remains an alarming insight of intelligence failures that forecasted both France and America’s defeat in Vietnam. Allen’s contributions set the stage regrettably for the Pentagon and White House to also follow France’s misplaced goals in Indochina for the next twenty-five years.

None So Blind: A personal account of the intelligence failure in VietnamMy interest in Allen’s memoir developed from reading a series of confidential reports by the US military and CIA from the 1950s. Declassified in the late 1990s the documents address the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

Many of those documents point to Allen’s intelligence reports and analysis. Naturally this peaked my wish to better understand the American intelligence analysis of the French defeat.

Allen holds a unique, deep understanding of the Indochina Wars (France 1945-1950) and the coming failure of America’s intervention on behalf of South Vietnam 1960-1974. The lessons in his book leave deep, haunting impressions today on the White House and Pentagon leaders who ignored our intelligence community.
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Dien Bien Phu retrospective

The valley of Dien Bien Phu was the site of a historic siege by the Viet Minh on a French garrison from March 13th to May 7th 1953. The result was the first time an Asian guerrilla force defeated a standing Western army in sustained battle.

The French hoped to again draw out their Viet Minh enemy and defeat them with superior artillery fire as they did at Na San in November 1952. However a year later a series of French military blunders would doom the garrison.

To more fully understand the French defeat the six titles below are well written and serve as the entrance to a deeper American involvement that would lead to our own nightmare.

Each author addresses key failure points long after the battle that invalidate immediate reactions to the siege. Each author conveys the inhumanity suffered by both sides before, during and after the siege.

Why Vietnam?: Prelude to America’s Albatross
Archimedes Patti

Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu
Bernard Fall

Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina
Bernard Fall

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam Fredrik Logevall

Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War
Ted Gibson

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam
Martin Windrow

The books all provide powerful experiences from both the Vietnamese and French perspectives:

This garrison was not an all-French unit. Quite the opposite. A majority of soldiers were African, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and of course Vietnamese serving the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. This unit included European volunteers from Spain, Poland and Germany. The garrison’s officer corps were French. Make no mistake Paris was no longer interested in sending their sons to die in the jungles of Vietnam.

French Union troops moved a brothel into the garrison. Yes in 1953.

Generals Christian de Castries, Henri Navarre and René Cogny ignored their own very accurate military intelligence reports. The movement of heavy artillery from China into the surrounding hills was discovered by radio intercepts. Yet the Generals never considered the Viet Minh able to position heavy artillery around the surrounding hills.

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Latest Read: The Real War A Photographic History by the Associated Press

The Associated Press has released Vietnam: The Real War: A Photographic History by the Associated Press. A new powerful photography book from their top photojournalists who went and in some cases died covering the Vietnam war. Following my just completed read of Once Upon a Distant War, it was only natural to seek out the work from those photographers mentioned.

They played a significant role in the AP’s work from 1961-1963. Horst Faas is clearly front and center as one of the great war photographers. This book holds many of his acclaimed photographs. When you think back to almost any powerful photo from the war Horst probably captured the image.

Vietnam The Real War

The book’s overview from Pete Hamill further brings to life the role of AP reporters. Throughout Vietnam from the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu to the NVA tanks rolling into the Palace in Saigon AP reporters covered the entire war.

Photographers always become victims of war. Their work in this book is powerful and a tribute to their craft.

Latest Read: Once Upon a Distant War

Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau is a completely fascinating look at journalism coverage of the Vietnam war in the early 1960s. Remember how Napster disrupted the music industry? A handful or journalists did the same.
nce Upon a Distant WarIn 1959 Malcolm Brown arrived in IndoChina having earned his war reporting in Korea for Stars and Stripes.

A number of young journalists stationed in Saigon from 1961-1963 had the same effect on the newspaper industry at a time when television was about to eclipse print in news reporting to middle America.

The focus of Prochnau is the role of Malcolm Brown, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett, Horst Faas and Stanley Karnow.

They even faced off with their editors who were Korean War reporters themselves but now lived and worked in Washington, New York and LA. The young turks were actually in the jungles with American advisors. They experienced first hand the early failures.
Critical reporting of the US war effort brought them into conflict with General Paul Harkins, commander of the US war effort in Saigon. Yet Prochnau identifies three events within the two year span that reset the war for America: Ap Bac, The Buddhist Crisis and the American coup against Diem. It was interesting to have understood how Halberstam was commanding the stories out of Siagon and establishing strong relationships with John Paul Vann leading into Ap Bac. All while being misled by US General Paul Harkins in Saigon who was commanding MACV.

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Latest read: We Were Soldiers Once and Young

Joe Galloway and Hal Moore wrote We Were Soldiers Once And Young about their battle in the Ia Drang Valley. They reveal a deeper tragedy around the tipping point battle that would haunt America for a generation. As always the book is better than the movie.
we were soldiers: The battle in the Ia Drang ValleyThe battle of the Ia Drang Valley casts a long shadow over America’s role in Vietnam. It carries implications today. The ambush and loss of 155 Americans from a single battle (LZ Albany) was the largest loss of life throughout the entire American war including the siege at Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. Please recall Khe Sanh was a six month siege while the Ia Drang Valley was less than 48 hours.

America’s fast growing role in Vietnam was largely based upon the Ia Drang Valley. The White House would establish “body count” as the measured outcome. At the same time I somehow missed that Norman Schwarzkopf marched into Ia Drang at LZ X-Ray the day after the battle.

Galloway has written an excellent account of the Air Cav surviving LZ X-Ray and also the failures of command moving troops to LZ Albany on the ground. His attention to detail unique that every man in battle is identified by name and hometown…many times the following paragraph revealed that soldier’s death. Three cities where I have lived lost men in the Ia Drang Valley. One solider killed on the second day at LZ X-Ray lived 9 miles from our home in Milwaukee. Young men from greater Chicago and Northwest Ohio also died in battle.

As portrayed in the opening sequence of the movie based upon this book, NVA soldiers executed wounded Americans in the Ia Drang Valley. The history of war in Asian culture is much harsher than in Europe.
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Latest read: What It Is Like To Go To War

The insights within What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes will take the reader inside the mind of any veteran who faced death in combat. His highly recognized Vietnam war novel Matterhorn based upon his service leading a Marine unit in 1969. This is a harrowing read.
There can be no doubt veterans would agree Marlantes documents the true impact of war across a series of insightful chapter topics including: killing, guilt, lying, loyalty and heroism to name a few.
What It Is Like To Go To WarWithout a doubt that What It Is Like To Go To War addresses a missed topic taught in basic training. And Marlantes does address suicides by veterans in Vietnam and the Gulf War. It becomes very compelling to assist those vets returning home from battle.

He addresses the most important issue from a distinguished military career: you are taught to kill but not how to react to killing.

Marlantes provides extremely deep insights, while not unique to Vietnam does address the 1969 timeframe in which he led men into battle.
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Latest read: Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War

The Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan is a simply stunning read. This book proves to be a perfect follow up to the CIA’s Archimedes Patti revealing Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross and Bernard Fall’s excellent Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu.

This review below includes a series of powerful quotes from the 700+ pages that should turn your stomach as French leaders permitted men to die just to save face for their failing empire. It is truly stunning across this book to see a morally bankrupt France fight to re-colonize Indochina.

Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam WarMorgan set the post-World War II stage inside Indochina for any reader to learn how France was able to maintain a rule over Indochina during the occupation by the Japanese Imperial coup in Vietnam. Valley of Death reveals how the CIA approached Ho Chi Minh before D-Day to rescue downed US Air Force pilots from Japanese troops throughout Indochina. Ho urgently cooperated and was rewarded with munitions and a US Army Deer Team sent by the CIA to Ho Chi Minh. Their mission? To train and lead Viet Minh troops against the Japanese. This includes raids on Japanese positions in northern Vietnam after both atomic bombs were dropped.

Again Valley of Death clearly reveals US and Viet Minh relations were bonded against Japanese control of Indochina during World War II.
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Latest read: Hell In A Very Small Place The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu

Bernard Fall wrote a compelling yet sober book Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu. Fall was a respected journalist who predicted the failure of French efforts to re-colonize Indochina after World War II. He delivers a first hand account. He was on the ground with French troops beginning in 1953. He returned to Indochina multiple times before dying in a 1967 ambush with US troops in Operation Chinook II.

hell in a very small placeOn more than one occasion in the opening chapters the French considered permanently passing on Dien Bien Phu as a location to confront the Viet Minh to stop their push into Laos. Google Satellite Map of the valley Dien Bien Phu.

At first glance this is a Greek Tragedy. Yet Fall reveals, to simply save face on the global stage France continued to send men to their deaths over the 56 day siege. In Paris and Hanoi the commitment was NOT to win the war but rather simply hold the garrison as means to strengthen negotiations at the Geneva Accords.

At the earliest stages of the French occupation General Henri Navarre and Lt. General Rene Cogny would spare over the definition of the Dien Bien Phu defensive parameter with tragic consequences.

Cogny defined Dien Bien Phu as a guerilla camp or ‘mooring point’ defense, Navarre interpreted a ‘heghog’ or airhead defense be established which had proven successful for France against the Viet Minh at the Battle of Na San. Regardless the French defensive positions were never implemented to withstand the Viet Minh onslaught that came in waves and deadly accurate cannon fire.

Hell In A Very Small Place reveals during this early confusion French intelligence intercepted multiple radio messages revealing strong evidence of the enemy’s shift of two established divisions heading towards Dien Bien Phu. Yet this intelligence was only debated between Navarre and Cogny. They never acted on this intelligence. This led to increased disagreements between the two at the cost of their men.

No French military leader could forecast a cease fire in the Korean War. This permitted Communist China to shift much needed weapons from Soviet Russia and material into Dien Bien Phu in mid 1953.

It is discouraging to read Fall’s account of the Allied losses around Dien Bien Phu beginning in November 1953, three months before the Viet Minh would launch their initial attack at Dien Bien Phu. The cold war shifted tides from Korea to Indochina.

Fall’s other recognized book Street without Joy reveals how 400 French Union troops were confronted by nearly 1,000 Viet Minh in hand to hand combat. They “simply fixed bayonet and walked into death.” Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place extends this horrific sacrifice.
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Latest read: Street without Joy

Bernard Fall‘s excellent and respected Street Without Joy provides deep insights to the French catastrophe in Vietnam culminating at Dien Bien Phu. Fall is recognized as a respected journalist who understood the failure of France. He was on the ground with French troops.

Street without Joy

Fall’s experience sharing French losses are shocking even 50 years later. And yet in war there are a number of truly heroic acts by French and American soldiers fighting a determined Viet Minh enemy.

Declassified in 2005 American pilots James McGovern and Wallace Buford where killed flying over Dien Bien Phu, just 24 hours before the French surrender.

Fall illustrates a perfect example of the French effort: in 1953 the army spent $20 million dollars to build a runway. It buckled when the first airplane landed and was abandoned.

France was complete decimated by World War II. The country literally did not have an air force until 1950. French planes supporting IndoChina included just 60 Spitfires — made from wood and canvas. Most planes were German Junkers 52s. The true irony, the French had to actually locate parts in Germany to repair Junkers damaged fighting the Viet Minh. For French pilots the demands were worse:

Nothing has thus far been said about the incredible strain of that operation on the air and ground crews of the French Far Eastern Air Force and Naval Aviation. At the height of the battle, in April 1954, many crews logged 150 flying hours. Dozens of pilots collapsed from exhaustion, but simply were doped up and returned to combat, for experienced pilots rapidly became even scarcer than aircraft. When, in the face of possible diplomatic complications, the American civilian air crews and their C-119’s were pulled out on April 24 from the Dien Bien Phu run—they were allowed to return to the run on May 1 – there remained only fifty French planes capable of flying the long and exhausting mission.
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Embers of War reminds us that Parisians concerned about the welfare of the garrison, a majority of soldiers were not French. The colonial French Union permitted France under their empire to place soldiers from Laos, Cambodia, Tunisia, French Guinea and Morocco at Dien Bien Phu. As the battle inched closer a stunning 3,000 to 4,000 Moroccan troops deserted their posts and escaped into the jungle. The empire was over.

It would not be fair to say Fall ignored the horrors of war in this book. The tremendous loss of life, even French officers who lost sons fighting the Viet Minh. While tragically sobering it was not enough to change America’s focus off long term goals in Europe that played out in IndoChina ten years later.

Most strikingly President Eisenhower established Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) IndoChina in 1950. US Army Lt. General John O’Daniel was appointed Chief of MAAG Indo-China. O’Daniel actually toured Dien Bien Phu less than 90 days before the siege. He reported the garrison to be in a sound position.