The Pentagon Book Club

In the spring of 1984, a young Army officer wrote a seminar paper about
the use of force in the post-Vietnam era. Three years later he returned
to the subject in a Princeton University doctoral dissertation titled
"The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." What "today's junior
officers think about Vietnam--which is fast becoming ancient history--is
likely to undergo significant change before they assume positions of
power and influence," he claimed. In his dissertation, he sought to
investigate the legacy of the war and its "chastening effect on military
thinking about the use of force," which made military leaders, he
contended, "more cautious than before." "Caution has its virtues, of
course," he wrote. However, "the lessons from which that caution springs
are not without flaws." Among the flawed lessons he identified were a
professional aversion to counterinsurgency operations, "a new skepticism
about the efficacy of American forces in the Third World countries where
social, political, and economic factors are the causes of unrest" and "a
widespread fear among officers that assignment to counterinsurgency,
special forces type missions will be the end of their career."

The author of those words is David Petraeus, now a four-star general and
commander of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus graduated
from West Point in 1974, one year before the fall of Saigon, and he has
lately consolidated his military career around trying to reverse the
lessons of Vietnam. He tasted combat for the first time during the
invasion and occupation of Iraq, where he commanded the 101st Airborne
Division and the Multinational Security Transition Command (tasked with
training Iraqi military forces). In 2005-06, after his second tour in
Iraq, Petraeus oversaw the revision of FM 3-24, the military's
counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual. (The previous Army COIN manual
was published in 1986; the Marines were still using a guide from 1980.)
It was a chance for Petraeus to put his dissertation into practice by
literally rewriting the book on the type of warfare American officers
had shunned since Vietnam. Early in 2007, following the futile efforts
of generals Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey, Petraeus took command of
US forces in Iraq and aided a reeling President George W. Bush by
implementing the "surge" strategy, designed to tamp down violence to a
so-called acceptable level. Taking a page from FM 3-24, Petraeus offered
money and weapons to Sunni insurgents in exchange for a cessation of
attacks on US troops, a strategy that helped to lessen bloodshed and get
bad news about Iraq off the front page. In exchange, Bush made "King
David" his most influential adviser on the war (Petraeus was granted
much clout at National Security Council meetings) and even took him
mountain biking.

To a segment of the military establishment that Andrew Bacevich has
dubbed the "Crusaders," officers who "see the Army's problems in Iraq as
self-inflicted," the consequence of excessive post-Vietnam caution,
Petraeus is seen as a successor to another top Army general, Creighton
Abrams. A West Point grad and World War II tank commander under Gen.
George Patton, Abrams assumed command of US forces in Vietnam in 1968
when his predecessor, William Westmoreland, was kicked up and out, to
Army chief of staff, after a four-year run of failure in Southeast Asia.
Abrams's star has been on the rise in recent years too, thanks in large
part to the efforts of his chief booster, the prominent historian,
retired Army lieutenant colonel and CIA veteran Lewis Sorley.

Last fall, as the debate over the way forward in Afghanistan geared up,
Sorley's ten-year-old book A Better War was the pick of the
Pentagon and, according to Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman of the
Wall Street Journal, "recommended in multiple lists put out by
military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who
passed it out to his subordinates." (A Better War is also listed
in FM 3-24's annotated bibliography of recommended texts, and Abrams is
mentioned and quoted several times in the manual.) Sorley's book was
also read and reread, according to Newsweek, by Petraeus's top
commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal--a
counterterrorism specialist who worked closely with Petraeus when he led
the Joint Special Operations Command, a unit that The New
's Seymour Hersh called "an executive assassination wing."
Under this program, according to Hersh, elite units were reportedly
given the authority to track and kill suspected terrorists and militants
with minimal oversight, in noncombat situations and across national

There is much for the Crusaders to like about Sorley's account of the
often neglected latter half of the Vietnam War, especially his assertion
that by late 1970 "the fighting wasn't over, but the war was won" by the
United States. Abrams had achieved this victory, Sorley contends,
through a kinder, gentler strategy of pacification operations and
population protection that stood in abject contrast to Westmoreland's
ineffective "search and destroy" missions in the countryside. As Sorley
explained in a New York Times op-ed published in 2009 when
President Obama was weighing his options in Afghanistan, "Abrams decided
instead to try 'clear and hold' operations, in which small patrols were
sent to villages to protect the populace." According to Sorley, Abrams
recognized that under Westmoreland US forces had been "causing undue
'collateral damage' to the South Vietnamese people and their property";
thus enlightened, Abrams "reined in the use of heavy firepower like
artillery and tactical airstrikes." Defeat, however, was snatched from
the jaws of victory when the United States cut its support for South
Vietnam's Saigon government--a stab in the military's back by
weak-willed politicians and a war-weary public back home.

In 2004 Sorley took an up-close-and-personal approach to his hero in
Vietnam Chronicles, a collection of passages selected and
transcribed by Sorley from tapes of high-level meetings chaired by
Abrams in 1968-72. The book is a tremendous resource, yet one gets the
feeling while reading it of being not a fly on the wall but the object
of a concerted propaganda campaign. In the spring of 1969, for instance,
we hear Abrams yukking it up over cigars he had imported from Hong Kong.
At the same time, in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta, his World War II
buddy from the Siege of Bastogne, Gen. Julian Ewell, was coordinating a
civilian slaughter during Operation Speedy Express, which was executed
with the same heavy artillery and tactical airstrikes Abrams had
supposedly shut down [see Nick Turse, "A My Lai a Month," Dec. 1, 2008].
During the operation, Abrams publicly praised Ewell's performance.
Behind closed doors not long afterward, he laughed off his subordinates'
bloodthirsty talk while warning Ewell to consider how a proposal of his
to kill Vietnamese civilians for petty crimes might look if
Newsweek got wind of it.

In 1971 two reporters from Newsweek discovered much worse:
namely, that as many as 5,000 noncombatants--ten times the number killed
during the My Lai massacre--had been slaughtered during Speedy Express,
according to one US official. When one of the Newsweek reporters,
Kevin Buckley, brought the results of the investigation to Abrams's
attention and asked for comment, the general claimed to have no
information and denied Buckley an interview. What Buckley couldn't have
known, and what goes unaccounted for in Vietnam Chronicles, is
that Abrams knew a lot about Speedy Express. He learned of reports about
mass killings in 1969 from US advisers who charged Ewell's division with
having driven up the enemy body count by killing civilians with
helicopter gunships and artillery. Then, on a 1970 trip to Vietnam, Army
Secretary Stanley Resor, on the advice of the Army's acting general
counsel, discussed with Abrams reports of widespread civilian killings
provided by a different source, a whistleblower from Ewell's division
who had witnessed the bloodshed firsthand. Buckley and his
Newsweek colleague Alex Shimkin learned about the carnage from
still other US and Vietnamese sources during the meticulous
investigation they conducted over a period of months. A Pentagon-level
cover-up and Newsweek's desire not to upset the Nixon
administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full
results of their work under wraps. The publication of a severely
truncated version of Buckley and Shimkin's original article allowed the
Pentagon to ride out the coverage without being forced to convene a
large-scale official inquiry of the sort that followed public disclosure
of My Lai. A secret Army report, commissioned in response to Buckley and
Shimkin's investigation but buried for decades, concluded:

While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of
civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy
Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact
substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show
that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between
5,000 and 7,000).

In both his books Sorley ignores the carnage of Speedy Express.
Consequently, his readers, including McChrystal and other Crusaders in
the Pentagon book club, taking notes for their own pacification campaign
in Afghanistan, are left with a counterfeit history of Abrams's
bloodless "better war."

Not all of Sorley's fans, however, labor under the same misconceptions
about what the Vietnamese call the American War. In the acknowledgments
of his Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, John
Prados writes admiringly of the herculean labors of transcription that
Sorley--a friend--performed to produce Vietnam Chronicles. But
Prados's scholarly admiration goes no further. He squarely challenges
the contentions of Sorley and others who have, over the years, attempted
to recast US and allied efforts in Vietnam as a Lost Victory or
an Unheralded Victory, among other wishfully titled studies [see
Rick Perlstein, "The Best Wars of Their Lives," October 15, 2007].
Regarding Sorley's belief that victory was thrown away, Prados writes:

Most recent commentators of this school call themselves "revisionists,"
arguing that Americans are wrong to believe they lost the Vietnam war.
This is not revisionism, it is neo-orthodoxy.
Something happened in the countryside, but it was not Saigon's
The neo-orthodox commentators of the "lost victory" school make their
claims as if the only important elements were pacification and
Vietnamization, as if politics did not matter. Not only is this strange,
given the kind of conflict--where supposedly everyone now understood the
political to be paramount--but those same analysts take no account of
Saigon politics.

For these reasons, General McChrystal would do well to forgo another
reading of Sorley's text and instead wade into Prados's Vietnam.
Steeped in the copious records generated by the US government during the
conflict, Prados offers an expansive history, written in a lucid style,
that scholars of the war will want to make room for on their shelves and
casual readers can accommodate by purging a few faded volumes. Prados, a
senior fellow of George Washington University's National Security
Archive and the head of its Vietnam Documentation Project, surveys the
wars in Vietnam against the Japanese, French and Americans, from 1945
through 1975, and makes smartly written sojourns back to the United
States to listen in on White House phone calls and take it to the
streets with returning antiwar veterans. Prados demonstrates the dire
effects a foreign war can have on the homeland, as criminality abroad
acted as a catalyst for an increasingly lawless government at home.

While he ably covers a lot of historical territory in the United States
and Southeast Asia (with surprisingly thorough, if brief, treatments of
the contiguous conflicts in Cambodia and Laos), Prados is strongest on
Nixon's war in Vietnam--the period from 1969 onward--making his book a
natural counterweight to Sorley's study of the same period. Through a
staggering array of primary and secondary sources, Prados discredits the
"better war" thesis and the "neo-orthodox" school through his clear and
thorough examination of the increasingly hollow and corrupt South
Vietnamese government and its failures to win over the people, which
made supposed US pacification successes meaningless.

With devastating clarity, Prados demonstrates that neo-orthodox claims
of an increasingly effective South Vietnamese military taking charge,
from 1969 onward, are based on smoke and mirrors and outright
fabrications. In truth, just as the US military was increasingly wracked
by drug use, racial tension, AWOLs, fraggings (attacks on officers and
noncommissioned officers, often by fragmentation grenade), combat
refusals, mutinies and other disciplinary issues, Saigon's military
forces were in dire straits, as draft evaders and deserters thinned the
ranks, officers collected the pay of nonexistent "ghost soldiers" and
child soldiers were, instead, put into uniform. At the same time,
government corruption was rampant. (In one scandal top officials got
away with skimming from a tax on soldiers that was designed to aid
veterans.) Prados then couples his nuanced study of the ample
shortcomings of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces with,
more important, an astute analysis of the many "levels and layers of
reasons" the revolutionary forces from North and South Vietnam won the
war. It's here that Prados really shines and demonstrates what a
historian at the height of his powers of scholarly synthesis can

Paying attention to the Vietnamese--whether ordinary civilians being
slaughtered in the name of pacification or Saigon's political elites
emptying the public treasury--has never been a strong suit of American
commentators on the war. Consciously written to render the Vietnamese
visible in ways too few American histories of the war do, Mark Philip
Bradley's important history Vietnam at War mines Vietnamese
novels, poetry and films, as well as a plethora of recent and often
overlooked works of scholarship, to paint a more complete picture of the
lived experience of the war for the people of Vietnam. Bradley begins
with the millennium-long Vietnamese anticolonial struggle against the
Chinese beginning in 111 BC and then chronicles the rise of French
colonialism in Indochina during the latter half of the nineteenth
century; the often-ignored political and intellectual developments among
elites and the economic upheaval and demographic explosion in the
countryside during the early part of the twentieth century; and finally
the wars of liberation against France and the United States.

Bradley discusses the many ways that ordinary people struggled to
"navigate and survive the complicated terrain of wartime South Vietnam."
Weaving together disparate threads, from contemporary commentary about
changing Vietnamese romantic and sexual mores amid wartime uncertainty
("It's no longer about appreciating love but escaping the sense that one
has been abandoned") to social anthropologist Heonik Kwon's recent
meticulous and skillful reconstruction of the complex and clandestine
networks of social connections that allowed a wounded South Vietnamese
officer to defect to the revolutionary side, Bradley offers a social
history of wartime Vietnam and of a people in a state of acute crisis.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Vietnam at War, however, is
Bradley's effort to convey the ubiquity of civilian suffering during the
American War--the decimation of the countryside, the mass population
dislocations, the indiscriminate use of firepower, the collapse of
farming, the savaging of the economy, the rampant inflation and the
proliferation of a culture of corruption and prostitution among the
desperate, war-ravaged Vietnamese. Given the scale of misery caused by
the war, Bradley doesn't devote enough attention to the subject. But he
makes a noble effort and, even in a slim volume, is stronger on the
subject than many thicker histories.

In fact, very few of the more than 30,000 books about the conflict plumb
the depths of Vietnamese misery during the American War. One volume that
should, by any stretch of the imagination, be counted among them is
Eddie Adams: Vietnam, but the book--a glossy collection of photos
and text--in many ways defies conventions. Most books, for instance,
don't begin with an admission of the photographer's opposition to the
project. But Adams didn't have a say in the matter. He died several
years ago, and Eddie Adams: Vietnam--edited by his wife, Alyssa,
with text by Hal Buell, Adams's former boss at the Associated Press, as
well as short interviews with contemporaries like Morley Safer, Peter
Arnett and the late David Halberstam--was published against his wishes.

Adams is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Col. (and
later Brig. Gen.) Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a defenseless, restrained
prisoner at point-blank range in the head with a pistol. (It is the
cover image of Eddie Adams: Vietnam.) It was a photo, Arnett
notes in the opening of the book, that Adams "was sorry for." Adams
would later commiserate with Nguyen (known to Americans as "General
Loan") at a pizza parlor in Virginia operated by the former general, who
immigrated to the United States with help from a friend in the CIA.
Adams felt the photo had been used unfairly to vilify Nguyen and not
only apologized for his picture but took great pains to excuse the
general's actions. "General Loan was killing our so-called 'bad guys,'
but the U.S. government kind of disowned him," Adams later lamented. In
his introductory piece, Arnett recalls telling Adams that he had
captured a moment of truth--executions were common but rarely
photographed--yet "Eddie, Mister Patriot, just would not accept that. He
enjoyed winning the Pulitzer Prize as well as the fame that came with
it, but in his heart he felt that he had let the country down."

Adams, who served as a photographer in the Marines during the Korean
War, was hardly critical of the US war in Vietnam and maintained a close
relationship with the military. Yet while no equal of Philip Jones
Griffiths's magisterial Vietnam Inc., a 1971 collection of more
than 250 photos documenting the destruction of the Vietnamese people's
way of life during the war, Eddie Adams: Vietnam almost
inadvertently manages to convey the scale of Vietnamese suffering. When
defending Nguyen, Adams noted that a picture can lie; yet it can also be
said that multiple images can often offer a less cloudy vision of the
truth. In Adams's book we see many disturbing scenes: a bound prisoner
threatened with a bayonet; another with a spear at his throat; a
noncombatant being punched; a woman beckoning Adams and fellow Americans
to help her wounded husband, his arm vainly grasping at air as they fly
away in their helicopter; a child suspect trussed up with a rifle
trained on him, mangled bodies lying in the open; children crouching and
wailing in fear as an armed US marine approaches them; a young girl,
hands raised to the sides of her head, whose eyes lock on Adams's camera
as she runs for cover; and a Saigon demonstrator being threatened with a

Whatever his internal conflicts, Adams's fearlessness, skill and fine
eye are evident in a picture he shot on April 25, 1965, in Quang Nam
province. Crawling on his belly, Adams captured the abject terror on the
faces of a mother, crouched low and clutching her baby, and a father,
frightened and powerless, shielding his tiny child as marines, their
weapons at the ready, stalk through their hamlet searching for the
guerrillas who had fired at them from afar. That November, Adams
pronounced the shot his favorite. Of all his many magnificent photos,
including his iconic shot of the prisoner and Nguyen Ngoc Loan--which
many consider the defining photograph of a conflict that produced not a
few worthy contenders--this image may capture the essence of the
American War as well as any other. The combination of helplessness and
sheer terror in the parents' eyes, their inability to do any more for
their children than to hold them close and act as human shields while a
hulking group of heavily armed foreign teenagers draw fire and return it
from their yard, says much about the American War in Vietnam and
American warmaking in general.

Several years ago, during a trip through the Mekong Delta, I talked with
Nguyen Van Tu, a well-weathered farmer residing in a simple
wood-and-thatch home with an earthen floor, likely very similar to the
one he lived in during the war. Probably the only major difference was
the absence of a nearby bomb shelter. During the war, such bunkers were
as ubiquitous as the bombs and artillery shells from which they provided
uncertain protection. Year after year, families were forced to live a
semi-subterranean existence. But they still had to eat, and that meant
farming and foraging out in the open. One afternoon in 1971, Nguyen
heard artillery being fired from a nearby base and shouted for his
family to bolt to their bunker. They made it. He didn't. A
105-millimeter US artillery shell slammed into the ground near him and
ripped off most of his right leg. It was, in fact, one of numerous
tragedies he endured as a result of the American War. His brother, a
simple farmer, was shot dead by America's South Vietnamese allies in the
early years of the conflict. His father was killed just after the war.
While tending his garden, he accidentally detonated a US M-79 round--a
40-millimeter shell fired from a single-shot grenade launcher--buried in
the soil.

In 2008 I published a story about Nguyen, and thanks to readers'
generosity he received a new prosthetic leg to replace the rudimentary
wooden model he'd walked with for years. But Nguyen hadn't asked for a
new leg; it wasn't what he wanted out of the interview. What he wanted
was a story in the US press about the true suffering of the Vietnamese
people that would spur the government to "take responsibility" for what
it had done during the war. Nguyen was skeptical that an American would
tell this story. "Do you really want to publicize this thing?" he asked.
"Do you really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of
the Vietnamese people here?"

Nguyen's skepticism was well founded, even if he knew nothing of the
Crusaders or their revisionist histories. There's a moment in Petraeus's
dissertation when he pauses to take stock of the "impact of America's
longest war" and its fallout. He devotes not a word to Vietnamese
civilians. There's no mention of women with shrapnel still lurking
beneath their skin, or the men with faces melted years ago by incendiary
weapons, or the inconsolable people still grieving for mothers, fathers,
siblings and children gunned down decades ago. Instead, Petraeus wrote,
without apparent irony, that "the psychic scars of the war may be
deepest among the Army and Marine Corps leadership."

Drawing too many conclusions from a years-old dissertation is a risky
proposition, but Petraeus's writings then and his efforts since raise
serious questions about just who he believes has suffered most because
of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what role he has played in that
misery and the lessons he has drawn from the carnage. Given the
Crusaders' cheery (and bizarre) conclusions that Petraeus turned the
bloody US war in Iraq into a victory and that his "surge" there offers a
template for similar success in Afghanistan, one also worries what
dubious lessons the next generation of Crusaders will draw from him and
his "better wars."

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