Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The BD bookshelf: An Army battalion cut off and unsupported during Tet ’68

What an interesting, thoughtful book. I’ve had this memoir, The Lost Battalion of Tet, on my shelf for a couple of years but had waited to read it in order of my research for the book I am working on. I am now, finally, studying the Vietnam War in 1968, so I turned to it. ...

Goodreads.com
Goodreads.com
Goodreads.com

What an interesting, thoughtful book.

I've had this memoir, The Lost Battalion of Tet, on my shelf for a couple of years but had waited to read it in order of my research for the book I am working on. I am now, finally, studying the Vietnam War in 1968, so I turned to it. It is mainly about a 1st Air Cavalry infantry battalion that suffered 311 casualties in a few weeks, most of them after being surrounded outside Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, cut off with dwindling ammunition but without artillery support.

First, it strikes me as unusually honest in its relation of events and its depiction of people. This is a characteristic that it shares of one of my all-time favorite books, E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Another similarity: Both books were written several decades after the events described, yet remained vivid.

What an interesting, thoughtful book.

I’ve had this memoir, The Lost Battalion of Tet, on my shelf for a couple of years but had waited to read it in order of my research for the book I am working on. I am now, finally, studying the Vietnam War in 1968, so I turned to it. It is mainly about a 1st Air Cavalry infantry battalion that suffered 311 casualties in a few weeks, most of them after being surrounded outside Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, cut off with dwindling ammunition but without artillery support.

First, it strikes me as unusually honest in its relation of events and its depiction of people. This is a characteristic that it shares of one of my all-time favorite books, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Another similarity: Both books were written several decades after the events described, yet remained vivid.

In one passage, set in Quang Tri, Charles Krohn’s battalion commander recommends to another battalion commander who is just arriving not to store any ammunition near a building with a shiny tin roof that was being used as an enemy aiming point. “You command your battalion and I’ll command mine,” responded Lt. Col. Herlihy Long. And then, writes Krohn, “A few hours later, Long was killed when an NVA rocket scored a direct hit on the ammunition.” (78)

Then there is the rattled chaplain, Capt. Dan Klem, who asks to offer a prayer for a group of men about to undertake a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. “Instead of saying something inspirational . . . he asked God to be with the boys who were going to die,” recalls the company commander, Capt. Robert Helvey, who was leading the reconnaissance mission. (210)

Krohn meditates well on the systemic failure and command failures at the brigade and division level that led to his battalion being cut off without much support. Near the end he offers this wise advice to commanders:

Try training for failure-system failure. Train under the assumption that one or more systems supporting you won’t work knowing beforehand it reduces your probability of success. (281)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.