‘Soldiering On in a Dying War’: How bad was our Army late in the Vietnam War?
William Shkurti’s Soldiering On in a Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown is one of the more interesting books I’ve read in awhile. Essentially, his argument is that while the U.S. Army in Vietnam had troubles in 1970-72, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it has been ...
William Shkurti's Soldiering On in a Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown is one of the more interesting books I've read in awhile.
William Shkurti’s Soldiering On in a Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown is one of the more interesting books I’ve read in awhile.
Essentially, his argument is that while the U.S. Army in Vietnam had troubles in 1970-72, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it has been portrayed. He makes his case well, with extremely fine-grained portrayals of units and combat at the time. (At one point, we even get an account done mortar round by mortar round.)
“There was a problem with drugs and fraggings,” he concedes. “Motivation did become more difficult as the war wound down. People in the lower ranks were more willing to challenge authority. But what…these analyses overlook is how both officers and enlisted men, regardless of how they felt about the war, struggled but managed to hold it together without much help from anywhere else.”
But. But…the evidence he introduces in defense of the quality of the soldiers of the time frequently is hair-raising:
— A squad ordered to set up a night ambush along a part of the Cambodian border crawling with both North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese units has six men who have never before been in combat? Yow. That’s a recipe for fratricide, or losing the whole squad.
–Another question about leadership: A unit that had refused to go on patrol in an area because its members worried there were unmapped Claymore mines in the area finally is persuaded to go-and finds loads of Claymores. The lieutenant colonel commanding in the area reports around this time that morale is “uniformly high.”
–Speaking of which, Shkurti assures the reader that “only 4.5 percent of Army soldiers in Vietnam GIs were hard-core heroin users.” Only? You don’t need all the soldiers in a unit to be ill-disciplined or stoned for the unit to go rotten. Imagine how one stoned guy, stumbling along, or laughing and jiving, could foul up a combat patrol. Or fall asleep on sentry duty. Let’s see: 4.5 percent of a platoon is on heroin. Others are smoking dope. Some are ill-disciplined. Are you going to sleep well?
Also, it doesn’t seem right to me for the author to consider an incident as not a combat refusal if the order in question is subsequently rescinded (which both he and the Army of the time seem to think is just fine). What a great way for a commander to keep his unit record “clean” while letting his soldiers pick and choose their missions.
At times, the book felt to me like someone arguing an airline is a lot safer than it looks because only 10 or 15 percent of its planes crashed last year. Sure, 85 percent did just fine. But that is not what worries me.
So why do I like the book? Because it made me think, on almost every page. It mounted a clear and consistent argument that made me re-examine the evidence and to re-consider what I think I know (and what I have written in the book I am working on). Also, while I disagree with a lot of the book, I got the sense that his heart is in the right place, and that matters to me. He is struggling to make sense of what happened in that war. So am I. We are all pilgrims on this road, boys.
Bottom line: This might be the best book I’ve read on the last part of the American involvement of the war (though it has been many years since I’ve read James McDonough’s Platoon Leader, which I will go back and look at again soon).
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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