A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (Harcourt Books, 1999, 507, $16 Paperback, by Lewis Sorely)
One might wonder, what more can possibly be said about the Vietnam War that is fresh, enlightening and relevant. Sadly, many people formed their opinion about the war based on movies, newscasts or written work that focused primarily on the period 1964 to 1968 rather than read serious studies of the war. This book explains events from 1968 to 1973.
After the 1968 Tet offensive General Creighton Abrams replaced General William C. Westmoreland. Why? American military and political leaders had lost faith in Westmoreland’s vision of the war. The “body count” “search and destroy” tactics failed.
Abrams brought a clearer understanding of the nature of the war. He believed that the security of each hamlet and village was important to success. He emphasized company-level vice brigade-level operations, “clear and hold” vice “search and destroy” integrating South Vietnamese police, military and political arms into his operations at all levels.
While reading the book I could not help but compare what Sorely had written 20 years ago with the tactics used by Generals Petraeus and Odierno in Iraq over the past 4 years. Clearly someone in the Pentagon, was studying history, and putting the right lessons to work.
The book is divided neatly into stand-alone chapters if one wants to skip around. Though 507 pages long, the narrative is 388 pages with the balance glossary, notes, bibliography and index. While this is a scholarly work, those familiar with the subject should have no difficulty understanding the historical events. A glossary is provided for those unfamiliar with military terms. This book suffers from a lack of maps and a list of the major players would help. The author’s over use of italics is also annoying.
Despite shortfalls, this book explains the military-political-civilian operational thinking and results post 1968 Tet that led to battlefield victories. Sadly these came too late to satisfy congress and the American public disenchanted with pre1968 failures. The book is important for understanding changes in Iraq war fighting since General Petraeus took command. The similarities could not be accidental.