Book review: The rise and fall of an American Army


To what extent was Vietnam a struggle between insurgents and counterinsurgents and to what extent was it a conventional war between the US and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)?

With the recent imbroglio in Iraq it became fashionable to make comparisons with Vietnam and depict that war as a counterinsurgency. Shelby Stanton disagrees with the latter view, saying the commitment of US and NVA main units from 1965 onwards made the war increasingly conventional. “During 1967 the year of big battles, the war was a standard contest between national armies using conventional tactics,” he says in his conclusion.

He also notes the war ended with a conventional invasion of the South in 1975, rendering years of struggle and pontificating on “winning the hearts and minds” of the populace irrelevant. In using Vietnam as a yardstick for current analysis, it is useful to know what that conflict was and was not.

The rise and fall of an American Army is, in Stanton’s words a battlefield history of US ground forces in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, the years the US Army and Marines respectively arrived and departed. The book examines those significant military factors that affected unit performance, such as the draft, individual one-year tours of duty and the “body count”. It largely ignores the political context of the war and makes scant mention of the South Vietnamese. Rather, it catalogues US operations, from “Starlite” and “Harvest Moon” in 1965 to “Dewey Canyon” in 1973, giving a good account of trhe forces involved and the outcomes. As such it is a very handy reference work.

In his foreword, Colonel Harry Summers, the man who in 1973 told a North Vietnamese counterpart that the US was never defeated on the battlefield, and who received the pithy reply “that may be so, but it is irrelevant”, reminded the reader of the maxim that “at the end of the most grandiose plans and strategies is a soldier walking point.” He adds: “One of the terrible tragedies of the Vietnam War was that the reverse of that saying also proved to be true. No matter how bravely or how well the soldier on point did his job, if the plans and strategies were faulty, all the courage and bloodshed was for naught.” Certainly a suitable epitaph for that war.

Shelby Stanton

The rise and fall of an American Army

Spa Books

Stevenage, Hertfordshire