Many books have been written about the Vietnam War over the years. This, by Ian Gardner, a British reservist paratrooper, focuses on a specific American paratroop unit’s experiences in Vietnam for a 12 month period between November 1967 and October 1968. As such, it’s not an analysis of the geo-political issues surrounding the War, rather a narrative of what it was like to fight the Viet Cong in the jungles and rice paddy fields of South Vietnam.
The book focuses on Third Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of 101th Airborne Division – the legendary “Screaming Eagles”of World War 2 fame – their re-formation and subsequent deployment to Vietnam. After a very short context setting geo-political introduction, the first few chapters deal with the unit’s standing up and training before deployment. Gardner also uses the first few chapters to introduce the key players in the Battalion, the more senior of which had served in the US Airborne in WW2 and the Korean War. That experience was supplemented by raw volunteers, in many cases fresh out of training and West Point. The result was an untested unit, pitched into a complex and flowing conflict against a brutal enemy.
The main body of the book covers the “search and destroy” and ambush patrols in South Vietnam, designed to stop North Vietnamese Army infiltration, where pre-deployment training is tested to the full by the unforgiving terrain, the permanent humidity and monsoon rain, the carry weight of weapons and ammunition that the paratroopers have to move with, and a callous and canny enemy. Similar tactics to the “hearts and minds” campaign waged by the British in the Malayan jungle, were employed by the Americans initially, attempting to influence villagers and local land people to the South Vietnam cause, by the provision of food and medical support. However, as the War dragged on, and the North Vietnamese probed further south into South Vietnam, with the confusion that often occurs in the “fog of war”, that tactic became ever more difficult for the Americans. There were many instances of innocent Vietnamese people being killed as the fighting became fragmented. The narrative is very much pitched by Gardner at the front line, with descriptions of platoon patrols, the Adrenalin rushes of contact and the misery of seeing friends and colleagues wounded, maimed or killed. And the inevitable disciplinary issues when taken out of the line and exposed to alcohol and South Vietnamese women. The book is earthy, gritty and not for the faint hearted!
As much time is spent by Gardner on the individual personalities making up the unit, a particularly enjoyable aspect of this book is the catch up on what happened to many of the participants after the unit returned from Vietnam. The stigma of having fought in an unpopular war made for a difficult return to the US for many of them.
The book is accompanied by some useful and detailed maps – vital for the narrative in a confused and undulating conflict, with many unusual and similar place names – and some great colour and black and white photographs, which convey well the nature of the terrain and fighting.
A useful addition to the vast library of books on the US intervention in Vietnam, it provides the reader with a down to earth perspective of one unit’s fight in a conflict, where the rules of engagement changed constantly, and the purpose of ridding South Vietnam of Communist incursion often seemed unachievable for the young paratroopers of Third Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.