A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

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9780151002665: A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

Neglected by scholars and journalists alike, the years of conflict in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975 offer surprises not only about how the war was fought, but about what was achieved. Drawing on authoritative materials not previously available, including thousands of hours of tape-recorded allied councils of war, award-winning military historian Lewis Sorley has given us what has long been needed-an insightful, factual, and superbly documented history of these important years. Among his findings is that the war was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress. The story is a great human drama of purposeful and principled service in the face of an agonizing succession of lost opportunities, told with uncommon understanding and compassion. Sorley documents the dramatic differences in conception, conduct, and-at least for a time-results between the early and the later war. Meticulously researched and movingly told, A Better War is sure to stimulate controversy as it sheds brilliant new light on the war in Vietnam.

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Review:

There was a moment when the United States had the Vietnam War wrapped up, writes military historian Lewis Sorley (biographer of two Vietnam-era U.S. Army generals, Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson). "The fighting wasn't over, but the war was won," he says in this convention-shaking book. "This achievement can probably best be dated in late 1970." South Vietnam was ready to carry on the battle without American ground troops and only logistical and financial support. Sorley says that replacing General Westmoreland with Abrams in 1968 was the key. "The tactics changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams's taking command," remarked one officer. Abrams switched the war aims from destruction to control; he was less interested in counting enemy body bags than in securing South Vietnam's villages.

A Better War is unique among histories of the Vietnam War in that it focuses on the second half of the conflict, roughly from Abrams's arrival to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Other volumes, such as Stanley Karnow's Vietnam and Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, tend to give short shrift to this period. Sorley shows how the often-overlooked Abrams strategy nearly succeeded--indeed, Sorley says it did succeed, at least until political leadership in the United States let victory slip away. Sorley cites other problems, too, such as low morale among troops in the field, plus the harmful effects of drug abuse, racial disharmony, and poor discipline. In the end, the mighty willpower of Abrams and diplomatic allies Ellsworth Bunker and William Colby was not enough. But, with its strong case that they came pretty close to winning, A Better War is sure to spark controversy. --John J. Miller

From the Author:

How A Better War Came to Be Written: When General Creighton W. Abrams returned in 1972 to become Army Chief of Staff, he brought with him certain highly classified materials relating to his service in Vietnam. Then when, in the autumn of 1974, Abrams died while still in office, his successor, General Frederick C. Weyand, ordered that these materials be sequestered, with both their existence and location treated as classified information. Eventually, however, I learned of these materials from sources in the Army hierarchy who were friendly to my work. With the invaluable help of the Army's Chief of Military History, I was granted access to the "Abrams Special Collection" by the Army Chief of Staff (coincidentally the only Armor officer other than General Abrams to have held that post). After certain other agencies sharing a security interest in the materials concurred, I commenced research in these holdings. Thus began what turned out to be a year-long endeavor. The collection was housed in a secure facility at Carlisle Barracks, some two hours from where I resided. Beginning in May 1994 I departed home at 5:30 a.m. each Monday morning, getting to Carlisle Barracks by the time the vault opened for the day's business. There I typically spent a ten-hour day working with the materials until the vault closed in late afternoon. In the evenings I used the fine library of the U.S. Army War College, also located at Carlisle Barracks. My home away from home for each week was a modest but friendly motel frequented primarily by drivers of eighteen-wheeler trucking rigs. Friday evenings I would, after the day's work, make my way back home. This routine continued for an entire year of weekdays, interrupted only by holidays and other occasions on which the vault was not open, and by a one-week respite for our family's annual beach outing. The heart of the collection turned out to be 455 tape recordings made at Headquarters, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, during the four years General Abrams was in command. Of the old reel-to-reel variety, these tapes ran two to six hours in length, and I used up or wore out three ancient machines in the process of screening them all. Keeping these machines limping along or finding successors when they finally collapsed was no small part of the process. In the final weeks the last machine was kept going only through use of a wooden jig, inserted to hold the worn-out play lever in place. Listening to these tapes and making handwritten single-spaced notes that eventually ran to nearly 3,200 pages was a laborious and time-consuming process, but also a fascinating one, for I never knew what the next tape would reveal. What emerged was a portrait of a senior commander and his closest associates-something like Napoleon and his marshals-working together to prosecute a complex and challenging military campaign in an equally complex and difficult political context. The interchanges were candid, spirited, often funny, and included not only what were called the Weekly Intelligence Estimate Updates-Saturday morning sessions held at MACV Headquarters-but also many sessions conducted for such visitors as the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, and consultant Sir Robert Thompson. In May 1995, almost exactly a year after I began, my screening of these materials was complete. It took most of another year to get the notes through the mandatory declassification review process by the Army, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Even so I needed the absolutely invaluable assistance of three senior officers who are also valued and long-time friends to reach a favorable outcome.

Once the cleared notes had been returned to me, it took over two months of more or less non-stop work to enter them-nearly 835,000 words in all-in a computer. Many other public records and private recollections yielded valuable research material. Over the past decade and a half I have interviewed about 500 people, many of them repeatedly, for this book and the two preceding biographies of Generals Creighton Abrams and Harold K. Johnson, some of them repeatedly, and worked my way through the papers of both men. Now, however, I was privileged to be the first researcher ever granted access to the fascinating, authentic, and extensive collection of materials on these tapes. Each day brought something new, and in the aggregate the story that emerged provided many new insights and much significant evidence concerning conduct of the war during the later years by Abrams, Bunker and Colby. It was a treasure trove indeed, so much so that it is my intention to publish an extensive volume of excerpts from the notes I compiled, thereby making available to other researchers the most interesting and historically significant portions of this rich historical record.

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