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Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

A Review of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 20, 2016

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a NightmarePol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book very engaging. While it is not a “true” biography of Pol Pot, in that this isn’t what the entire book is about, the book is instead a study on twentieth century Cambodia, its politics, culture, international manipulations, military struggles, and yet, to a certain degree, one Saloth Sar, aka Pol Pot.

I have read a number of biographies of Pol Pot now, as well as studies on 1970s Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and just what happened between 1975 and early 1979, and I am currently reading a book on S-21, Pol Pot’s infamous “interrogation” center (ie, torture and extermination center) located at the former school, Tuol Sleng. It’s difficult reading. Suffice it to say, I have never read anything more unbelievable in my entire life! That these atrocities could be committed by multiple leaders for generations and that the entire culture of Cambodia would permit this to occur without complaint, to accept genocide as a way of life/death is incomprehensible to me. To try and understand how Pol Pot and his fellow former school teacher colleagues could be so utterly ruthless and so completely naïve, stupid, paranoid, and utterly inept is almost beyond belief. To think that after fighting a five year civil war against a US-backed ruthless Cambodian government, on the first day of their victory in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emptied all cities, towns, and villages within 24-48 hours, completely, totally, is surreal. To think they would ban money, markets, education, religion, personal names, families, even laughter, upon pain of “disappearing” one night and being shot is so insane, it almost makes one crazy trying to understand it at all. Imagine living in New York City or Los Angeles and being told after a largely welcome revolutionary victory that you have 24-48 hours to leave all you have, walk out of the city, and go to the countryside to begin working as agricultural workers (they weren’t even told this much), or you will be shot by ten year old children wearing black pajamas carrying AK-47s. Try to picture that. Try to picture NYC and LA totally empty in two days. Except for the dead bodies. Try to picture the anarchy on the roads and kids in black pajamas with big guns herding you along to God knows where with no food or drink, people falling down dead due to malnutrition, hunger, disease, etc. Not knowing where their family is, where their spouses or kids are. Seeing everyone wearing eyeglasses taken away and shot because all such people “must” be intellectuals, who are naturally anti-revolutionary, and therefore must pay the ultimate price. Picture that. Picture 14,00-20,000 people going through S-21 in three years with only seven to 12 surviving to tell their tale, only possibly a dozen alive out of all of those people. This is Cambodia for three plus years in the 1970s. And this was the government that the US government backed, solely because they were anti-Vietnamese. And after the Vietnamese invaded and threw Pol Pot out in 1979, and he escaped to Thailand, he stayed and rebuilt his army and fought in northwest Cambodia with US aid until the late 1990s when he died a natural death, even though the entire world knew of his fucking genocide! Our own government has Cambodian blood on its hands and it’s fucking disgusting!

Yes, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed more people than Pol Pot did. But Pol Pot killed a much higher percentage of his people than any of those men did, his own people, and most likely, more than any man in history ever has. He was responsible for the deaths of over one and a half million people, up to one fourth of Cambodia’s population! Think about that. One fourth of your country is wiped out by one man and his insane, secretive regime. In three years. And for what? No one knows. There’s no good reason. To create some sort of completely imaginary neo-Marxist society that bears no resemblance to Marxism at all. The Khmer Rouge were the most inept Marxists in world history, barely able to understand basic concepts like class consciousness, or even what the proletariat is. It was not these concepts that brought them to power, nor even served as the mechanism behind Tuol Sleng.

The fact is that the Khmer Rouge was a total nightmare, but one brought about by many entities. The stupefying US bombardment of Cambodia is probably the most probable reason for the Khmer Rouge’s vicious and fast rise to power. The US, France, Vietnam, the USSR, and China — all of these countries brought about the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and especially in the case of China and America, catered to the exiled Pol Pot throughout the eighties and the nineties, even after the full horror of his genocide was made obvious. The next time someone talks to you about Reagan, America’s hero, make sure they know that under his watch, we kept this group of mass murderers armed for years. Simply because we and the Khmer Rouge shared one longtime enemy: Vietnam. Unreal.

And where does Pol Pot figure in his own biography? As an average, unambitious student, not good enough to get into the best schools, yet an early French and then Indochinese Communist, good enough to rise in the ranks. Good enough to take control of the Cambodian party in 1960, although the party remained hidden and unknown. And no one knew who he was, except for the few at the top with him. He remained a secret, an enigma, even after the Khmer Rouge attained power, not coming out into the public eye until close to a year and a half later. He gave interviews to two western journalists during his lifetime, both American, both during his time in power. They didn’t learn much, but they learned to fear him and his regime. And yet, even though he was “Brother Number One,” by the time of his death in 1997, his body was thrown onto a rubbish heap with a pile of tires and burned. No one ever got their vengeance. No one. Once, late in his life, he was asked if he knew how many deaths he was responsible for. He said a hundred or so. He said it would have been fewer, but some “mistakes” had been made. He had no grasp on reality. I don’t think he ever did. I think he was completely mad his entire life. His wife went mad. Maybe his madness drove her over the edge. No one will ever know, but that’s my theory, for what it’s worth.

Today, Cambodia is still struggling to recover. It still has problems. It’s still an uneducated, agrarian society. It needs help. Who will help the Cambodians? It would be nice if some of the countries that used that country so willingly and brutally during the twentieth century stepped up to the plate. It would be good if Cambodia could survive and one day thrive. They say it is beautiful there, or at least once was. It would be nice to work to regain some of that.

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A Review of Brother Number One

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 18, 2016

Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol PotBrother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot by David P. Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first “review” I read when I came across reviews for Brother Number One was one by “Annie,” which stated, “More objective, non-sensational and honest than than ‘Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare’.” Funny, having finished both books now, I couldn’t agree with that statement less. I’ll get to the Nightmare book in another review (I think it’s an excellent book), but Brother Number One is for this one. It’s an interesting book. Since this is the “political biography of Pol Pot,” a mysterious man who I have wanted to know something of for quite some time, I thought this book would help me. And in a way, it did. But only in a way. For this book was published in 1992, five years before Pol’s death in 1997. It’s therefore an incomplete work. Moreover, and more importantly by far, the author claims that the subject is so very mysterious and so little is known about him and he has hidden himself in shrouds of mystery, at times for many years at a time, that it’s impossible to know anything of his whereabouts for years at a time. So that gives the author free reign to speculate as much as he wants, and boy, does he do that. First, he includes everything he possibly can about Pol’s, or Saloth Sar – as he was known most of his life – upbringing, including his childhood in a country village, to his upbringing with a brother and other relatives in the king’s palace, essentially, to his French education, first in Cambodia, then later as an elite student, in Paris where he became a communist, most likely around 1951. We learn of his return to Cambodia in the mid-50s, his rise in the Indochinese Communist Party, his helping to form the Cambodian Communist Party in 1960, his dealings with the Vietnamese, whom he needed yet always resented, his dealings with the Chinese, his resentment toward the French, toward the Cambodian monarchy, toward the US, his paranoia, his marriage, etc. But whole years are eliminated in this book. His whereabouts are claimed to be unknown. But that doesn’t stop the author, who begins numerous sentences with things such as, “It would be interesting to suppose,” or “One might assume,” or “It might be possible to guess,” etc, et al. If I had a dollar for every time the author speculates about Pol’s thoughts, feelings, or motives, I would be a wealthy man. Because that is all the author can do. He can only guess. There is very little recorded documentation at all, anywhere. The Vietnamese have some. The Chinese have some. Pol conducted some interviews in the late 1970s. Other than that, little accounts for the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s.

The author relies on numerous interviews for this book, but I’m assuming, as he often does, as Pol was still alive while the book was being written, that so many interviewees were aware of that fact and were scared to death of him, that few of them were willing to share many details of him or say many negative things about him. For instance, many of his secondary and college classmates were interviewed. He was known as a mediocre student, at best, but seemed to be liked by most. He had a pleasant smile, a decent laugh, and people differ on his effect on people and groups. Some say he had no influence on the Parisian communist groups, while others say he played a leading role. As a teacher in the 1950s, even though he never came close to completing his degree, he was known as a wise and good teacher, patient, well spoken, thoughtful, etc. The image doesn’t jibe with the genocidal maniac of the 1970s.

In fact, it’s hard to reconcile any image of him, pre-1970 or so, until 1975 really, when he started coming out of the woodworks and into the public eye. When he became public circa 1976, it was a shocker. No one knew who he was. He was alleged to have been a rubber plantation worked named “Pol Pot,” but when former colleagues saw him on TV making speeches, they knew at once he was Saloth Sar, the former teacher, childhood friend of the king and themselves, and they were shocked. How could this kind, good man be their new revolutionary prime minister, responsible for the deaths of a half a million people in the civil war which had just ended in 1975, and unbeknownst to anyone, about to become responsible for the deaths of one and a half million people in a probable genocide of epic proportions over the next three years? That’s over one fifth of the country’s population. Yes, Mao and Stalin killed many more people, but there were many, many more people to kill from. They didn’t kill one fifth of their country’s population. So, this was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

And the sweeping changes. Doing away with money. I mean, what the hell??? Emptying the cities? Seriously? Driving everyone out into the countryside, no matter where you were from or where your relatives were. Who cared if you lived or died? No one. Least of all the 12 and 13-year old Khmer Rouge soldiers. Illiterate peasant boys who couldn’t even read passports that were expected to be presented at all times. It was insane. Doing away with virtually all exports except for rice, and then if/when the rice crop fell through, what the hell happens to your country then? And the “base” people versus the “new” people. If you weren’t fighting with the revolutionaries when they “liberated” Cambodia in 1975, you were a “new” person, meaning you weren’t one of them, meaning you were an enemy combatant. Even if you were a peasant refugee who had merely fled to the city to escape the countryside fighting and had no irons in the fire one way or the other. You were the enemy.

S-21. It was the torture/interrogation center. Every communist regime has one, right? Hell, every regime of any sort has one. We have Guantanamo. The French had theirs too. S-21 was a former school. Over 20,000 people were processed through there in the three plus years it existed. Unless my facts have gotten jumbled up, and they may have, only about a half dozen people survived. All were tortured extensively, confessions of up to thousands of pages extracted, and all were killed, most brutally. The confessions typically said the person was a CIA agent, a KGB agent, and a Vietnamese agent. That the likelihood of one Cambodian person being all three, let alone any of these, was absurd as hell appeared to not have sunk in to Pol Pot and his colleagues. It made perfect sense to them that the Russians, their Vietnamese protégés, and the US, whom the Khmer Rouge believed they had defeated militarily in 1975 and who they thought had it out for them and was willing to work with its adversaries, would all be working together. Insanity sees reason everywhere.

This book is only 250 pages long, less than half as long as Nightmare is. It’s not nearly as detailed or in depth. It’s not nearly as well researched nor as well written. It relies far too extensively on speculation; at least 70% of the book is nothing but speculation. But as an introduction to Pol Pot, it’s an interesting book. I would suggest that, if it’s read, it’s read with this information in mind and then one would immediately read something more recent, ideally written after Pol’s death, such as Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, which as I said, I think is an excellent book and which I hope to review soon. It relies on speculation almost not at all. One of the things that struck me most about Pol, the man, was that in one of these books, and I can’t remember which, sorry, he was asked if he knew how many people his administration was responsible for killing after he had been deposed. His answer was somewhere between several hundred and several thousand and that was because he had been kept out of the loop, or it would have been fewer than that. Stunning, really. Interesting to know if he really believed that or not. Somehow I doubt it. But there does seem to be evidence that he was actually kept out of the loop on a lot of the executions and that many of the “zones” were self sufficient and didn’t really report much back to headquarters and communications were so bad that it could take weeks or more to communicate by messenger, so by that time, things would have happened with or without permission. So things happened. How much was due to Pol? I guess we’ll never know. Of course, since Pol set the tone, ultimately it was all his responsibility. Everything and everyone was ultimately under his control. Anyone who displeased him was purged. He had complete control. Virtually all of his old communist colleagues from Paris and the old days in early communist Cambodia were purged to ensure his power. So, if he thought anyone were abusing their authority by acting genocidal without his permission, he could have done something about it. And he didn’t. So, obviously, the buck stopped with him.

So, I could go on and on, obviously. But I won’t. I’ve got to save some stuff to say for my next Pol Pot book. I learned a lot about a bizarre, incredibly secretive, insane man, responsible for the deaths of millions of people. It was surreal to read about, because this occurred during my lifetime and I remember a great deal of this, although of course not personally, obviously. The book itself is interesting, but for reasons already mentioned, not very good. Even though the author probably tried hard, he didn’t try hard enough. It’s probably a two star book at best, but I believe I’m going to give it three stars for effort because it’s one of the early Pol Pot books and it did make an impact of Pol Pot research, so that’s worth something. Still, it can’t be relied upon on its own. It’s not that trustworthy. It’s got to be supplemented by something more current in its research, so keep that in mind. I’m really not sure that I can recommend it. I can suggest reading it if interested in the subject matter, but only if you intend to read more than one source on the subject. If you intend to read only one book on Pol Pot, don’t let this be that source. It’s not reliable enough.

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A Review of What The Dormouse Said

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 21, 2015

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer IndustryWhat the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a fascinating history of personal computing in America, most specifically in Northern California, most especially in the Stanford region. I swear, I had no idea that Stanford played such a strategic role in the development of the personal computer.

The book attempts to tie together nerdie engineers with counterculture LSD druggies with free love types with antiwar activists with students with hackers and the mix is considerably hard to pull off, even for a writer as accomplished as Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy’s SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.

Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer — this was the 1960s — that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers — laptops of today — that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!

Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it’s nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it’s he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late ’60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn’t. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren’t overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn’t the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff’s stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended.

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A Review of The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1963-1973

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 19, 2014

The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1963-1973The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1963-1973 by Shelby L. Stanton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This could have been an interesting book if the author hadn’t gotten so bogged down in minute details. It’s about the American military in Vietnam, circa 65-73, and it’s pretty comprehensive, at least through 1969. One of its faults, though, is that it spends an inordinate amount of time going over each year of the 1960s and then lumps all of the 1970s into one final chapter. It’s like the author gave up, just like the military did. Another fault I found was that the author made the US military out to be virtually unbeatable and told countless stories of us giving the VC and NVA beatdowns in the jungle, which didn’t actually happen all that often. He’s really gung ho about the US military and it’s just not authentic. He does go into detail on Tet ’68 and the US did win the battles of Tet, but we lost the war then and there — the war of public opinion — and from that moment on, we tried everything possible to extract ourselves from Vietnam and turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, who were worthless as fighters. Granted, I didn’t necessarily want to read an entire book of battlefield failures, but it should have been more balanced and it wasn’t. Another — major — bone I have to pick with the author is that he went on and on about the specific US, VC, and NVA units engaged in battle, to the point where it was simply mind numbing. Witness:

“Kontum was also struck early on January 30 and the 24th NVA Regiment, the 304th VC Battalion and the 406th Sapper Battalion crashed into the MACV compound, post office, airfield, and 24th ARVN Special Tactical Zone headquarters…. The initial assault was met by two Montagnard scout companies, which were rapidly brushed aside, and the 2d Battalion of the 42d ARVN Regiment, which fell back…. At noon the Americans rustled up the ground crews of the aerial 7th Squadron, 17th Calvary, fused them with the 1st Battalion of the 22d Infantry, and gave them tanks from Company C of the 1st Battalion, 69th Armor….”

Oh my freakin’ God!!! And on and on he drones. It’s a real snoozer. If the author had just said some soldiers and Marines were fighting the enemy, he could have shortened the book and made it a lot more readable. Only mega-history geeks will like this because it’s mind numbingly boring.

The author also kind of goes elitist on us. He attributes our loss to the draft, specifically to drafting poor men from racially diverse backgrounds, many of whom were allegedly on drugs. “By 1969 the US soldier in Vietnam usually represented the poorer and less educated segments of American society. He was often being led by middle-class officers and inexperienced sergeants, creating a wide gap between attitudes, abilities, and motivation.” Poor, inexperienced men on one year rotations just wanted to get home alive and stopped fighting, per the author. I really think Stanton thinks we could have beaten the NVA if we had kept fighting an offensive war without one year rotations. I don’t believe that, but I think he does.

I did enjoy reading about the various battles, but Stanton had this annoying habit of slimming them down to five sentence paragraphs, which obviously left a lot out, and then incredibly just jumping right into another conflict with no real transition visible. It’s bizarre!

I am giving this book three stars because I’m interested in the subject matter, but it’s a poorly written book that will bore the hell out of most people. As such, it really deserves a two star rating and I certainly can’t recommend it at all.

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A Review of Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 17, 2013

Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen GiapVictory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap by Cecil B. Currey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cecil B. Currey’s book on Vo Nguyen Giap is an utterly excellent book! It’s gripping, engaging, provides historical context, contains essential quotes, and shows Giap to be the logistical, tactical, and strategic genius he was as a general leading North Vietnam to defeat the Japanese, the French, the US, the South Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Chinese. No one else has done so much with so little. I’m going to reprint my review for Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren (a book I read a few months ago…) in its entirety here, because I think many of the same things can be said about this book. Read on.

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the North Vietnamese mastermind who defeated the French and American superpowers over 30 years in what was previously an unthinkable possibility — that countries with so so much more military and economic power could lose to an underdeveloped third world country. And yet it happened. (Also, Giap had to battle the Japanese toward the end of World War Two.)

Giap came from humble beginnings — a history professor turned professional solider from the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. He was self taught. Aside from Hi Chi Minh, Giap was probably North Vietnam’s most important figure. He learned communism from Ho and never strayed. He learned how to battle from the Chinese and adapted what he learned to the Vietnamese battlefield. When the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu to end the French colonial war with what was then Indochina, he showed that he had mastered guerrilla tactics as well as conventional war strategies, and these carried over to the American war. He was also a master at logistics. It took months for the Vietminh to carry broken down parts of artillery pieces up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, where they were then assembled and used with devastating success. Another strength Giap possessed was learning that the political counted as much as the military. He indoctrinated his soldiers, the Vietnamese peasants, and won a war of attrition against both France and America — both countries, he knew, that wouldn’t have the stomach for a protracted war. He was right. Now he took horrifying losses throughout both wars. When all was said and done, the NVA and Vietminh lost over a million soldiers (to America’s 56,000), but he knew that a country united in revolution against colonialism was destined for victory. He never lacked in confidence. The Tet offensive was, of course, the turning point in the Vietnam war with America. Looked at it militarily, the US won, giving the NVA and Viet Cong horrifying casualties, but strategically, North Vietnam won because America now wanted out and started the process of withdrawing troops and halting the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get to the negotiating table — a place where America had no leverage.

The author makes some good points in his final chapter in this excellent book.

“The power of the US military machine posted immense challenges to Giap as a commander. He knew that the conflict would result in horrific losses, but he also realized that those causalities were the inevitable cost of victory, and neither the reality of those casualties, as regrettable as they were, nor the destructive capacity of American forces, would prove to be decisive factors in the war’s outcome…. Giap was first and foremost a revolutionary war strategist, which is to say he conceived of war primarily as a social struggle by people committed to breaking down the status quo and replacing it with a new set of power relationships and institutions, not as a strictly military activity carried out by full-time soldiers and guerrillas…. the work of building a powerful political infrastructure that could challenge French and American efforts was far more important than achieving victory in a series of conventional military battles and campaigns…. He also believed that he could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the French and American armies by avoiding large-scale combat engagements in favor of harassing tactics, including ambushes, booby traps, and luring the enemy into patrolling forbidding mountainous terrain and steamy jungles where his own troops were more at home.”

“Giap never doubted that the power of his soldiers’ and citizen’s commitment to the Vietnamese revolutionary vision would compensate for the inferiority of their military forces. It was only necessary to instill the same level of belief and determination he himself possessed for the cause into the Revolution as a whole, and to direct that energy toward victory…. When all is said and done, Giap’s enduring importance lies in recognizing that he was a successful general largely because he could see with extraordinary clarity all the factors and forces that shaped the trajectory of the wars in which he fought, and how each element related to all the others.”

Giap then, who might still be alive at over 100 years old, was the instrumental commander that foresaw victory and instilled that vision in his troops and citizens. He was Ho’s second, and as such, wielded great power. He built his army up from a tiny platoon in 1945 to hundreds of thousands of hardened troops by war’s end. When the NVA rolled into Saigon in 1975, the revolution was complete and Vietnam was reunited. Communist, yes, but under no colonial authority for the first time in over a century. It was a mighty struggle, and even though I’m an American, I’ve studied this war for decades and have seen how American stupidity lost us the war — which we could have won with the right strategies and leadership, I believe. Giap’s commitment never wavered. He should be looked at as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. I can’t think of a single instance in which a tiny, impoverished, technically backwards country defeated two of the world’s superpowers within two to three decades of each other. His legacy will live on for a long time. This was an excellent book to read and I certainly recommend it to any military buff or historian, or to anyone interested in the Vietnam war. Great book!

______________________________________________________

Well, that’s what I wrote about the previous book, and the same holds true for this one. The thing that separates them, I think, is Currey actually got to interview Giap for this book. It made it more compelling. There was more narrative and a lot more on actual thought patterns and secrets behind North Vietnam’s successes. I also didn’t know that Giap whipped China when China invaded in 1979. Truly amazing. After Ho died, though, the Politburo demoted him several times over the years, and that was disgraceful for the founder of that country’s army and leader of victorious military campaigns. Still, he handled himself with grace and dignity and while he wasn’t always the most likeable person in the world, you can’t come away from this book without some sort of admiration for the man. Truly one of the greatest generals in history. Recommended.

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A Review of Brennan’s War

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 6, 2013

Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965-1969 by Matthew Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wasn’t a bad book. In fact, it was fairly engrossing. It was fast paced and I read it in a day. The narrative is written so that it’s like a series of very short stories, mostly about the action Brennan encountered in Vietnam, where he served for four years. He signed back up for extended tours of duty twice because he couldn’t readjust to civilian society. Kind of sad.

He was with the 9th Armored Air Cav, in a unit called The Blues, which he paints as some kind of super-macho, better than Special Forces unit, which didn’t sit well with me. He was an artilleryman, an infantryman, and he wasn’t part of Special Forces. Still, he claimed to have taken part in over 419 battles of varying sizes, most recon or rescue missions.

Funny, but he seemed to think we were wiping the NVA/VC off the map until Tet, when he finally seemed to get a minor clue. His unit was near Hue during the fighting, but he didn’t actually engage them too much. Hue seems to be the turning point for him.

When he went back to the States for the second time, he was confronted with hippies and war protestors, which shocked him. Apparently, he wasn’t exposed to what America was going through while he was in the field. When he went back for his third tour, the men had changed to poorly trained, racist, dope smoking losers who he had no respect for, and by the time his tour was up, he’s anxious to get out. Of course, by this time, the NVA had real weapons and was using them to pound the American positions, something that finally got to his nerves.

He details accounts of bravery, but also of atrocities that should have been prosecuted. It’s a good book — it really is. The only reason I’m downgrading it from five stars to four is with the way he described his unit and their fighting prowess, America should have never lost the war. These platoons (platoons!!!) allegedly killed hundreds and thousands of NVA/VC all over the place and the killing never ends until the very end of the book. With soldiers like Brennan and his buddies, how could we have possibly lost this war??? Pretty hard to believe. Perhaps he enjoys taking license with the facts, I don’t know. It was just hard to swallow, knowing what I know. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read and if you want a perspective from a grunt’s view in Vietnam, this isn’t a bad place to start. Cautiously recommended.

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A Review of Hunting the Jackal

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 19, 2013

Hunting the Jackal: A Special Forces and CIA Soldier's Fifty Years on the Frontlines of the War Against TerrorismHunting the Jackal: A Special Forces and CIA Soldier’s Fifty Years on the Frontlines of the War Against Terrorism by Billy Waugh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this somewhat exciting book more stars, but it leaves out too much information to merit it. For instance, the author joins the military in 1947 and apparently fights in Korea, but the first we see of him is in 1965 Vietnam, after he’s joined the Special Forces and is hunting NVA units. There are a couple of exciting, if somewhat unbelievable, tales of his time in Nam, particularly when he thought he might catch Giap (which didn’t happen, obviously). He earned eight Purple Hearts and other assorted medals.

After he leaves the army, as a master sergeant (which is odd, considering the high level talks he allegedly has with colonels and generals), he joins the postal service and is bored stiff. Then, in the mid-70s, he’s recruited to go to Libya to train “elite” commandos for an impending war with Egypt. He’s also recruited by the CIA to take photographs and spy for them. Let me tell you, he doesn’t hold Arabs in high regard.

After skipping ahead to the early 90s, he’s stationed in Khartoum, Sudan where there are apparently tons of terrorists. He comes across “Usama” bin Laden, but he’s such a low level target in 1992, that he doesn’t really think anything of it. Instead, he’s after Carlos the Jackal, the world’s most notorious terrorist. He gets actual pictures of Carlos, the first any have been made of him in 10 years, and then sits in an observation post taking more pictures. We’re supposed to be leading up to an exciting climax here, but we then learn the French have taken Carlos in because they have a warrant, the US doesn’t, and we handed him over to them. It’s REALLY anti-climactic.

Later in the book, he discusses 9/11, but not much. He’s clearly anti-Clinton, and I guess pro-Bush, so there you have it. In 2001/2, at age 72, he joins Special Forces in Afghanistan to hunt the Taliban and bin Laden. He’s amazed by all of the new high tech war weapons, such as drones, and puts forth his belief that bin Laden died from a drone strike. I don’t know when this book was written and I don’t know if the author is still alive, but I’d be interested in hearing his opinion after knowing the facts of bin Laden’s actual demise. This last part of the book leaves you feeling fairly empty though, because nothing happens. Nothing. His Special Forces team occupies a deserted Afghan school. He’s very cold. They smell bad. Ooooh!

There’s almost no background information on Waugh in this book, some of the stories seem exaggerated, he leaves out lots of details because they’re classified (he apparently went to 64 countries as a CIA operative, but talks about three of them), he served, apparently, in Iraq and the Balkans, but we hear nothing about that, just like we hear nothing about Korea. WTF? Why did he pick and choose four or five scenes from his 50 years of combat to share? He could have made this book four times as long and 10 times more interesting if he had chosen to include more information. Oh, he also gets married to a wonderful girl and then we hear nothing more about her. He’s also fairly narcissistic. The soldiers in Afghanistan “worshiped” him. He’s a legend in his own mind. I really wanted to like this book, and parts of it were exciting, yes, but so much is left out that I can’t recommend it at all. I feel like I’m doing the author a favor by giving it three stars…..

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A Review of Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 16, 2013

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in VietnamGiap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the North Vietnamese mastermind who defeated the French and American superpowers over 30 years in what was previously an unthinkable possibility — that countries with so so much more military and economic power could lose to an underdeveloped third world country. And yet it happened. (Also, Giap had to battle the Japanese toward the end of World War Two.)

Giap came from humble beginnings — a history professor turned professional solider from the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. He was self taught. Aside from Hi Chi Minh, Giap was probably North Vietnam’s most important figure. He learned communism from Ho and never strayed. He learned how to battle from the Chinese and adapted what he learned to the Vietnamese battlefield. When the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu to end the French colonial war with what was then Indochina, he showed that he had mastered guerrilla tactics as well as conventional war strategies, and these carried over to the American war. He was also a master at logistics. It took months for the Vietminh to carry broken down parts of artillery pieces up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, where they were then assembled and used with devastating success. Another strength Giap possessed was learning that the political counted as much as the military. He indoctrinated his soldiers, the Vietnamese peasants, and won a war of attrition against both France and America — both countries, he knew, that wouldn’t have the stomach for a protracted war. He was right. Now he took horrifying losses throughout both wars. When all was said and done, the NVA and Vietminh lost over a million soldiers (to America’s 56,000), but he knew that a country united in revolution against colonialism was destined for victory. He never lacked in confidence. The Tet offensive was, of course, the turning point in the Vietnam war with America. Looked at it militarily, the US won, giving the NVA and Viet Cong horrifying casualties, but strategically, North Vietnam won because America now wanted out and started the process of withdrawing troops and halting the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get to the negotiating table — a place where America had no leverage.

The author makes some good points in his final chapter in this excellent book.

“The power of the US military machine posted immense challenges to Giap as a commander. He knew that the conflict would result in horrific losses, but he also realized that those causalities were the inevitable cost of victory, and neither the reality of those casualties, as regrettable as they were, nor the destructive capacity of American forces, would prove to be decisive factors in the war’s outcome…. Giap was first and foremost a revolutionary war strategist, which is to say he conceived of war primarily as a social struggle by people committed to breaking down the status quo and replacing it with a new set of power relationships and institutions, not as a strictly military activity carried out by full-time soldiers and guerrillas…. the work of building a powerful political infrastructure that could challenge French and American efforts was far more important than achieving victory in a series of conventional military battles and campaigns…. He also believed that he could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the French and American armies by avoiding large-scale combat engagements in favor of harassing tactics, including ambushes, booby traps, and luring the enemy into patrolling forbidding mountainous terrain and steamy jungles where his own troops were more at home.”

“Giap never doubted that the power of his soldiers’ and citizen’s commitment to the Vietnamese revolutionary vision would compensate for the inferiority of their military forces. It was only necessary to instill the same level of belief and determination he himself possessed for the cause into the Revolution as a whole, and to direct that energy toward victory…. When all is said and done, Giap’s enduring importance lies in recognizing that he was a successful general largely because he could see with extraordinary clarity all the factors and forces that shaped the trajectory of the wars in which he fought, and how each element related to all the others.”

Giap than, who might still be alive at over 100 years old, was the instrumental commander that foresaw victory and instilled that vision in his troops and citizens. He was Ho’s second, and as such, wielded great power. He built his army up from a tiny platoon in 1945 to hundreds of thousands of hardened troops by war’s end. When the NVA rolled into Saigon in 1975, the revolution was complete and Vietnam was reunited. Communist, yes, but under no colonial authority for the first time in over a century. It was a mighty struggle, and even though I’m an American, I’ve studied this war for decades and have seen how American stupidity lost us the war — which we could have won with the right strategies and leadership, I believe. Giap’s commitment never wavered. He should be looked at as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. I can’t think of a single instance in which a tiny, impoverished, technically backwards country defeated two of the world’s superpowers within two to three decades of each other. His legacy will live on for a long time. This was an excellent book to read and I certainly recommend it to any military buff or historian, or to anyone interested in the Vietnam war. Great book!

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A Review of About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 4, 2013

About Face: The Odyssey of an American WarriorAbout Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior by David H Hackworth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Col. David Hackworth was a true American hero, a real warrior. He enlisted for the Army at age 15, just in time for the close of World War II, where he was stationed in Italy. He learned a lot there before shipping over to Korea to work a couple of stints in that disaster. He earned battlefield commissions and gradually moved up the ranks, but was always an infantryman’s man. He led, he taught, he learned, he thought, he spoke up and pulled no punches (which sometimes got him into trouble) — he was a real work of art.

I first learned of Hackworth when I was reading Soldier of Fortune Magazine back in the 90s and early part of this century. His column would be the last thing in the magazine and it was usually very insightful. Sadly, he died a few years ago and they replaced him with Oliver North, a man I don’t like nearly as much.

Hackworth loved being on the battlefield. He hated the peacetime, with officer’s clubs and parties to attend and papers to shuffle. He wanted to be where the action was.

After Korea, he was sent to Germany for awhile, before shipping off to Vietnam, where he learned a whole lot about the civil war in that country, how the French had lost before we got there, what was behind the Vietnamese people’s thoughts and minds, and how woefully under-prepared our troops were for guerrilla combat. He constantly turned lousy outfits into proud, battle hardened outfits with minimal casualties and pretty good successes. He tried to teach what he learned and knew to others, but others wouldn’t listen. They were trained to fight a “conventional” war in battalion style against countries like Russia on European battlefields. They weren’t prepared for the jungle. One of the first things that Hack learned was

“there was simply no point in taking an objective you had no intention of holding, no point in using men when firepower could do the job. Tuy Hoa’s battlefield may have looked like the hedgerows of Normandy, but if … the taking of such objectives one by one wasn’t ultimately going to lead you anyplace, and if … you were going to abandon each objective after you’d taken it, only to take it again and again and again and again, as the French did before us and as we were doing now — well, it wasn’t worth the life of even a single soldier. I’d learned.”

Another part of his education came in the States:

“Ideally all the training for Vietnam should have taken place in Hawaii or Panama or the Philippines, where the Vietnam-bound soldiers could at the very least clear the difficult acclimatization hurdle. It would have worked well, too, to have each training center geared for a specific region in Vietnam, given that the diversity of battlefields … made the conflict more like four or five different wars. Fort Lewis, for example, for three out of four seasons greatly resembled the Highlands. But to train men there in the winter months was a cruel joke. Yet no Pentagonian would dare try to close the place, even for those few months. Why? Because Fort Lewis was like any other Army camp on Army real estate in the USA: it provided jobs and income for the civilian constituents of senators and congressmen who were invariably running for reelection. Fort Lewis was big business to northwest Washington. Politicians demanded it be used in exchange for their nod on continued military appropriations, and the pussyfooting new breed of statesmen-generals didn’t have the balls, the moral courage, to stand up and say that some things were more urgent, that it as insane to train jungle fighters in the snow. Instead, it was somehow more acceptable to allow badly prepared Willie Lump Lumps to die all over the battlefield, and just go on answering the letters from brokenhearted parents….”

Obviously, Hackworth was becoming disillusioned with Vietnam and the insanity of its being waged by politicians based on statistics based on lies. To ease the public conscience. All a pile of shit. For Hackworth, the

“Cambodian exercise was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me about the war in Vietnam and the direction America was heading. Militarily the operation was correct: a basic rule of counterinsurgency is to deny the insurgent a sanctuary …. But what was wrong with it, besides the fact that it came five years too late … was that the way it was done violated all the principles the United States of America, the country I loved and soldiered for, was built on. Cambodia was a NEUTRAL country. Our incursion, at this time in the war, with no prior notice to the fledgling Lon Nol government or even to our ambassador to Cambodia, was not, to my mind, any different from the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. In my estimation the exercise was an immoral, ill-thought-out venture, and one that would prove to be both an expensive tactical donnybrook and an irreparable strategic defeat.”

Wow! Strong words. I wonder what he thought about Bush’s invasion of sovereign Iraq? I need to look up some old Soldier of Fortune magazines and find out. This is true! This is right on. And this did it for him. America’s most decorated living soldier essentially gave up. He couldn’t take it any longer. He agreed to be interviewed for a tell all television program, and gave interviews to organizations like Newsweek, all with the agreement that nothing would be published until after his retirement in two months. So naturally, the Christian Science Monitor published an interview and everyone followed along behind, putting him on the run around the world. He was followed and monitored and threatened with court martial and the end of the book reads like a spy thriller, but ultimately, he was allowed to retire, dignity intact, and he moved to Australia, where he wrote this book in the late 80s.

In his epilogue, Hackworth takes a number of positions on a number of topics, speculating about America’s future involvement in places like Latin America, about the military’s continued poor training, about the absolute waste of billions of dollars on trash equipment, like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and tanks and other assorted things. (He raged throughout the book about the inadequacies of the M-16 rifle.) He writes,

“Today’s soldiers … are being placed in great jeopardy by the weapons and equipment now being issued from on high. Given the scandals and the resulting publicity that have rocked the Pentagon in recent times, it is not difficult to see why: the US military’s procurement system is out of control. Still, the bottom line of the whole business is simply this: the United States buys too many weapons it doesn’t need, pays too much for what it gets, what it gets does not do the right job where in counts — on the battlefield — and men’s lives are being risked unnecessarily.”

He ends this 900 page beast of a book by writing, the “United States must shape up. It is a great country with a great heritage; it has set a good example in the past and it can do so in the future, if only it begins to choose its battles carefully and makes sure its causes are right. It is time to reduce the military machine that has broken the back of the nation’s economy, and begin to rebuild the industrial plant that made us great.” This book was very inspirational to read. It bogs down at places with repetitive stories, mostly about the Korean conflict, but is full of insight and passion. I strongly recommend it to history buffs and military fans, as well as the general reader. You stand to learn a lot.

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A Review of Ho Chi Minh: A Life

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 25, 2013

Ho Chi Minh: A LifeHo Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been fascinated by Ho Chi Minh, one of history’s most mysterious yet prominent figures. I’ve read what little there is on him over the years, and then finally came across this book, William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life. What a thoroughly researched and detailed book! Duiker does a truly admirable job of piecing together information from archives and sources from all over the world to give us the best possible picture of Ho, and he does it in a reasonably objective way.

Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19th, 1890 with the given name, Nguyen Sinh Cung, to a Confucian scholar in the Nghe An province of Annam, part of French Indochina, a colonial territory. Duiker writes a great deal about the history of Vietnam, how it had been conquered and occupied for centuries (much of it by the Chinese) and how the 20th Century Indochinese resented their French occupiers for many legitimate, assorted reasons. As young Cung was about to enter adolescence, his father gave him a new name – something customarily done then – Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning “he who will succeed.” Thanh learned Chinese and Confucian history. He also started being influenced by displaced nationalists who wanted to see an independent Vietnam. However, Thanh felt it important to first understand their oppressors, so he began studying French and the French culture at a Franco-Vietnamese preparatory school in Vinh. Thanh’s attitudes about the French were also no doubt influenced by his father, who despised the imperial government the French allowed to rule over the three sections of Indochina.

In 1907, Thanh enrolled in National Academy, the highest level Franco-Vietnamese school in Hue, the imperial capital. He learned French, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but he was considered somewhat of a country bumpkin by his peers. Still, Thanh’s patriotic instincts were stoked while at this school. Indeed, his first direct involvement in political action came during this period as a wave of unrest swept the countryside and there were many demonstrations. On May 9th, he was beaten and fired upon by French troops during a demonstration. Thanh was dismissed from school and left Annam for Cochin China (South Vietnam) where he taught school for a period before deciding to go to France to study, leaving on a liner where he worked for passage under the name, “Ba.”

In France, Thanh took up odd jobs and started attending labor union meetings and meetings of socialists and Marxists, who supported more freedoms for colonial territories. He started writing articles under pseudonyms and publishing them in numerous media. In 1918, Thanh drafted an eight point petition to the government demanding Annamite freedom. He signed his document, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot,” a name he would carry forward with him for decades to come. Eventually, the French police and secret police started taking notice, and he went to New York and London to escape their notice for awhile, before returning to France. He became rather prolific there and the voice for the Vietnamese people, as well as others. In 1924, he left for Moscow, where Lenin had radicalized Russia, a newly Communist country with great goals of expanding communism to the third world, including Indochina.

One thing I’ve always been curious about regarding Ho is whether he was a patriot fighting for national independence or a communist fighting to spread communism. The author of this book addresses this issue at several points throughout the book. He writes, “There are valid reasons for the argument that Nguyen Ai Quoc was above all a patriot. In 1960 he himself conceded in [a] short article … that it was the desire for Vietnamese independence that had drawn him to Marxism in the first place.” Yet, “there is also persuasive evidence that the young Nguyen Ai Quoc viewed Marxism-Leninism as more than just a tool to drive out the French…. Quoc believed that the struggle against the forces of imperialism throughout Asia would culminate in a global revolution.” And there you go. He was both.

Whatever the case, Quoc stayed in Moscow a very long time, studying at the Stalin School and writing things like The Revolutionary Path, his first major effort to introduce Marxist-Leninist doctrine to his countrymen. He moved from Moscow to China next, where he established himself with a network of like-minded nationalist/communists who sought Vietnam’s independence. From there, he oversaw the battle for Vietnam’s independence on behalf of both Russia and China, playing both countries against each other brilliantly – something he’d do for the rest of his life.

Rumor had it he was married to a Chinese woman and had a daughter, but he had to leave them and flee to avoid arrest by the ever aggressive French, returning to Moscow. There he set up a system for patriotic countrymen to come study Marxist philosophies and to go home to spread their knowledge. In 1941, Quoc traveled back through China under the assumed name of Ho Chi Minh, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. (It meant “He Who Enlightens.”) During the World War Two years of Japanese occupation in Vietnam, Ho traveled back to Vietnam for the first time in decades, to head the Vietminh Front, along with future general, Vo Nguyen Giap and others. With China’s help, they carved out for themselves some territory in northern Vietnam and solicited help from both Russia and the US, of all countries.

After the war was over, Ho declared Vietnam an independent country, much to the delight of his countrymen who viewed him as a hero. The French had other plans, and with US backing, returned to re-colonize Indochina. Ho and the Vietminh went into hiding and started conducting guerrilla warfare, eventually demoralizing the French and gaining power, ultimately resulting in the military destruction of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and France’s essential surrender, resulting in a split Vietnam, where the northern part would be governed by Ho, and the southern by a corrupt president propped up by the US, one who would later be assassinated with America’s permission and knowledge.

One thing you have to understand is this – the Vietnamese wanted a free and independent unified Vietnam, even most of the southerners. Thus, the Viet Cong, who started making their appearance in 1961 with the north’s backing. Ho continued to seek a political solution, but Lyndon Johnson would have none of it and with the suspicious Gulf of Tonkin incident, he brought the US right into the war. Something that will forever be remembered as one of the most stupid things done by a US president. It was an unwinnable war. Ho said that the Vietnamese may lose 10 soldiers for every one American soldier, but that Vietnam would outlast America, and he was right.

Ho’s influence started to wane as he aged, on into the 1960s, but even as a figurehead, he still played a large role. Power had shifted to other Vietnamese leaders, such as Le Duan, but until Ho’s death on September 2nd, 1969, he was viewed as the legitimate leader of his people and a fighter for the oppressed the world over.

The book, aside from an epilogue, ends with Ho’s death and briefly describes the end of the war, so you won’t get much information about how the war ended or why, but this book goes a long way to demystifying a mythical man of immense power and stature, and for that, the author should be applauded. Perhaps I should end this review of this strongly recommended book by citing the final paragraph in the book, a book written by a man who worked at the US Embassy in Saigon back during the war:

“Ho Chi Minh, then, was … an ‘event-making man,’ a ‘child of crisis’ who combined in his own person two of the central forces in the history of modern Vietnam: the desire for national independence and the quest for social and economic justice. Because these forces transcended the borders of his own country, Ho was able to project his message to colonial peoples all over the world and speak to their demand for dignity and freedom from imperialist oppression. Whatever the final judgment on his legacy to this own people, he has taken his place in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes who have struggled mightily to give the pariahs of the world their true voice.”

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