Model History of Vietnam War

BOOKS

IN the 16-plus years since United States troops left Vietnam and American POW's were returned, that sorry conflict has been pulled and poked at and covered over with ideological dressing of all flavors. Novelists and poets, journalists and historians, playwrights, and filmmakers (a few with first-hand experience, most without) have filled libraries with their own particular view of how the United States got stuck in that tar baby and has been paying for it ever since.

The ``lessons of Vietnam'' are clear enough in most of these accounts, generally boiling down to (a) we had no business being there in the first place, or (b) if only the politicians had left the military alone, the thing would have been over (and Ho Chi Minh humbled) in short order.

The trouble with first drafts of history is that they get all mixed up with propaganda (like Brian DePalma's film ``Casualties of War'' on the one hand, or many ``official'' accounts on the other). So when it comes time for the real historians to sort things out - after the rest of us have finally made our separate peace - where can they turn?

Where they should turn is to the dispassionate and scrupulously thorough work of contemporary researchers like Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price. And the thing that makes this pair's new work so valuable is that it is exceptionally good reading - the best kind of journalism on both counts.

Though this is not a definitive or comprehensive history of Vietnam (one should be immediately suspicious of any that claim to be), it accomplishes what it sets out to do so credibly that regardless of its limited scope, it is a model for how history should be written on this ever-controversial war.

This is the story of the air war over North Vietnam on May 10, 1972, the day that by any measure saw the fiercest air combat in the whole war.

Three North Vietnamese divisions had just crashed through the DMZ into South Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had already reduced US ground troops by more than 80 percent (per his 1968 campaign promise), and most of those 95,000 were headed home. Nixon was determined not to sell out the South Vietnamese (he was running for reelection), but he ruled out both tactical nuclear weapons and bombing North Vietnamese dikes.

That left conventional air attacks to slow the North Vietnamese push south and get Hanoi back to serious talk about Henry Kissinger's ``decent interval'' and returning American prisoners. That meant stopping the import of war materiel (most of it into Haiphong harbor) and its transport across key spots like the Paul Doumer Bridge (named, ironically, after a French governor of Indochina), which crossed the Red River into Hanoi.

It all came together with ``Operation Linebacker,'' begun that day in May, and it's all here: the full details of Air Force strikes out of Thailand and Navy attacks from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, including cockpit recordings and interviews with the key players; the full details of the North Vietnamese response, right down to the names of the antiaircraft and SAM battery gunners and MIG pilots; the most comprehensive report (so far) of what it was like on the ground that important day - from French journalists who witnessed the attacks and counterattacks and from British diplomats who alternately toured the city and hid in their embassy as the bombs and spent Vietnamese missiles fell to Earth.

This is ``Top Gun'' without the silly and stupid (and largely inaccurate) machismo.

It is bravery and fear and shock and wonder amid the ``fog of war'' (an American pilot thinking how beautiful the attacking MIG-21 looks) when as many as 40 aircraft within a three-mile radius are intent on death and destruction and (most important) survival. It is prisoners taken and evading capture, and a true love story.

There are key details that do provide lessons here: that the more advanced air-to-air weapons (on both sides) performed far less well than simple guns and missiles; that the official report of damage to the Paul Doumer Bridge was overblown; that the US used ``Sigint'' (signals intelligence) to eavesdrop and get the drop on Vietnamese defending aircraft, which is still classified information.

A writer like the extremely hot Tom Clancy - for all his technical accuracy and popular yarn-spinning - couldn't improve on this kind of writing, for it is the truth simply and clearly told. Historian or not, those who want to know what this critical part of the Vietnam War was all about could not do better than Ethell and Price's impressive book.

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