3 Stars = It’s OK
I think what’s bad in this book cancels what’s good so the result is a bit of a mess but, I'm being generous here, overall it is OK. I did have trouble getting through the book because of what, I think, is bad in this book. The problem is Sorley has an ax to grind. For Sorley the most important aspect of the war was the pacification program. Basically he maintains that pacification was totally ignored by Westmoreland and that resulted in a complete lack of progress and wasted opportunity. Then, this is the important part, Abrams did emphasize pacification and that resulted in dramatic progress. According to Sorley: If only the US could have stayed committed to the defense of SVN, pacification would have resulted in a secure communist free nation. Actually, Sorley maintains that the war was won in 1970 but no one noticed…so the war continued. If that sounds ludicrous that is because it is!
For Sorley the most important period of the war came after Tet in 1968. In the prolog he bemoans the fact that many histories focus on the period prior to and including Tet 1968 and virtually ignore the period of Abrams’ command. After Westmoreland left and Abrams took command he focused on Vietnamization and pacification and, along with William Colby as director of CORDS and Ellsworth Bunker as US Ambassador to South Vietnam, “…came very close to achieving the elusive goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace.”
To demonstrate that near success Sorley examines the successes of the CORDS program and a few of the battles Americans fought to secure strategically important areas from Communist incursion. The author even titled one of the chapters Victory. That chapter opens with, “There came a time when the war was won. The fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won. This achievement can probably best be dated in late 1970.” He then gives examples of how formerly enemy controlled areas around Saigon were now almost entirely free of Communist forces of any kind. He quotes Colby saying, “…by 1971 I could go down the canals in the Delta in the middle of the night.” But I am trying to understand how a win can be declared when the “fighting wasn’t over.” So people were still dying. So SV was not secure, just certain areas were secure. And the author, of course, focuses on these areas. While interesting and of historical importance, Sorley fails to convince me he has done nothing more than present cherry-picked events to support his conclusion of some kind of victory.
The numbers do not support a victory for US and SVN forces. Prior to Tet 1968 RVNAF deaths were less than 13,000 per year. After Tet 1968 RVNAF deaths exceeded 20,000 for every year until the fall of Saigon. So no significant improvement can be found for the years 1970 and 1971. I use Vietnamese military numbers because US forces were on their way home during those years.
But Sorley makes other claims to demonstrate that the war was being won. I think the most extravagant claim is that from 1969 until 1971 or 1972 the US had driven VC and PAVN forces from the A Shau Valley and it was held against the Communist forces until the US removed its ground forces in 1973.
Rising above the western side of the A Shau Valley is the hill that became known as Hamburger Hill. In May of 1969 a battle was fought there. Sorley says, “After driving out the 29th NVA, the 3rd Brigade [of the 101st Airborne Division] stayed in the A Shau for months, then passed the mission to other units.” Really, stayed for months? So name the combat base or fire base. If a brigade is staying in the bush they would set up a base. Sorley then quotes the 3rd Brigade commander: “We and our successors controlled the area until ordered out of Vietnam three years later.” So the 101st Airborne or its “successors” controlled the valley from 1969 to 1972? History shows that the 101st was out of Vietnam by March 1972. Sorley’s and the 3rd Brigade commander’s statements are so provocative I was impelled to check it further. But, I did already know that for about 23 days in 1970 the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord was fought in the mountains above the eastern side of the A Shau, again involving 101st Airborne’s 3rd Brigade. After 75 dead and 463 wounded it was determined the base was not defensible and US forces withdrew. I also knew that was the last major engagement between US and Communist ground forces. That was just one year after Hamburger Hill, not three. I have not found any other mention in the history of other “successor” units that controlled the A Shau Valley. The US never had control.
Although this book does have a lot to recommend it this is mostly an example of bad history. Sorley, of course, does not mention Fire Support Base Ripcord. This is not a history I would recommend to the uninitiated to the Vietnam War. But, in reality, Sorley is attempting to persuade and not inform. His bias is obvious in his long section on Westmoreland. Yes, Westmoreland did ignore pacification but Sorley’s critique is lacking and does not explore what Westmoreland did right. Yes, Abrams did a fine job with pacification but it had its limits and Sorley does not explore those limits. Sorley does not like that the US Congress was no longer in the mood to continue financial and military support after Tet 1968. The US was going to leave and not even provide that minimal support that existed prior to 1965. That was a Johnson / McNamara blunder and not a Westmoreland fault. Nixon could not gin up any kind of continued support for the war with congress or the public. So, Sorley wants to persuade the reader that Abrams could have done a better job than Westmoreland and it was Westmoreland who ultimately lost the war even though it was won, for a time, under Abrams. I know, the pieces don’t fit.
This complex war needs a wider lens than Sorley provides. It is too obviously focused on what happened in country and ignores the restrictions placed on Westmoreland by Johnson and McNamara. This book is an incomplete examination of the war after Tet 1968. It suffers from cherry-picking and confirmation bias. We do need a better examination of the war after 1968 but this book falls short.
A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
©1999 Lewis Sorley (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
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|Listening Length||13 hours and 59 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||November 07, 2013|
|Best Sellers Rank||
#185,096 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals)
#77 in Southeast Asian History
#188 in Vietnam War
#1,078 in Southeast Asia History
4.4 out of 5
171 global ratings
Top reviews from the United States
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Reviewed in the United States on October 10, 2016
This book explains the period of the Vietnam war after Westmoreland, focusing on the leadership of General Abrams. This is a period of the war that was largely uncovered in Hollywood movies other distortions of the war. The book makes a point to show that Westmoreland largely squandered American popular support for the war, and ignored the ARVN. Abrams came in at at time when everything about the war was shown in a negative light. He turned the ARVN into a highly effective, fighting force able to utilize modern methods. Abrams was winning the war. Under his watch, the Americans were being pulled out, while the ARVN was being ramped up. Nixon's programs of Vietnamization and pacification were actually shown to be working. By 1972, the North Vietnamese were largely defeated, and undertook no new offensives until 1975, after they had time to rebuild their military, and after they realized the Americans would no longer be giving any asssistance to the South. This book allows one to fully realize the tragedy. We gave massive amounts of military equipment to the South Vietnamese, then cut off all further support. Most of the equipment sat with no fuel, no ammunition, waiting to be appropriated by the communists.. The ARVN were buying hand grenades out of their own pocket money. By 1973, we could have allowed the South to defend themselves, with a fraction of the investment that was spent in previous years. But by then, Nixon was demonized, and Congress was out to shut him down, at all cost, regardless of the cost to the country, and to our commitments to foreign allies. Although we did not see the bloodbath that the right had threatened would occur, we did see that the communists were far from the freedom fighters the left made them out to be. They were opportunists, and they fully used the victory to line their own pockets, and to take whatever they wanted from South Vietnam. The "workers utopia" that they promised never came close to materializing, and the poor farmers who gave so much to the NLF were never even allowed to participate in the "new" (old) government. The South was taken over and run by Northern war heroes, many of whom had little education. The war veterans were hunted down and executed or put into prison camps to waste away to death, or be released 10-20 years later. The former viet cong got nothing more than to be allowed to march as odd rag tag soldiers at the tail end of May Day parades. The suffering in the South after the war was great, leading to hundreds of thousands risking their lives, and losing their lives attempting to escape. The author makes the point that life was generous to Abrams in that he died before seeing what happened to the Vietnam that he worked so hard to save.
27 people found this helpful
... combat tours in Vietnam and until I read "A Better War" I never fully grasped the ironic tragedy of ...Reviewed in the United States on February 1, 2017
I did four combat tours in Vietnam and until I read "A Better War" I never fully grasped the ironic tragedy of America's flawed commitment. The waste of Westmorland's misconceptions, the subsequent successes of the Bunker-Abrams-Colby team, General Giap's repeated ideologically driven strategic failures, and the ultimate triumph of the North Vietnamese handed to them by an American middle class and its political elite who not only betrayed an underrated South Vietnamese ally but in the process our own American heratige. When in 1975 that Soviet T-54 tank of the NVA broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, who in American still remembered John F. Kennedy's 1961 pledge that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. A generation that would "bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." To read " A Better War" gives you the answer. No one.
22 people found this helpful
Top reviews from other countries
Mr. Ds Phillips
First class - a brilliant readReviewed in the United Kingdom on March 25, 2019
Lewis Sorley’s brilliant work on the Vietnam War does much to try to correct the imbalance in coverage that most accounts fall prey to. Dr Sorley focuses on 1968 onwards and the huge changes in strategy and tactics that General Creighton Abrams oversaw. Abrams emerges as perhaps one of the greatest leaders America has produced, accomplishing a huge amount despite ever-greater constraints from Washington. It’s detailed, fascinating and surprising in equal measure.
item arrived in excellent conditionReviewed in the United Kingdom on September 16, 2020
very interesting subject