The A Shau valley is key position in the mountainous west of Vietnam, located in what was then the north-western corner of South Vietnam, close to the border with Laos, and a key position on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Between 1963 and 1971 the Americans repeated attacked the A Shau valley, often with quite sizable forces, but they never stayed after their successes, and also suffered a number of clear defeats in the area. The most famous battles were for the high point that became known as ‘Hamburger Hill’, and saw that otherwise anonymous hill attacked repeatedly and eventually captured, only for the entire area to be almost immediately evacuated.
The heart of this book is a series of detailed narratives of the many American incursions into the A Shau. The author served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a forward air controller, and actually took part in the aerial part of some of the battles he describes. He thus has personal knowledge of the attitude of many of the men who fought in the valley. These incursions generally fell into two categories – small scale Special Forces operations, normally carried out to find out what the North Vietnamese were doing in the valley, and larger scale (sometimes including multiple battalions) attacks that were intended to occupy significant parts of the valley and disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail. However there was never any intention of actually occupying the area, so each of these operations ended with the Americans and their allies being evacuated from the valley, often under heavy fire, and anything that they had achieved quickly being undone.
Yarborough takes a very balanced view of the wider picture of the American side of the war. The impact of journalists is covered, and the point made that they can’t be blamed for accurately reporting what they saw (although some senior American commanders of the period didn’t share that view!). Likewise it is hard to argue with the attitude of the anti-war movement towards the pointlessness of much of the fighting when he is making the very same point about the fighting in the A Shau valley! Instead much of the blame for the increasing public disillusionment with the war is placed firmly at the feet of the American high command in Vietnam, whose repeated announcements of impending victory or successful campaigns weren’t supported by events on the ground. Politically driven directives from Washington did indeed provide a background to many of the military decisions, but it was the commanders on the ground who chose to keep on repeating the same mistakes in the A Shau. I confess that this balanced approach came as a pleasant surprise, and isn’t always the case
The one flaw with the book is that there is nothing from the Vietnamese point of view. We get some unit names, but that’s about it. Other recent books on Vietnam have been able to find material from the other side of the hill, and it would have been interesting to hear some North Vietnamese voices describing their view of these repeated and costly American incursions into their territory.
There does seem to have been a form of military insanity in operation amongst the senior American commanders in Vietnam – in the A Shau they kept on doing the same thing, and kept on having the same results – costly but temporary successes which had little or no impact on the wider war, but that were often claimed as significant victories. This account also makes it clear that the often repeated idea that the Americans ‘won all of the battles but lost the war’ simply isn’t true – several of the operations that are examined here ended as clear American defeats, with newly formed fire bases being evacuated at great speed and under heavy fire. It also becomes clear that the idea of helicopter supported air mobile operations was massively flawed, especially when used in an area where the weather meant that helicopters were unable to operate for much of the time! Many of the smaller scale operations ended up escalating massively when the initial force asked to be evacuated, the helicopters sent to rescue them were shot down, and more helicopters were sent in to carry out the original rescue and to find any survivors from the initial crashes. Inevitably this often led to yet more aircraft and helicopters being shot down and yet more rescue operations!
1 - Into the Valley of Death
2 - The Rise and Fall of Camp A Shau
3 - Project Delta Invades the A Shau
4 - SOG: West of the A Shau
5 - Annus Horribious: 1968
6 - Operation Dewey Canyon
7 - Eleven Times Up Hamburger Hill
8 - Ripcord: Valor in Defeat
9 - A Shau Fini: The Ninth Year
10 - A Bard for the Grunts
Author: Thomas R. Yarborough