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

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam
Author: Lewis Sorley
ISBN 13: 9780156013093
ISBN 10: 156013096
Edition: 1
Publisher: Harvest
Publication Date: 2007-04-10
Format: Paperback
Pages: 507
List Price: $17.95

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.

Publishers Weekly

Using a host of oral interviews, 455 tape recordings made in Vietnam during the years 1968-1972 and numerous other sources, military historian Sorley has produced a first-rate challenge to the conventional wisdom about American military performance in Vietnam. Essentially, this is a close examination of the years during which General Creighton Abrams was in command, having succeeded William Westmoreland. Sorley contends that Abrams completely transformed the war effort and in the process won the war on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese 1968 Tet offensive was bloodily repulsed, he explains, as was a similar offensive in 1969. Together, the 1970 American incursion into Cambodia and a 1971 Laotian operation succeeded in reducing enemy combat effectiveness. Renewed American bombing of the North and Abrams's use of air power to assist ground operations further reduced Hanoi's ability to wage war. Sorley argues that the combination of anti-war protests in America and a complete misunderstanding of the actual combat situation by the diplomats negotiating the 1973 Paris accords wasted American military victories. In spite of drug use and other problems, Sorley maintains, the army in Vietnam performed capably and efficiently, but in vain, for South Vietnam was sold out by the 1973 cease-fire, America's pullout and the failure of Congress to provide further military assistance to the South. Sure to provoke both passionate and reasoned objection, Sorley's book is as important a reexamination of the operational course of the war as Robert McNamara's In Retrospect is of the conflict's moral and political history. Maps and photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.