Reviewed by Ron Milam (Department of History, Texas Tech University)
Published on H-War (November, 2005)
The American Advisory Effort Near the End of the War
Scholars of the Vietnam War experience have traditionally focused on the role of U.S. advisors during the Kennedy years, or in an ancillary role to the American ground war efforts at the height of American involvement. David Donovan's memoir Once a Warrior King (1985) addressed U.S. advisor experiences in the post-Tet Offensive time frame and Edward Metzner's More Than A Soldier's War (1995) chronicled his seven years as an advisor to various Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units. Both of these books, as well as several others, contained elements of combat experiences in conjunction with traditional pacification efforts.
James Willbanks, in his book The Battle of An Loc, vividly describes the U.S. advisory effort at the end of America's involvement in the war, during Hanoi's 1972 Easter Offensive. By that time, American infantry units had departed the country, and only air and some logistical support remained. American society had lost interest in the war, and the Nixon administration was deep into its Vietnamization program. Hanoi was increasing its efforts to solidify ground gains as a means of improving its negotiating leverage at the Paris Peace Talks. And in An Loc, a provincial capital sixty-five miles north of Saigon, a three-month siege began, which, if successful, could provide a pathway for North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam. In a battle that would result in over 150,000 combined belligerent casualties, the ARVN would distinguish itself by defeating the Peoples Army of (North) Vietnam (PAVN).
The Battle of An Loc could only be written effectively by a participant, and Willbanks was present as an advisor to an ARVN unit. But this is not just an eyewitness account. Utilizing newly discovered archival evidence and recently translated North Vietnamese after-action reports, Willbanks has reconstructed the minutia of the nearly three-month long siege. And the effort is not simply to provide another memoir of Vietnam war stories, but to answer the question that has plagued military historians since the war ended: was the Army of the Republic of Vietnam an effective fighting force?
Willbanks tackles this question without generalized commentary; rather he provides excruciatingly poignant descriptions of leadership failure and heroic actions. Where South Vietnamese commanders failed to seize the initiative and advance, he is critical. Yet, on numerous occasions he is complementary to both the junior officers and enlisted men who did the fighting, and to the enemy who were sacrificed by stubborn PAVN leadership. Through intensive research of North Vietnamese archives and memoirs of various PAVN commanders, the former advisor describes a strategic plan to destroy An Loc and open Highway 13 to Saigon. If this plan were successful, North Vietnam could have marched on Saigon nearly three years before the final invasion or, at a minimum, could have created a situation in Paris synonymous with Dien Bien Phu and Geneva in 1954. President Thieu understood this historical parallel as did Major General James Hollingsworth, senior military advisor to the Third Regional Assistance Command. So maintaining An Loc as a South Vietnamese provincial capital was as important to the stability of the Most populous region in South Vietnam as Kontum was to the Central Highlands.
Willbanks's analysis of ARVN performance may be controversial among some U.S. combat veterans and Vietnam War scholars who continue to believe that the ARVN did not possess the will to fight. His book will contribute to a body of literature which gives the ARVN soldier credit for his fighting spirit, but still blames the leadership for failing to win the war after American units departed in 1973. Missing after that date were U.S. advisors and U.S. tactical air support which Willbanks believes were the most critical factors in the final outcome of the siege of An Loc. He believes that the very presence of U.S. advisors on the ground, and their refusal to leave when defeat looked imminent, inspired the ARVN to continue to fight.
Most of the U.S. Army personnel at the battle of An Loc were members of Advisory Team 70 and they received a rare Presidential Unit Citation for their performance during those critical days. This book will serve as a testimonial to the many advisors who were killed or wounded in their support of the ARVN effort. Willbanks cites several officers and senior noncommissioned officers who received Distinguished Service Crosses for their service, many posthumously. One could argue that similar heroic exploits while serving in American units would have resulted in the award of Medals of Honor. As a former advisor in Vietnam, this reviewer is sensitive to the role we played, and Willbanks's insightful account of this pivotal battle will remind readers of the importance of such soldiers to the war effort.
The Battle of An Loc is a fine book with rich, vibrant descriptions of combat, weapons, and command decisions. Willbanks writes from an insider's perspective, but demonstrates the discipline of a historian who knows what questions to ask. Passion for the research subject trumps any concern for objectivity, and this former advisor recognizes when the facts should speak for themselves. The book will contribute to the scarce literature on both the U.S. advisory effort and the latter days of the war.
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Ron Milam. Review of Willbanks, James H., The Battle of An Loc.
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