A historical account of a harrowing mountain battle during the Vietnam War.
Debut author Sly was drafted (he says “kidnapped”) into the Army only days after his graduation in 1968 from the University of South Dakota. He was assigned to the Awards and Decorations Department, which is responsible for writing accounts of notably brave conduct under consideration for commendation. He was sent to work as unit historian for Alpha Company, which had just weathered a macabre battle that decimated their ranks. When it comes to the issuance of medals, it's best to gather eyewitness accounts in the immediate aftermath of combat. Years later, now a civilian, Sly researched the battle further, even contacting some of the participants, which ultimately led to this breathtakingly fastidious record. In June 1969, after B-52s bombed a mountain called Nui Ba Den, which harbored the North Vietnamese army, Alpha Company was tasked with securing the base of the mountain in case enemy troops descended. However, a general ordered the company to aggressively ascend the mountain “dismounted”—meaning without either tanks or other military vehicles—despite objections from the company’s commanders. There were only a few ways up, and the visibility of the paths was greatly obstructed by massive boulders. Once specialized enemy snipers began picking off American soldiers, there was little they could do but retreat. The casualties were considerable, but so was the heroism of the soldiers involved. Sly carefully reconstructs the entire battle—including its tactical context and aftermath—and offers a moving account of his motivation: “Those who fought, particularly those who were killed in action, deserve to have their heroism, dedication to each other and dedication to their unit properly documented.” The writing is speckled with technical terminology and a farrago of initialisms; Sly helpfully provides a glossary at the beginning of the book that the reader will surely reference often. That grouse aside, the book is stirring and rigorous, a shining example of investigative journalism.
An impressive blend of drama and history marvelously researched.