An acclaimed journalist recounts the hell that was the siege of Khe Sanh.
In this history of one of the worst follies of Vietnam, Jones (Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream, 2012) relies on a mix of well-reported historical detail for his combat narrative but rarely finds the depth of personal remembrance readers embrace in other works of Vietnam literature. Old soldiers remember that the siege was an absolute blood bath, an event whispered alongside names like Okinawa and Dien Bien Phu. Turning his focus to just four months at the beginning of 1968 allows the author to capture the worst of it. However, there is a larger context here. The question remains whether Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap was setting up the war’s killing blow or distracting Gen. William Westmoreland from the onslaught of the Tet Offensive. Jones focuses on the brave Marines and other soldiers who maintained their defenses under impossible circumstances. Unfortunately, the book becomes in some ways a too-long list of faceless, if not nameless, casualties of war, cut down badly and far too young. To be fair, the author attempts to give personalities to all the soldiers, although some of the more colorful rise to the surface—e.g., fire support officer Harry Baig or chopper pilot David “Balls to the Wall” Althoff, who sometimes used up three war birds in a day. In other places, occasionally grim humor unlocks the story: the war-maddened soldiers doing their chicken dance to taunt the enemy or the surgeons who took out an ad in the New England Journal of Medicine reading, “Wanted, General Practitioner to assume a diversified medical and surgical practice in a small, quiet, mountain setting.”
An imperfectly told story about a long-abandoned fire base where too many died, which makes it a story worth remembering.