A fine, precisely detailed record of an obscure but nasty battle in Vietnam in which heroism was forgotten even more quickly than the war itself.
The book begins in 2009 when President Obama awarded survivors the Presidential Unit Citation, a rare, highly prized honor. Intrigued by the long delay, Vietnam veteran and writer Keith discovered that the battle produced dozens of medal recommendations that were declined or ignored until one veteran, Capt. John Poindexter, discovered the oversight 30 years later. Stimulated, Keith delved into military archives as well as accounts and writing of the men themselves to tell their story. On March 26, 1970, an infantry company stumbled into a fortified North Vietnamese army stronghold and were immediately surrounded and pinned down. Dense tropical-forest cover ruled out the usual air support; with only a few hours of ammunition the outnumbered unit faced annihilation. Four kilometers away another unit heard the noise. Without orders and already exhausted by several days of activity, its armor and men forced their way through the jungle, drove off the enemy and extracted all the surrounded men, dead and injured included. Keeping the traditional patriotic overlay to a minimum and with only a modest amount of invented dialogue, Keith provides engrossing, almost minute-by-minute account of the preliminaries and the battle itself.
Military buffs will take it in stride, but Americans accustomed to 30 years of campaigns in which a single soldier’s death is news and more than one makes the front page will squirm to read that in the typical war, men die en masse.