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Logistics in the Vietnam Wars, 1945-1975

21 May 24

312 pages


The author, Brigadier ‘Tank’ Nash, has already written nearly a dozen books for Pen & Sword and this book is so deeply researched that I sense he must, at some stage, have worked with US Forces who served in Vietnam. He certainly pulls no punches.

Apart from the immediately preceding Japanese War, there were essentially three other 20th century Indo-China/Vietnam wars; all effectively insurrectional civil wars.

The first, 1945-56, was against the French colonialists because France, unlike Britain which promised and released its Empire post-WW2 to independence, persisted until military defeat, by maintaining that its colonies were part of metropolitan France.

The second, 1956-73, effectively ‘Third World meets Superpower’, was against the USA because the USA was seeking to bolster the by then partitioned Western-minded South Vietnam against the hazard of North Vietnam’s Sino-Russo-backed Communism having a domino-effect in Southeast Asia:

“In the event, no more dominos were to fall. The parallel war in Malaya (1948-60) in which I, then serving with the Army, was ‘blooded’, was fought with ‘Hearts and Minds’ as a priority from the very start.  Aussies and Kiwis fought in Malaya and took their jungle fighting experience to Viet-Nam where the Viet-Cong respected their skills and slipped away to seek softer US targets”.

And the third, 1974-75, was the final civil strife and triumph of Communist North Vietnam.

Human porterage, laden bicycles, bullock carts, more human porterage. Trucks, lorries, air drops. Human porterage, laden bicycles, more human porterage, tunnels, captured US weaponry. Helicopters, air drops, helicopters, air drops, helicopters. Napalm, defoliation. Yes, the author concentrates on logistics because these played such a vital part in the support of all the warring parties but in order to comprehend how such totally disparate and polarised measures were applied by each, it is necessary to follow the narrative of the action and the 30 years of ruthless slaughter mostly by and of the same people all seeking a will for self-determination.

I read the ‘French’ war on a rail journey from London to Edinburgh, and the ‘American’ war on the journey back. I don’t suppose that many NR members now remember, as I do, both the French and the American wars in Vietnam. Might they therefore be interested or bothered to learn the lessons from either of them? Might as well be the Peninsular War. Or the Roman or Norman invasions of Britain.   But where, for all of which, logistics played such a vital part. Remember the French ‘Dien Bien Phu’? No! The US ‘Khe San’ and the Viet-Cong Tet Offensive? No! Then perhaps the tunnels of the Ho Chi Min Trail?  No!  Not even the Anti-Draft Protests in the US?  No! Miss Saigon may now be their only memory, and a sanitised one at that.

So here are a few sample sage dictums from some of the chapter sub-headings, some of which might ring a bell from a Staff Course:

Rommel’s “An adequate supply system and stocks of weapons and ammunition are the essentials for any army to stand successfully the strains of battle, Before the fighting proper, the battle is fought and decided by the Quartermasters”.

TE Lawrence’s “Guerilla war is more intelligent than a bayonet charge”.

Frederick the Great’s “The art of defending fortified places consists in putting off the moment of their reduction”.

Trotsky’s “Principles of strategy never transcend common sense”.

Clausewitz’s “There is no measure of loss of morale: Hence in many cases the abandonment of the fight remains the only authentic proof of victory”.

Sun Tzu’s “He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning may be called a heaven-born captain”.

So, after 30 years, with excessively wasteful loss of life, the citizenry of Vietnam secured their country and thereby acquired tons and tons of prize booty abandoned by the USA. And the US? With almost equally excessively wasteful loss of life, followed the French, its citizenry retreated and defeated but compensated by a cornucopia brim-full of medals.

This book is therefore recommended essentially for ‘Pussers’.  It could also provide salutary reading for those Line Officers – we’ve all met some – whose arrogance in decrying ‘The Tail’ is matched only by their ignorance in failing to recognise that ‘An Army Marches on Its Stomach’. Tommy Atkins and Jolly Jack Tar need food, water, ammunition, fuel and warm socks.

Sink the RFA and while the warship may stay afloat, she might no longer move nor fight!