I heard Gregg Jones on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point radio show and knew I needed to read this. Khe Sahn was in the northern part of South Vietnam near the DMZ. It’s purpose was to interdict the supplies and manpower coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The battle at Khe Sanh from late 1967 through the spring of 1968 was the biggest set piece battle that North Vietnam engaged in with the US and South Vietnam. Gregg Jones follows the experience of a group of soldiers through 77 days from January into April 1968. The NVA had laid siege to the Khe Sanh combat base and the nearby hills (861, 881 North and 881 South).
“With 20,000 North Vietnamese soldiers now surrounding the 6,000 Americans at Khe Sanh, and another 20,000 enemy troops nearby, General William Westmoreland was marshaling every conceivable weapon for a decisive confrontation.” (Loc 1416) The combat base was effectively cut off from the overland supply route and could only be resupplied by air. The dug in NVA would shoot mortars and rockets at the air strip every time a plane or helicopter approached. We read the stories of the men who lived and died making that stand.
The Tet offensive took place at the same time as the siege at Khe Sanh leaving open the question as to how intent General Giap was in truly overrunning the base. Was it merely a feint to tie down American resources so the Tet offensive could more effectively foment the revolution in South Vietnam? “From the beginning, the Marines had questioned General Westmoreland’s decision to tie down a combat company, and, eventually, a reinforced regiment, at such a remote location. The siege had amplified the questions about the strategic wisdom of Westmoreland’s commitment to Khe Sanh…”(Loc 5453)
Jones touches on these points enough to set the stage for the story he is telling. His primary focus is on experiences of the kids and young men who were at Khe Sanh; he does a remarkable job at that. I was draft age in 1970, was against the war, and took a student deferment; but I was never one of the people who were mad; who spat, jeered, and rallied against the returning veterans. After reading this, I realize just how misguided, wrong actually, that jeering approach was. The draftees were doing what they were told to do; and they did it magnificently well. As Jones points out
“In the rising light of an early September morning, standing before the gleaming walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with all the profound loss these granite panels embody, questiong about who won or lost at Khe Sanh and wheter it was a ruse seem indecent. So, too, are the political debates over why America lost the war, and who is to blame. It is enough to know that hundreds of Khe Sanh dead whose names are etched into the wall heeded the call of their country, and they went to Vietnam with the best intentions.”(Loc 5804).