N.S. Nash, Logistics in the Vietnam Wars 1945-1975 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
A successful general needs effective logistics and transport argues N.S. Nash in Logistics in the Vietnam Wars 1945-1975. Moreover, logistics are inseparable from operations. Nash’s case study for these truisms is the conflict in Vietnam that lasted thirty years from the end of World War II. Vietnam is a fitting choice to study logistics because on paper the colonial French and the Americans should have won in a canter, but they did not. How could an army ‘wearing pyjamas’ take down such formidable powers?
Nash points out that Vietnam was a ‘logistical nightmare’. The topography, climate, flora and fauna were all hostile. The country had few roads and lots of forest, much of it was unmapped. It rained and it was hot. This was no place to fight a war. After outlining the deep causes of conflict in Vietnam, Nash turns to the French, attempting to fight a war 8,000 miles away. They mostly controlled the cities and low-lying areas, but their forts out in the country were too disconnected and given the bare minimum to do the job. They also underestimated their highly organized and committed enemy, the Viet Minh who eschewed mechanized support, opting for porters in the field; a wise move because they had the manpower. They also had Chinese logistical backing. The Viet Minh General Giap conducted hit and run missions and guerrilla warfare with great success but struggled when he went toe-to-toe with the French. Then came Dien Bien Phu, a logistical disaster for the French, and one that led to their strategic defeat. Nash notes that the manpower needed for the VietMinh to succeed was ‘mind-boggling’, but they still won a dazzling victory and thus the war.
After the French left, the Americans arrived; slowly at first then in a flood. Their Vietnam War was about to begin; for the North Vietnamese, this was business as usual. They developed the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a logistical artery that the Americans could dent but never sever. Nash decries the hubris of the Americans who underestimated their enemy, believing they could overwhelm them with firepower backed by massive logistical support. They sent General William Westmoreland to manage a war that was beyond his abilities. Nash also criticises almost every aspect of the American war effort from tactics to the draft, but ultimately defeat came down to an unbeatable enemy no matter what the US threw at them. Nash points out that the NV invariably developed answers to American technological superiority, most notably tunnels and crude but effective booby traps. The American air war receives short-shrift from Nash too. Then came the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh, both of which were tactical defeats for the North Vietnamese but political victories. Giap had again failed in going toe-to-toe in conventional battles. Nash pauses here to reflect on the inadequacies of the M16 rifle that cost many American lives. When America withdrew, demoralization set into the army, and racism and fragging of officers increased, as did opposition from home. In the end, the Americans left, signing off with two intensive aerial bombardments. The South Vietnamese were left high and dry, vulnerable to the NVA assault that ended the war and reunified Vietnam. Nash concludes with chapters on the painful costs of thirty years of war and the assignment of blame.
Logistics in the Vietnam Wars 1945-1975 is an excellent survey of the wars in Vietnam and viewed from an unusual angle. Nash stresses that this is not a book of battles but of logistical operations; the outline he provides is full of battles, however, though that is very useful for following the action while determining the problems all sides faced. Nash also does not bog his readers down in unnecessary details. Numbers proliferate of course, but they all serve a purpose for Nash’s cogent argument. That results in a perhaps surprising, flowing text that makes this an enjoyable read, and there is an occasional wee snort of derision from Nash over some of the French and American mistakes that keeps the book quite light at times. Nash is also supported by many excellent photographs from the wars. Readers wanting to understand the Vietnam Wars will no doubt eat this up.