Peter E. Davies, Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73 (Osprey, 2020)
There is little doubt that without the Ho Chi Minh trail, North Vietnam’s attempt to defeat its southern counterpart would have failed. The United States knew this too and did their best to close the arterial path that ran from near the Chinese border to just north of Saigon and many points in between. Both sides displayed ingenuity, tenacity, and courage in what became a war of attrition within the wider Vietnam War. Peter Davies tells that story.
The romantic image of the Ho Chi Minh trail is that of the hardy Vietnamese sneaking along a tiny jungle track with supplies for the front. While that was true, Davies demonstrates how the North Vietnamese developed the Trail as you would any other road, widening, solidifying, and providing utilities, except they were under an intense bombardment the likes of which had not been seen since World War II. The Americans threw everything they had at the Trail but were impeded by much of it being in neighbouring countries to Vietnam: the NV ignored that, the US could not, officially anyway. As well as an increasingly sophisticated air interdiction campaign to deal with the trail, the Americans sponsored covert operations in Laos and Cambodia, backed insurgencies, particularly in Laos, and simply bombed the hell out of it. They caused massive casualties, but this was a Canute-like task against an inexorable tide.
Davies examines all aspects of the US capabilities, including weapons, strategies, and tactics. They sliced and diced the landscape into operational zones to facilitate their attacks and used every plane at their disposal. They even dispersed tons of herbicides to strip the forest bare. The North Vietnamese relied on guile and manpower, knowing that a single mistake could lose a complete convoy to air strikes. They used every means at their disposal to camouflage movement: weather, tunnels, caves, night-time movement etc., and they provided flak protection at key points with varying degrees of success. But what impresses most is the sheer fortitude of those taking incredible risks to maintain the war effort.
Ho Chi Minh Trail is an excellent primer on this critical component of the Vietnam War. Davies does a very good job of untangling all the different actions being conducted simultaneously along the complex logistical highway and he efficiently captures the intensity of the combat. This is an operational study, so Davies does not engage with the experiences of those doing the fighting, but that is clearly not his remit here. This tidy little book will appeal to anyone interested in the air war in Vietnam, and students of the war in general.