The Best Defense

The BD bookshelf: An Army battalion cut off and unsupported during Tet '68

What an interesting, thoughtful book.

I've had this memoir, The Lost Battalion of Tet, on my shelf for a couple of years but had waited to read it in order of my research for the book I am working on. I am now, finally, studying the Vietnam War in 1968, so I turned to it. It is mainly about a 1st Air Cavalry infantry battalion that suffered 311 casualties in a few weeks, most of them after being surrounded outside Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, cut off with dwindling ammunition but without artillery support.

First, it strikes me as unusually honest in its relation of events and its depiction of people. This is a characteristic that it shares of one of my all-time favorite books, E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Another similarity: Both books were written several decades after the events described, yet remained vivid.

In one passage, set in Quang Tri, Charles Krohn's battalion commander recommends to another battalion commander who is just arriving not to store any ammunition near a building with a shiny tin roof that was being used as an enemy aiming point. "You command your battalion and I'll command mine," responded Lt. Col. Herlihy Long. And then, writes Krohn, "A few hours later, Long was killed when an NVA rocket scored a direct hit on the ammunition." (78)

Then there is the rattled chaplain, Capt. Dan Klem, who asks to offer a prayer for a group of men about to undertake a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. "Instead of saying something inspirational . . . he asked God to be with the boys who were going to die," recalls the company commander, Capt. Robert Helvey, who was leading the reconnaissance mission. (210)

Krohn meditates well on the systemic failure and command failures at the brigade and division level that led to his battalion being cut off without much support. Near the end he offers this wise advice to commanders:

Try training for failure-system failure. Train under the assumption that one or more systems supporting you won't work knowing beforehand it reduces your probability of success. (281)

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