Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: SOG by John L. Plaster

I think we can all agree that the Vietnam War was a pretty messed-up affair.

No war is pretty, but when we look back at such conflicts as the Great War, World War II, and Korea, things seem, if not simple, then at least straightforward. Of course, if you dig deeper, there are layers and sub layers and sub-sub layers of intrigue and self-interest and many other maneuverings going on behind the scenes, but the public perception of these conflicts is largely a positive one. Even the activities of such organizations as the OSS and SOE, who practiced many "dirty" tactics to win the war, were seen as largely thrilling "spy adventures"; James Bond meets Sgt. Rock, if you will.

Vietnam? Not so much. With a country still reeling from a presidential assassination and the messes of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, along with years of quiet "advisement" by the American military and the CIA before we ever went to "war" in Vietnam, America was a country in no mood for a new war, especially a war in some pissant country on the other side of the globe, a civil war no less, fought "to stop the spread of Communism". Hey, didn't we just fight one of those ten years before? Yeah, that one wasn't fun either. Hey, aren't we on the brink of civil war here in the States? Yeah, man, totally. Make love not war, brothers and sisters!

So from the very moment we put boots on the ground in Vietnam, the public perception of the war was completely screwed. This was a war being fought by politicians and the "military industrial complex" wrapping some mysterious dark agenda in the flag of Capitalism and thrust down the throats of drafted minorities. An ugly business all around, and it got uglier as time went on, eventually culminating in America's first "lost war". One of the things that made the war so ugly was the CIA's involvement in so much of it, and that many casualties of the war were occurring during various "covert actions" that no one could talk about. Once the American people smelled that they were being lied to about the way little Jimmy got killed while in Vietnam, it was just a big political dungheap from that moment onward.

Foremost among the "covert actions" taken during the war were the "cross-border operations" undertaken by secret teams of Green Berets, SEALs, and USAF Commandos. Brought together under the benign-sounding "Studies and Observations Group", these teams of elite special forces soldiers, some of whom had fought in Korea and even World War II (only twenty years gone in 1965), partnered with their fearless indigenous allies such as the Montagnards and Nungs.

These teams of elite warrior-scouts would chopper into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in order to find and report on the operations of the NVA and their VC allies in areas where American troops were, officially, never touching the ground. These were classified, covert missions and at the time officially denied by all levels of government. Even today, much of what went on and when and where it took place has not so much been revealed by the government as "admitted by lack of retribution". This is especially true when the missions involved something other than simple recon, such as prisoner snatching, electronic surveillance operations, and more "direct action" assignments.

I've always had an interest in the Vietnam war. Having been born in the 70's, growing up I knew a number of Vietnam veterans and as a young kid, when others were reading Charlotte's Web or The Giving Tree, I was reading Vietnam memoirs like Mekong or Huey, or pouring through gun magazines and paramilitary rags like Soldier of Fortune. Because of this, I had heard of SOG long ago, and had a fair understanding of who they were and what they did during the war; classified commando operations in countries where we were officially not supposed to have military assets.

But the details of SOG's role in the Vietnam war have been shrouded in a lot of myths and legends, mostly because a lot of the official disinformation released during the war has remained public perception in the minds of most people. So even knowing that there were "layers or truth" going on, reading SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam by Major John L. Plaster, three tour SOG veteran, I was blown away by the exploits of these elite commandos. When every battle was an hours or days long running gunfight against an enemy force that outnumbered you a hundred to one (if you were lucky), it's amazing that any SOG team made it out of the jungle alive.

Unfortunately, many did not. The war swallowed whole recon teams without a trace, hundreds of men who disappeared and went MIA, possibly captured, possibly killed - we'll never know for sure. Probably the most eerie part of reading SOG were all the actions that ended with "RT Such and Such was never seen or heard from again" or "One Zero Sgt. Whathisname's body was never found". Even when the fate of SOG members was known, it was often brutal and nasty; men who were blown away, burned up, shot to pieces or plummeting from damaged helicopters. Some years, a SOG base's personnel (typically 40-50 Green Berets and twice as many indigenous allies) would suffer in excess of 100% casualties; every member of the SOG teams had been either killed or wounded, sometimes wounded more than once, or a member was killed, only to have his replacement wounded or killed as well. Casualties also included MIA, and some years, up to half the American casualties would be MIAs.

On the bright side, however (if you can call it "bright"), many SOG teams did manage to fight their way through impossible odds. Reading this book, so many of these battles are amazingly, mind-blowingly heroic; men fighting through ambushes and evading whole companies of the enemy, suffering mortar and RPG fire, grenades and withering hails of bullets, wounded multiple times and still fighting on for days before daring helicopter crews literally plucked them from the jungle at the end of STABO harnesses. These are the men who earned more medals and commendations per unit than any American military force in the 20th century (and many actions were either denied or had awards downgraded due to their covert nature), and in reading these accounts, you can understand why; kill ratios among SOG teams were some years as high as 150:1, ten times that of the average American military unit. And yet, if a man had survived more than twenty missions, his comrades wondered how he was still alive.

Sadly, the worst part about reading SOG is the jaw-clenching anger you may feel reading about the ways in which SOG operations, especially rescue operations to find POWs and MIAs, were hindered or thwarted by government politicians and senior military brass more concerned with appeasing the enemy or "neutral" (hah!) governments than rescuing their own military men. I can understand when a government says "these are sterile, deniable operations" that there is a risk MIAs and POWs will remain such, but if they can be rescued without public exposure, they should have been. Of all the terrible things that happened during the Vietnam war, I think it was the mishandling of POWs and MIAs that angers me the most. I might be able to forgive a "dirty war", but I can't really forgive preventing able and willing men from doing what it takes to rescue their lost brothers-in-arms.

So, if you have any interest in Vietnam, or in the history of American Special Forces operations, I highly recommend this book. Heart-breaking and pulse-pounding in equal measures, it is an utterly unforgettable read.


Anonymous said...

I see SOG as being, arguably, the greatest accomplishment in Special Operations history. Other units in the running would include the OSS, several Rhodesian SF units, and the Special Operations Task Force active in the War on Terror may be there as well, but history will be the judge.

An interesting side note, remember reading about "Larry Thorne" in the book? Well, I came upon him again while doing some research related to the Lodge Act and the training of anti-communist stay-behind units in Europe. A few little details about "Larry Thorne" got left out of the book. Take a look:

Machine Trooper said...

The risk of reading about Vietnam, for me, is the attacks of depression I get as a result. I agree about the POW/MIAs. But the whole thing burns me up. All those lives ruined or sacrificed for a "war" the Johnson/Nixon State Department never intended to win. I'll stop now because I'm already getting pissed.