Combat at Close Quarters
An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War
Edited by Edward J. Marolda
Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018
Hardcover. xi+347 p. ISBN 978-1682471951. $39.95
Reviewed by Robert T. Jones
US Army Command & General Staff College
Fort Gordon, Georgia
This work had its origins as a series of pamphlets intended to commemorate the role of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Combat at Close Quarters : An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War is an edited volume examining the navy’s multifaceted role in Vietnam. The editor and co-author, Dr. Edward J. Marolda, is a former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the U.S. Navy. He has written extensively on naval operations in Vietnam. All of the contributing authors in this volume are military historians and noted experts in their respective fields. The book is organized into four chapters, each of which is a lengthy monograph that addresses the various roles of the U.S. Navy in this conflict. Chapters 1 through 3 are devoted to the air war, riverine operations, and seaborne operations respectively. The fourth chapter focuses on the naval intelligence activities that underpinned navy operations in all other domains. As indicated by the title, this work is notable for the more than 200 photos (color and black & white), maps, and selected art works that supplement the excellent writing. While there are no reference notes, the chapters are supported by a list of suggested readings and an extensive index.
Chapter 1, “Naval Air War : The Rolling Thunder Campaign,” examines the prominent role played by naval aviation (U.S. Navy and Marine Corps) in the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. The focus is on the “Rolling Thunder” air campaign during the years 1965-68 and the reasons for its ultimate failure. While the authors provide the strategic context for Rolling Thunder, the heart of the chapter is the “pilot’s eye” view of harrowing missions against difficult targets that often yielded disappointing results. The author’s central argument is the failure of Rolling Thunder was attributable to overly restrictive rules of engagement and excessive micromanagement by the nation’s political leadership. The authors are especially critical of President Johnson’s performance as Commander-in-Chief: “distracted by domestic priorities . . . misled by poor advice . . . Johnson oversaw a doomed bombing effort.” .
The second chapter deals with the critically important riverine or “brown water” operations conducted by the navy. In “Green Hell : Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam,” the authors trace the development of the navy’s specialized riverine units and warfighting doctrine. An interesting aspect of this chapter is the unlikely pairing of the navy with the U.S. Army to form a Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) to conduct joint operations in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. The authors correctly point out that the U.S. Marine Corps was already fully committed in the northern provinces of South Vietnam, while the Army assumed responsibility for the south. The narrative also includes a discussion of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to organize, equip, and train the South Vietnamese Navy (VNN) to ultimately assume responsibility for their own internal riverine operations. This effort became increasingly important in the early 1970’s as President Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” began to take hold.
In Chapter 3, “Nixon’s Trident : Naval Power in Southeast Asia, 1968-72,” the focus is on the first four years of the Nixon administration and his efforts to withdraw all U.S. combat forces and conclude a “peace with honor” . The navy’s primary contribution during this period was air strikes as part of the “Linebacker” bombing campaigns. In contrast with the earlier Rolling Thunder campaign, Linebacker was an unequivocal success. The authors contribute this success to the relaxed rules of engagement that allowed strikes against targets formerly off-limits . The use of air power became increasingly important as U.S. troop levels declined and the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) assumed a greater share of ground combat operations. Air power was instrumental in defeating the enemy’s Easter offensive in March-April 1972 and ultimately forcing serious peace negotiations at the Paris Peace Talks at the end of 1972 .
The final chapter, “Knowing the Enemy : Naval Intelligence in Southeast Asia,” covers the entirety of the Vietnam War and the role of naval intelligence in supporting operations in all of the naval domains. The authors credit the vast array of intelligence organizations and personnel as being the key to much of the operational and tactical successes of naval forces in the war .
Combat at Close Quarters is a valuable addition to the literature of the Vietnam War. The well-written essays supported by excellent photographs, maps, and historical art cover the many facets of the U.S. Navy’s role in the conflict. Although it is written primarily from a tactical perspective, the authors carefully outline the strategic and political contexts that shaped naval operations. The lack of reference notes limits the book’s utility for additional scholarly research. This volume will be useful to students of the Vietnam War or anyone interested in naval operations.
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