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A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam Paperback – April 10, 2007

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Product Description
Neglected by scholars and journalists alike, the years of conflict in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975 offer surprises not only about how the war was fought, but about what was achieved. Drawing from thousands of hours of previously unavailable (and still classified) tape-recorded meetings between the highest levels of the American military command in Vietnam, A Better War is an insightful, factual, and superbly documented history of these final years. Through his exclusive access to authoritative materials, award-winning historian Lewis Sorley highlights the dramatic differences in conception, conduct, and--at least for a time--results between the early and later years of the war. Among his most important findings is that while the war was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress, the soldiers were winning on the ground. Meticulously researched and movingly told, A Better War sheds new light on the Vietnam War.

Amazon Exclusive Essay: "New Vietnam War History" by Lewis Sorley, Author of A Better War

For a long time most people thought the long years of American involvement in the Vietnam War were just more of the same--with a bad ending. Now we know that during the latter years, when General Creighton Abrams commanded U.S. forces, almost everything changed, and for the better.

Abrams understood the nature of the war and devised a more availing approach to the conduct of it. Building up South Vietnam's own armed forces got high priority, whereas before they had been neglected and allowed to go into combat outgunned by the enemy. The covert infrastructure which through terror and coercion kept South Vietnam's rural population under domination was painstakingly rooted out, not ignored as earlier. And combat operations were greatly improved, concentrating on large numbers of patrols and ambushes designed to provide security for the people rather than cumbersome large-unit sweeps through the deep jungle.

Some commentators have called the description of these changes "revisionist" history, but actually it is new history. Virtually all the better-known earlier books about the war concentrated heavily on the early years, leaving the later period grossly neglected.

New insight came importantly from a collection of hundreds of tape recordings of briefings and staff meetings in General Abrams's headquarters during the four years he commanded in Vietnam. They are filled with human drama, professional debate, successes and frustrations, and ultimately a hard-won triumph, told in the voices of Abrams and his senior associates; such visiting officials as the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and a succession of often brilliant briefing officers.

Later, of course, what they had won was thrown away by the United States Congress, but the story of their better war is still a dramatic testament to courage, integrity, devotion, and professional competence.--Lewis Sorley

From Publishers Weekly

Using a host of oral interviews, 455 tape recordings made in Vietnam during the years 1968-1972 and numerous other sources, military historian Sorley has produced a first-rate challenge to the conventional wisdom about American military performance in Vietnam. Essentially, this is a close examination of the years during which General Creighton Abrams was in command, having succeeded William Westmoreland. Sorley contends that Abrams completely transformed the war effort and in the process won the war on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese 1968 Tet offensive was bloodily repulsed, he explains, as was a similar offensive in 1969. Together, the 1970 American incursion into Cambodia and a 1971 Laotian operation succeeded in reducing enemy combat effectiveness. Renewed American bombing of the North and Abrams's use of air power to assist ground operations further reduced Hanoi's ability to wage war. Sorley argues that the combination of anti-war protests in America and a complete misunderstanding of the actual combat situation by the diplomats negotiating the 1973 Paris accords wasted American military victories. In spite of drug use and other problems, Sorley maintains, the army in Vietnam performed capably and efficiently, but in vain, for South Vietnam was sold out by the 1973 cease-fire, America's pullout and the failure of Congress to provide further military assistance to the South. Sure to provoke both passionate and reasoned objection, Sorley's book is as important a reexamination of the operational course of the war as Robert McNamara's In Retrospect is of the conflict's moral and political history. Maps and photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 507 pages
  • Publisher: Harvest; 1 edition (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156013096
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156013093
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #115,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Lewis Sorley, a former soldier, is a graduate of West Point and holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. His Army service included tank and armored cavalry units in Germany, Vietnam, and the U.S., Pentagon staff duty, and teaching at West Point and the Army War College.

His books include two biographies, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times and Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command. The Johnson biography received the Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Book Award. An excerpt of the Abrams biography won the Peterson Prize as the year's best scholarly article on military history. He has also been awarded the General Andrew Goodpaster Prize for military scholarship by the American Veterans Center.

His book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His edited work Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972 received the Army Historical Foundation's Trefry Prize for providing a unique perspective on the art of command. He has also written Honor Bright: History and Origins of the West Point Honor Code and System and edited a two-volume work entitled Press On! Selected Works of General Donn A. Starry. He is currently researching a biography of General William C. Westmoreland.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

146 of 159 people found the following review helpful By Stuart A. Herrington on May 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Author Lewis Sorley has done all Americans, especially Vietnam veterans, a service by producing this meticulously researched, balanced study of the Vietnam War's final (post-Westmoreland) years. I served almost four years in Vietnam between January 1971 and the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. I rarely review books about the war because too many of them evoke the sentiment, "If that was Vietnam, where was I?" But as one who fought the Vietcong guerrillas and struggled to ferret out their shadow government, who felt the fury of the NVA's 1972 Easter Offensive, and who ultimately left Vietnam on a marine helicopter from the embassy roof, I can say without qualification that author Sorley has got it right. He is on the mark when he points out the success of Cambodian sanctuary raids in 1970 and the long-overdue, successful emphasis on pacification pushed by General Abrams and Ambassador Bunker. He is equally correct in his statement that, by late 1972, it was our war to lose as Hanoi's legions faltered in disarray in the wake of the 13-division attack on South Vietnam that had been launched to bolster sagging revolutionary morale in the South. I served in a province that, under the Westmoreland strategy, was a revolutionary hotbed, where a simple trip to pick up the mail was an invitation to ambush. When Abrams, Colby, Vann, and Bunker got their hands on the throttle, this same province became a different place, with significant increases in security, massive morale problems and defections among the Vietcong cadre who had once ruled the countryside, and a significant economic upturn. This was the Vietnam of Sorley's "Better War.Read more ›
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123 of 141 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Veil on May 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
We have been repeating certain truisms ad nauseum for the past twenty five years: "It was a civil war"; "The South Vietnamese fought reluctantly"; "The North Vietnamese fought a popular war"; "US tactics were ineffective." The Vietnam War has become a cliché in our historical memory.
Lewis Sorley deflates each and every one of these truisms and helps to tell the real and much more tragic story of the Vietnam War. Through a thorough analysis of America's command strategy under Abrams he shows how Americans came to understand the war as it was and fought much more effectively. Sorley's experience as a military historian helps him to explain the course of the war on the battlefield, particularly the outcome of the Easter Invasion. Lacking the leftist biases of many Vietnam War historians also allows him to discuss the unsavory side of the Communist struggle - and the fact that they were just as dependent on their patrons as South Vietnam was on us. Additionally, his use of Communist sources details just how effectively the Allies fought after 1968.
I picked up this book believing that we should have stayed out of Vietnam. I put it down feeling that our abandonment of the South was perhaps the most profound act of cowardice in American history. Sorley's book captures the tragedy of this abandonment - and the lost possibilities for millions of South Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, too many of whom did not survive long after the "liberation".
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70 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As one who served two tours with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam, I concur with Dr. Sorley's thesis that we won the Vietnam War and then let the victory slip through our fingers by not living up to the pledges we made to the South Vietnamese Government. But there were earlier opportunties to have won a military victory as well. If we had been allowed to pursue the NVA in Cambodia right after the first and second battles of the Ia Drang in 1965 and 1966, respectively, we could have forced Hanoi to the negotiating table much earlier. While I too hold the late, great General Creighton Abrams and his approach to Vietnamization of the war in high regard, I think General Westmoreland deserves equal respect. If General Westmoreland had been given the geographical latitude he needed to prosecute a war of annihiltion, Westy would not have been forced to fight a war of attrition -- something Americans do not fight well at all. Nevertheless, Dr. Sorley brings to this book the same kind of dogged and thorough research that he brings to all of his writings. Clearly, a five-star addition to my personal library Wm. Hamilton, Ph.D.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Quang Pham on November 7, 2005
Format: Paperback
"A Better War" is one of two best books about the second half of the American military's involvement in Vietnam (1969-1973). It deals with the Vietnamization of the war, focusing on General Abrams' "clear and hold" approach as opposed to "search and destroy" tactics by General Westmoreland. I am biased because my father had served in the South Vietnamese military and this book is the ONLY work I could find that provides the facts, the successes and failures of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
After running on a platform to end the protracted conflict, Nixon won the Oval Office at the height of the war in 1968. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began direct secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese behind the Saigon government's back.
In 1965 the United States had taken over conduct of the war, with troop strength peaking at 560,000. Before that, the South Vietnamese had fought the brewing war themselves, with the help of American advisers who were first dispatched by President John F. Kennedy. South Vietnam also had a young but capable air force, along with a navy, Airborne troops, Rangers and Marines.
The South Vietnamese military hurriedly expanded its capabilities with the goal of replicating the military philosophy, tactics and structure of their great ally. Unfortunately, this meant inheriting the associated cost, complexity and continued dependence on the United States.
South Vietnam's military was tested in the biggest battles of the war, larger than anything U.S. ground troops had faced in previous years: Lam Son 719 (the incursion into Laos), the Easter Offensive (the largest battle of the war and one where the South Vietnamese withstood a 120,000-man assault, albeit with the help of U.S.
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