by Joe Parnar and Robert Dumon
Philadelphia & Oxford: Casemate, 2022. Pp. xvi, 269.
Illus., maps, gloss., personae, notes, index.. $38.95. ISBN: 1636242340
SOF Operations in Southeast Asia
Since the last American soldier left South Vietnam in 1975, the history of Special Operations has become its own niche in the wider history of the war. If the reader is familiar with the genre, they will know what to expect in SOG: Kontum. Thrilling first-hand accounts of daring operations behind enemy lines, always outnumbered, jousting with and beating the VC and NVA at every turn. The unfortunate loss of comrades in combat, with the mission accomplished in almost every case. Crashed pilots saved, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail disrupted by the brave men of the Studies and Operations Group.
The Command and Control Central base for the SOG at Kontum (also known as Forward Operating Base-2 or FOB-2) was one of the more distinguished groups in the Special Operations war in Southeast Asia, with multiple Medals of Honor and Silver Stars being given to the teams operating out of Kontum. One therefore gets account after account of the various kinds of missions the SOG conducted out of the base. Mostly attempts to surveil and interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia, missions to rescue pilots shot down in the area near Kontum, and missions to retrieve the bodies of SOG soldiers lost in action. A coda to the book notes the efforts of the SOG Veterans in subsequent decades to bring the bodies of soldiers back to the U.S. who were declared Missing in Action (MIA) during the war.
One does receive a good primer in how SOG was organized and how its missions were run. Typically, missions were divided into those conducted by Recon or Spike Teams, who ran reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Search, Locate, Annihilate, Monitor Company (SLAM) missions. A third type of missions were Bright Light missions, where teams were sent to rescue pilots who had been shot down over Laos or Cambodia. SOG Teams were usually inserted by helicopter, and often included the support of Hatchet Force platoons composed of South Vietnamese commandos (often from the Nung Chinese and Montagnard minorities).
As with other examples of Vietnam Special Forces (SF) Histories, SOG: Kontum shares the faults of the genre. We are dealing with the memories of the soldiers, years or decades after the events occurred. The only checks to their accounts are brief references to the official SOG history of the U.S. Army. There is not a single Vietnamese account in the book, including of the S. Vietnamese soldiers who fought with the SOG teams. In only a few cases are the names of the South Vietnamese soldiers who fought and died in these skirmishes mentioned. No attempt has been made to consult North Vietnamese histories that might shed light on the other side of these battles. That of course leads to the kind of narratives that go back to early American accounts of fighting Native Americans, where a small group of plucky, brave American soldiers overcomes incredible odds surrounded by uncounted and savage enemies. Whether the enemy was a regiment or a platoon, no one can ever know, because the narrative always comes only from one side.
Nor is there an effort to put the small battles that SOG fought in the context of the larger Vietnam War. Though the book starts around the time of the Tet Offensive, what effect that major event may have had on SOG operations never comes up. Then there is the general tendency of SF histories to over-emphasize the importance of the SOG missions. Fact is, despite the successes of SOG across SE Asia, the main goal of interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the point where VC and NVA troops in S. Vietnam could not be supported never came close to being accomplished. The ultimate result was that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam, and that would not have changed if SOG had more personnel and resources. But in general, the typical reader of this book knows what they are getting into, so they won’t be disappointed with SOG: Kontum.
Our Reviewer: Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews include Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective, Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies, In the Name of Lykourgos, The Other Face of Battle, The Bulgarian Contract, Napoleon’s Stolen Army, In the Words of Wellington’s Fighting Cocks, Chasing the Great Retreat, Athens, City of Wisdom: A History, Commanding Petty Despots, and Writing Battles: New Perspectives on Warfare and Memory in Medieval Europe.
Note: SOG Kontum is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium