The Vietnam War is one of my favorite wars to read about and study. For some reason, I think it is surpassed only by the Eastern Front in terms of the vast amount of interesting details that can be learned from studying it. In my opinion, the new tactics tried during the Vietnam War, dizzying array of new military technology deployed in it, and profound political aspects of the war all make it an important one to study. So, when I heard about Phase Line Green, I knew I had to read it.
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As interesting as the Vietnam War can be, reading about it can also be an incredibly frustrating experience. Because of constant political meddling, soldiers weren’t free to fight with all the resources at their disposal. Instead, Americans often died because our political leaders weren’t willing to go to the lengths necessary to win. In that respect, it was similar to the Korean War, at least from General MacArthur’s telling of it in Reminiscences.
Phase Line Green is one of those books that shows that dilemma facing the American footsoldier during the Vietnam War, especially when the LBJ Administration was in charge and implemented overly restrictive rules of engagement (like those McChrystal later created). He wanted to fight and win when battling against the North Vietnamese and VC, but often couldn’t because of overly-restrictive rules of engagement. In Phase Line Green, author Nicholas Warr zeroes in on the battle for “Phase Line Green” in Hue during the Tet Offensive. By doing so, he is able to describe in painfully precise detail how American rules of engagement killed dozens of American troops.
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Summary of Phase Line Green
Warr begins Phase Line Green with his thesis: ordinance limitations and rules of engagement caused more Americans to die than was necessary in Hue. In his view, the American response to the Tet Offensive is now thought of as one the utilized the immense American firepower available.
Warr’s own experience on the ground in Hue belie that narrative. In actuality, domestic American politics and a reticence to damage the city meant that our firepower was used sparingly.
The Battle for Hue
For those of you that don’t know, Phase Line Green was the name American commanders gave to a street in Hue. Along it, the VC had constructed impressive defenses that held up American troops for days. Behind it, similarly named streets such as “Phase Line Black” also contained devastatingly effective VC fortifications. Warr was a young lieutenant sent to attack across Phase Line Green in the opening days of the Tet Offensive.
Logic would lead you to the conclusion that American commanders would have used every resource at their disposal to dislodge the VC. As told in The Best and The Brightest, McNamara’s Pentagon had developed some impressive weaponry. American tanks, jets, and artillery should have crushed VC defenses.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. Instead, platoon after platoon was sent across Phase Line after Phase Line. Each platoon was slaughtered by murderous VC fire.
Warr’s platoon was one of the first platoons to be handled so roughly by VC defenses. But, that wasn’t because of his lack of leadership. He was told to launch a frontal attack against reinforced urban defenses. Those orders were basically suicidal, and dozens of Americans were killed or wounded in minutes because of them.
Eventually, Warr describes how the rules of engagement were progressively lifted as American troops kept battling across the city. Tanks, recoilless rifles, bombing runs, and artillery were all eventually used. Once used, they destroyed the buildings that the military had previously tried to spare through its refusal to used heavy weapons. At that point, what was the point?
When they were finally brought to bear on the VC defenses, those tools allowed Americans to advance with relatively few casualties. When they weren’t used, Marines and infantrymen on the ground paid the price.
Hue was liberated after weeks of brutal fighting. Warr was there to witness it and the stories he tells are incredibly compelling, brutal, and horrifying.
The Legacy of Hue and The Tet Offensive
Warr’s main goal in writing Phase Line Green was to relieve the psychological demons he suffered from because of the battle. Who wouldn’t be haunted by watching their men be cut down due to awful orders from above?
In doing so by describing his horror at the idiocy of American rules of engagement, Warr provides a telling story about how political interference from Washington killed hundreds of Americans in that battle alone.
Phase Line Green is only about a few days of the Battle for Hue during Tet Offensive. It’s not a holistic description of the war or American policy during it.
However, the details Warr provides should leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads it. The Battle for Hue was brutal and costly. While it undoubtedly would have been brutal either way, there was no need for it to be as costly as it was.
Had American officers stepped up and risked their careers by approving heavy weapons to save the lives of their men, far fewer Americans would have died.
Analysis of Phase Line Green
I thought Phase Line Green was a terrific book that every student of military history should read. In it, Warr gives the reader a brutally realistic depiction of what the Vietnam War was like. Also, because it is about urban combat, it is very different than other books about the Vietnam War, such as Stalking the Vietcong and Blackjack-33, which take place in the countryside and jungle, as do most other books about the Vietnam War.
Yes, his depiction comes from one corner of the war. But, it was an incredibly hellish and important corner. So, I think it is still worth reading.
Additionally, Phase Line Green is important because it shows the dangers of political meddling. MacArthur recounts in Reminiscences how politicians, especially Truman, meddled with his plans. Ulysses Grant, on the other hand, mentions little in his Memoirs about political meddling from Lincoln. The results speak for themselves; both were excellent generals, but Grant subdued the Confederacy whereas MacArthur’s war in Korea became a draw.
Something similar happened in Vietnam. Westmoreland was not an idiot. He was a decorated commander. However, he wasn’t given a free hand with which to prosecute the war. Instead, he had to deal with incessant meddling from Johnson and the rest described in The Best and The Brightest.
As a result, America could never really gain the upper hand. We won every engagement. But, like Gary Powers’s U-2 mission in Bridge of Spies, incompetent interference from above meant that missions often went poorly. Had the military been free to fight to win, maybe that would have been different.
The problem isn’t exclusively an American one. In fact, Manstein’s premise in Lost Victories is that Hitler’s incompetent meddling cost Germany the war. If the German experience with political meddling in World War II, especially the apocalyptic Eastern Front, was anything like the American experience with political meddling in Vietnam, then it makes sense that Germany lost because of it.
American politicians should all read Phase Line Green. By doing so, they might gain an appreciation for how their interference in military operations costs lives. To read about the wars for democracy in the Middle East America has fought is to read about overly restrictive rules of engagement and correspondingly high casualty rates. Iraq, in particular, was an example of that.
Vietnam is a war that has many narratives about it. Whether we should have fought it, if we could have won it, or why we entered into it are all questions worth debating. Frankly, I think we had no other option because we needed to stop socialism. The need to fight back against the socialist/communist menace is the greatest lesson of the 20th Century.
But, whether we should have fought it to win it never should have been the question. American troops were dying over there. Many died because they didn’t have the support they needed. If you read Phase Line Green, you’ll see the idiocy of that. Marines died on a street in Hue because American politicians were worried about bombing a few pretty buildings.
By: Gen Z Conservative
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