After reading Stalking the Vietcong, I wanted to learn more about the special operations to hunt down and destroy the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Not the major, conventional operations as described in Phase Line Green or The Best and the Brightest. No, I wanted to learn about the special tactics our best soldiers used. So, when I heard of Blackjack-33: With Special Forces in the Viet Cong Forbidden Zone by James Donahue, I knew I had to read it.
In Blackjack-33, Donahue uses his personal experiences as a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam to give a gripping account of how US Special Forces and the Cambodian troops they employed hunted down and destroyed Vietcong guerrillas in some of the most dangerous and action-filled sections of Vietnam.
Summary of Blackjack-33
Blackjack-33 by James Donahue isn’t a wide ranging book. Whereas most of the works of military history that I’ve read, such as Armageddon or Lee’s Lieutenants, cover longer periods of time and give a relatively holistic account of the actions that took place during that time, Blackjack-33 is laser-focused on a 14 day guerrilla mission that US Special Forces troops and Cambodian indigenous forces undertook.
That mission, named Blackjack-33, was just one of many missions in which the US tried to use unconventional tactics to destroy Vietcong forces in some of the most dangerous areas of Vietnam.
While not all of those Blackjack missions were successful, Blackjack-33 was. Few American or Cambodian casualties were incurred, and the brave troops on the mission were able to use ambushes, landmines, and airstrikes to overpower and completely destroy numerous Vietcong units and base camps. They destroyed supplies, wiped out Vietcong patrols, and called in napalm strikes on unsuspecting communist forces. And, best of all for the reader, Donahue describes many of those actions in gripping detail.
The scenes Donahue describes are action-packed, terrifying, and attention-grabbing. Every part of it is interesting and well-worth reading, especially if you want to learn about the relatively unknown Mobile Guerrilla Forces and the role they played in the Vietnam War.
Analysis of Blackjack-33
Although it only provides information about a small sliver of the Vietnam War, Blackjack-33 is a must-read book about that war, in my opinion. That’s because it gives a completely different perspective on the war than you find in many mainstream histories of the conflict.
Most books about Vietnam, other than perhaps Stalking the Vietcong, are defeatist in tone. They give tales of conventional battles in which US ground forces were incompetent, suffered many casualties, and only survived because of the prodigious use of artillery shelling and air power. Sure, those stories might be mostly accurate, but they paint the Vietnam War incorrectly. Based on them, you’d think the war never could have been won because of our own incompetence and North Vietnamese fighting spirit.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While the US Army did make many mistakes during the war, all armies do. The key is how they learn from those mistakes and create new strategies and tactics to succeed in the next engagement. The US didn’t lose in Vietnam because we didn’t learn from our mistakes, not because we made them.
In any case, Blackjack-33 provides a different perspective. In it, Donahue shows how the Mobile Guerrilla Forces of US Special Forces and Cambodian troops were able to beat the Vietcong at its own game and inflict substantial damage on it as an organization. When partnered with the intelligence and political operations described in Stalking the Vietcong, the communist forces could be decimated. Unfortunately for freedom-loving Vietnamese, the US Army refused to recognize that fact and shift away from conventional forces and towards unconventional forces. In other words, books about Vietnam shouldn’t be so defeatist. We could have won, had only our leaders been more competent.
The reason I think that Blackjack-33 is a must read is because it shows the future of warfare, especially in the unconventional conflicts we’ve been fighting recently. Whether the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan described in Hunting in the Shadows or our attempts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, large-scale conventional operations are relatively unsuccessful and just lead to higher casualties. Unconventional operations like those described in Extreme Ownership and Blackjack-33, however, have been successful.
If the US is to win future conflicts, it needs to learn that lesson. We could have won the Vietnam War had we learned it back then and doubled down on the Phoenix Program and missions like the Blackjack missions. But we didn’t because our leaders preferred to keep using manpower-intensive and ineffective conventional operations. Now, in our engagements in the War on Terror, we’re finally learning from experiences like those in Blackjack-33 and using more Special Forces. That trend of learning and adapting needs to continue.
Blackjack-33 is a book everyone should read because of the lessons it provides. But that’s not the only reason it is important. It’s also important as a reminder of the sacrifices our Vietnam Veterans made in an attempt to keep South Vietnam free. They know about the horrors that would be inflicted upon it if socialist North Vietnam took it over because of the twin facts that socialism always leads to gulags and is the ideology of misery, so they suffered and fought to protect it. Remember and support those veterans and be grateful for their sacrifice.
By: Gen Z Conservative