Book Reviews

Black Ops Vietnam Book Cover

Black Ops Vietnam Book Cover

Black Ops, Vietnam. The Operational History of MACVSOG

by Robert Gillespie 
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011
320 pages, $41.95 (HC)

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Reviewed by Bernd Horn

This book was a pleasant surprise. Admittedly, when I looked at the dust jacket cover art my first reaction was to think, “not yet another ‘kill ‘em all and let God sort them out’” history on special operations forces (SOF). However, once I cracked the cover, it became abundantly clear that the book was a very well-researched, well-written history of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Special Operations Group (MAVSOG). 

The book starts with an overview of American involvement in Vietnam and special operations prior to the creation of MACVSOG in 1964. The author then takes a chronological approach, methodically running through the life of the organization from 1964-1972, when the formation was dismantled. Each year becomes a chapter, and Gillespie provides an overview of key events, concepts, operations, organization, and programs. Furthermore, each year follows a similar template or construct, so it is easy to track evolution and changes within MACVSOG, as well as its activities. As such, the book becomes an excellent primer and resource tool. Due to the very nature of this approach, the book does not provide the definitive word on all aspects of the organization, activities, or events in Vietnam, but the author has done an admirable job of balancing quality and significance of content with quantity. Although topic areas are handled in a relatively succinct manner, he has expertly filtered the data, and he provides an incredibly complete and concise summary for each of the years covered, and their respective content. He has, in essence, created a marvelous source book.

What is impressive, aside from the tight narrative, is the fact that the book balances its succinct fact-based approach, rich with detailed statistics and data, with dramatic and exciting vignettes that capture the courage, drama, and heroism of the MACVSOG operators themselves. Specifically, he provides vignettes of winners of the US Congressional Medal of Honor, and also vignettes applicable to some specific operations. This adds a degree of action to an otherwise-historical summary.  It also adds context to the operations, and their degree of difficulty in the context of the greater conflict and the geographical location.

The book is also filled with wonderful little-known facts. It  brings forward the reality that within the realm of military affairs, there are very few new problems. The book covers the introduction of computers needed to sift through data; the problems associated with coalition operations, specifically, working with and trusting allies; the importance of air assets and communications; and the difficulty of fighting a limited war under considerable military and political constraints.

Of great interest is the author’s coverage of the psychological warfare component of MACVSOG and the group’s efforts at infiltrating the North, and conversely, trying to stymie the avalanche of troops, equipment, and supplies flowing into the South by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The accounts of agents trying to infiltrate, the phantom drops and agents, the counter-intelligence battle, and the use of special tactics to stop SOG teams interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail were fascinating. For example, the SOG teams were so successful that the North Vietnamese were forced to take dramatic action. They began to employ a layered defence of trail watchers, individuals maintaining observation on all possible landing zones [LZs] (in fact, by 1969, almost every possible LZ in Laos was under observation), patrols, rear area security units, tracker dogs, and hunter–killer units.     

Overall, the writing is crisp, clear, and easy to follow. The book is well-researched, and it contains a wealth of endnotes that provide both sources and additional information. The author is clearly knowledgeable about the subject, and has utilized seminal sources, both secondary and primary, including previously classified documents. 

Another extremely valuable aspect of the book is its bibliography with commentary, which will help the researcher or enthusiast sift through the vast amounts of literature, and focus in upon the more pertinent and authoritative sources. The volume also contains a detailed index and a glossary of abbreviations and acronyms to help the reader circumnavigate the military jargon that is always present in a work of this nature.

One disappointing element of the book was the images provided to augment the text. The author chose to go solely with portraits of the MACVSOG commanders. It would have been greatly beneficial to include other photographs that capture the terrain, personnel, and equipment used in order to bring some of the text to life.

In the end, this is a very valuable resource dealing with American special operations forces used during the Vietnam War. It is highly recommended for military professionals and enthusiasts, as well as anyone studying the conflict, SOF, or counter-insurgency operations.

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, is the Chief of Staff Strategic Education and Training Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy. He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada and Norwich University.