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Black Ops, Vietnam: The Operational History of MACVSOG

Black Ops, Vietnam: The Operational History of MACVSOG by Robert M. Gillespie. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 304 pp.

If you are expecting a first-rate thriller that takes you through exciting, pulse-pounding missions carried out by studies and operations group (SOG) operators during the Vietnam War, then keep looking. As you peruse the cover, do not be fooled by the prominently displayed Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group (MACVSOG) insignia and the stirring title Black Ops Vietnam. Pay attention to the fine print—in this case, The Operational History of MACVSOG, the key word being “history.” Even though not best described as a page-turner, Black Ops Vietnam is an extremely well written and organized history book that documents MACVSOG from its inception to its withdrawal from Vietnam. Author Robert M. Gillespie is a “one-hit wonder” of sorts who had not published any major works prior to Black Ops Vietnam nor any since. This fact does not diminish what is so far Gillespie’s masterpiece since he certainly qualifies as a reputable source of historical information, having earned BA and MA degrees in history combined with an extended tour of US military service. This is not the type of book that a casual reader will pick up for an entertaining read, but it will certainly grab the attention of strategists and military history buffs, especially those interested in Vietnam and SOG history.

Black Ops Vietnam details the MACSOG, commissioned to covertly conduct “black” operations in Vietnam, including reconnaissance, psychological operations, and sabotage. As a comprehensive analysis, it covers a wide range of themes, from the makeup and training of reconnaissance teams themselves to the logistical idiosyncrasies of insertion, extraction, and support of the entire operation. The book is organized in a predictable manner, starting with antecedents and then chronicling MACVSOG’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict year by year, including biographical information about each commander. Since it is a history book, some sections are mutually exclusive and only minimally interdependent. Each chapter contains logical, standardized subsections that allow for easy reference if, for example, a reader wanted to examine a certain aspect of history such as airborne or cross-border operations over the span of the conflict. This setup is advantageous because it allows readers to skip some sections either irrelevant to their study or, quite frankly, not that interesting. Granted, the occasional reader might find some value in knowing the number of helicopters the unit had on hand at a given time or the annual MACSOG budget, but some of the logistical details tend to detract from the more relevant and stimulating historical narrative. It does a terrific job recounting the relationship that MACVSOG commanders had with civilian partners at the Central Intelligence Agency and with other higher headquarters at operational and strategic levels. This insight supplies background to some of the choices made on a larger scale—those that affected not only MACSOG but also conventional units in-theater. To his credit, Gillespie does an exemplary job scrutinizing declassified documents, memoirs, and citations in an effort to provide a look into MACVSOG that is unequalled in the current literature of the subject. Keeping conjecture and speculation to an absolute minimum, the author candidly addresses the successes and, seemingly, many failures of the MACSOG.

Although the book typically provides brief factual data on day-to-day operations, it also goes into more detail on some prominent, significant events, such as the murder of Vietnamese national Thai Khac Chuyen by Green Berets and Operation Tailwind. In a strange twist, the author chooses to address the public controversy surrounding Tailwind 18 years after it occurred but does not offer such a retrospective look for other high-profile incidents. The book also contains many inspirational accounts that examine individual heroes of the unit and their actions, effectively keeping the casual reader interested in what would otherwise be a somewhat dull history book. What Black Ops Vietnam lacks in compelling prose it makes up for in historically accurate, verifiable accounts of many aspects of MACVSOG generally not available to anybody other than research historians. Of note, it is refreshing to see that the author pays significant attention and gives credit to the Montagnard, Chinese Nung, Cambodian, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese personnel who fought and died alongside American MACVSOG forces.

Black Ops Vietnam is unique in that it fills a void in the market for a comprehensive and consolidated study of MACVSOG from a third-person, unbiased historical perspective. In the 1990s, Charles Reske published Mac-V-Sog Command History, a series of books made up of separate annexes that cover MACVSOG through different periods of the Vietnam conflict. In 2011 Jason Hardy published MAC V SOG: Team History of a Clandestine Army, an aesthetically pleasing series that incorporates a number of previously unpublished pictures and graphics along with personal accounts derived from the veterans themselves. Gillespie’s book has an edge simply because it is a concise, objective synopsis of MACVSOG history, conveniently published in a single volume.

In light of the unprecedented focus on current special operations forces, this book should pique the interest of strategists and operators alike who wish to explore some of the finer aspects of covert warfare. Black Ops Vietnam is an accurate historical account of MACVSOG operations from the beginning to end of the Vietnam conflict. It is not an edge-of-your-seat page-turner that leaves you wanting more. With an unbiased point of view, Gillespie addresses both sides of military operations, often including accounts from communist forces that faced MACVSOG on the battlefield. In the context of modern wars, Black Ops Vietnam is relevant and significant simply because it effectively summarizes lessons learned in utilizing covert irregular-warfare methods that can be easily applied to combating an unconventional enemy or insurgency today.

Capt Hilario J. Esquivel III, USAF
Laughlin AFB, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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