The Air War in Vietnam by Michael E. Weaver. Texas Tech University Press, 2022, 640 pp.
Just when you think you have read all there is to know about the war in Vietnam, particularly the air war there, a skilled academician—in this instance Michael E. Weaver—pens a persuasive historical tome using previously classified materials and documentary policy evidence in a new comprehensive work. Weaver, currently an associate professor of history at the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College at the Air University in Alabama, breaks down his analysis of the air war via six mission sets—aerial refueling, air superiority, reconnaissance, airlift, close air support, and coercion and interdiction. Rather than plow old ground, Weaver skillfully looks at each of these mission sets not through the lens of sortie counts, missions flown, and bombs dropped—which have been argued to be the worst measures of success in this war, and any war for that matter—but via true effectiveness markers grounded in the mission objectives of the specific campaign or operation and filtered through the lens of US policy goals for the overall war. In this context, The Air War in Vietnam is a unique and new contribution to the historical account.
Shortly after beginning the book, most readers will intuit the notion that the Air Force’s use of air power in the prosecution of the war was mostly successful. It was the waging of the war as a whole that was a failure, and Weaver soberly sets out establishing why. With effectiveness as the book’s unifying theme—the author rightly notes how he and his colleagues “wrestle constantly” with this, as there is no agreed-upon definition of effectiveness—Weaver posits that America simply forgot the lessons of its past fighting victories. The total war mentality leading to World War II’s triumph was a high-water mark that was never to be reached again because of restrictions placed on potential targets. In numerous cases time and again, Weaver explains how field commanders were prohibited from attacking not only specific general target categories, but also specific targets themselves. Airspace constraints, too, limited airpower’s effective reach and power because of limitations shackling air commanders. Limitations that might incite overt involvement by the Soviet Union and China were assiduously avoided at nearly all costs, which resulted in the micromanagement we are all familiar with, and sadly, in a war that fell short of national goals.
As noted previously, Weaver uses established policy goals outlined in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series to specifically link air operations to national policy and strategy goals—something never done before in scholarship. This dynamic is often overlooked in narrow examinations of war histories and analysis because the two are inextricably linked and a treatment of one is not complete without the other. As a strategist and former commandant of the US National War College—the premier joint and interagency strategy war college—I teach my students to think about strategy as Weaver would. Holistic approaches that incorporate and analyze all the instruments of power and their interrelationship along with the war’s ends, ways, and means, while assessing costs and risks, is a proven methodology for analyzing success in the broader context of national security strategy—which is exactly what Weaver has accomplished here.
Weaver explains the Vietnam War at its core as a siege of North Vietnam. Paring back his evidence and arguments reveals the truth of that supposition as the United States prosecuted a containment strategy in the hopes it would not expand into open conflict with the North’s satellite patrons. As strategically sound as this idea may have been, its execution was akin to fighting with both hands tied behind the back, and it frittered away the tactical and operational gains made on a regular basis. For example, when a US bombing campaign or other supporting operation had the North on the ropes, policy dictated a pull back or cease-fire to allow for negotiations to take place. This would often result in the North promising to negotiate a certain peace it never intended to keep while it generated forces for the next battle. This cycle repeated itself numerous times during the war, and the United States never learned, let alone applied, this lesson. Weaver notes that as a result of the existential way the North fought to survive and win, the United States was never going to win because limited war always results in limited outcomes—and that is exactly what happened.
Ultimately, for the United States, Vietnam contributed to larger Cold War geopolitical goals, according to Weaver. Over hundreds of meticulously researched pages, he aptly demonstrates this nuanced point. America needs to realize yet again that limited war prosecution will often result in limited results, and that if victory is truly the purpose, defining goals and objectives more narrowly in the context of participation is a requirement that can never be overlooked. This book will add measurably to the historical record and is a must-read for all Vietnam War and airpower enthusiasts and scholars.
Brigadier General Chad T. Manske, USAF, Retired