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The Lessons Of War

March 2024
1min read

Prodigal Soldiers How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War

by James Kitfteld, Simon & Schuster, 476 pages .

James Kitfield’s Prodigal Soldiers begins with the story of Barry McCaffrey, who graduated from Andover and went to West Point in 1959, when the Regular Army was at the height of its postwar prestige. By 1966 McCaffrey was a first lieutenant in the 82d Airborne in Vietnam. He and his troops were sent to relieve a Marine firebase and were quickly surrounded, sniped at, and shelled by North Vietnamese Army troops while NVA gunners shot down medevac helicopters. By morning all the American troops and a third of the South Vietnamese battalions with them were dead or wounded, and the living were facing near-certain massacre. Magically a lone American gunship appeared. Barry McCaffrey mostly recovered from his wounds, incurred through faithful service in pursuit of a grossly misconceived strategy, within a month; it would take the U.S. Army more like twenty-five years.

Prodigal Soldiers is the story of how after Vietnam men like McCaffrey went on to reinvent their profession, overcoming considerable institutional resistance and winning at least a partial and temporary victory over the most deadly enemies they had faced in the war: grotesque interservice rivalries, hopeless doctrine and tactics, and political aims incompatible with military logic and necessity. Some very competent observers greatly underestimated their ultimate success, as did the Iraqi leadership in 1991. This is a fine book, and the uncanny British and French Bosnian replay of some of our Vietnam-era blunders makes it timely and important.

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