The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh

By Robert Black - Originally Published November 1982

The END OF THE LINE: The Siege of Khe Sanh. By Robert Pisor. W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1982, 319pp.

Robert Pisor, a former Detroit News correspondent in Vietnam and a Journalist, has added significantly to our understanding of the events surrounding Marine operations centered at the combat base located at Xom Cham but called Khe Sanh. What we gel is a good overview of the various decisions taken at many levels, from regimental to Presidential, and the impact of those decisions, whether intended or not, on the conduct of U.S. operations in Vietnam. Although Pisor touches on life in the trenches and on the hill outposts, he is far more concerned with the top protagonists in the overall Khe Sanh campaign-William C. Westmoreland and Vo Nguyen Giap.

The problem with this approach, however, is that the author never quite reaches the true epicenters of Westmoreiand's and Giap's decision-making. Although Pisor, with the writing of this book in mind, had access to Marine oral history files and interviewed many Marines who were critical to operations during the siege period, he interviewed neither Westmoreland or Giap and has relied on their published writings (as well as journalist interviews of the former in 1967-68) to substantiate his own interpretations. The product thus is eminently readable, appears substantially documented, and gives an aura of reading the "true" story, when in fact significant gaps remain.

The story is basically accurate and reflects the history and politics surrounding a significant battle that captured public and official attention al home and abroad. With this single volume, a reader feels the situation before and during the siege, undergoes the gnashing of the generals over projected outcomes, and gets embroiled in the debates of political leaders back in Washington. No other book does this, and this is Pisor's strong point, a reflection of his being a professional Journalist.

Pisor's narrative raises the curtain with Bill Dabney's India Company, 26th Marines, patrolling up the fingers of Hill 881 North to retrieve a decimated recon patrol's lost radio and code shackle cards. He uses this skirmish to weave back through the background to "why Khe Sanh." The why goes convolutingly through chapters on Westmoreland, what the area was like before the war arrived, Lyndon Johnson's concern with Khe Sanh being like Dien Bien Phu, and Giap, with a break for the reader on a short chapter detailing the battle history of 20-21 January 1968. He then attempts to relate Tet '68 to Khe Sanh, rather than the converse, before moving into two chapters on "bitter little battles" around Khe Sanh and "life in the V-ring" itself. He then ends with chapters on the winding down of operations, the changeover of the 26th Marines from David Lownd's to Bruce Meyer's command, and the curtain falling on the combat base. (This section is fraught with errors of date and unit designation, including complete neglect of the 1st Marines' role and the fact the base was not actually closed until about 5 July; this reviewer closed Hill 881 on 6 July and moved to Hill 689 for the last battle of the closing of the hill outposts.) He adds an unnecessary discussion into body counts-that McNamarian measure so misapplied in Vietnam-and an excellently balanced capsule of judgments on Khe Sanh, expressed by recognized authorities, ranging from Sir Robert Thompson to David Douglas Duncan.

In spite of his excellent depiction of how the Marines got into their situation, how they fared, and how they succeeded, he lets his readers down by leading them into his own theories regarding the generals' strategies without clearly telling his readers this is what he is doing. In doing this, he uses a style that relies heavily on innuendo and excerpts from the protagonists' memoirs and other reports, apparently sometimes taken out of context but fitting the theory proffered. His page note style reflects this, as only a second or even third reading (after the source has been matched to the relevant passage) allows a fuller understanding of what other meanings could be derived from the parts excerpted. Anyone familiar with the original sources will know this to be the case.

What Pisor claims is that Westmoreland wanted the Khe Sanh battle, that he envisioned it as "the capstone of his combat career" (p.36), when in fact this is not true. Gen Westmoreland saw Khe Sanh as a necessary step in a larger, three-division strike across the supply routes in Laos, and even this was part of a larger strategy. If anythihg would have been Westmoreland's view of a career capstone, it would have been a strategic amphibious strike along with heliborne forces leapfrogging enemy strongpoints in the panhandle of North Vietnam, leading to negotiations for ending the North's presence in the South, and thus a political win for Saigon, as well as the United States. Many U.S. military and naval leaders supported such a strategy but were precluded from it by political leaders who had little understanding of East and Southeast Asian geopolitics and great fears. Pisor's innuendo makes it appear thai these were Westmorland's delusions, not carefully conceived strategy, discussed with other military experts who had some real understanding of the implications.

If one reads carefully what has been presented (and is somewhat knowledgeable about higher level U.S. policy decisions regarding Vietnam, then respect for Gen Westmoreiand seems certain to emerge. Asking that of many Marines is arduous at best! Most Grunts directly felt the implications of any strategy chosen in Vietnam. Because they were so close to it, they were often contemptuous of any coolly detached professional who may have been its architect. And this was especially so for Marines, who had a highly feasible strategy for dealing with contentious problems posed in Vietnam but were severely constrained in implementing it. Such was their Combined Action Program for winning over and securing inhabited areas-an approach which Gen Westmoreland felt hampered his overall priorities of striking at Main Force VC and NVA units in their staging areas, as well as at their sanctuaries and supply routes. So Marine commanders underwrote combined action platoons by counting CAP Marines on the rolls of every authorized combat unit's end strength, a sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Pisor, however, never focuses these real tactical and strategic differences. Although he touches on the sore nerve of the attempt by Westmoreland to separate Marine air from the air-ground team, he never goes into depth about why Marines feel so strongly about this issue, or why the Air Force and the Army feel differently. Furthermore he takes an unwarranted slap at Marines by implying that they had no respect for properly digging in or bunkering their positions.

Allegedly focusing on the strategies of the generals, he never gels to the heart of their actual strategic perceptions or their formal preparations, in spite of pages of supposedly illuminating descriptions of other battles such as Junction City, Cedar Falls, Loc Ninh, Dak To, Con Thien, Mutter's Ridge, Dien Bien Phu, and Groupement Mobile 100's denouement to demonstrate by implication what influenced their strategies. Thus Pisor fails 10 see that these were merely reflections of strategic thought molded out of years of preparation and experience, and not strategies chosen in knee-jerk response to the situations encountered. At least he is evenhanded in his treatment and attempts a similar arm's length review of Gen Giap.

The crux of Pisor's concern is that Westmoreland saw an opportunity to attract, lie down, and crush three of Giap's crack divisions and became fixed on this, whereas Giap saw an opportunity to fix U.S. forces around an irresistible target while moving to strike elsewhere. Thus the lure of Khe Sanh for both generals can be interpreted to suit many theories, given incomplete data and the lack of access to North Vietnamese sources. The reader is left with the implication that Giap never intended any crushing victory over forces "trapped" at Khe Sanh and that Westmoreland, so attracted to a lure of his own making, was fooled on a strategic level and did not perceive the Tet '68 Offensive.

In fact Westmoreland and his staff were quite aware of the impending offensive. Pisor gives an accurate description of a windfall intelligence find that occurred with the surrender of an NVA lieutenant at the combat base and how all the commands up the line instantly acted on the information. Other intelligence indicators corroborated the impending offensive, and the general's judgments regarding preparations for meeting the threat were mostly on target. In this way, Pisor contradicts his own contentions about Wesimoreland's "fixations."

Unfortunately for the uninitiated, Pisor portrays Khe Sanh as the turning point of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Scholars, political analysts, and many on active duty would argue otherwise. At most it was one of many elements considered in the events of 1968 that influenced U.S. political thinking about the conduct of the war. At the least it was a tactical military victory over a minimum of one NVA division. But it was the public media that labeled it a "turning point," giving it far more historic political importance than it deserved; and the author continues in this vein of "popular" analysis.

Pisor also mars the pleasure of reading what could be an excellent narrative by technical mistakes and errors. Although the excellent map drawings by Joseph P. Davison seem to reflect reference to the Huong Hoa AMS map shed 6342 III, Pisor does not seem to have had this before him, as he consistently spelled the river name for the Rao Quan (northeast barrier to the plateau) as "Rao Quang"; for many who operated in the area, that river is forever burned in their memory from constant reference to the map. Pisor may have committed the error of accepting after-action report citations (often full of typographical errors about place names and grid coordinates) as totally correct. He makes mistakes on nomenclature, e.g., calling the M72 66mm LAAW a "LAW." And he never gets to the publicly documented reasons behind the M16 rifle's jamming problems (see James Fallows' National Defense, Random House, 1981, a source not in Pisor's bibliography).

As a result of all this, Pisor misses the full truth of the campaign for Khe Sanh. His discussions of troop life never touch the Vietnam most Marines knew and repeat much found elsewhere. What he gives us is a book on the politics that surrounded Khe Sanh, an innuendo-riddled analysis of Westmoreland, and an essay on Giap. A telling remark of the book's shortcomings is reflected by Gen Westmoreland, who told this reviewer, "If he were analyzing and writing about my strategic thought in such depth, why then did he not seek to interview me in preparing his manuscript?" Such is Pisor's armchair quarterbacking that pervades an otherwise excellent account of the events we call Khe Sanh.