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Uphill Battle

Uphill Battle

Reflections on Viet Nam Counterinsurgency

Frank Scotton

Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, Texas, 2014, 464 pages

Book Review published on: May 5, 2017

This first-person narrative by a former U.S. Information Agency officer of his experiences in executing armed propaganda amongst the South Vietnamese rural population is a dense, rich insider’s look at the oft-termed “Other War” against the communist insurgency. Frank Scotton provides many reasons for his dislike of this term; the most compelling among them is that [unlike the U.S./South Vietnamese alliance] the communist adversary suffered no division of effort between political and military action. He recounts his frustration that the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (SVNLF, also known as Viet Cong) insurgents enjoyed continual unity of action in mounting effective tactical, operational-level, and even strategic dilemmas against the Saigon regime. In contrast, Uphill Battle explains how and why the U.S.-South Vietnam partnership lacked the same unity of effort and, consequently, could not turn the tables on their communist foe in the rural fields and hamlets at any level of war.

While much will sound familiar to readers with counterinsurgency experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the perspective of a relatively young Foreign Service officer coming of age over a number of tours from 1962 to 1973 offers an uncommon point of view. Scotton’s aggressive activism—both in the field/jungle and in more polite circles—earns him a deserved reputation as a “maverick,” a “wild Indian,” or an “uncontrollable” liability, depending on who is making the characterization. The story deftly describes the complicated tangle of cultural, economic, political, military, and bureaucratic threads that Scotton had to weave together to create local courses of action to address relevant challenges. By necessity, these solutions demanded a whole of government and multinational approach at all levels that was exceedingly difficult to achieve. Consequently, despite significant personal sacrifices and sometimes heroic exertions, Scotton and his colleagues were never quite able to make the kind of enduring improvements they sought. Therefore, the enemy seemed not so much to be the SVNLF cadres and guerrillas inside South Vietnamese villages; the real adversaries were the political personalities, obstructive organizations, and bureaucratic/cultural impediments existing on both sides of the U.S.–South Vietnam partnership that corrupted, diluted, and neutralized the counterinsurgency campaign’s effectiveness.

To his credit, Scotton admits to his many mistakes and the consequent remonstrations of others. Similarly strong-willed personalities with whom the author worked with at the time are described in the story, most famously John Paul Vann, Robert Komer, and William Colby. The text fairly drips with valuable lessons on overcoming cross-cultural challenges, conducting difficult assessments, making compromises, reaching political accommodations, and persevering through the most trying of circumstances for worthwhile objectives. Scotton’s memoir also reads like an eloquent sonnet to an always elusive and unrequited love. Despite his relentless pursuit for over a decade, the object of his affection, an enduring South Vietnam, was—in the end—impossible to obtain.

This book is most accessible to readers steeped in Vietnam War history since it assumes a familiarity with the region’s geography, relevant government organizations, and chronology of war. This should not deter those without such background who nevertheless want to discover strands of continuity across counterinsurgency conflicts; these are clearly evident in the story. For that reason, Uphill Battle is highly recommended.

Book Review written by: Col. Eric M. Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Lee, Virginia