Vietnam’s High Ground

Vietnam’s High Ground

Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965

J. P. Harris

University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, Kansas, 2016, 552 pages

Book Review published on: May 25, 2017

Mention the Central Highlands in the Vietnam War to military officers and most recall the November 1965 twin battles of LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany in the Ia Drang Valley, fought by 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) units during the Pleiku Campaign. Lt. Gen. Harold “Hal” G. Moore and Joe Galloway’s book, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, and J. D. Coleman’s earlier, lesser-known work, Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, have long been the standard accounts. J. P. Harris’s latest book, Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965, expands our field of view well beyond these works on the battles and campaign, encompassing strategic political and economic contexts stretching over the previous decade. Instead of the Pleiku Campaign as the dramatic opening of American airmobile warfare in Vietnam, Harris portrays it as the violent last act in a stream of tragedies.

This book explains the long line of earlier tragedies that eventually pulled the Vietnamese Communists and American airmobile division into the Central Highlands for their fateful collision. Vietnam’s High Ground was indeed decisive terrain from a geographical standpoint. Communist control would have split South Vietnam in two, but it was the human terrain that was most at issue. Harris does a marvelous job describing the various independent mountain tribes getting by on very meager subsistence-level agriculture. For both Hanoi and Saigon, the Central Highlands was a vacuum of political power that required filling. Given all the other challenges the Diem government faced throughout the country, encouraging tribal loyalty through economic development—especially when resourced by the United States—at first seemed a good move. The CIA taught improved agricultural techniques to the tribes so they could create higher quality foodstuffs for both their own consumption and marketable surpluses for sale. Training and arming local security elements in the villages—Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs)—were intended to inhibit Communist infiltration and prevent extortion of those surpluses. It began to work in specific localities.

With the drop of Communist influence in certain areas of the Central Highlands, the South Vietnamese government grew worried that their American partners had inadvertently created independent tribal armies in such a significant strategic space. Harris describes Diem government measures reducing American grassroots development programs and moving the CIDGs out of the villages and into U.S. Special Forces camps where they could be militarized and closely controlled. This meant disarming the very villages the CIA had previously armed. These newly unprotected villagers were then forced to displace from ancestral tribal lands into “Strategic Hamlets,” a program horribly botched in execution. The Vietnamese Communists were quick to make the most of these mistakes.

Despite the inhospitable environment of the highlands due to disease, austere infrastructure, and lack of forage, the Communists stepped up pressure in the wake of Diem’s assassination in the autumn of 1963. Communist forces created crises, particularly in containing and then threatening the Special Forces-CIDG camps. The Saigon government committed elite forces (airborne and marine) of its national strategic reserve to stamp out the insurgent conflagrations. Taking advantage of the 1965 monsoon season to limit U.S. airpower, the North Vietnamese launched a division-sized offensive in the highlands, ending in its dramatic rout but also bloodying the 1st Cavalry Division in the process. Political-economic tribal issues were eventually overtaken by the fierce collisions of conventional combat formations.

Harris incorporates newly available material from the Communist side into his history, presenting a more comprehensive perspective of the strategic and operational-level circumstances. While Vietnam’s High Ground is a significant contribution to the historical literature, nonspecialists will appreciate the timeless lessons of counterinsurgency within this decade-long study of an oft-overlooked region in the years between the French Indochina War and the American war in Vietnam.

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