Brian D. Laslie, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2021. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Hbk. xiii + 272 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Maria E. Burczynska
The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, or as referred to in Vietnam – the American War is a topic widely covered in academic and popular literature. Among the various publications, Brian D. Laslie provides a unique perspective on the American air campaign in Vietnam. Published as a part of the War and Society series by Rowman and Littlefield, Laslie’s work is an attempt to produce a comprehensive and critical overview of the air war over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. To achieve that, Laslie posits three questions: was the disjointed and ineffective use of air power in Vietnam preventable? What should control of the air looked like? Finally, would a different command and control structure have made any difference to the potential outcome of the conflict? (p. 3)
The title, Air Power’s Lost Cause, already gives away the book’s leading theme. The concept of a ‘lost cause’ is most widely associated with the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, regarding the Confederacy fighting a heroic and noble battle against all the odds, effectively losing the war. The creation and evolution of that myth as well as its influence on the American memory of the Civil War, has been widely discussed in the literature, for example, by Gary Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan in The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, or William C. Davis in The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy. However, in a wider context, ‘lost cause’ is used to describe a pseudohistorical narrative justifying one’s loss on a battlefield and often leading to a belief that a conflict was doomed to failure, despite all the best, full of self-sacrifice efforts of those who fought for the cause.
Laslie invites the reader to explore the ‘lost cause’ concept in the context of the Vietnam War. What one could expect from such an invitation is, therefore, a typical ‘lost cause’ narrative: the United States fought a heroic, full of sacrifice-fight against communism but eventually lost due to several strategic and/or political mistakes which, if rectified, would have brought an opposite outcome to the conflict. When speaking of the American air power in Vietnam, the ‘lost cause’ narrative focuses predominantly on the persistent belief that more intense bombing earlier in the conflict, instead of the gradual escalation that characterised Operation Rolling Thunder, could have a decisive effect and change the outcome of the war and that the Operation Linebacker II (with the heavy bombing attacks it brought) was successful in bringing the North Vietnamese Government to the negotiating table and ended the conflict. Laslie debunks those myths. Conducting a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the various actions undertaken by US air power as well as discussing its limitations such as, for example, the difficulty in effectively countering guerrilla tactics, he provides a compelling argument that even with the technological superiority the air campaign in Vietnam was unable to impact the outcome of the war significantly.
While the ‘lost cause’ concept is the leading theme for the discussion, the book is structured to reflect Laslie’s other argument – the disjointed character of what is known, especially in Western literature, as the Vietnam War. The War is often perceived as one large conflict, whereas there was no overarching campaign (not to mention an overarching strategy) during the American involvement. Laslie steps back from this holistic approach and offers a different perspective suggesting that several air wars took place at the time over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Therefore, in his book, he identifies and discusses the following ‘wars’: the air-to-ground war in North Vietnam, the air-to-air war in North Vietnam, the air-to-ground war in South Vietnam, the US Navy air-to-air and air-to-ground war in North and South Vietnam, and the secret air war over Laos and Cambodia and against the Ho ChiMinh Trail. By looking at several air wars rather than one, the reader is confronted with an incredibly detailed picture of the situation at the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war.
But looking at the individual air wars is not the only way Laslie is trying to offer a comprehensive view of American involvement in Southeast Asia’s air campaigns. He also successfully combines US Air Force and US Navy perspectives, often treated separately in the literature. Discussing the participation of different services implies that a recurring point in Laslie’s analysis is the interservice rivalry and the complete lack of cohesive command and control between the Army, Navy and Air Force or even within them. These are not novel ideas as these issues are well-known and well-researched in the broader literature on the war in Vietnam. However, Laslie analyses American involvement as a series of separate air wars with their distinctive circumstances and obstacles. This allows him to discuss how these hurdles dictated each campaign’s outcomes.. Changing the perspective and critically analysing the context, objectives and limitations of each of those separate air wars illustrates the level of complexity of the conflict in Vietnam. It also supports Laslie’s main argument on the US air power’s ‘lost cause’, meticulously explaining why the popular myth of heavier bombings being potentially more effective is simply not true.
With his background as the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy and drawing on an impressive range of primary and secondary sources, Laslie provides a well-researched piece on a subject that one would have thought nothing new could be added. It is undoubtedly a result of extensive archival research and the inclusion of the Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations Reports of Southeast Asia (1961–1975) (an impressive list of which has been included as Appendix B). As an American scholar, Laslie is well aware of the potential bias his project may be susceptible to. To avoid that, he is trying to provide a balanced approach by including the perspective of the North Vietnamese Air Force in the discussion. However, that has been possible to achieve only partially due to the limited number of Vietnamese sources available to non-Vietnamese scholars. Nevertheless, Laslie highlights an existing gap in the Western understanding of air campaigns during the Vietnam War and opens an important discussion on the need to investigate the North Vietnamese experience. Whereas it demonstrates the potential for further research, one should ask how feasible it is for an American scholar to access North Vietnamese archives and look at the official sources held there.
Laslie posits that ‘the point of this book is to add something new to the discussion of air power and the war in Southeast Asia’ (p. 4). He succeeded in achieving that goal. Air Power’s Lost Cause will certainly be of interest to military professionals and academics as well as members of a wider audience seeking to improve their understanding, firstly, of the history of the US involvement in Vietnam and, secondly, the complexity of air campaigns in that conflict.
Dr Maria E. Burczynska is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the Department of History, Politics and War Studies, University of Wolverhampton. She is involved in designing and delivering an online MA course on Air Power, Space Power and Cyber Warfare. She obtained her PhD from the University of Nottingham, where she worked on a project focused on European air power and its involvement in different forms of multinational cooperation. Her thesis, titled ‘The potential and limits of air power in contemporary multinational operations: the case of the UK, Polish and Swedish air forces,’ is making an essential contribution to the field of air power studies, which remains primarily dominated by the US case. The Royal Air Force Museum recognised her research’s significance, awarding her the Museum’s RAF Centenary PhD Bursary in Air Power Studies in April 2019. Maria’s research interests are in military and security studies in national and international dimensions. She is particularly interested in contemporary European air forces and their participation in multinational operations and initiatives and the influence of national culture on the military culture of individual air forces. She can be found on Twitter at @BurczynskaMaria.
Header image: A US Air Force North American F-100D Super Sabre fires a salvo of 2.75-inch rockets against an enemy position in South Vietnam in 1967. (Source: Wikimedia)