Since the author has been four years in Vietnam for ap, Malcolm Browne’s The New Face of War might be a book of substance.footnote1 The outlook is engaging: ‘Vietnam’, he says; ‘is a beautiful and sometimes noble little country, which I have come to love. As a citizen of the Free World, I hope the challenge represented by Vietnam is met. But beyond this, in a very personal sense, I hope Vietnam itself pulls through. Its people deserve something better than what they have had for all too long.’ This is the limit of his feeling: a deeply-rooted, if diffuse and ill-assimilated, acceptance of American policy, and a trite distaste for what is being done. It also marks the limit of his comprehension, as we shall shortly see.

Following Vice-President Johnson’s visit in May 1961, and the Staley-Taylor missions, the South Vietnamese army was largely re-equipped, strengthened by an influx of American advisers, and endowed with helicopter mobility. So successful were these measures against the then lightly armed vc that, by the end of 1962, Mr McNamara was proclaiming the end of insurgency within 18 months; by January 1963, American officials were complaining that the guerrillas would not even stand and fight. Then, early that month, the battle of Ap Bac. Two hundred vc regulars, and a handful of local guerrillas had been caught in an open stretch of country and driven into the tiny village of Ap Bac, south of Saigon. According to the tactical doctrine of the time, they should have fled; instead, they prepared to stand and fight. Two thousand government troops, well-equipped with heavy artillery, armour, and helicopters, supported by air strikes, launched repeated attacks. By dusk the government had suffered nearly 200 casualties; its armoured forces had been heavily damaged; of 15 helicopters, five were down and nine damaged. That night, the vc broke out and faded away.

Using the lessons learned at Ap Bac, that well dug-in and disciplined troops should stand and fight, the vc struck back throughout the Mekong Delta. A series of major victories in March and April opened the drive against the strategic hamlet programme. The hamlets soon began to fall, while many were destroyed by their own inhabitants.

Malcolm Browne was at Ap Bac. He is unsure who won, and seems quite unaware of its significance. But he carefully records the existence of a new gi song, ‘On Top of Old Ap Bac’, and the affixing of the hamlet’s name, in gold letters, to the flags of the vc unit taking part.footnote2 Like Napoleon, Browne believes that, in war, men are nothing, one man is everything; unlike Napoleon, he seeks not war’s Great Captain, but the thought and feeling of the common man. He is looking for the word, the gesture, the insight that will reveal the archetypal soldier. And so the book unfolds, tiringly and unrevealingly personalized.

Before a battle. ‘Crew-cut American Army captains leapt in the air, waving their arms, and yelling “Sat Cong!” (“Slaughter communists!”) as their Vietnamese trainees took up the chant.’

On finding a concealed guerrilla. ‘Here was an authentic prisoner, and four or five soldiers took turns beating him up until he was bloody and unconscious. They shot him later, but not until the American advisors were safely out of the way.’

Again, two boys and an old man are interrogated. They reveal nothing. ‘“All right, go home and let this be a lesson to you,” the lieutenant told the boys. The old man sat down on a log and watched as the m113’s prepared to leave. The two boys trudged off across the field without a backward glance. These two boys were tough little guerrillas. If they survive, they will grow up to be tough big guerrillas.’