Khe Sanh Siege in the Clouds

Khe Sanh Siege in the Clouds

Eric Hammel
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
I’ll say it upfront; this is a great book. The author of Khe Sanh Siege in the Clouds, Eric Hammel, has presented the ordinary US Marine’s (and some Army, Navy and Air Force personnel) perspective of the siege of Khe Sanh. For those whose knowledge of the Vietnam War is a bit lacking, Khe Sanh was a combat base in South Vietnam, close to both the demilitarised zone between North and South Vietnam and to the border with Laos. Therefore, when the Tet Offensive was launched by the North Vietnamese in 1968, Khe Sanh was directly in its path, as were the Marine positions in the surrounding hills and the neighbouring SF base at Lang Vei.

Hammel tells the story of the siege, clearly and fluently, through the simple medium of letting the participants tell their own story directly, through interviews, unit reports and diaries. He provides enough links and explanatory paragraphs to ensure that the events of the siege are understood without breaking up the flow of the narrative.

This book was certainly an eye-opener for me. I had heard of Khe Sanh and the siege but most of my knowledge of the Marine experience of Vietnam was through Full Metal Jacket and Karl Marlantes’ books, Matterhorn and What It Is Like To Go To War. My perception of the siege was very much fixed on the base itself, not the company-size outposts in the surrounding hills; the descriptions of life in the outposts are blunt and raw and very much capture life in these positions and the difficulties of operating out of them. Marine heli-handling teams and Navy medical corpsmen seem to have had the worst of it (helicopters always drew fire and corpsmen had to expose themselves to fire to treat casualties).

The descriptions, both in the hills and the base itself, capture the seemingly relentless artillery fire and the impact that it has on the Marines, both physically and psychologically: this is not just due to the simple risk of becoming a casualty but also the monotony, the lack of variety in the rations, limited water, the inability to wash and the lack of contact with the outside world. Coupled with this is the American response, through artillery and air power, and the great difficulties of resupply by aircraft when the DZ is outside the perimeter, the low cloud is semi-permanent and every aircraft landing drew artillery fire.

Hammel makes the very sensible move of linking narratives relating to distinct events, which is seen at best effect when describing Lt Jacques’ Ghost Patrol in February 1968 (where a Platoon-sized patrol just outside the wire is ambushed and sustained heavy casualties). This event is captured from Marine to full Colonel and describes everything from being trapped in an ambush by a well-prepared and –armed enemy to having to make a difficult command decision which goes against every principle taught to US Marines (no spoilers…you’ll have to read the book).

In short, I recommend this book to everyone who has an interest in the Vietnam War or who has an interest in the lives of men under fire. The author has marshalled his resources well, letting individuals tell their own stories and linking them together exceptionally well. This is top stuff.
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