Summons of the Trumpet
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the resulting Communist victory, the war in Vietnam has steadily receded from America’s consciousness as the intervening years have, with some success, diverted the bulk of our attention elsewhere. There remain, however, certain painful elements of wartime origin, resistant to suppression and oblivious to the passing of time, which continue to weigh heavily upon us. These elements emerged from a war which, at its height, consumed American society in a way not matched by any previous war, and which, despite the war’s conclusion, continued to remain irretrievably embedded in the American psyche. At the heart of its endurance lay the nature of the war itself, its incomprehensibility and its rather prolonged and graceless finish.
For Americans, the essence of the war remained rather clouded throughout. Unlike previous wars, its purpose was never clear as it failed in almost every respect to approach the crusading quality of World War II or Korea where the enemy was easily identified and the threat readily understood. As a “limited war” it encouraged misunderstanding and confusion because it introduced warlike concepts that were foreign to America’s war-making experience, concepts which allowed political and psychological considerations to preempt military options and which viewed territory gained or lost in battle as inconsequential.
It was a war that never really ended. Its failure to be resolved robbed Americans of the clean break required to place it fully in the past. Even today as it is carried on by Indochinese nations battling one another, it is ostensibly devoid of American involvement but not necessarily of culpability. Although it officially ended for the U.S. in 1973, withdrawal of military forces was accomplished under the guise of shallow rhetoric claiming “peace with honor.” The slogan could not mask, however, what was in reality a retreat from a situation having no foreseeable end. The rapid deterioration of events two years later leading to the final humiliating evacuation of Americans from Vietnam acted to reinforce the tainted quality of the “peace” as well as expose to further question the overall role America had played.
Its lasting effect was to instill, perhaps for the first time, a sense of loss in the American people, derived from recognition of having abandoned a dependent ally, the South Vietnamese, as well as from having ourselves suffered an unprecedented military defeat. Those elements of the war which continue to remain with us stem from the legacy of these truths. Together, they are responsible for having profoundly altered our trust in our leaders, our faith in our ideals, and, ultimately, our belief in ourselves. The Vietnam War was, for these reasons, considerably more than an isolated military incident. Because of the extent to which it permeated American culture, it requires substantially more than a military accounting to be adequately described.
Dave Richard Palmer’s Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective attempts to explore the course of U.S. involvement in the war and place it in an understandable light. Palmer, a U.S. Army colonel who once served in Vietnam with U.S. and Vietnamese units, writes that his work is “in the final analysis, a soldier’s view of Vietnam.”
The book is organized into a chronology of the Vietnam War years, beginning with the decade 1954-1964 when the American commitment was still limited to a few military advisers assigned to South Vietnamese units, and ending with the collapse of Saigon and the South Vietnamese government in 1975. It is divided into five separate sections, each depicting a distinctive era in the war. When combined, they form a framework for viewing the war which is extremely helpful to understanding the course it followed. The author faithfully chronicles events in the order in which they occurred, isolating key battles on the way that precede and follow the climactic Communist Tet offensive in 1968. He is particularly adept at discussing military tactics and is well acquainted with North Vietnamese strategy and objectives. An especially interesting aspect of the book is his comparison of the tactics employed and how each evolved or failed to evolve to meet the other’s peculiarities. The contrast he makes between North Vietnamese tactical flexibility and U.S. inflexibility is particularly poignant in view of North Vietnam’s eventual victory drive on Saigon which employed American conventional tactics against a South Vietnamese army ironically trained by Americans to...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)