Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719 by Robert D. Sander (review)
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Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719. By Robert D. Sander. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. 308 pages. Paperback, $19.95.

For years, Robert D. Sander sensed that he "fought in a lost battle in a lost war" (ix). Sander served as a US Army helicopter pilot during Operation Lam Son 719, a campaign waged in early 1971 to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Until recently, Lam Son 719 received relatively minor attention in histories of the Vietnam War. This lack of scholarship motivated Sander to turn his attention up the chain of command, to the men who planned and oversaw the campaign. In Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719, Sander draws upon primary source documents to paint a sobering portrait of an operation doomed to fail. While not a work of oral history, Invasion of Laos, 1971 incorporates interviews with veterans to illustrate the bloody fighting on the ground and in the air.

Launched on February 8, 1971, Operation Lam Son 719 targeted a key node in the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of roads and paths by which North Vietnam supplied the communist insurgency in South Vietnam. The plan called for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to drive west into Laos, supported by US air strikes and helicopters. By disrupting North Vietnam's supply lines, the US and South Vietnamese governments hoped to curtail North Vietnam's ability to launch a major attack in 1971. The Nixon administration saw the battle as a way to demonstrate the success of "Vietnamization," the policy of shifting military responsibilities to the ARVN while withdrawing American ground troops. [End Page 452]

Sander's opening chapters chronicle earlier efforts to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the policies that restricted American military activities in the region, and the political climate in the United States. Upon laying this groundwork, Sander makes a comprehensive case that Lam Son 719 was ill conceived on many fronts. The US overestimated the ARVN's ability to execute the battle plan and underestimated the capabilities—and fierce determination—of North Vietnamese forces. Adverse weather and poor communication further impeded the operation. Fighting raged until the end of March, with both sides suffering heavy losses. Sander stops short of describing the battle as a total loss; the operation did impair North Vietnam's offensive capabilities. Yet he contends that the overall result was clear: "Lam Son 719 served as convincing evidence that ARVN forces were still not capable of defending their country without U.S. military support" (192).

Sander deftly draws upon various primary sources to chronicle the events and decisions that led to Lam Son 719. With his attention focused on high-level political and military leaders, he relies heavily on the US State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States. Military documents such as duty logs and after-action reports trace the progress of the battle. While the book primarily focuses on American involvement, a monograph by Major General Nguyen Duy Hinh supplies a South Vietnamese perspective. Sander plumbs these and other sources to uncover the sometimes conflicting goals and opinions of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and General Creighton Abrams, among many others. Their perspectives and actions—largely revealed through written sources—propel the narrative.

Firsthand testimony plays an important, but secondary, role. Sander interviewed nearly a dozen veterans and consulted a handful of interviews that the historian of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) conducted. Throughout his moment-by-moment account of the fighting, Sander identifies many American combatants by name, reminders that battalions and divisions are composed of people. He occasionally injects information or brief stories drawn from interviews. Yet Sander reveals very little about the servicemen beyond their names, ranks, and units. He mentions or quotes each veteran just once or twice over the course of the book. These cursory references inhibit meaningful connections with the people who, in Sander's estimation, "met the challenge with unwavering courage and devotion to duty" (209). A deeper investigation into the experiences and reflections of even a few servicemen, drawn from their own testimony, could have strengthened Sander's assessment of the battle's human consequences...