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#WavellReviews “Air Power’s Lost Cause – The American Air Wars of Vietnam” by Brian D. Laslie

Available here from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Although I have previously studied aspects of the air war over Vietnam, I now realise I trod a rather narrow and predictable path by focussing on the Rolling Thunder and Linebacker bombing campaigns, as well as the air-to-air battles over North Vietnam.  What I had missed out on entirely was the complexity that underpinned and ultimately undermined the air campaign’s chance of success.  Thanks to Laslie’s ‘Lost Cause’, I now have a much greater understanding of what was a series of air wars over South East Asia.  Many of Laslie’s observations from an air war fought four decades ago remain relevant today.  ‘Lost Cause’ needs to be read by anyone with an interest not just in the Vietnam air war, but in how air power can be constrained by internal and external factors.

The “Lost Cause” that Laslie refers to in the title does not refer to some forlorn hope, or to convey a sense of being second best.  Instead, Laslie is referring to the Lost Cause ideology of the 19th Century that arose in the aftermath of the American Civil War.  I was unaware of Lost Cause prior to reading this book; perhaps the ideology is less well known outside the United States, given its genesis.  That said, Lost Cause is certainly an interesting lens through which to view a number of recent conflicts where the fight for the enduring narrative has been almost as intense as the conflict it seeks to (mis)represent.

The book’s sub-title ‘The American Air Wars over Vietnam’ gives the reader a clue of what is to come, as Laslie covers a series of ‘separate’ air wars that took place in the skies over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: the air to ground in North Vietnam, the air-to-air war over North Vietnam, the air to ground war in South Vietnam, the US Navy’s air to air & air to ground over the North and South, and the secret air war over Laos and Cambodia.

This approach doesn’t just give the reader the opportunity to focus on separate aspects of the air war, but more importantly it doubles down on the command and control and inter-service rivalries that Laslie sets out in Chapter 2.  Pages 25 to 37 of Lost Cause are the most important you will ever read on how not to set up and run an air campaign.

Laslie asks 3 questions of the air war: was the disjointed and ineffective use of air power preventable?  What should the control of air power have looked like, and would a different command and control structure have made any difference?  His answer to the first question is a resounding ‘yes’ and Laslie is quick to highlight the success of Desert Storm some 20 years later to answer question two.  You can find out how Laslie answers the third and final question when you read the book – no spoilers here!  Laslie also succeeds in another one of his aims, staying clear of the political mire that surrounded the war.  What he does give the reader though is a sense of how the political tide’s ebb and flow washed over and often submerged the freedoms required to prosecute the air campaign.

Given the author’s background, you will not be surprised to learn that Lost Cause is a very well researched piece of work.  Laslie makes extensive use of the Contemporary Historical Examinations of Current Operations reports.  Over 250 of these were written, each detailing specific themes or aspects of air operations.  The academic threads that run throughout the book are backed up by an impressive suite of appendices, notes and a particularly comprehensive bibliography that actually combine to make up 20% of the entire book.

Do not be put off thinking this is a scholarly work that is either dry or aloof – it is nothing of the sort.   Laslie uses vignettes and case studies to bring colour to each chapter and includes some classic tales of air power, such as Robin Olds’ Bolo operation, that act as excellent foils to the academic arguments that lie beneath.  One note of caution, Lost Cause is not the place to go looking for tales of famous aces and encounters with MiGs.  As exiting and evocative the air-to-air war was, it forms Laslie’s final chapter; certainly not the star billing of a combat arena that gave rise to Top Gun.  Laslie appears somewhat irked by the fact that this particular aspect of the air war has had so much ‘ink spilled over it’.  That said, this final section of the book is yet another excellent analysis of how the two protagonists engaged in the purest sense to gain control of the air.

Air forces have a relationship with technology that is on a par with that of moths and flames, and the Vietnam air war was no exception.  Laslie deftly draws out the rapid progression from the use of piston-engine aircraft in 1961 to the arrival of the first jet aircraft in 1965.  The technology behind American air power that supported Linebacker I and II in 1972 had advanced in leaps and bounds since Johnson’s 1968 bombing pause.  Of course, so had the levels of technology granted to the North Vietnamese by their Chinese and Russian allies.  Once again, air forces had discovered that reliance on technology alone will not win the war.  Either because its cutting edge is blunted by a level of immaturity or, in the case of the deployment of the American ‘Century Series’ of fighters, it was designed to fight a different war.

For Vietnam, the air war’s lost cause focuses on what air power could have achieved if only there had been more bombing and heavier air attacks earlier in the war, as well as the notion that Linebacker II forced the North Vietnamese Government to the negotiating table.  As Laslie points out, neither of these are actually true but they do resonate with those who believe gradualism (a failure to exploit technology and a lack of understanding of what air power could do from senior military and political leaders) meant the air war would never be won.

Lost Cause is a key text for those interested in air power studies, or indeed the Vietnam War.  Laslie’s work also opens up a number of vistas that should be of interest to anyone studying the influence of politics on military campaigns, the deployment of cutting-edge technology or the battle of the narrative.  Lost Cause has a lot to offer and is highly recommended.

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.


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