Thursday, December 4, 2014

Picked: "Killer Kane" by Andrew R. Finlayson

Picked: Killer Kane: a Marine long-range recon team leader in Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Andrew R. Finlayson, 2013, 9780786477012.

What?! McFarland published a military nonfic book? Unthinkable!

I'm still trying to read through the piles of unread material I own but grabbed a few library books before our circ system was down for a few days. I recently bought a couple Vietnam memoirs and this is one, I'm not sure what the other one was.

Finlayyson graduated from t3h Naval Academy in '66 or '67, took a commission with the Marine Corps, went to Vietnam in '67and was a gung-ho commie killer. Finlayson's dedication to attacking the enemy scared his men and worried his superiors. But, his men had faith in Finlayson because he was a thorough officer who prepared his men, cared for his men, and properly planned his missions.

Finlayson is --- on his dedication to fighting communism. He was - and seemingly still is - a true believer. The kind of lifer mocked in other military memoirs. But, the guy did the work. He  took combat assignments for his full tour, not the six month ticket punch done by many officers looking to get a combat mark on their resume, and voluntarily returned early to Vietnam for his second tour.

Finlayson excelled in his training courses after graduation and on arrival in Vietnam was assigned to a reconnaissance company. The recon companies were elite units and assigning a fresh Lieutenant life FInlayson was a surprise. Finlayson was sent to the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company because they needed a guy with parachute qualifications.  Finlayson went on three "snap in" patrols as an observer and made sure to learn all he could from his fellow officers and the senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs).

Most patrols would last from 3-5 days as the Marines explored enemy territory. Their tactics were the same as the previous Vietnam recon book I read, Death in the A Shau Valley. Patrols would insert via helicopter and sloooooowly move along. Some days they would travel only 300 yards through the thick jungle.  They were so outnumbered they had to be absolutely quiet. Patrols were supposed to observe and record enemy movements and radio in artillery and air strikes.  But, Finlayson's aggressive desire to kill the enemy had him setting small arms ambushes on small groups - usually three or less - of enemy soldiers.

These gunfights were a problem because the Marines were too few in number to be heavily armed. Each man would bring 300-400 rounds per rifle but could quickly shoot a lot of that off. If they got in a gunfight they would bang away as much as possible to beat back the enemy and their ammo could be quickly used up.  Sometimes they only brought rifles, no machine gun.  They needed to shoot, shoot, shoot and run to a helicopter landing zone for pick-up. Enemy troops would have to cautiously pursue because the patrols would call in airstrikes and artillery attacks and the jungle was so thick that rushing forward would put the enemy right into the Marines' muzzles.

Finlayson's time in Vietnam did not bring in much outside news. They had little access to U.S. papers and magazines and Finlayson was surprised that Americans objected to the war. The actions angered him at times , especially once he returned to the States. His assignment to the Marine Corps Barracks in D.C. - a very prestigious posting - had him dealing with politicians and bureaucrats on both sides of the issue. He experience the D.C. riots after MLK's murder. He worked close to the Johnson administration as an aide to the White House's events coordinator. He got into a slight argument with his sister's anti-war high school teacher when presenting to her history class. He was upset he did not get the homecoming greeting he saw World War and Korean veterans receive when he was child.

Finlayson's view of the war was all from the military side - his unit and others were attacking and killing the enemy. He saw the Tet Offensive as a massive failure by the NVA and VC. [I'll agree with shooting side of that opinion. The North's idea that the South's civilians would rise up was a failure. The North targeted plenty of civilians for murder. The NVA did not hold onto any land or landmarks.]

Finlayson remained a hard core Marine and when receiving a letter than some men from his former unit were injured in combat he felt great guilt and requested an early return to Vietnam. This led to a break-up with his girlfriend and major tension and worry for his parents.

1. Finlayson's academic pursuit of war, tactics and history makes me want to give comparison's to the current war Afghanistan and the Iraq War. I'll skip that except to say what other people have said, "The same mistakes over and over."
 2. Hearing the details of the patrols was interesting. I'd have no clue how to successfully join a patrol like that. It seems easy on the surface with a basic rule of "make no noise and move slowly" but I know there are hundreds of little details I do not know about.
3. Finlayson knew and spoke with plenty of people who supported the war. He argued that the press did not give an accurate representation of what happened there, that the press was looking for color, scoops, and always had an angle. That the press stayed in the cities and sent Taiwanese camera out to collect footage. That the press hung out at bars and spoke to desk bound staff officers.  I've read mostly good things about John Paul Vann but Vann was a malcontent who, like others, "harbored a grudge against the South Vietnamese or the U.S. government."
4. Finlayson refers several times to his second tour - with an infantry company, I think - and how that experience really changed his thinking on how to run the war. But, as he wrote, that's for another book.

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