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Page 34
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The Fifth Special Forces

By Al Wellman (reviewer)

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The Fifth Special Forces in the Valleys of Vietnam, 1967: An Insider's Account
by Douglas Coulter
(McFarland & Company, Inc., 2023)

This book is an autobiography of Douglas Coulter, focused on his time in Vietnam, with summaries of earlier and later experiences. The story begins with an academically gifted student distracted from college studies by a desire to travel. While traveling, he meets men whose Second World War experiences inspire him to join the United States Army. After completing officer candidate school in August 1965, Coulter spent a year with the 10th Special Forces Group in Europe with the Green Berets' original Cold War mission of preparing to conduct sabotage and guerilla operations behind enemy lines following the anticipated Soviet invasion of western Europe. As America escalated military operations in Vietnam, Coulter requested a combat assignment with the 5th Special Forces Group at Nha Trang, where his training for long-range reconnaissance Project Delta began in September 1966.

Coulter led reconnaissance patrols from An Lao in the early spring of 1967 and similar patrols in the A Shau Valley later that spring before spending the summer in Nha Trang and returning to college in the United States as a civilian in the fall. These five or six-man patrols by two or three Americans and three Vietnamese began with selecting a location for clandestine insertion by helicopter, followed by immediate movement away from the landing zone by evasive routing to minimize chances of being followed if enemy forces observed arrival. The jungle environment prioritized observation by sound above sight. Men on patrol moved quietly through the jungle, leaving no footprints or damaged vegetation. Men spoke only in whispers and only when necessary. At night they slept touching each other to avoid misidentification if enemy soldiers came near. Night combat discouraged the use of firearms whose muzzle flash would reveal the location and destroy night vision. Patrols were extracted by helicopter when detected or threatened and sometimes engaged or captured a few soldiers, called in artillery, air strikes, or helicopter reinforcements when more significant numbers of soldiers were observed. Some of these extractions were complicated when helicopters were damaged by enemy ground fire. Whispered radio communication was otherwise limited to dawn, noon, and dusk and kept as short as possible to minimize opportunities for location by triangulation.

Men of elite fighting units like the Special Forces were trained to believe they were more intelligent, stronger, better, and more capable than their adversaries. Without that belief, they would be unwilling to undertake such dangerous missions, but that perception of individual superiority created competition among unit members about who would lead the first patrol, most distant patrol, or most successful patrol. That competition limited cooperation within the unit and increased "who knows best" disagreements between junior officers and senior enlisted personnel. Green Berets' perception of superiority damaged their ability to cooperate with other military units who referred to them as "special feces." Coulter describes a similarly narcissistic perception of superiority among Americans who believe American cultural norms and armed forces are the best on earth. Coulter suggests that American military forces and the American public were equally surprised to discover Vietnamese communists were as dedicated and capable as they proved to be and have been similarly surprised by Afghan resistance to American lifestyles.

Coulter's description of short-term relationships between American soldiers and Vietnamese women reveals a significantly counterproductive aspect of United States overseas military operations. While Americans often misinterpreted translation difficulties with Vietnamese units with preconceptions that their allies were lazy and cowardly, Coulter's earlier travels through former French colonies enabled him to establish a better professional relationship with the Vietnamese soldiers who accompanied him on patrols. Coulter may have intentionally delayed the publication of this book until after his death in 2022 to avoid retaliation for identifying military personnel illustrating widespread problems with the conduct of the Vietnam War, including the frequency with which career military officers prioritized opportunities for their promotion to higher ranks above the achievement of national objectives.

After obtaining advanced degrees from INSEAD and Harvard, Coulter worked for McGovern's unsuccessful 1972 and Carter's 1976 presidential campaigns. Carter then appointed Coulter to the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, where he served for seven years before teaching at Harvard, Moscow State University, and Peking University's Guanghua School of Management. In this book's Afterword, Coulter recognizes the importance of the draft in convincing American voters to end the Vietnam War, and he suggests America's later military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been sooner recognized as counterproductive with ground forces of draftees rather than volunteers.

Al Wellman is an amateur historian with combat experience off the coast of North Vietnam during the withdrawal of United States military personnel.

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