Mobile Guerrilla Force by James Donahue.

Book Review: Mobile Guerrilla Force

21 July 2005

Kenn Miller

It's Gary Linderer who assigns the book reviews at BTL, and I have begged him to send me more ridiculous junk like Morning Glories Among The Peas, because I am tired of praising good books, and want the opportunity to trash something that deserves trashing.

Instead, what does he do? He sends me another Special Forces book-knowing full well that SF books by former Green Berets are almost invariably excellent. And it wasn't just any SF book, by just any Green Beret author, he sends me…No, not our esteemed Executive Editor. This time he sends me a book about one of the more interesting Special Forces operations of the Vietnam War, by the author of No Greater Love, which is one of the all time classics. When I complained that this was going to be bad for my morale, Gary laughed and told me I'd love the book so much I wouldn't mind not being able to trash it. And damn it, he was right!

The original primary mission of Army Special Forces was to recruit, train and lead indigenous forces in guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. In the more than forty years of its organizational history, Special Forces has had few opportunities to actually perform this mission, at least as originally conceived. As far as I know, SF has never sent an A Team in to China to train and lead the Lolo tribesmen against the Chicoms, or the Lithuanians against the Soviets. There have however been some operations that came close to fulfilling the original concept-and-the Mobile Guerrilla Force Detachment A-303, and in Mobile Guerrilla Force he takes the reader along on its first operations in to War Zone D.

The first mission assigned this force wasn't exactly a “guerrilla” mission. It was a mission to find the wreckage of a downed U-2 spy plane, and recover the aircraft's highly secret “black box,” before it could be discovered by the enemy. This particular mission is cited in many books, including General Westmoreland's memoirs, but never before-as far as I know-in a book by a participant in the mission. As we all should know, A-303 and its Cambodian troops managed to successfully pull off this near impossible mission. But as important as that mission was, it was only the prelude to the Mobile Guerrilla Force's real mission, which was to roam through denied areas of War Zone D, wreaking havoc and mayhem on the enemy forces stationed there. Employing classic hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, during the course of Operation BLACKJACK-31, the Mobile Guerrilla Force commanded (without LLDB participation) by A-303, fought fifty-one engagements, called in air strikes on twenty-seven separate targets, raided fifteen enemy base camps, gathered invaluable intelligence information, seriously disrupted NVA and VC operations in the war zone, and managed to kill beaucoup enemy soldiers, while taking what those who count soldiers as battlefield statistics would consider extremely light casualties.

Even a dry and academic book about BLACKJACK-31 would be a fascinating read, but Mobile Guerrilla Force is not a dry and academic book. Donahue's narrative is a vivid minute-by-minute, step-by-step account that takes the reader along on the operation. All the sights, smells and sounds are there. Looking hard for a nit to pick, I finally had to settle for the way the author renders the sounds of the jungle and combat. There are plenty of karoumph, karoumph sounds for you, if you don't have any idea what an air strike might sound like-and if you haven't heard one. I can tell you that karoumph, karoumph, doesn't quite get it. And the old “fxxk you” lizards familiar to all Vietnam boonie rats, in Donahue's book speak Vietnamese, so that infamous “F-word” is spelled “p-h-o-u-c,” and Donahue gives us a few “dit-dah, dit-dah” sound effects whenever someone sends a radio transmission in code. I don't think these sound effects will bother anyone who isn't reading Mobile Guerrilla Force with a hypercritical eye, like I was. It's pretty damn hard to find fault with a book this heartfelt, well rendered and immediate.

When you read this book, your rucksack muscles are going to ache, you're going to feel the leeches on your neck and your gut is going to tighten at the tense moments. That's good writing.

One of the advantages SF veterans have over the rest of us when it comes to writing about the Vietnam War is that Green Berets had a far better sense of what was really going on than the rest of us did. What was going on in Vietnam wasn't just an American war. It was a very tangled Vietnamese-Cambodian-Montanyard-Nung war, and about the only American authors to do real justice to this fact are those who served in Special Forces. The Cambodian soldiers in Mobile Guerrilla Force have names, faces, histories, personalities and all the other attributes of humanity. They are skilled and courageous soldiers, and Donahue is not shy about his pride in having served with them.

Books as good as Mobile Guerrilla Force ain't good for my morale as a book reviewer. Half the fun of reviewing books is in trashing the bad ones, and so I did not enjoy reviewing this one. I did, however, very much enjoy reading it-and so will.

Mobile Guerrilla Force is available from (affiliate link)

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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