America's commandos in the Vietnam War

March 16, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,sun staff

"SOG," by John L. Plaster. Simon and Schuster. 365 pages. $25.

This is the saddest story I've ever heard. It's about a generation of American Special Forces soldiers - senior NCOs, mostly, and ex-NCOs field-commissioned as junior officers - who gave themselves over to the Vietnam War without a whimper or a twitch of hesitation. They were like Housman's mercenaries: They took their wages and are -mostly - dead.

Under the administratively banal code name "Studies and Observations Group," they served primarily as small unit reconnaissance teams operating from forward outposts. They penetrated enemy territory - frequently into Laos and Cambodia - to report on troop movements, to assess bomb damage, to rescue prisoners and to ambush the enemy. Just as frequently, they were the ambushed party and had to shoot their way out against overwhelming firepower.

Thus it's no surprise that while they were the Vietnam War's smallest units, they were its most decorated outfit, with 10 Medals of Honor and an almost 100 percent casualty rate. Their kill ratio - the necessary accountancy of an outfit's combat effectiveness - may well have been the highest for any land force in the history of warfare: 150 to 1.

Some of the individual tales that John Plaster (a retired major who served three tours with SOG) tells are literally mind-boggling. How could men be so brave? one wonders. A master sergeant named Roy Benavidez mounted a one-man rescue operation for a team trapped on a landing zone: Over the engagement he was shot through the body seven times, absorbed 25 pieces of shrapnel and a bayonet wound and kept && fighting, eventually getting the team out. That was one of the 10 Medal of Honor actions; another sergeant, Robert Howard, was nominated for the Medal of Honor three times in 13 months and emerged as the war's most decorated soldier. A 14-man team fought off attacks by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. On and on it goes, a kind of pick hits on the themes of heroism, sacrifice and applied homicide.

The unit was originally conceived, in early best and brightest days, as a kind of analog to the old Office of Strategic Services in World War II, and, under CIA guidance, was tasked to run a number of sophisticated intelligence scams directed at the enemy besides the recon missions. By the bitter end, in the final year of the American engagement, 1971, its men essentially fought alone in the grim knowledge that any one of them could be the last man killed in Vietnam.

There's a dark irony under this story of professionalism and courage: Plaster reveals that the unit was penetrated by North Vietnamese intelligence (presumably in Saigon, through the auspices of a spy serving as a South Vietnamese officer) and most of its missions were compromised from the start.

I wish Plaster had been more generous to the "Yards," the Montagnard ethnic-Chinese hill people who served with the Americans as the grunts in the cross-border commando war. It's a pity there's but one of these fierce warriors named in the book. Plaster seems to take them for granted, though in his accounts it seems clear that the Green Berets never did, and frequently evacuated Montagnard wounded before they themselves quit the field.

But in the end, the oceans of blood spilled and the tales of courage are somewhat depressing: The Green Berets of the Studies and Observation Group were too good for the war they were asked to fight - but they fought it anyway, at tremendous cost.

Stephen Hunter, The Sun's movie critic, served in the infantry; he is the author of seven novels, including "The Master Sniper," "Point of Impact" and "Black Light."

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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