Keith W. Nolan’s Search and Destroy: The Story of an Armored Cavalry Squadron in Vietnam: 1-1 Cav, 1967-1968 is a wonderful narrative of the exploits of the common soldier. Nolan brings his gift of writing about history to an area of the Vietnam War that is not covered as much (armor) as other areas (infantry and air force).
Nolan’s narrative is based on dozens of interviews and other primary sources like diaries and correspondence. Nolan’s writing weaves these raw sources into a detailed account of the two most pivotal years of the Vietnam War. Through these sources, Nolan captures the fear, anger, elation, and everything in between the men felt when they were in combat.
Frequently, Nolan uses multiple sources to describe what happened in a battle in order for the reader to gain a fuller understanding. For example, one person talks about the bravery of a certain officer during a battle and how he put himself in danger several times in order to save the lives of a few men. For these actions, he was awarded the country’s highest medal for battlefield heroism – the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, several other sources contest the award by stating that the officer did nothing extraordinary to deserve the highest honor. These sources believe that other soldiers did just as much, but they were not equally rewarded.
Nolan brings a fresh narrative to the history of armored warfare in Vietnam. Many officers were not sure how armored warfare would translate in the rice paddies and highlands of South Vietnam. Nolan describes the tactics that were developed and used by the First Armored Cavalry Squadron. The armored forces were used mainly in coastal areas and valleys. The firepower provided by the tracks and tanks was often the deciding factor in battles. The tracks and tanks were mainly used as the forces to flush the enemy out of their hiding places and force them into the waiting infantry forces.
I have read several books by Nolan and each is excellent, but this one was different than the others. At first, I could not put my finger on the difference. Then I came across another review that noted that this latest book is darker than the previous works I have read. In his previous books, Nolan’s writing was full of patriotism and the heroic acts of American soldiers and marines. This book still describes the heroism, but it also describes the ugly side of war – the atrocities and abuse the Vietnamese civilians took at the hands of Americans.
Although many commanders in the 1/1 Cavalry tried to abide by the rules of war, there were others that allowed their men to beat and kill Vietnamese civilians at will. In one case, a lieutenant and several other soldiers raped and pillaged part of a village. Nolan describes the inner conflict that many felt during this outrage – they were angered, but did not feel they could intervene because of intimidation or not wanting to “rock the boat.”
This final book by Nolan (he died of lung cancer) is a wonderful example of historical writing at its best.