Blaker on Finlayson, 'Rice Paddy Recon: A Marine Officer's Second Tour in Vietnam, 1968-1970'

Andrew R. Finlayson. Rice Paddy Recon: A Marine Officer's Second Tour in Vietnam, 1968-1970. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. Maps, illustrations. 320 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9623-5.

Reviewed by Christopher Blaker (Oakland University)
Published on H-War (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Andrew R. Finlayson’s latest military memoir describes his second tour of duty in Vietnam. As the title suggests, the author argues that he experienced the war at the “rice paddy” level—that is, on the frontlines during a number of major operations. Finlayson, who served as a young marine officer in Vietnam, breaks his tour into three distinct parts. The first describes his role as operations officer of the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, which saw him plan long-range patrols and help develop tactical innovations in deep reconnaissance. The second part sees Finlayson transferred to command an infantry company of the 5th Marines, with which he conducted more conventional operations against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units in I Corps Tactical Zone. The third part focuses on Finlayson’s duty with the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU), which fought to destroy the Viet Cong’s political infrastructure. This final billet partnered the author with American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and Vietnamese spies, including ex-Viet Cong. The gravity of these PRU operations is explained as Finlayson notes that for his book, published almost four decades after the end of the war, he must change the names of some spies to protect their identities.

The primary purpose of Finlayson’s book is to provide readers with a depiction of the many levels of American involvement in Vietnam, including both military operations and political developments, as well as to illustrate the experiences of a marine officer who saw much of the war during his tour of duty. By utilizing after-action reports and unit diaries from the archives housed at the United States Marine Corps History Division, Finlayson is able to flesh out his own memories of combat campaigns. The inclusion of so many photographs and maps is a welcome addition, and the author’s defining of military jargon serves to strengthen the reader’s understanding of his war experience.

Finlayson argues that the war in Vietnam was ultimately larger than even many veterans recognize. He often reflects on his first tour of duty as a reconnaissance officer in the Annamite Mountain Range (which is described in his first book, Killer Kane: A Marine Long-Range Recon Team Leader in Vietnam, 1967-1968 [2013]) and notes that many veterans who spent only a year or less in Vietnam, while being confined to one geographical area, understandably possess a limited scope of the war. Finlayson, contrariwise, spent almost three years in Vietnam, completing two tours of duty in combat roles and extending for additional service to work with the PRU, and so he believes he possesses a higher degree of understanding of the larger picture of the whole war.

The author spends considerable time in his book describing the stories of and his relationships with various Vietnamese, for whom he possesses a very high opinion. During his second tour, Finlayson maintained friendships with a number of Vietnamese civilians, sponsored two young South Vietnamese orphans, and participated in marine civic actions programs that constructed hamlets and guarded civilians from Viet Cong attacks. His respect for and fascination with his Kit Carson scouts and Vietnamese allies in the PRU is evident, as he weaves their stories into his own. Finlayson’s positive experiences with the Vietnamese ultimately reinforced the cause that he believed his country was fighting for, and it appears that this belief has changed little in the thirty-nine years following the war’s end.

Finally, Finlayson addresses a question present in many Vietnam memoirs: why did the United States lose the war? He disagrees with suggestions that the Viet Cong were the biggest threat to America’s war and that stepped-up counterinsurgency campaigns could have assured victory, instead arguing, based on his combat experiences, that the North Vietnamese Army was the true enemy and that conventional tactics would have been most effective in defeating it. Finlayson identifies the Ho Chi Minh Trail as the focal point for America’s defeat, reasoning that if the United States had invaded Laos and Cambodia and cut the trail, North Vietnam would have been unable to rearm or resupply its units in the South, and thus the Americans could have defended a smaller area of enemy activity, consolidating their air bases and relying on fewer troops to conduct combat operations.

Students of military history will greatly benefit from reading Finlayson’s work. The author offers a well-researched and well-written account of his experiences in Vietnam, and his recollections of his service with force reconnaissance, infantry elements, and especially the PRU provides readers with a wide scope of America’s history of involvement in Vietnam. While his inclusion of so many elements of the war, ranging from his own personal experiences to sweeping discussions of the US military strategy in its entirety, offers a wide lens through which to view the war, Finlayson ultimately achieves the goal of his memoir by broadening the value of American understanding of the war in Vietnam.

Printable Version:

Citation: Christopher Blaker. Review of Finlayson, Andrew R., Rice Paddy Recon: A Marine Officer's Second Tour in Vietnam, 1968-1970. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2016.

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