It is somehow fitting that Richard Botkin’s scorching tale of the Vietnam War was released the same year Robert McNamara and Walter Cronkite died. The tragic defense secretary and the liberal newsman both left their marks on that grotesque conflict.
Their perspectives have become part of the mainstream fabric in America.
Yet there is another perspective, one not often heard.
Botkin’s new book, “Ride the Thunder,” chronicles a little-known band of brothers who actually fought the war and did so with tremendous bravery. In fact, U.S. Marine Capt. John Ripley and his South Vietnamese counterpart, Maj. Le Ba Binh, along with Lt. Col. Gerry Turley, overcame ridiculous odds to give years of freedom to the South Vietnamese.
This absorbing tale also explodes the myth that the war was unwinnable (Cronkite) and that Washington policymakers (McNamara) could run the war from Foggy Bottom.
Indeed, we see now more than ever that American innovation and tenacity in the field almost snatched victory from the jaws of appeasement. The 1972 Easter offensive by the Viet Cong came very close to ending the war; instead, South Vietnamese forces were purchased more time by Americans like Ripley and Turley (sad note: Ripley passed away as “Ride the Thunder” was going to print).
A Marine Corps infantry officer himself, Botkin well understands the mettle required to engage and defeat a fanatical enemy.
In a particularly insightful line, Botkin writes, “In a world where most citizens celebrate the insipid and meaningless, where traditional definition of hero and heroism has for years been utterly devalued and perverted, ‘Ride the Thunder’ celebrates these men, and the women who stood by them, for their humanity and most importantly for being the warriors they are.”
Although the South Vietnamese Marines (yes, they had a Marine Corps!) only comprised two percent of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, they fought fiercely and, as mentioned before, held off the Viet Cong during a period of real vulnerability in 1972. A miniscule contingent, along with American advisers, were stationed in the northwest part of the country. Had they not repelled a communist attack then and there, the bloodbath of ethnic cleansing unleashed three years later would have ensnared even more innocents.
Botkin, who interviewed not only participants but also their families, delivers a hair-raising account of Ripley singlehandedly stopping the enemy advance at Dong Ha Bridge. No less than General Walt Boomer credits and thanks Ripley for saving more than a few good men.
This book is a major contribution to the historical record on many levels. One of the most important is to give Americans a real sense of just how tenacious and honorable were the South Vietnamese who fought like tigers for freedom.
In particular, the story of Le Ba Binh is so incredible, the reader will find himself wondering if he was really a film character. Le Ba Binh can teach leftwing Americans, safe in their Constitution-backed country, the folly of appeasement. His saga, which cannot be detailed here, will serve as a signpost of honor for adults and children alike.
Botkin has a clear, but gripping writing style and is quite eloquent when describing events large and small. His painstaking attention to detail, chronicling the Easter Offensive of 1972, came from scores of interviews.
Botkin also has a facility for bringing out the small stories, even finding some humor in the hell of war. Describing one encounter with the Viet Cong, he paints a scene of a commanding officer shouting at a young Marine, over the din of battle:
“Fix bayonets!” he shouts, inches from the soldier’s face.
The young soldier, firing at the enemy, blinks, stunned by the command.
“My bayonet’s not broke!”
Of course, the tale of the Easter Offensive is the central piece of the book. It draws a sharp contrast between the forces that wanted to doom the South Vietnamese to communism (remember Cronkite gravely speaking to the camera a few years before, telling Americans that the war couldn’t be won?), and individuals like Binh.
Speaking to Ripley, his “trusted adviser” during the chaotic moments of battle (Binh’s 700-man force would face 20,000 invading North Vietnamese), the hero said, “As long as one Marine draws a breath of life, Dong Ha will belong to us.”
“Ride the Thunder” is wholly a triumph, pristine in the company of rare individuals who keep the rest of us safe, unsullied in the face of the immoral appeasement oozing from the leftwing media, politics and entertainment industry.
Richard Botkin, writing about heroes, is himself a hero, recording for the rest of us an important story that deserves wide acclaim and wide readership.
Someone, send a case of this title to Sean Penn.