The wars that have been fought by mankind contain many secrets that have survived the test of time. Hindsight has become society’s treasured tool in investigating the past to learn what really happened. The Vietnam War is among the most unpopular conflicts in American history. The war continues to haunt the United States as a reminder of failed foreign policy and according to some as a premonition of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As we look back on the Vietnam War, we come to learn about the very dark side of the American involvement in Southeast Asia and the devastation that occurred when two nations collided in a struggle that pitted ideology against weapons at war. Douglas Valentine, author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, returns with this account of his research into The Phoenix Program, which for many years remained a mystery to those outside of military and political circles. But just what was the Phoenix Program and how much of it as true?
The story begins with a gentlemen named Elton Manzione, who is a former member of the armed forces. Manzione claims to have been part of the program but Valentine readily states that his service records do not show him being a part of the program or in country at the time. For some readers that may be enough to disregard what follows but the key to following the book is not Manzione’s story but the complex web that composed the program itself. I forewarn the reader that the number of acronyms is staggering. If you have served in the military or are a Vietnam Veteran, then you will probably be familiar with many of the terms. But for the average reader, many of them will be unfamiliar and a challenge to remember. Regardless, the story is interesting but I do believe many parts of it will be lost to history. But what we can learn from the book is that there did in fact exist a program whose purpose was to infiltrate North Vietnamese and Viet Cong strongholds through the use of counterintelligence and other black operations. Somewhere along the line, things took a dark turn and many regrettable incidents took place that forever cast a dark cloud over any success the Phoenix Program may have had.
To be fair to Valentine, the book is not simply an account of atrocities that occurred. The My Lai Massacre and other incidents have been documented and the accounts are not for readers who do not possess a strong composition. Valentine does provide broad descriptions of shocking incidents but spares the reader of extensive and more revolting details. The book can be tedious to read and requires that the reader follows along closely to get a visual of the many parties in operation in both North and South Vietnam. But the key to understanding the book is not to memorize all of the names but to follow the bigger picture. What is paramount to remember is that many honorable men and women served in Vietnam, some of them part of the Phoenix Program. They in particular might agree with Valentine or feel that his book is way off base. There were also darker elements of the U.S. military apparatus and intelligence communities whose actions during the war could possibly be considered war crimes. And through Valentine’s work, we are forced to inquire about the real objective of the United States Armed Forces in Vietnam. We will never know many secrets of the war but books such as this provide a look inside of some of the more controversial aspects of America’s most unpopular war.