Document created: 12 October 99
Air & Space Power Journal
Son Thang: An American War Crime by Gary D. Solis. Naval Institute Press, 118 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, 1997, 368 pages, $29.95.
Son Thang is both a finely crafted work about a little-known massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War and a well-rounded, compelling description of a significant event. The author, Gary D. Solis, is a retired lieutenant colonel who served on active duty as a Marine assault amphibian officer and judge advocate. He draws upon both his combat experience and legal background to produce a fine book that chronicles the grisly particulars of a Marine "killer team" expedition which culminated in the brutal killing of 16 women and children in a Vietnamese village known as Son Thang. The book is not merely a recounting of the murders themselves but includes a careful, interesting description of the courts-martial and other legal proceedings that followed these horrible events. It also highlights the numerous factors (military, political, and social) that combined to cause this incident.
Solis became interested in Son Thang, often referred to as the Marine My Lai, while he was conducting research for another interesting volume, Marines and Military Law in Vietnam, the Marine Corps's official history of judge advocates and courts-martial during that war. The Son Thang story contains some unexpected outcomes and interesting twists, including the involvement of two young officers who later acquired a fair amount of notoriety themselves: Oliver North, noted for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, and James Webb, who later served as the secretary of the Navy.
For this book, Solis relies on several reliable sources, including the verbatim transcripts and appellate court opinions of the Son Thang trials, and personal interviews with and letters from several persons involved in the event. He also cites court opinions from other like cases and refers to numerous books and articles on Son Thang, My Lai, and the Vietnam War in general. The book contains detailed endnotes and a lengthy bibliography. In sum, it is well researched and should be considered an authoritative work on this particular aspect of the Vietnam War.
One of the unexpected pleasures of reading this book was Solis's excellent writing style. From the beginning, Son Thang was hard to put down--as good as the best legal fiction available. It has a little of everything that makes a good book: military action, courtroom drama, and personal tragedy.
Notably, however, Solis has not created a "good read" at the expense of being accurate and completely thorough. He presents the material from a quite objective position. Although an experienced lawyer accustomed to advocating a position, Solis restrains his natural inclination to convince us and leans more towards providing a fair report of the facts as they occurred. His recounting of the events is evenhanded and impartial, allowing readers to arrive at their own opinions, even while he draws several conclusions about the handling of these cases and about the usefulness of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in combat.
I highly recommend Son Thang. It is not just for judge advocates. Rather, any reader interested in military leadership, war history, court-martial procedure, or the formulation of rules of engagement will find it a valuable addition to his or her library. This riveting account of an intensely human drama will not disappoint.
Maj Kirk Davies, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.