The basic contours of the story that Gregory Daddis tells in No Sure Victory will be well known to most historians of the Vietnam conflict. Confronting the unfamiliar, multi-faceted challenge of fighting a counter-insurgency war – which involved not just bringing enemy main-forces to battle, but also containing a dispersed guerrilla threat, providing population security, and encouraging economic and political development – the American military establishment embraced the voguish methodology of systems analysis and tried to measure almost everything that it did. This grab-bag approach to assessing effectiveness reflected a chronic uncertainty about strategic and tactical priorities that was exacerbated rather than eased by the blitz of suspect data that it produced. Under William Westmoreland, the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam quickly defaulted to the simple metric of the ‘body-count’, consistent with Westmoreland's emphasis upon achieving the ‘cross-over point’ when the ongoing destruction of enemy forces would exceed the ability of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong to replace them. But the body-count was largely meaningless in the absence of reliable information about the actual number of soldiers and auxiliaries – and reserves of potential conscripts and recruits – that the enemy had available. And indeed the body-count itself contributed to the wider failure of the counter-insurgency campaign, for it created incentives towards the profligate use of firepower which cut across the campaign's other critical goal: to enlarge the base of popular support for America's client South Vietnamese state. Overall, as a result of its dependence upon such dubious metrics, the US Army was looking at the war through a glass darkly. It could not see how it was doing and therefore could not adapt its methods to meet the real and continuing challenges that it faced. It also oversold its successes in subduing the enemy, which led to a haemorrhaging of credibility every time the conflict – as in the early days of the Tet offensive – took a sudden, adverse turn.

Though not a great deal of what Daddis describes is especially surprising, his account – organized chronologically – is rich and detailed. It is a compellingly doleful story of much the same mistake being made again and again. Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland's successor, may have been more cautious about advertising statistical indices of progress, but he did not seek to improve a data-gathering system that he knew to be flawed. Nor did the American military show any interest in researching the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese armed forces during the process of Vietnamization: that process was occurring for domestic political reasons and it was almost irrelevant whether or not the ARVN was actually up to the task of keeping the enemy at bay. That Daddis doesn't particularly rate the military leadership of the Vietnam era is evident from a chapter focusing upon internal institutional factors influencing the army's performance in Vietnam. He rejects the claims of senior commanders that, because of social engineering programmes like Project 100,000, they were forced to fight the war with low-quality draftees and that the problems of indiscipline, dissension and racial strife experienced by the army in the early 1970s were purely the imported fruits of wider American society. The quality of draftees, Daddis asserts, ‘remained remarkably consistent’ throughout the war, and if the authority of the army's high command came to be challenged, it was at least in part because of its failure to make sense of the conflict for the men required to fight it.

There are even some hints of a broader and more searching critique. Daddis never quite explains what difference a better system of measuring military effectiveness would really have made, if indeed such a system was achievable. He writes: ‘The area war of Vietnam certainly did not lend itself to meaningful calculation.’ What mattered at least as much as kill ratios and numbers of civilians in secure and fortified hamlets were intangible factors like conviction and will. Was Vietnam a war, then, that – because it could not be measured – could never have been won? It would have been interesting to learn on which side of the orthodox–revisionist scholarly divide Daddis locates himself. And if Vietnam did present an impossible challenge to those seeking to audit and improve army effectiveness, was it unique, or is the effort of waging a counter-insurgency war actually often doomed from the start? Daddis is a colonel in the US Army as well as an accomplished historian, and so his views on that question may prove to have salience beyond academe.