Tag Archives: Guerrilla Warfare

“Fire Mission!”

“Fire Mission!”

by john harrison

Battle is such a strange place to be. Each time is absolutely unique and two guys fighting right next to each other in a battle can still have totally differently experiences. It is a strange place and an extremely dangerous one as well. Any infantry battle is always intensely personal.

Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Hallelujah” many years ago. It took about 15 years before it got noticed, but now it is among the most covered songs ever. Even as well known as it is though, a good friend asked me the other day, “What is it about?” Like me he has heard it many times; he had even read the lyrics; but still he said he did not understand the song.

I say all this because like the song “Hallelujah”, battle itself is fundamentally an emotional experience. It is not what words in the song say. The song is actually about how you feel when you hear it. Battle is reason unbound and it cannot be fully understood or even appreciated by the rational part of our mind, but you can feel it.

Battle must be experienced in a flash. It is raw emotion. You will get that emotion in full when that first bullet cracks on its way by your skull. But battle is so much more than that first stark realization of merciless, personal, peril.

One night in the Cambodian Highlands we were climbing up a steep hill in thick jungle. It was brutal. Even so, as the point platoon, 2nd Platoon actually had it relatively easy compared to the others in Alpha Company. All we had to do was bust our way through thick jungle while climbing up a 60 to 80 degree slope.

However, as we did that we also broke what is called the surface tension of the ground underneath our boots and doing that released a lot of moisture. The ground itself was red clay, slippery red clay even before it became wet. After a while we were fighting for each upward step, and the guys behind us had to work even harder because each troop’s step made it more and more slippery for the trooper behind as the boots got heavier with each step as more and more mud attached itself to our boots.

muddy-soldier

File photo

As we pushed it, or cut it out of our way with machetes, we also used the vegetation on the mountain to pull our way up. We grabbed it. We stood on it. There was nothing else to hold on to. Soon we had stripped it of its greenery, leaving green slime on the branches. Soon even the thorns were gone, leaving a red slime as well. Then, the bark was gone too, leaving nothing to grab. Then it pulled out of the ground entirely. Then, when you put your boot down, you could actually slid down lower on the slope than where you had started.

We were all carrying probably about a hundred pounds each when you included your weapon, and the ammo strapped around you. The M-60 machine gunners, the grenadiers and the RTOs (Radio Telephone Operators) were carrying even more than that. As you slipped around on the slope that heavy pack on your back shifted as well, unbalancing you each time, and usually at precisely the wrong time.

combat-infantryman-vietnam

File Photo

Then the guy in front of you slipped and you had to stop him, and his pack from carrying both of you back down the mountain slope. People who have not done this may forget that weapons have sharp edges, and triggers, and bullets in them, and that rucksacks have metal frames, until one or the other bang into your shins driven hard by a 165 pound paratrooper still clawing at that slope to stay on that mountain, but losing.

With the sun being down and with the high elevation, it was probably about 70 degrees or so that night, but we were all sweating. Sweat gets in your eyes and it burns. It gets into the cuts on your hands and your arms, and it burns there too. Because of the mountain and your weapon, you can’t even free up one hand to drink some water and anyway it takes two hands to unscrew the top to open a canteen and that was way beyond impossible on that mountain. If you let the mountain go, you fell off the mountain.

So, the saliva in your mouth dries, and it thickens until you can’t even spit it out, and you dream of the water in your canteens. The water that you got from a ditch earlier that day. Six tablet water, brown water, but wet.

But still, you crawl up that damn mountain. You find that the more skin that you can put down on the mountain, the less you slide backwards. You find that if you jam the butt of your rifle behind the sliding boot of the rifleman in front of you fast enough, then he will stay there and will not wind up on top of you again.

You find that you like the taste of sweat. You like the salt in it too.

You can’t complain though. It is a tactical movement. No talking is allowed.

So you scream against the world in your mind. Your muscles scream against the mountain and against your pack. All of it, in your mind. Your blood would scream too, at least the blood moving in your muscles would scream if it could talk. You know that and you literally claw your way up that damn mountain.

And then we hit an elephant trail on the mountain.

“Where does an elephant go in the jungle?” the joke begins.

“Anywhere it wants.” is the answer.

In this case the elephants wanted to go up the same mountain just like we did. When elephants decide to go up a mountain, the first two or three break a trail, and the following elephants follow and step exactly into the places that the preceding elephants have stepped, creating almost stairs, a little more than elephant foot wide stairs all the way up the mountain. It was a three elephant lane highway, just for us.

According to Hal Dobie, my RTO and as a born and bred apple tree farmer from Washington State in the real world and therefore our expert on all trees, broken and cut limbs and plants of all types, the elephant trail had been made too recently to be boobytrapped or ambushed. So we could use it this time, but now we had to watch out for wild elephants too.

Then you realize that even though the steps left by the elephants are too short for your jungle boots, and the risers are way too long, that you love the wild elephants because now you can just climb the rest of the way to the top of that damn mountain standing up. No longer wallowing in the mud and the slime.

You still must pull up the man behind you and push up the man in front of you, but that is so much better that you do not even mind the incredible piles of stinking manure here and there, and there, and the puddles of elephant urine, although you do avoid them both as much as possible. But you can’t avoid all of them. There are too many.

It is a small price. The elephants had supped well that afternoon. That at least was clear from the still steaming piles of dung on that damn mountain.

Why do I say all of this, because that is what you did for 12 long hours right before the battle began. You are filthy. You are tired. You are sleepy because you spent most of the night crawling up that mountain. Then the bullets fly. That is when you must go to work, because you are infantry.

Your hands are so dirty that if your rifle ever stops firing during the battle and you have to take the bolt out to clean it, touching that bolt with your filthy hands will only make it dirtier.  You are not your standard Hollywood hero with a small smear of telegenic light brown dirt across your brow, or on your jaw. You are covered with it.

You stink. You are filthy beyond description. You are soaking wet in your own sweat, and you are so thirsty. Your uniform is torn. Your hands and forearms are bleeding from infected cuts from wait-a-minute vines too many to remember, much less count.

You are not wearing any underwear, either because you never put any on, or because the underwear you did put on has rotted away. The socks you put on a month ago, have rotted away.

Then early in the morning of the very next day, right before breakfast while you are still scraping caked dirt off of your hands with the razor sharp edge of your K-Bar fighting knife so you can eat, the Captain gets called to the radio. It is the Colonel. Breakfast is over before it began and the company immediately moves off of the top of the hill we had just worked so hard to climb. The Company must get to an LZ. Charlie Company is in trouble. The movement to the LZ is as fast as you can make your tired men move.

So you go down hill to an LZ. It is a seven ship LZ and the choppers will have an ACL (Allowable Combat Load) of six troopers each. When the crew chief approaches to tell you that, and to tell you to tell your men to roll down their sleeves before they get on the choppers because of the risk of fire, you can see him wrinkle his nose in disgust. He decides he does not want to talk to you at all. He holds up six fingers and goes back to his position as door gunner where the still rotating blades of the chopper blow your smell away.

So you fly to an LZ near Charlie Company, and when you arrive, there is another hill to climb because Charlie Company is on top of that hill, but at least it is day time. At least it is only a 40 degree or so slope on the ridge you will walk up.

Then you draw some fire from the front, up above you. They are spread out on the ridge in front. The enemy waits for you there, just like they did for Charlie Company, but now they are between you and Charlie Company. They are dug in, fields of fire cut, grenades, magazines, belts of machine gun ammo laid out and ready, waiting.

Battle is always a “Come as you are.” affair. No time to dress, or prepare, ready or not, battle starts now.

So the platoon automatically deploys on line and returns fire. The rest of the company is in back. They seek cover. The curious watch, carefully; the rest just wait. They will look when the noise stops.

This is the 2nd platoon’s fight. This ridge is only wide enough for one platoon to deploy. They will not be allowed to leave. It will be hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle, fire and movement. Currahee!

How’s your guts this morning? Feeling feisty? They have interlocking machine guns and a lot more than that just waiting for you.

However, Tom Gaffney has another idea. We will advance under cover of a rolling artillery barrage. This is World War I stuff. The idea is that the strikes of the artillery shells will be in a moving box in front of the infantry. The key for the infantry is to stay very close to the explosions, but not too close. If you do it just right, and if the artillery does it just right, you will be standing there among them when the enemy emerges from their holes in the ground after the thundering artillery barrage passes over. Then you can kill them.

Behind a large rock Tom gives me about a 60 second class on how to do it, while Bob Richardson, our artillery FO was huddled on the radio with two 105mm batteries setting up the barrage. It is a complicated order for the artillery but like all calls for artillery it starts with the phrase:

  “Fire mission.  .  .”

I have never done it before. I wonder if our artillery have ever done it before as I listen to Tom describe what 2nd platoon is about to do.

We move into a double assault line across the top of the ridge. As soon as the artillery starts, pounding them with fire and hot steel, we move forward. Standing up, walking right behind the explosions as they too move slowly up the ridge. I push it too close at first and one of the guys, I think it was Patterson points to some shrapnel landing behind our first line.

“Not good, L-T.” Pointing at the dust from some shrapnel strikes.

So, I slowed it down a little. According to Tom it is better to risk some shrapnel though than be standing there in the open in front of them rather than among them when the enemy comes out of their underground bunkers to fight. It is a balancing act in a place that is itself unbalanced.

It does not matter what you want to do that day, you must fight, or they will kill you. Worse, they will kill your friends, the man to your right, or the man on your left, or all three of you. So, fight you will. It is time for training to take over. To react as fast as you can. No thought now. The time for thought is past. We are among them.

Target acquisition.

Sight picture.

Fire!

Cover.

Target acquisition.

Sight picture.

Fire!

Again and again.

Stand.

18, drop magazine.

Lock one 18 round magazine, load.

Move.

Target acquisition.  .  .

Until there are no more targets.

Quiet. It is so suddenly, so perfectly, quiet.

And then finally, you realize that this battle is over, and that you are still alive, and the chorus sings but with your sound shattered ears you cannot hear it wafting across the mountain top battlefield—Hallelujah—Hallelujah—Hallelujah!

afterthebattle

File photo

 

Author’s Note

All file photos are from Google this time. But I think they fit. Leonard Cohen, author of Hallelujah, died recently but his songs still live. Look him up on You Tube. You’ll be glad you did.

If you liked “Fire Mission” you will probably also like “Cone of Violence” as well. Or, for a lighter read How To Hide Behind a Pebble.

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The Attack Of The Peacocks

The Attack Of The Peacocks

by: john harrison

1stCA-LZ Atlanta

This is where we made our first combat assault the day before the action started. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO

It was Lt. Len Liebler’s first contact with the enemy, and we watched the whole thing unfold.  Len’s 3rd Platoon was moving in column formation across a draw when he made contact. The rest of Alpha Company was still up on top of the mountain that Len had just walked down from. We were in a climax forest up in the mountains near Cambodia. It was too high for jungle and the light underbrush of a climax forest made movement easy.

Second Platoon, my platoon, was acting as Alpha Company CP (Command Post) security and as a reaction force while the other three platoons of Alpha Company did clover-leaf patrols out from the mountain top where we had spent the previous night. Len’s platoon, first out, had headed east, down the ridge and then through the draw until the shooting started.

When Len’s point man saw movement in front of him, he had immediately fired a long burst, an entire magazine on full automatic from his M-16 into the brush in front of him. The slack man immediately faded right and followed suit with another long burst of fire. Meanwhile the rest of 3rd platoon had rapidly moved up on line to engage the enemy. It looked like textbook perfect Infantry battle drill in a combat situation.

Particularly on the top of mountains, Vietnam could be beautiful.

Particularly on the top of mountains, Vietnam could be beautiful. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Even from where I was on top of the mountain, about a football field and a half away, I could see flashes of what looked like bent over, dark forms, running low and fast through the brush; perhaps as many as 5 or 10 of them, darting quickly, back and forth, across the front of Len’s platoon which was by then already all up on line, firing at them.  Watching Len’s platoon flow smoothly from a platoon column formation into a platoon on line was strangely attractive, almost elegant, if you like loud, violent, very dangerous, but nonetheless beautiful things.

I did not know it then, but it was really rare to actually see the enemy in a firefight. They were good at their job and the VC, like all good infantry, knew that what you can’t see, you also can’t shoot.  Seeing them moving, even just in flashes through the brush should have told me something.

Then, I heard Len on the radio asking Captain Tom Gaffney for gunship support for an assault. Like me, Gaffney had come over to look when all the firing started and he too was standing near me on the military crest of the hill looking down on the draw.  His RTO, (Radio Telephone Operator) was right beside him, just as mine was standing near me.  We could all hear Len against a background of gunfire blaring loudly from the radios as he talked and also a little less loudly from the firefight a ways down the hill in front of us.

Gaffney and I watched as the action progressed below us. Since we were in a climax forest at the top of the mountains, rather than the jungle we had crawled through to get to the mountain’s base, we could see Len maneuver his platoon.  Both of us were trying to figure out exactly what was going on.  What had Len’s platoon run into?  I turned to my platoon and yelled:

Saddle up.” so that we would be ready to move if necessary.

When I looked back at Len’s platoon in action, it appeared to me that there were even more bent over, dark forms running around in front of Len now. Had he found some of the the famous black pajama clad, hard core, VC guerrillas?

I remember actually feeling a little twinge of jealousy that Len had gotten into them first.  All the Alpha Company platoon leaders were very competitive, very aggressive.

However, Tom Gaffney and I were way to far away to be sure what was going on below us in the draw. Neither of us carried the Army’s almost useless but nonetheless heavy, 6 power, field glasses.  So we just stood there Tom and I, and stared.

In truth, we were both still trying to figure out what was going on below.  What had Len gotten into?

And then, I saw Gaffney begin to smile. So, I turned back to look where he was looking, but I did not see anything to smile about. However, Gaffney had lived in these mountains for months at a time on his last tour in Vietnam as a Green Beret, so he had experience that we did not yet have. This was Alpha Company’s first search and destroy mission after our short orientation in country at Phan Rang. It was even our first set of clover-leaf patrols.  Except for Gaffney and a few of others, we were all still green, very, very green.

PeacocksInWild

Gaffney told Len “No” on the gunships and ordered him to advance immediately. A few minutes later, an obviously deflated Len called in to report that he had successfully attacked a flock of peacocks. Gaffney immediately corrected him and said:

“This is 6. A group of peacocks is called a cluster, and that is a good start for a word describing what just happened.” Gaffney said evenly, but he was smiling broadly as he talked into his radio handset.

“How many did you kill? Over.” Gaffney asked.

“This is 3-6. A lot, over.” a now completely crestfallen Len replied.

“Good battle drill 3–6. Finish your patrol. Alpha-6, out.” Gaffney said, still smiling.

Tom turned, took a sip of coffee from his steaming canteen cup and walked back to the top of the hill, his RTO trailing behind him.

After hearing that, in spite of all the dead birds laying about I’ll bet that Len was smiling too because Gaffney was very careful in giving praise. If he said the battle drill was good given his extensive combat experience as a Green Beret and earlier in the Korean War, there were few alive better able to judge it than Captain Tom Gaffney.

I found out later that a peacock can be over four feet long even without considering the length of the tail and it can weigh about fifteen pounds.  They are really big, and more important they looked like even bigger birds.

After seeing them running through the brush from a distance, particularly the darker hens, I was glad that it was Len that had encountered them first.  I would have attacked them too.  No question.  Of course, that did not stop us from harassing Len about it. Nothing could stop that.

And, it had been good battle drill, not so good for the peacocks though.

ColorfulPeacockIt is the males that are colorful.  The hens are mostly dark grey or brown. File photo.

“Cone of Violence”

“Cone of Violence”

 by: john harrison

One of my men, PFC John Smith*, was lying on the porch of a house next to us; he was bleeding out. There was so much blood that it was running bright red down the stairs from the porch he was laying on. I could see that blood clearly. I could look at him lying on his back, but I did not want to look at his blood, all that bright red blood. A view like that is one of the reasons that the average life span of an infantry platoon leader in combat is supposed to be measured in seconds, not minutes, seconds. It was about 8:00 AM, February 2, 1968 near Phan Thiet, Republic of Vietnam and I had hours of heavy combat ahead for me that day.

image002The caption reads: Phan Thiet: Paratroopers from Lt. Harrison’s 2nd Plt. cross the dry rice paddies, near the “Disneyland” area outside of Phan Thiet on the morning of February 2, 1968.  Up ahead the paratroopers would engage a large enemy force guarding the headquarters of the 482nd MF VC Battalion for seven straight hours. (Feb. 2, 1968)  

I had already called in air strikes. I had called in artillery. I had called in 4.2 inch heavy mortar fire. I had called in helicopter gun ships. I had called all of them in at the same time; they never taught me how to do that in Officer Candidate School, but I did it, and I called them in separately too. I made it up as I went. I wanted Smith to live, so I created Hell and decorated it all around him with high explosives, burning napalm and hot steel; I put the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) right in the middle of it, but the bastards lived through it.

Still, they shot at me. I tried to kill them. I tried everything I knew. And, then I tried them all, again, and again. I created the “pain that passes understanding”, and I gave it to the NVA without stinting.

I had called in air strikes so close to where we were that when the bombs exploded we bounced off the ground. Literally, my whole body bounced in the air with the explosions. I bounced high enough that it hurt when I landed. I was bleeding in my eyes. I tasted red blood in my mouth, particularly in the back. My ears were bleeding. By the end of the day, there was crusting brown blood on both my ear lobes and running down my neck. Blood was oozing out of my nose and down my cheeks, and I asked for more air strikes. And, then I called the air strikes even closer, because I wanted to kill those sons of bitches that were shooting at my men; keeping me from getting to Smith. I tried to kill them in so many different ways. The bastards would not die. They kept shooting. We kept shooting, and I kept calling in air strikes, gun ships and artillery. All day we fought.

I ordered my platoon sergeant, my friend, James Albert Bunn, to take a squad and see if he could get in the back door of Smith’s house. About an hour later the squad leader, Stacy Raynor, came back and told me that Bunn had thrown a hand grenade in, but had then been killed trying to follow it in the back door.

Smith, my soldier, my responsibility, was still dying 75 or so feet away from me, and I could not help him. He was still bleeding and I could not stop it. I could see his blood still running down the stairs. It was still red too. All I had to do was look out a window and I could watch Smith bleed. I could watch him die. I watched him for hours that day.

image002

The porch where Smith lay, dying as we watched.  Those were his canteens.  That is his blood on the stairs.  This was taken the morning of the next day, February 3, 1968.

If I had given the order, 2nd Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion, 506th Airborne Infantry would have gotten up and attacked. I knew it and they knew it. But, then we would die too. As long as we held the house we were in, the NVA could not attack us. We were too strong, and more important, in too strong a position.

However, so were they. All of those houses were made of concrete blocks. As long as we stayed where we were I could use the Air Force and artillery to inflict damage on them, and they could do almost nothing in reply. But, if we left that house and the yard behind it, if we were out in the open attacking the other house, the one Smith was on the porch of, then their much greater numbers would begin to work for them.

Until then our far greater firepower, mostly courtesy of the United States Air Force, was working for us. If we attacked in the open, the NVA would probably kill us all, and Smith would probably die anyway. That I knew that this was true did not make it any easier not to attack. I wanted to give that order. Attacking was what we did best. But it would have been a stupid order, the kind I had trained very hard to avoid. I kept looking for another answer, an answer that would allow me to save Smith instead of watching him die.

I tried everything until I had nothing left to do. I had shot everything at the enemy that I knew how to shoot. I had been creative—I had walked artillery up from one direction, gun ships up from another, and jet bombers streaking in from yet another direction, all at the same time. I made it up. We blew those bastards up creatively. We gave them a concentrated lesson in the American, war-fighting, combined-arms, doctrine of the vigorous application of massive amounts of high explosives and the accurate, continuous, exploitation of raw firepower dominance to solve a difficult tactical dilemma. It almost worked too.

During that day while we were orchestrating this lesson for the NVA somebody came up onto the Charlie-Charlie radio net. I told them to get off the net. I told them to stick what ever they were talking about up their ass, and I got really gross, and I got really angry. That was the only time that day I lost my temper. “ Charlie-Charlie” is the Command and Control radio net. It is air support; it is artillery; it is dust off; it is everything.  To a unit in contact with the enemy, it is life itself.

In combat, the unit leader in contact with the enemy controls the Charlie-Charlie net. That was me and I had absolutely no intention of letting anybody else screw-up what I was doing. If there was to be a screw-up that day—I would be that screw-up. I was determined. I was a second lieutenant. That is the lowest officer rank in the army, but I demanded all that tradition gave me.

The Charlie-Charlie net was mine. I was in contact with the enemy. I would fight my platoon. Win, lose or draw—I would fight my platoon my way that day, no one else, me. And, I did. By God, we fought that day, all day we fought from about seven in the morning to almost nine at night and then later, in the dark of night, we went back and did it again.

I never heard a word about it. It’s not often a twenty year old 2nd Lieutenant even gets to chew out a really senior officer, much less gets away with it as well.   Tom Gaffney, my company commander certainly never said a word about it to me—he had taught me the rules. He stayed off the Charlie-Charlie net that day if I was busy. He knew I probably needed it more right then. But, he too was a commander of a unit in contact with the enemy, so he had as much right to the net as I did, plus he was higher in rank. But, he was Tom, and he knew his business, and he knew mine, so he knew when to stay off the net. Now someone else did too. That was good.

The United States Air Force is my best friend. I believe that with my entire heart and soul. I love them in a way that is absolutely not understandable to those that have not been there. If they have not been in my position; that position had begun early that morning receiving heavy automatic weapons fire from 360°, and rocket and mortar fire from both the east and west, and with my knowledge and my training; they cannot understand my emotion, my reverence, when I say “Air Force.” All day my friend and I chipped away, blasted away, burned away the enemy—my friend, the United States Air Force and me, we did it.

When I told the FAC (Forward Air Controller) that the NVA were shooting at his fighter-bombers with machine guns when they came in for bomb and gun runs, he said, thank you for the information, but that he would not tell his pilots. He said it pissed them off, and that being angry made them less accurate, and that he was moving their bomb and napalm strikes in so close to me that he did not want them to be less accurate. We knew each other. We had trained together in the states before we went to Viet Nam. We drank together several times. We got drunk together once. He was my United States Air Force Forward Air Controller in Viet Nam. I told him where I wanted the bombs. He lined up the planes and delivered the goods on target.

He called what we were doing: “Danger close, U. S.” meaning to everyone according to my friend the FAC, if it was not clear enough already that, “we are dropping all of this very dangerous crap very close to the United States Army, and by the way these are the paras of the 101st Airborne Division that I trained with, and that I know personally! And, you had better know what you are doing or we are going to have a serious problem! You understand me?” His voice actually got louder with every word and he was shouting to begin with. At least that was the general idea of what I heard him say to one flight leader on his other radio before the fighter pilot began his runs.

One flight, he waved off after only one pass and he would never let them close to us with ordnance again. They were not good enough to support his paras. Others he sent in even when they only had 20 mm cannon left to use, they had already used everything else but because they were good and on that day, he knew that more than anything else, I needed good. I needed all the really good, really close, combat air support, I could get. I had a target rich environment. So he sent the good ones back again and again until they were empty. He knew I needed ordnance, lots of ordnance on target. I needed—boom on target—BOOM! The United States Air Force delivered lots of BOOM and bang, bang, bang, and quite a few whooshes, that day. “Whoosh” is what I think napalm sounds like when it flares off.

I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know what it cost him. But that day, I had flights of Phantoms, almost all United States Air Force Phantoms, but some times also US Navy Phantoms as well, F-4 Phantoms, the absolute best fighter-bomber in the world at the time.

All day there were United States Air Force F4 Phantom jets, overhead, stacked up in flights of two planes each, just waiting for a target that absolutely, positively had to be destroyed immediately. And, I had those targets, and we destroyed them one after the other. Soon we were being shot at only from 180°. Even that got better as the day wore on, but Smith’s blood still reached the third of three steps. Some strikes were close, one was literally right next-door, blow off our roof close, exciting, and some were across the large rice paddy in front of the house we were in, visually arresting.

All day we worked on evening the odds by removing enemy from the battlefield. It had started as one American Airborne rifle platoon, mine, as the point of the spear against about a battalion of hard-core VC and Main Force NVA regulars; it was painful, nerve-wracking, close-in work and it went on, all day.

The NVA had expected us to walk into their ambush. If I had done that, and lived; Tom Gaffney, the C. O., would have killed me. No, we had maneuvered behind their ambush so they had to expose themselves in order to shoot at us. When they did that, we shot them; we killed them. It is what the Infantry at work does. When they stayed in their bunkers we blew them up, or we burned them out with napalm, and sometimes we did both just to make absolutely sure they were dead—stone dead. It is what the Air Force does for the Infantry when you ask nicely; but, there were so damn many of them.

Even so, they did not have a chance as long as we had good flying weather. Strike after strike I called in, and the Air Force delivered, on target. Or, near, near was good too. When you are playing this game with 750 lbs. high explosive bombs—coming close counts. It counted with napalm too. But not with gun runs. Those had to be on target. Even the superb twenty-millimeter canon Gatling gun on a Phantom jet fighter cannot kill what it does not hit. But for the rest, coming close counted, being on target was better, but coming close was good too.

After returning from Viet Nam I talked to friends who had been with the Big Red One (1st Infantry Division), and the 1st Air Cavalry Division and they talked of sometimes waiting for air support, sometimes for hours. I never waited. More often than not, and particularly during Tet ’68, my United States Air Force was already overhead, waiting to rain death and destruction on anyone I asked, any where, any time, all day, everyday. I am Airborne. I pull risers, and I pulled KP before OCS. Apparently I also had pull with the United States Air Force. Huah!

The Phantoms were dropping very accurate 750 pound, hi-drag, high explosive bombs mainly, sometimes they had 500 pound “slick” bombs, dropped in pairs, or napalm droppable in singles and in pairs, and all that day I remember hearing a calm voice on the radio asking me, what I wanted, where I needed it, to kill those sons of bitches that were trying to kill me and my men. Where exactly did I want violence, death and destruction delivered this time?

The NVA were shooting at us. That is how we found out where they were hiding. They would shoot at us. Helpful little bastards.

How close could we take it this time? Particularly as it ran later in that day, that was the over-riding question. However, that day I could take it very close indeed. The NVA called it “hugging the enemy.” They tried to get so close to us that we would not risk a bomb missing them and hitting us.

They did not know my United States Air Force, or me. That day I called 750 lbs. bombs in so close the pilots delivering them often were in danger of planting their fighter planes along with their bombs. “Danger close—U. S.” They could see my colored smoke that marked my platoon’s position. They knew that their bombs could skip. They knew even if it went in true, it might not hit exactly where it was aimed. The pilots could see what their 35 foot + bomb crater would encompass on the ground.

Seeing this, they elected to risk themselves and their aircraft rather than drop one on us even by accident. “Danger close—U. S.” that day meant danger for the United States Air Force and for the NVA, but not for those of us Airborne Infantry on the ground. We had friends in high places.

There would be no “friendly fire” casualties from these pilots; errors were not an option. They would fly their very expensive planes straight into the dirt first. Some of the high drag bombs they dropped for me that day did not have enough time in the air to arm before they hit. They flew them in that close. They flew them in that careful. They flew their runs in low and slow, and they were being shot at all the time.

I think they knew it even though the FAC did not tell them. Something about the constant patter of bullets on their armor plating and the bullet holes in their wings, through their self sealing fuel tanks, probably gave it away, but still they came—low, slow, steady and accurate.

And, you wonder why I love them?

Finally, it was late afternoon. I had tried everything I knew. I had bombed them beautifully, repeatedly and beautifully.

A beautiful bomb is one that destroys, completely obliterates, turns to dust and smoke a concrete block house that is about 30 feet away from where you are. A beautiful strike means that the bomb crater’s edge is still about 15-20 feet away.  Beautiful is where the bomb strike is so close, so precise that it blew the roof off of the house we were in while it destroyed the target house next door, and maybe even just a little bit of the front porch of our house, as well as that disappeared roof. Beautiful is when your nose bleeds from the concussion. When your ears bleed from the concussion. When you taste blood in your mouth from the burst capillaries in your tongue caused by the concussion; but you have none of those pesky pieces of red-hot metal in your body. Beautiful is when the pink haze you see is from the burst veins in your eyes from concussion, not from your own blood spraying on the ground in bright red arterial splendor. Beautiful is when it works.

This photo, from Earl Dribbles, Jr., is probably from Afghanistan or Iraq and is probably from an IED (Improvised Explosive device) but damage from concussion is damage from concussion. Look at the eyes, that is the thousand yard stare.

This photo, from Earl Dribbles, Jr., is probably from Afghanistan or Iraq and is probably from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) but injury from concussion is injury from concussion. Look at the eyes, that is the thousand yard stare.

And, then you tell them to do it again. Just like that. Maybe this time, a little closer please, but do it just like that.

“Do it again, just like that.”

“One more time, please.”

“Next house please.”

“Beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

It is close when napalm flares off in the front yard of the house we were in instead of inside the house next door—but it was only about 10 or 20 feet short of where I had wanted it, and it was delivered at about 400 miles an hour. The FAC would not allow me any more napalm for a while that day— he had finally realized that I had a lot more confidence in his pilots than he did. That napalm strike in my front yard had really scared him. It was hot. It was beautiful. Most of it was in the other yard where some of the bunkers were.

I was satisfied. It had been beautiful, a little warm, but really beautiful. Man that crap can burn.

And, you wonder why I loved them?

Finally, I could not think of any thing else to do. So, I took off my pack and everything else until all I had on me was my clothes, M-16 rifle, ammunition, cigarettes and water, two canteens. It would be stupid to order my platoon to attack. They would be killed for no purpose. So I couldn’t do that. But, I could go get Smith myself. I could probably do that I thought. I had to try. All day we had bombed, blasted, burned and shot the enemy. All day, and all I really wanted was to get Smith back.

It was the only thing that I could think of that I had not yet tried. Just go get him myself. I looked it over again. I had to run out the front door of the house I was in and across the front yard. In the front yard of my house there was a pile of hay and then a small tree to the right, and then a gate in the fence around the front yard a little further still. The napalm had burned off most of the grass in the yard, but the pile of hay was still there. It was probably three or four feet or so high and about five or six feet around. It would shelter me as I ran?

Of course, it hadn’t helped Schultz. He was lying beside me in the house with a sucking chest wound, periodically I would tell him to breathe, to just to shut-up and breathe.  The medic, John Melgaard told him the same thing.  I don’t know why wounded men want to talk sometimes, but some do. Schultz had been in the front yard when they shot him in the chest.

Smith was really tall, but he was a skinny kid and did not weigh much over a couple of hundred pounds. Christ he didn’t even weigh as much as Schultz had, I thought. I could pick Smith up, carry him and run back. At least that was the plan.

If I was going to go, now was the time, the house to our left that had been full of NVA was completely gone. The United States Air Force had disappeared it. The houses and bunkers across the large rice paddy in front of my house were gone too. Beautiful, well placed, craters had replaced them.

Of course, there were still an unknown number of NVA in the house that Smith was on the porch of, but I did not need to go inside that house. It was not a visit. I just wanted to get Smith off the porch.

There were still bunkers in the tree line to the right, 200 yards or so past the house that Smith was on the porch of, but not as many as before and they did not like shooting at me as much as they had at first, earlier in the day. It seems that I didn’t play fair. Every time they shot at my platoon I called my big brother, the United States Air Force. If I could identify a target, my brothers in sky blue made it go away. Beautiful is great. Fair play is over rated.

I ran out the door, across the porch, past the pile of hay, to the gate. I had forgotten about needing to open the gate. I went through the gate. I really do not remember how. Maybe I just jumped it. I don’t know. Although there were a lot flying around, no bullet hit me. That was good, and I was out of the front yard into the rice paddy. That was better than Schultz had done and Schultz was a good man. All in all, I was about forty or fifty feet closer to Smith, and I was not wounded yet. My plan was working.

I laid down behind the rice paddy dike on the other side of the gate. I had to go out the front door of our house, then through the front gate because there were three barbed wire fences between our house and the house next door that Smith was in. Unless I went out our front door, down to the gate, then down the rice paddy dike, back in another gate to the house next door, up the steps, pick up Smith and return, I would have to deal with all of that barbed wire. I did not think I could make it to Smith and back if I had to deal with the barbed wire too.

It really was a simple problem, except for the barbed wire, the machine-gun fire, rockets, mortars, rifle fire, and so forth. Going out of the gate did make it a little longer than a direct run to Smith’s porch. There was that trade-off for no barbed wire— it was longer to go to get to Smith, but that way there were gates in the wire.

So, I got down and low crawled with the paddy dike on my right. It was pretty straightforward. The dike was almost as high as my helmet and I would be behind it from one gate to the other. Most of the NVA, and all of the NVA that were the closest to me, were on the other side of that dike. The dike looked like it could stop bullets. Until I got to the gate in front of Smith’s house the dike would protect me. Then, run up to the porch; grab him and run back. That was my whole plan.

The first surprise was when the paddy dike made a sharp right angle turn. I hadn’t been able to see the turn from my house because of the pile of hay and the tree. But, looking at it, I would only be exposed for about five feet, then it turned back to the left again. So, I just made that turn right with it. I hugged that dike. It is surprising how flexible the human body can be when it has a really good reason.

I wrapped tight around that turn low crawling, and I must have been a little more than halfway around the turn, when the machine-gun opened fire on me. He had me right in his sights and because of that turn I had no protection at all. He was in a second floor window above Smith. My guys could not even see him. They shot at him of course, but their bullets thudded on a concrete wall.

Unfortunately, there was nothing at all between that machine-gun and me except my fatigue shirt. All of the others who had been shooting at me from the tree line beyond Smith’s house hadn’t worried me much, for them I was a small target beside or even a little behind the dike and my guys could and were shooting at them. They didn’t worry me—but that machine-gun worried me plenty. I was right in the middle of his beaten zone, the cone of violence. Not good. Not beautiful at all.

A machine-gun is very different from a rifle. If a machine-gun operated the same as a rifle, the bullets would all go in pretty much the same hole. While you would be sure that your target was dead, it would only be the one dead target and that is not useful with so many bullets going out the barrel. So a machine-gun is designed to produce what is called a “cone of violence.” The cone of violence is most apparent between 500 and 1000 yards. This is the optimum range for a machine-gun like the one that was shooting at me. There will be a large oval made by the machine-gun bullets as they strike the ground, and within that oval, called the beaten zone, bullets will strike; again and again, bullets will strike.

I was in that cone of violence. I was right in the middle of that oval, the beaten zone, where all the bullets strike. All around me, I could feel bullets striking. Bullets tugged at my clothes, my equipment. At my waist, and lower, I could feel something warm, and wet. A bullet struck my rifle and my left hand was suddenly numb, and then it hurt, a lot. I could feel something striking between my legs. The warm, wet feeling was spreading, lower. Not a good sign at all.

I laid there. He shot at me. I laid there. He kept shooting at me. I did not move; not even a twitch. It seemed to go on for a long time.

When he stopped shooting, I went backwards. Up till then I did not know that you could low crawl backwards, and low crawl tight around a corner backwards—but you can. At least I can. Apparently you do not need training to do it, only motivation. I did not stop low crawling backward until I was back to the pile of hay. But that is a guess because I really do not remember anymore than what I have told you between making the turn around the dike, laying in the machinegun’s cone of violence, and then returning to the pile of hay inside the gate.

I laid back against the pile of hay. I remember that. It was soft, comfortable. I remember the sun above; it was hot that day. I remember the exquisite powder blue of the cloudless tropical sky, but not much about how I got back to the pile of hay. That little fact escaped me then, and now.

The flash suppressor and other less essential parts had been shot off of my rifle. I would need a new rifle. One of my two canteens had bullet holes in it, and it was empty. I would need a new canteen. I took a long lukewarm drink from my other canteen and lit a cigarette, an unfiltered Pall Mall.

Dying from cancer did not worry me. As a rifle platoon leader I knew there was no way I was going to live long enough to catch cancer. I took my helmet off, set it beside me and took a deep drag on the cigarette, feeling the raw smoke filling my lungs. There were bullet holes in my pants, my shirt, my rifle, one canteen and canteen cover, but not one in me that I could see. The warm water from one canteen had run down my left side and between my legs but that was it.

However, I had already been wounded often enough by then to know that many times in combat you are so hyped that you do not realize that you have been wounded; so I looked for blood, or piss or something else the body leaks when it has holes. Bullets going through always make a body leak something. I looked for holes and blood, and for smoke coming out in places it should not. I waited for the pain, but physical pain never came. He had missed me. Wow, did he have a bad day!

As I lay on the side of the pile of hay, Michael Trant called out to me to tell me that Smith was not moving any more. I said: “OK.” And, I took another drag on that wonderful cigarette. Just for that moment, I withdrew from the war. Just for that moment, I went away.   I was just smoking a cigarette, looking at that wonderful blue sky. I was not at war with anyone. But, I was still very angry.

It was right at dusk, after this vicious daylong battle when I returned to the Company headquarters that Captain Tom Gaffney had set up next to a hedgerow about a mile and a half away from the two houses I had been fighting in all day.

My friend and Platoon Sergeant James Bunn had been killed earlier that day trying to get in the back of Smith’s house, as had several others, along with Smith. We had also suffered a lot of wounded, including Schultz and me. I sat down and began to tell Tom what had happened, when I reached the part where I had tried to low-crawl, using the rice paddy dike as partial cover, to the porch where Smith was lying, bleeding and dying; and had been driven back by machine gun fire my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), Hal Dobie, who had seen it from the house, said:

“He did sir. He was right in the middle of the fucken beaten zone. There were bullets hitting all over him. I thought he was dea. .   .”

But, Tom interrupted him, and very quietly, almost gently said to Hal—

“Let the lieutenant make his report. He has a right to make his own report.”

Few people ever saw the gentle side of Tom Gaffney—but he had one.  At the end of my report, I told Tom that as soon as we were set up for the night, I was going back for the men that we had left behind when we were ordered to withdraw. I did not ask. I did not suggest. I told him what I was going to do.

Those that know Tom might have expected him to be angry at this brashness by one holding the lowest officer rank in the entire United States Army. However, Tom’s reply was – “I’ll ask the other two platoons for volunteers. Take as many as you need with you.”

Those were A Company men out there, and Tom wanted them all back just as much as I did. One of us had to go back for them, and since two of the three were my men it should be me that brought them back. Tom would not order me to do it, nor even suggest it to me, but he had taught me. And, it needed doing, we both knew it.

So, I went back again for Smith later that night. I had a new rifle, it had just a little of someone else’s blood on it but it worked, a new canteen and some help. Sergeant Ron Ford was the assistant patrol leader. Later, when I tried to put him and the others in for a decoration after the day long battle, followed by the night patrol back to that battlefield, the brass in the rear said we had already used up our allotment of decorations for the month and to try again another time.

Right, all used up on the second day of the month.

Before the night patrol left, Company A had holed up for the night in a defensive position with Bravo company from the 3rd Battalion, and some of them also volunteered to go on that night patrol as well. I bet some of the Air Force guys would have gone too, but they had done enough that day. Now it was time for the Infantry to go to work, to do what we did better than anybody; night work, in close, always bloody. In a very real way I was looking forward to it. Beautiful is fine, but I was ready to close with, and destroy the enemy.

We had to fight our way into that fucking house. Again they mortared us and they rocketed us; and they just kept shooting at us on the way getting into the house and all the way back. But it was dark, and the Infantry can use the dark. We can work in the dark. We were back in a target rich environment again; but we owned the dark.

There were only a few more than a dozen men in the patrol, all 101st Airborne Division paras—the best in the world. They were all I needed and we went where 300, two Airborne rifle companies, could not go in daylight. We went in; we found our men, all of our men; we took them back; we brought them home. Nobody stopped us. Nobody.

We brought Smith and Bunn and one other home that night. I walked second going, and point coming back because everyone else was helping carry a body on the way back.  We had to fight our way through snipers and mortar fire most of the way back, and part of the way there.  We only put them down to fight.

I was back in the war. I knew the rules of combat but I also knew that sometimes, for some things, only luck will work, nothing else. For example, nothing is supposed to be able to survive in a machine-gun’s cone of violence—nothing. I knew that. It is one of the most reliable rules of combat. If you have a target in the beaten zone, even a six to twelve round burst will kill him—every time.

The Army had taught me that rule but it also said that a good machine gunner always does it twice, two bursts to be certain. Now, I had seen the first rule fail. Personally, I thought it really good timing for the Army to be wrong. It seems that I am now living proof that even an overly long first burst will not always make up for the total lack of a second burst from a machinegun. Or, it was luck.   My guess is; it was just not my day to die.

That was how my February 2nd, 1968 was. How was yours? My friends, Platoon Sergeant James Albert Bunn, and PFC John Smith, spent an infantry soldier’s day at work—their last. Specialist George Schultz died a month later. The doctors had re-inflated Schultz’s collapsed lung and fixed the damage the AK-47 bullet had caused when it tore through his chest, but he caught an infection in the hospital in Japan, and it killed him.   Smith was nineteen, Schultz was eighteen and Jim Bunn was thirty-two. They were my friends, and my responsibility. I think about them every day, but I will not see them again in this world. Airborne!


* Smith is not his real name.  All of the rest of the names are real.

†Photos by Jerry Berry.

Winning, In The Vietnam War

Winning, In The Vietnam War

By: john harrison

The Vietnam War was always “winnable” for the United States. However, there will always be a problem with defining what is meant by “winning” and probably what is meant by “winnable” as well.

If you looked at Great Britain during the bleakest, darkest days of World War II, say in June 1940 “winning” would probably defined as simple survival as an independent nation state. That was certainly possible for Britain in 1940.

Although the history books and Mr. Churchill take real delight in saying that Britain fought on “alone” after France collapsed in 1940, that was hardly the case. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the entire subcontinent of India were all more or less on Britain’s side from the very beginning. In December 1940 the USA began selling war materials to Britain, Canada and the other Commonwealth countries. If that was not an “act of war”, President Roosevelt’s signature on the Lend Lease Bill in March of 1941 certainly was.

If the USA was the arsenal of democracy in WW II, then Canada was a big part of its breadbasket and a great deal of its economic muscle as well. Think of all the “American” cars actually made, or assembled in Canada today. So, depending on your definition, even in those dark days Britain and her few, but staunch, allies had a chance to win, a chance at the very least to remain as an independent nation state.

For example, it was possible, even in June 1940, for Britain to make a deal with Hitler that would have allowed Britain and her allies to focus on the danger posed by Hitler’s ally Japan in the Pacific. Hitler wanted that deal so that he could focus on Russia and that was why Hitler made repeated peace overtures to Britain right after the fall of France.

In truth however, once Hitler attacked and the Soviet Union entered the fray the war was unquestionably winnable for Britain, even though the price of peace might ultimately have been even steeper than it was after America joined the war. On June 22, 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with over three million men called, Operation Barbarossa. This single, immense mistake would cost Germany whatever chance she had for victory in World War II. The full entry of the USA into World War II on December 7, 1941, just accelerated that process.✵

Using a similar fact based analysis, I do not think that the Vietnam War was ever “un-winnable” by the United States. It was always a question of price and tactics.

However, the leaders of the North were willing to pay a price that was never understood, or if understood was never truly believed in Washington, and therefore it was never included in Washington’s calculations of what it would take to “win” this war. Since this was true, Washington never had an executable military or political plan that could achieve “victory” and win in Indochina.

While this seems incredible, since France had already failed in Incochina after World War II it is nonetheless true. It is at best, difficult to create a plan to go somewhere if you do not know where your destination is, and given its almost willful ignorance of Hanoi’s intentions, Washington literally never knew where it wanted to go, much less how to get there in Vietnam.

In spite of this, on the military side, the “guerrilla war” had been “won” by the South Vietnamese and the United States well prior to Tet ’68. The failure of guerrilla warfare to gain sufficient traction against either the South Vietnamese or in the United States public opinion had been what forced General Võ Nguyên Giáp,commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army throughout the war against the United States, to dramatically change his tactics in 1964.

In 1964 General Giap and the North changed from a relatively traditional, low key, guerrilla war in the South, to the use of large-unit, main-force VC mainly to attack the South Vietnamese Army (“ARVN”) coupled with the infiltration of large North Vietnamese Army (“NVA”) units down the expanded Ho Chi Minh Trail as well for use in the future. While in a traditional insurgency this switch to large force units would normally have come as a result of the success of guerrilla activities which produced ever larger guerrilla forces, and control over ever larger areas, the exact opposite was the case this time. In using infiltrated NVA main force units General Giap was changing the face of the war not as a result of the success of his black pajama guerrillas, rather it was because guerrilla war had been effectively stalemated in the South.

This change by General Giap was as a result of two strong but contradictory factors. The VC were successful in recruiting and in controlling much of the countryside in the South, but the small scale VC attacks were having little effect on the South Vietnamese government’s ability to govern, particularly in the large population centers.

While both VC and South Vietnamese government forces suffered from high desertion rates, both were growing, and both were getting better. Although General Giap appreciated the growth of his own forces, the growth and improvement of the South Vietnam government’s forces did not auger well for the future, and General Giap knew it.

By 1965 General Giap’s change of tactics to larger unit attacks came very close to winning. This was partly as a result of the Main Force VC units being stiffened now with numerous NVA cadres, and many of the attacks being made with Main Force NVA units in addition to the Main Force VC.  Only the rapid introduction of large-scale American combat units beginning in 1965 prevented success of General Giap’s new plan.

Ever resourceful, when the Americans came, General Giap initiated yet another plan, his third. Now they were attacking the South Vietnamese Army directly as well as some attacks on American installations with Main Force VC units, usually supported by Main Force NVA. However, this too was checkmated by the presence of ever growing numbers of American soldiers and Marines on the battlefield. As a result, General Giap raised the stakes again and the North dramatically increased the infiltration of even larger numbers of NVA regulars down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Early on after the Americans came, it was abundantly clear to General Giap that the VC, that even the large, better equipped, Main Force VC units had proved incapable of defeating even relatively small American combat units on the battlefield much less capable of toppling the entire South Vietnamese government on its own. Undaunted by this, General Giap was still ready to provide the help he thought was needed in the South to secure victory.

The plan, by now the fourth plan, for these new NVA regular units pouring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was simple. Basically the NVA’s new assignment was to kill enough Americans so that the Americans, like the French before them, would at some point simply go home. According to the North’s plan, when that happened, what the North viewed as a puppet state propped up only by American military power, could easily be defeated if it did not fall of its own accord as soon as the Americans left.

However, the pesky Americans did not cooperate with this fourth plan either, and General Giap quickly realized that it was going to take a long time to kill enough Americans in order to force them to leave. He also soon realized that the Americans were already surprisingly good at jungle warfare, and that the colossal firepower that the Americans had brought with them to the battlefield was simply deadly. So General Giap quickly recognized that both the timing and the cost of causing sufficient American casualties had to be recalculated by Hanoi.

Neither was good news, but neither had any effect whatsoever on the resolve of the North first to drive the Americans from South Vietnam and then to conquer the South. However, by any measure at the end of 1966 the North’s war in the South was again at best stalemated and at worst headed for ultimate defeat militarily. This was true even though the North through their puppets the Viet Cong controlled much of South Vietnam, particularly at night.

In the event, General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, the head of Central Office for South Vietnam (aka “COSVN”) and Communist Party First Secretary Lê Duẩn convinced the political leaders in the North to force General Giap’s hand because they believed that the people in the South supported their political vision of a united Viet Nam but that the people of South Vietnam were only prevented from joining the North by the corrupt ruling oligarchy running the government of South Vietnam, and of course, by the Americans’ money, equipment and military might. The North’s political leadership reasoned that it was mainly the presence of the American military that prevented the majority of people of South Vietnam from expressing their true desire to join the North.

Therefore, they wanted a much faster military strategy that would take advantage of this presumed political strength in the South, and in the process to use the American military’s own character against it. The North’s political leaders reasoned, probably correctly, that while the American military would fight and kill VC and NVA wherever and whenever they found them, they would not react the same way to a truly popular revolution in the South. In fact, if the people of South Vietnam ever rose en masse in revolt, then the Americans would probably at that point simply go home.

For that reason, in 1966 and continuing into 1967 the North came up with a new plan, the 5th Plan, calling for multiple, broad based, large unit, open attacks, first of the periphery of South Vietnam to draw the American combat units away from the population centers, and then during and after the Tet ’68 holiday, on the population centers themselves. The widespread plan of attack centered on political targets like Hue and the American embassy, and importantly, also on major American and South Vietnamese troop concentrations.

The leaders of the North expected that the people of South Vietnam would rise up and support these attacks as soon as it was shown that they had a chance of success, and that entire units, perhaps even large units of the South Vietnamese Army, would defect to the North and join the fighting against the hated Americans. When the South Vietnamese people rose in support of their offensive, the leaders in the North expected the Americans to simply stop fighting and leave.

While General Giap initially opposed this plan, he loyally implemented it after the death of General Thanh until he went to a hospital in Hungary to receive medical treatment before the Tet ’68 Offensive started. While the plan has often been criticized as violating several basic military principles for a successful offensive, these criticisms ignore the political basis of the plan. The Tet ’68 Offensive’s VC and NVA attacks were actually merely spearheads, the real weight of these attacks was to come from the South Vietnamese people revealing their true allegiance.

An indication of this is that General Giap insisted that Southerners be used as much as possible in the population center attacks in South Vietnam. This order underlined the importance of the reaction of the people of South Vietnam to the success of the plan. In effect, the Tet ’68 Offensive was always politics through military means.

However, none of the North’s political assumptions proved to be correct; and even with General Giap’s corrections, none of the military plans worked either. None.

The only population area that the NVA/VC attacks achieved even a foothold in during the Tet ’68 assaults was Hue, and it was not because the people of Hue joined the NVA/VC forces attacking it. Rather it was because Hue was essentially undefended and the North had committed sufficient Main Force units to take and hold the former imperial capital of Vietnam for almost a month.

However, even in Hue both the VC and NVA attackers had been under immediate, vigorous counter-attack by both American and South Vietnamese forces ever since the first day of the North’s attacks. This was true across the board in Vietnam.

In Hue, the people either left the city or they stayed indoors and out of the battle. It must have been a tremendous disappointment to the North’s Central Committee that even the people of Hue, which as noted was under direct NVA/VC control for almost a month, did not support the North’s great offensive at all.

In fact, none of the population centers in the South rose in revolt. None of the units of the South Vietnamese Army joined the North’s forces in their attacks. To the contrary, the South Vietnamese Army’s combat performance in the battles raging up and down almost all of South Vietnam was overall very good, and in the case of their elite Ranger, Airborne and Marine, battalions and brigades, it was excellent. All of this clearly surprised and disappointed the leaders in the North.

During the battle, when the casualty figures began to come in to the North they were even more surprised and perhaps appalled as well. The Communist’s forces casualties during the Tet ‘68 battles were unprecedented, amounting to perhaps as many as 85% of the total forces actually engaged, and well over 50% of these casualties were dead. The VC in the South never recovered from this enormous, fruitless, bloodletting. For the North, all the battles of Tet ‘68 amounted to a massive military defeat of historic, even Cannae like, proportions.

Almost the entire communist infrastructure, both political and military, of Viet Cong in the South, built up over years of warfare was wiped out during and in the battles right after Tet ‘68. Over time after Tet ‘68 the North reinforced their decimated VC Main Force units with 50% or more drafts of NVA soldiers.

While this infusion of men partially made up for the VC Main Force Units’ incredible losses in manpower during Tet ‘68, it could not replace the lost experience, the loss of cadre and even more important the loss of a direct connection with the South and its people. The men that had developed that experience over years and even decades of clandestine warfare and who had those personal connections with the South were now almost all dead. In large measure as a direct result of its massive defeat during Tet ‘68 the North fought blind in the South from 1968 on.

It is more than ironic that while the war was under way that the opponents of the war in America ridiculed the body count figures put out by MACV as inflated with lies to either show unjustifiable progress in the war or they were presumed to be inflated to advance a reporting officer’s career. Now, many years after the war these same opponents of the war accept these claimed body counts as gospel, but assert with no evidence that most of those killed were actually civilians and they have often added millions more to show how depraved they believed that the American war makers had been.

However, the North admitted in 1995 that over the total war about 1.1 million Viet Minh, VC and NVA soldiers were killed. (The Agence France Presse [French Press Agency] news release of 4 April 1995 concerning the Vietnamese Government’s release of official figures of dead and wounded during the Vietnam War.) R. J. Rummell, the leading authority on the casualties of the Vietnam War, estimated that the French killed about 200,000 Viet Minh over the course of their Indochina War. (STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE Chapter 6 Statistics Of Vietnamese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources By R.J. Rummel) If you subtract that number from the North’s admission of 1.1 million military KIA over the course of the entire war, French and then American, you are left with about 900,000 VC and NVA military personnel killed during the US participation in the war. It is interesting to note that over the course of America’s participation in the war that MACV reported that approximately 900,000 of the enemy had been killed.

That is, the North’s admission and Rummell’s analysis, when taken together, have confirmed that the American military’s body count figures itemized during the war were generally accurate, and equally important that they did not include a significant number of civilians.

While there is no question that civilians were killed, these numbers make it clear that the dead civilians were not used to inflate NVA/VC body count figures to a statistically significant amount. Another Vietnam War myth shattered by facts. However, you will still see otherwise reliable observers of the war state what has now been shown to be clearly wrong, i.e., that the MACV body count figures during the war were “inflated.”

Based on no objective evidence at all, some still refuse to believe the American official reports during the war, the North Vietnamese government’s confirmation of those reports after the war and the research of Mr. Rummell which also confirms the original American casualty figures. While there are certainly problems with determining exact estimates of casualties particularly in this kind of war, the extensive NVA and VC cemeteries in Vietnam today are further, if no less inexact, confirmation of the horrific estimates of loss by the North during the war.

Right after Tet ‘68 General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited General Westmoreland in Vietnam. Even prior to Tet ’68 the Joint Chiefs were already very concerned that the Vietnam War had dangerously depleted the strategic reserve of the United States. In the preceding twelve months the remaining two brigades of the 101st Airborne Division had deployed to Viet Nam. During Tet ’68 the Third Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had been airlifted almost directly into the battle as well. The two Airborne Divisions, along with certain Marine units were the American ready reaction force for threats anywhere in the world, and now almost all of them had been committed to combat in Vietnam.

In addition, other than the remaining two brigades of the 82nd, most of the units remaining in the United States were composed of men returned from Viet Nam that were simply waiting to get out of the Army or Marines. They did not form a sufficient credible, deployable fighting force. The draft was viewed as incapable of raising sufficient men fast enough to replenish the strategic reserve and the Joint Chiefs therefore wanted President Johnson to call up the reserves and perhaps some of the National Guard units as well in order to be capable of responding to threats elsewhere in the world if necessary.

Although General Wheeler had been in the Army since World War II, he had never actually held a fighting command and his time in combat was so short that many had objected even to his nomination as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Nonetheless, after touring Vietnam to assess himself the outcome of the Tet ‘68 battles, he pressured General Westmoreland into asking for more troops.

General Wheeler wanted General Westmoreland to ask for a sufficient number of troops that would require a significant call up of the reserves or of the National Guard to satisfy. In order to be certain that this would force the President to call up reserve units General Wheeler strongly suggested that General Westmoreland ask for a little over 200,000 additional men.

If General Westmoreland had announced that because of the great victory he had achieved against the Communists in destroying their forces during the Tet ’68 battles that over the next year or so he was sending 200,000 American servicemen home rather than being duped by the Joint Chiefs into asking for 200,000 additional soldiers that he did not need, did not want, could not use effectively but unfortunately did not reject, then the war would have ended entirely differently and General Westmoreland would have earned an entirely different reputation as a combat commanding general as well. And, the Joint Chiefs would have gotten their 200,000 additional men for the strategic reserve.   But, General Westmoreland was a go along, get along general, actually much like General Wheeler in this respect, so he asked for the additional troops.

The violent, bloody Tet ’68 Offensive, coming soon after General Westmoreland’s late 1967 trip to the United States where he had assured both the Congress and the American people that we were winning the war in Vietnam was already a shock to the American people. Then, came the pictures of the Great Seal of the United States laying broken on the Embassy grounds in Saigon. This was followed by the picture of General Loan, commander of the South Vietnamese National Police, executing a bound VC francs- tireurs on a street in Saigon. Since the execution was presented without any context by the media, it both disgusted, and caused the American people to doubt their ally.†

The final nail in the coffin came when “Westmoreland’s request” for over 200,000 more troops was leaked to the press. While the violence of the Tet ’68 Offensive certainly had a strong role in turning America against the war, it was this explosive disclosure which seemed to further belie all of the military claims of victory, both before Tet ’68 and of the battle of Tet ’68 itself. That troop request was the final straw. The “credibility gap” had now widened too far for many Americans.

Soon after Tet ’68, General Westmoreland was recalled and the war policy of the United States was irrevocably changed. General Westmorland was replaced by his deputy General Creighton Abrams, a former tanker of World War II fame. It had been Abram’s tank battalion that first broke through to the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

The new process of Vietnamization almost immediately implemented by General Abrams after General Westmoreland left Vietnam proved that sending significant American military forces home from Vietnam after the Tet ‘68 victory had clearly been a viable option for General Westmoreland at that time as well. But, if it was considered, it was rejected.

General Westmoreland may have thought he was being the good soldier in going along with the Joint Chiefs’ request for hundreds of thousands of more men which would have forced President Johnson to call up the reserves and allowed the Joint Chiefs to replenish what they viewed as a dangerously low military force level in the United States itself, but he was not being a good commander of his troops in Vietnam. General Westmoreland had a specific mission to perform in South Vietnam, but he decided to go along and get along with the Joint Chiefs on their mission, rather than to do his duty to his men and to his President. His reputation as a soldier has never recovered.

It was not the American armed forces that lost their nerve after Tet ’68. The American soldiers, and Marines on the ground knew that they had won a great victory over a well armed, highly experienced and ferociously aggressive enemy. It was not the American people either.

It was President Johnson that lost his nerve when the butcher’s bill for this victory came in. That this is true for the American people is clear from first the election of Nixon over the “peace” candidate George McGovern, from the actions of the Nixon Administration in Vietnam and the response of the armed forces in Vietnam during the Nixon Administration.

After Tet ’68, after Nixon’s election, the war went on for years at a relatively high tempo and with a great deal of tactical success and at first clearly a majority of public support in the United States in spite of substantial, and it must be admitted growing, political protest as well. It was clear though from the two hard fought Nixon presidential victories that a majority of Americans were not yet ready to abandon South Vietnam.

While the battlefield successes in the Nixon years was partly because of the absence from the battlefield of all those Viet Cong who had been killed during Tet ’68, it was also because the ARVN units were performing much better and because a great many of the Americans stationed in Vietnam had never really been useful in the war effort. Many American soldiers and Marines were there to prepare for an invasion of North Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Laos, or all three. While there was short incursion into Cambodia, these invasions never came, nor were they ever likely to be approved.

Both during and after the Vietnam War many critics of the Westmoreland’s attrition tactics have said that the United States should have spent more of its time on pacification in the South and less time chasing large units in huge search and destroy operations.

Taking only the question of “pacification”, if the people of the South were in fact so disaffected, so in need of pacification why was there never a rising by the South Vietnamese people in support of the North? Why didn’t any units of the South Vietnamese Army, a draftee army, simply switch sides? In spite of strenuous efforts, why couldn’t the VC units rebuild their ranks after being destroyed in Tet ’68?

Perhaps because the people of South Vietnam already wanted their country left undisturbed. Perhaps, because in general they were pretty well pacified by about 1966 and certainly they were pacified after Tet ‘68. Their pacification was why General Giap, rather than being able to recruit replacements for his Main Force VC units had to infiltrate ever more NVA south.

It also speaks volumes about the political sympathies of the common people in the South that even after the North Vietnamese succeeded in conquering South Vietnam in 1975 that almost 1.5 million Vietnamese left by any means they could and perhaps another half million perished in their attempt to flee the North Vietnamese invasion of their country. (STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE Chapter 6 Statistics Of Vietnamese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources By R.J. Rummel) That is, well over 10% of the total population of South Vietnam, at very great personal risk, abandoned everything, fled their country, and most of them wanted to come to America.

If the North had not done everything it could to stop them from leaving, how many more would have left? If the South really needed more pacification, why did so many leave when the North won? If American tactics and atrocities during the war had so brutalized the people of South Vietnam, why did the almost two million plus boat people want to come to America? Perhaps because the myths of South Vietnamese political indifference, and tales of vicious, wide spread American atrocities were not entirely true after all?

After Tet ’68 the North recognized two things: if it was going to win that it must conquer South Vietnam, and that it lacked the ability to conquer the South using VC, or infiltrated NVA units and men. As a result the North tried twice to simply invade the South. In 1972 the North launched its Easter Offensive after almost all of the American forces had been withdrawn. It was mainly South Vietnamese military forces supported by massive US combat firepower particularly from the air that met the North’s 1972 invasion’s onslaught, and it was decisively defeated.

Once again in their Easter Offensive of 1972, because of a miscalculation of the political will of the people of South Vietnam, the North’s forces suffered defeat and massive losses. This time the losses were to its NVA formations already stationed in the South as well as to additional NVA conventional forces invading from the North and through Cambodia. According to some sources the North lost over 700 armored vehicles in this disastrous 1972 attack alone.

Three years later, in 1975, and after the Americans had been entirely gone from Vietnam for over two years, the North tried invasion again. However, this time because of various laws designed to end US involvement, particularly those known as Cooper-Church, and Case-Church, the US did not support the South Vietnamese militarily at all. Without American combat firepower, pretty much out of ammunition and fuel for his own armed forces as well, President Thieu lost his nerve and it quickly became a rout.

In 1975 the South Vietnamese were soundly defeated. Their nation was lost. At the risk of their lives, millions of South Vietnamese fled their country rather than live under the rule of the communist North. However, once again, there was no popular uprising anywhere in the South supporting unification with the North; and, while many South Vietnamese Army units simply disappeared, there were still no South Vietnamese Army units that switched sides.

The North had won its brutal civil war against the South, but it did it with naked military force and relatively little political support in the South. It should be noted as well, that the planes, tanks, artillery, rifles, ammunition, trucks and other military equipment and supplies including much of the food that the North used to invade the South all came from somewhere else. Without the military support of the communist bloc countries, the North could not have won the war.

As noted, many have stated that the United States “lost” the Vietnam War because it over emphasized military operations instead of civil pacification. However, pacification is a tactic designed to defeat a true insurgency. While it can be very effective in that role, there must be a true, a legitimate insurgency to pacify or such efforts will do nothing useful.

The basic idea of civil pacification is to separate the guerrillas from their allies in the civil population. When you do this effectively you can cut the guerrillas off from their primary sources of food, information and recruits.

While some of the Viet Cong from the beginning had lived in the South, many were native northerners. Many more of the original native southerners were Viet Minh that had gone to the North when Vietnam was partitioned after the French left and were thereafter re-infiltrated to the South. Thus, they were southerners in name only.

As the war progressed native southerners, attracted through either coercion, family connections, or political belief, or a combination of all of these also joined these Viet Cong in fighting the South Vietnamese government. By 1965 these Viet Cong forces had successfully progressed to the use of medium sized unit attacks throughout the Republic of South Vietnam and the NLF appeared to be on the verge of victory. Up to this point the war in South Vietnam, the NLF had apparently followed in general the classic pattern of a successful insurgency heavily supported by an outside power.

However, it is clear today that the armed struggle in South Vietnam was initiated in the 1950’s as a result of orders given by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of North Vietnam and that the war in the South always remained under the direct control of the North. During the Vietnam War, Nguyen Van Linh was the powerful Communist Party secretary for the Vietcong in South Vietnam. He was born near Hanoi, the Central Committee had sent him south to direct the guerrilla resistance against the American-allied government. He and other Northern NVA officers ran the war in the South.

By 1965 the North was clearly winning the war in the South. Only, the arrival of large American fighting units, first the Marines at Danang, the 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) and then the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and many more after that turned the tide of the war against the Viet Cong in 1966 and 1967. In reply to the introduction of large-scale American fighting units, the North infiltrated even more of its own large-scale NVA units and supplies into South Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and it also supplied them through Cambodia as well.

At first these NVA units engaged the Americans. However, the NVA were routinely and bloodily routed by the Americans. Even in set piece battles that the NVA themselves had planned and initiated the result was the same, a bloody defeat for the NVA. Therefore, after several such gory routs the remaining NVA units generally stayed in their jungle bases, or in sanctuaries in Cambodia or Laos, and again let the Main Force Viet Cong units carry the brunt of the fighting.

The strategy switch in 1966 to medium sized and larger Viet Cong unit attacks and then the gradual introduction of Main Force NVA units to the war in South Vietnam changed the complexion of the war in the South. It was no longer truly a “guerrilla war” nor even an insurgency at that point. It had become clearly either a war of aggression of North Vietnam against South Vietnam, or it was at best a civil war between these two sides depending on the view you took of Vietnam’s long and tortuous political history.

Since the only time in its entire history that North, Central and South Vietnam as currently constituted had ever been united was after the French invaded in the late 1800s the North was actually trying to create a totally new Vietnamese state, adding substantial territory in the far south that had never been part of any Vietnamese state before. Prior to the French invasion most of what is now southern Vietnam, south of the Mekong River, had been part of the Cambodian Empire and the Central Highlands were realistically under the control of no one. However, in 1965-66 with the massive infiltration of regular NVA units this was changing, and as stated, until the Americans came in force in 1966, the North was beginning to win its war.

Importantly, at least by the beginning of 1968 and continuing thereafter, neither the NVA forces in South Vietnam nor few remaining VC main force units remaining there after Tet ‘68 relied much on the local population for food, information or recruits. These relatively large units were mostly based in areas of the country that were already separated from civilian population centers in South Vietnam, or they were based entirely outside of the borders of South Vietnam in sanctuaries in Laos or Cambodia.

In fact, after 1968 almost all of the NVA and Main Force VC did not rely on civilian support in the South for anything, except for some food and when necessary for forced labor. Both their military manpower and their supplies traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the South, or they came via the Sihanouk Trail, which was the American name for the network of roads, waterways and paths cutting through Cambodia from Sihanoukville, in the Bay of Kampong Son on the Gulf of Thailand in the south of Cambodia that also supplied communist forces particularly in the far south portion of South Vietnam.

This huge logistics network was considered an integral part of the overall very complex NVA/VC supply system including the much better known road systems in Laos and North Vietnam called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and as noted those centered on the sole Cambodian deep water port of Sihanoukville. Therefore, particularly after Tet ‘68 as a practical matter, pacification of the civil population of South Vietnam was no longer as relevant since the North’s military forces in the South did not rely on the population for support. The population of South Vietnam was not essential to the “guerrilla war” because, assuming that there ever had been one, after 1966 and particularly after 1968, there no longer was much of a true guerrilla war to support.

General Abram’s now much vaunted pacification program initiated after he took over from General Westmoreland was effective in large part because we had already killed almost all of the real Viet Cong, and a lot of the NVA in the fierce battles during Tet ’68 and in the almost equally violent battles following immediately thereafter in the second and third waves of Tet ’68. When the government forces returned to the countryside after Tet ’68 they were not effectively opposed. Those earlier battles literally eliminated almost all of the even arguably indigenous support that there had ever been in the South for unification with the North.

From a strictly military perspective, every one is pretty well pacified when they are dead. And, in the absence of many real local guerrillas or insurgents after 1968, the anti-guerilla war went very well while the attacks from the NVA units, albeit still deadly, they were very good infantry after all, clearly suffered from a lack of local guides, local support and local intelligence. It is important to keep these time frames in mind because these changes, and their timing on and around the battlefield are important.

As noted, by any rational military analysis at least as early as 1966 the war in South Vietnam was no longer truly a guerrilla war, nor had it ever been a true insurgency. The armed opposition to the South Vietnamese government although supported by some in the South was initiated, supplied and most of all, it was always controlled directly by the North Vietnamese government. In that sense, it was always a civil war between the peoples of North and South Vietnam.

As such, it had a long history of conflict behind it. For centuries the Viet people of the Tonkin Gulf had been advancing south down the Vietnamese coast conquering as they went, controlling or forcing out the indigenous Cham, Khamer and other peoples of South Vietnam.

Moreover, and very contrary to general belief, it was not an insurgency, nor a guerilla war, nor even an asymmetrical war that defeated the South Vietnamese. When defeat came in 1975 it was a full-scale, traditional, combined-arms invasion by almost the entire NVA army, all 17 divisions from North Vietnam right down Highway #1.

You can’t pacify an invasion; you must defeat it. Without American combat firepower the South Vietnamese could not defeat the last of the North’s repeated invasions of the South.

Since, according to all reports, General Abrams had refocused the South Vietnamese Army after Tet ‘68 into an effective anti-guerilla, force focusing on pacification rather than as a conventional army, it was also ill equipped in both force structure and deployment to deal with the North’s classic combined-arms invasion across the DMZ.

While it may be ironic that General Abrams, an armored officer of solid reputation and great experience in conventional warfare did not prepare the South Vietnamese Army for its greatest test—a true tankers’ battle at the DMZ between North and South Vietnam, that was never his mission, nor was he ever given the means to do it. In any event both General Abrams and the other Americans had been long gone from Vietnam for over two years when Giap’s tanks rumbled their violent way south.

The Vietnam War is probably our second most studied war. I think the Civil War still beats it, but nonetheless it also stands our least understood, most misunderstood war. Worse a great deal of what we “know” to be true about Vietnam is simply wrong.

However, these facts are true:

  • Tet’ 68 was a massive, an historic defeat for the Communists. It was one of the two or three largest almost pure infantry battles ever fought and it was clearly, cleanly and decisively won by the United States, South Vietnamese and other allied forces. In point of fact, it was a battle of annihilation on the scale of Hannibal’s Cannae. Like Cannae, it was won by the grunts on the ground fighting with courage, tenacity, and in the case of Tet ’68, with devastating American firepower and surprising mobility. Unfortunately, also like Cannae, this great military victory was not followed up on with a political victory. However, the South Vietnamese Army, Navy and Air Force generally fought well in this battle, particularly as noted their Ranger, Marine and airborne battalions and brigades. That is to say that the sons of the people of Vietnam that constituted their almost all draftee army were pacified enough by 1968 that they fought ferociously and that time successfully for their country.
  • The US Marines suffered more casualties in Vietnam than they did in all of World War II, but the United States never even imposed a war profits tax. So, even though it was a really big, a really long war, the United States never went even close to a war footing to fight it. In absolute military terms the United States never even worked up a sweat fighting this war. Therefore, it was always a winnable war for the United States. It was always a question only of whether the United States was willing to pay the price necessary to prevail. If America chose to pay the price of winning, then there never was even a possibility that the North could win.
  • The Communist tactics of guerrilla war after an initial success, failed miserably in South Vietnam. The VC guerrillas were defeated by the South Vietnamese by 1964. Then the VC and the newly arrived NVA regular army units changed tactics in 1965 and after initial success were defeated again, first by the newly arrived US soldiers on the ground in the jungle and then bloodily in the city fighting of Tet ’68. They were defeated yet again in the jungle in 1972 by the South Vietnamese with the assistance of American firepower as the US was leaving which is why the ever resourceful General Giap was forced to change his tactics yet again and this time go with a conventional combined-arms invasion including over 700 tanks across the Demilitarized Zone in 1975.
  • The South Vietnamese lost their battle in 1975 and therefore the war in large part because the US failed (the Case-Church Amendment flatly prohibited it) to support the Republic of South Vietnam in its greatest battle. Only fifty-five days after the crossed the DMZ , Saigon fell. Simply stated the US refused to respond, in spite of promises President Nixon reportedly made to President Thieu in order to secure South Vietnam’s acceptance of the Paris Peace Accords. So, the North Vietnamese conventional forces invaded and conquered America’s ally, the Republic of South Vietnam. While their own bad generalship and the corruption of the South Vietnamese government also played a small part in their defeat, US combat firepower directed against the Northern invaders nonetheless would have again been utterly game changing. Had the United States intervened with its massive air assets, both land and sea based, there is no legitimate reason to suppose that the result in 1975 would have been any different from that of 1972, yet another bloody, costly defeat for the North by the ARVN, but America did nothing.

Whether or not America should have fought in Vietnam, whether or not the tactics and strategies used were effective, or could have been more effective, it is simply true that the Vietnam War, like the Korean War were both part of the Cold War policy of the United States and its allies to defeat the communist menace by containing it. And, communism both is, and was, a menace to people, to all people.

In the simplest of human terms–Communism-totalitarianism-fundamentalism all fail, because these political systems do not value human beings as individuals.

The overall Cold War policy of containment, adopted by the United States and the free world was initially proposed by American diplomat George F. Kennan in his famous “long memo” from his post in Moscow soon after World War II was over. While the Communists nonetheless expanded over the years, the policy of containment was effective, and ultimately successful. Part of the reason it was effective was that the Free World could afford the costs of the actual battles fought in Korea and Vietnam but the communists’ societies could not.

Part of the reason it was effective is also that the American soldier and Marine are the equal of any other fighting man on any battlefield, any time, anywhere—the American fighting men actually did kill America’s enemies in Vietnam at the incredible body count ratios that were reported, disbelieved and often ridiculed at the time.

We killed them in the jungle. We killed them in the cities. We beat them every single time we fought them, but America’s own newsmen told the American public that these victories and the reports about them filed by America’s sons were lies. However, anyone that repeats today the lie that the overall body count figures reported by MACV during the war were inaccurate has simply not kept up with current scholarship which indicates their remarkable accuracy, just as the admissions by government of Vietnam that approximately 1.1 million Vietminh, VC and/or NVA had been killed in the war validates in no uncertain terms the MACV reports.

However, this does not mean that all of the body count reports submitted were always accurate. Certainly some, perhaps many, were not, but as a matter of the statistics actually announced by MACV, overall they were accurate.

Moreover, like Cannae and other famous battles of annihilation, Tet ‘68 should be studied as the most perfect example of the American Way of War probably until the Iraq War I. It was an epic victory. There is no other word that adequately describes the across the board remarkable success of the American and allied military under extreme stress from a capable, resourceful, well supplied and well equipped enemy who attacked in force and was almost completely wiped out as a result of a battle in which; they chose the time; they chose the places and they chose the type of battle but nonetheless did not achieve even a single military objective.

It was a truly epic victory. But, the victory part was generally ignored then, and unfortunately still is now almost unknown in America today.

Many in and out of American government simply did not believe that any government would pay the price that the North Vietnamese were paying repeatedly on the battlefield. Therefore, in spite of the hard evidence, in spite of the stacks of enemy body bags and huge piles of captured weapons they simply refused to believe what America’s sons said had happened during Tet ’68, and tragically, America turned away from its own army.

However, communist North Vietnam was always willing to pay that high price, just as it was willing to pay the horrific price in blood in its invasion of the South in 1972. And, it must be admitted that given this, it is clear that even if the South had prevailed against the North’s 1975 invasion that probably would not have been the end of the North’s war against the South.

The war in Vietnam would have continued as long as the leaders in the North remained its leaders and there is no indication that yet another costly defeat in1975 would have changed that. The war probably would have continued, now clearly, finally unarguably, as a civil war, but now also a mostly conventional civil war between North and South Vietnam for an indeterminate time.

Since after Tet ‘68 Hanoi no longer had significant VC support in the South, if America had fully participated during the 1975 invasion battles, the North may no longer have had an army at all. Had the Marines landed again, this time near the DMZ, the North’s army may have suffered the same fate the North Korean Army suffered after the landing at Inchon during the Korean War. It would have been cut off in the South and destroyed.

We will never know what effect that would have had on the North, or on China. And, frankly that may be a good thing.

Finally several friends of mine have gone to Vietnam recently and they report that while the communists of the North may have been successful in invading and in taking over the South the infection of freedom was already well implanted there by the time the US left. It is the people of the former Republic of South of Vietnam that are driving the new nation economically. What many called “corruption” in the South was really nascent capitalism at work. Americans tend to forget that John Hancock made his living as a smuggler before our Revolutionary War. Oh yes, the North being better communists, remains relatively poor. History can be brutal.

Although the US involvement in the Vietnam War cannot accurately be described as altruistic, it was both an honorable and an unselfish policy pursued with vigor and courage. The long history of Vietnam is replete with there being a North Vietnam, a central Vietnam and a southern Vietnam stopping well short of the current boundary of southern Vietnam, and of various combinations of these three distinct, historic, political entities often warring with each other.

Like the ancient Greek city-states uniting to oppose the Persian Empire, the Vietnamese, Cham, Lao, Khmer, Chinese and Montagnard peoples of Vietnam historically have only truly united in their opposition to China—which indicates as long as history is any judge that the next time there is a war in Vietnam; they all, North, Central and South, coast and mountains, will be fighting on our side.

There is a big difference between losing a war and not winning one. There is also a big difference between winning a war and then leaving, and having an ally succumb to a different kind of war over two years after you left.

After a great deal of research, I have a much greater appreciation of General Abrams as a soldier both before and during the Viet Nam War. He was a combat commander of men of great, and well deserved reputation. However, I still do not understand what General Abrams is supposed to have done when he took over command in South Vietnam that was so very different, so much better from what General Westmorland did and why General Abrams time in command was supposed to be so much more effective than General Westmoreland’s time in command was.

It is not that I think that General Westmoreland was a great combat commander in Vietnam. He was not. In spite having more than 536,000 American armed forces in South Vietnam General Westmoreland could never get more than about 50,000 trigger pullers out in the field, on the ground, chasing the enemy. He created a huge logistic tail probably unequalled in the history warfare and ruined the native economy of South Vietnam doing it, but he did not tailor an army fitted to its task. In building this huge, unwieldy logistic machine General Westmoreland gave the enemy targets that he had to protect, but which did nothing to advance his mission.

In any event any general that chooses attrition for his strategy is in effect admitting that he does not know how to defeat the enemy and is relying on the raw courage of his men to do it for him. This is an expensive way to fight a war, but that does not mean it is always the wrong choice. It may be the only choice at the time. However, since I do not believe that a policy of attrition was General Westmoreland’s only strategic choice during the time he was the commander of the Vietnam War, therefore I must also believe that he failed as a commander.

Even saying this though does not mean that General Westmorland’s soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen did not retrieve his failures by their valor in battle. As noted, the Tet ’68 Offensive was a great victory. The armed forces on the ground, South Vietnamese, American, South Korean, Australian and many others performed magnificently. They did not just defeat the North’s truce-breaking, sneak attack; they crushed it. However, after this great victory General Westmoreland and General Wheeler threw away that success when they asked for even more soldiers that they did not need in Vietnam.

It appears that General Abrams had a better understanding than General Westmoreland of how totally the North had been defeated during Tet ’68 and thereafter. This massive defeat of the North had favorably changed the military situation through out South Vietnam. It also seems clear that General Abrams took immediate and very effective advantage of this greatly changed tactical situation on the ground throughout much of South Vietnam caused by the literal death of the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force during and after Tet ’68. Even with these favorable changes on the battlefield General Abrams was still left with plenty to do and it is very much to his credit that he immediately set out to get it done.

However, in the woods for the grunts of Vietnam of whom I am proud to say I was one, it was still business as usual. After General Abrams assumed command, we called what we did “Reconnaissance in Force” rather than “Search and Destroy” but it was still just hunting Charlie and killing him whenever, and where ever we found him. That was the infantry at work.


(✵) Hitler declared war on the United States three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After a great deal of research, as near as I have been able to determine, Hitler’s treaty with Japan was the only treaty that he made that he not only did not break, he declared war when that treaty did not require him to. Strange.

(†) Like spies and pirates, a franc tireurs, a person caught under arms in a civil insurrection but without any identification as a combatant was treated differently from a soldier under the Geneva Convention at the time. Under both the Geneva Convention and the law of the Republic of South Vietnam, a franc tireurs was a terrorist and subject to summary execution on the battlefield. What General Loan did, however brutal, was legal which was why he was never prosecuted. After the war he owned a pizza parlor in the suburbs of Washington, D. C. General Loan was a courageous, honest man that was badly wounded by the war.

Pragmatic Pacification

Pragmatic Pacification

By john harrison

What is “pacification”? A dictionary definition would include bringing peace. A counter-insurgency definition would include, the absence of political violence, or at least of organized political violence. However, in the real world, like the word “chili”, pacification means many things, some of them quite different, to many people.

Clearly, pacification as a plan for action and properly understood may include both political and military operations. The Filipinos were pacified after the Spanish-American War when they realized that the Americans really did represent a more viable future than the insurgents offered, and in any event if they did not come in from the jungle that the US Army would hunt them down wherever they went.

Or, pacification may include apparently only a military component. For example, the Apache were “pacified” when they actually did stay on their reservations. This primarily military pacification involved the realization by the Apache that if they left their reservations that they would be hunted down in a fairly short time and that when they were hunted down they would be sent to Florida and would never see their land or their people again. The constant, besides the U. S. Army, in both cases was the use of irresistible military force.

Similarly, the Germans, Italians and Japanese were pacified after World War II when they too were occupied by overwhelming military force. This was also true of the South after our Civil War. All four were pacified successfully almost entirely without the necessity of punitive, or really of any active military operations by the occupying power.

However, while overwhelming or at least irresistible military force seems to be the most reliably successful option for pacification, it does not always work. The Germans occupied much of the Soviet Union with overwhelming military force for years during World War II but never succeeded in pacifying any of it. This was true even though the Germans were in many cases initially welcomed by peoples that had been held in pacified subjugation by the Soviets for years. The Germans also failed to pacify Yugoslavia, as did the Japanese occupations of both China and Indochina during World War II both failed. In the more recent insurgencies in the former Rhodesia and in the Union of South Africa again overwhelming military force was not sufficient for pacification. In each case the occupying power had at least irresistible and in most cases overwhelming military force but nonetheless did not succeed in pacifying their subject populations. What was the difference?

Neither the Germans, nor the Japanese, nor the former colonial governments ever propounded a future that included the populations that they were trying to pacify. It is important to note that even in the case of the Apache there was always the carrot that the Apache could live more or less as they wished on the reservation, albeit in a very circumscribed area. While presenting a minimal, and initially rejected, alternative,  years of uniformly successful military operations made this choice, a political choice, more palatable to the Apache. In the case of the Filipinos, it was the offer of an immediate future of schools, roads, and the more distant but still real promise of independence that provided the acceptable political future necessary to achieve pacification. All the Germans, Japanese and white minority governments ever offered was continued economic, and political subjugation followed in some cases by probable, eventual extermination.

So, it seems that successful pacification, besides at least irresistible military force, must include a political future acceptable to the subject people. However, even this formulation of pacification has not always been successful. The British and Americans tried to offer this to the Afghanis but thus far, neither can be considered successful pacification operations. The Russians attempt at the more traditional recipe of massive military force was similarly unsuccessful in Afghanistan. Why?

Afghanistan is particularly troubling as an example of historic pacification attempts because Alexander the Great, using the massive military force recipe was successful in pacifying the place although it should be noted that this took about three years and cost him more in casualties than his whole Persian campaign where he had won and pacified an entire empire. Even with Alexander’s victorious example, the British, Russians, and now the Americans, have only been successful in leaving their soldiers’ bones there. Why?

The simple answer is that neither the British, nor the Russians nor even the Americans have ever offered a political solution that is acceptable to the Afghani people.  If the American intervention into Afghanistan is going to be successful over the long term, then America must propose a political solution that resolves, or at least stabilizes what is essentially a tribal society.  Alexander the Great did this by marrying the fabled Roxanne which cemented an alliance with her powerful father.  If the American pacification program in Afghanistan fails to do this, then America’s intervention there will fail like the British and the Russians before them.

The American philosopher C. S. Pierce founded the only American school of philosophy. It had originally been called “pragmatism,” but Pierce later changed the name because it was such a useful idea that people kept appropriating the word pragmatism and pinning it on their own formulations. Pierce thought that the word “pramatacism” was sufficiently ugly so that it would preclude further thefts and further dilution of his philosophy. He was correct in the former, the word was sufficiently ugly that it has avoided being taken into general use, but less so in the later in that people kept his word pragmatism for their own.  Analyzing with C. S. Pierce’s philosophy of Pragmaticism, it is clear that the Americans have been more idealistic than pragmatic in their approach to pacifying Afghanistan, and unfortunately that means that the Americans are also unlikely to be successful there.