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Correcting the record

Letter to the editor

Reference Military History article “Hallowed Ground Khe Sanh Vietnam” (http://www.historynet.com/september-2017-table-contents.htm)

As a veteran of the battle of Khe Sanh I need to correct the record and the impression created by Mark D. Van Els in his article about the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The first thing is his understanding of the geography.  Khe Sanh was 30 plus kilometers south of the border with North Vietnam and the DMZ.  It sat astride route 9 that ran from Laos all the way to the coast.  It therefore blocked one of the critical avenues of approach into Quang Tri and Thieu Tinh (Hue) provinces. The map below highlights the strategic position.

area map

 

Given the location of the combat base it was used for surveillance and other operations into Laos and North Vietnam as the author points out.

As both a youngster growing up in Kansas and later as a cadet I studied intently the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the fate of the French.  It was popular to try and compare Khe Sanh and the ill-fated French garrison.  I must admit that many of us tried to draw lessons from Dien Bien Phu to try and predict the next activity of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The comparisons were of limited utility given the much different nature of the battlefield.

Mark Van Els failed to understand a critical point when it came to the timing of the battle.  General Westmoreland and the American chain of command down to and including Colonel David Lounds (the Marine commander of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB)) knew more than 3 months before the battle that the NVA were coming.  As pointed out General Westmoreland wanted a set piece fire power intensive battle and those of us at Khe Sanh were the bait.  The reinforcement of KSCB started right before the first shelling and then immediately after it.  This is all well documented in my book Expendable Warriors: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.

The article leads the reader to believe that Khe Sanh was wholly a Marine battle.  As an Army District Advisor working with CPT Tinh-a-Nhi the District Chief we brought Army advisors, Bru montagnard and Vietnamese soldiers to the battle.  The initial battle around Khe Sanh village resulted in rendering an NVA regiment combat ineffective.  These brave soldiers were joined in the fight by Army Special Forces at Lang Vei and Special Forces soldiers at the Combat base itself.  These Vietnamese, Bru and Army soldiers contributed significantly to the overall battle.

As to the comment about the attack on Khe Sanh being a feint to draw forces to Khe Sanh, there is the school of thought that says it was a feint.  However, I contend that General Giap was attacking the American center of gravity—public opinion.  The battles of Tet and Hue were over in several weeks with the NVA and Viet Cong having been defeated everywhere, but Khe Sanh continued as noted for 77 days.  The cover of Time Magazine highlighted the “Agony of Khe Sanh”.  The agony played in the media on Main Street for over 77 days.  General Giap had won.

I believe that we won the battle of Khe Sanh on the battlefield and lost the war on the streets of the United States.  This is the critical lesson from Khe Sanh—the link between the battlefields and public opinion.

Thank you for correcting the record.


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