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Past articles have talked about limited war, General Westmoreland’s strategy and the intelligence leading up to the attack on the District Headquarters in Khe Sanh village and the siege of the KSCB. In this article we will relate the events prior to the attack and the continual stress between secrecy and combat necessity.
On the morning of 20 January 1968 CPT Nhi and I with one other of my advisors SFC Henry King set off with about 50 Vietnamese soldiers on a routine reconnaissance patrol. We were going about 8-10 KM southwest of the District headquarters to a hill top. When we got there the goal was to set up a patrol base and then send out 4 10 man reconnaissance patrols to work in horse shoe pattern looking for signs of Viet Cong or other activity. We had no knowledge of any activity in the area.
We had planned artillery targets along our route of march and to support the patrol base. These targets had been registered with the Operations Center at the KSCB. The going getting to the patrol base was slow going because of all of the vines that had overgrown the selected route. Also holes cut for Vietnamese soldiers to get through did not quite accommodate larger Americans –especially when you had a PRC 25 radio on your back with an antennae sticking up several feet.
Once we were established in the patrol base the Vietnamese had some cold food and then set out on their patrols. The patrols had only been out for about 15 minutes when I got a call from the Special Forces at Lang Vei telling me to get out of the area. At first I resisted. They could not give me a reason to get out. But after they said it enough times I got the message that there was some urgency to the request.
It took us some time to gather up all of the recon patrols and start our walk back. We got back to the District Headquarters in midafternoon. Not too long after we were back at the District Headquarters a B-52 strike went in very close to where we had been. At the time I wondered what they were dropping the bombs on. Later I learned that it was the 66th Regiment of the 304th Division of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
We were lucky that we didn’t run into them as our puny little force would not have stood much of a chance against such a formidable enemy. This episode highlights the tension between security and operational need.
The intelligence community has always been accused of being more interested in protecting their sources and methods (how they learned something) than the needs of the soldiers on the ground. As we pointed out in a previous article (intelligence) the leadership at the KSCB knew that the NVA were coming and when. They had not told the advisory team with the District Chief. The intelligence gathered by the Advisory Team came from watching the preparations for combat at the KSCB. Had that B-52 strike gone in with us still in the area the results could have been calamitous. Thankfully someone finally told us to move. But why hadn’t they told us not to go at all—knowing what the threat was?
The night of 2o January I got a good hot shower. This was to be the last shower for months. On the morning of 21 January the battle was joined.
Expendable Warriors was so named because General Westmoreland and Colonel Lounds at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) knew that the North Vietnamese Army was going to attack Khe Sanh as much as 3 months before the attack began. However, the Advisory Team in Khe Sanh village in the District Headquarters were not told. We guess for fear that the intelligence would be leaked to our Vietnamese counterparts and then get back to the North Vietnamese. What was the intelligence?
The intelligence that the NVA were going to attack Khe Sanh got its first visibility in November 1967 when Colonel Lounds (Commander of the KSCB) told some Marines that: “you will soon be in the American history books.”
Recently unclassified intelligence showed that in October 1967 an NVA Division began moving towards Khe Sanh. There was also information from signal intercepts that a new headquarters had been formed to control a multi-division attack on Khe Sanh.
General Westmoreland’s intelligence brief of 12 January confirmed that the attack would begin on 21 January. During the entire month of January Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) began preparations for the battle of Khe Sanh began preparations for the upcoming battle by:
- Reinforcing the KSCB first on the 13 December with and additional Marie Infantry Battalion. The order sending the battalion to KSCB noted that reinforcements should not flow to KSCB too quickly so as to avoid the NVA knowing of General Westmoreland’s intentions.
- An air campaign to target the NVA using B-52s as they approached Khe Sanh was begun on 5 January –Operation Niagara
- Approval to use what was then a classified controlled fragmentation artillery munition (COFRAM—also known as fire cracker) was sought
- An Air Support Radar Team was deployed to KSCB on 16 January to control radar guided air attacks.
- On 17 January an additional Marine infantry battalion arrived at Khe Sanh bringing the force up to 3 battalions.
- On 18 January sensors were diverted from the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and deployed around the KSCB to monitor the movement of the NVA into the area.
During the period beginning in December 1967 the Marines at KSCB began improving their defensive positions by digging deeper putting up more sand bag reinforced bunkers. Ammunition resupply by air began in earnest. This Marine effort was intelligence to those of us on the Advisory Team in the District Headquarters. We began to take similar actions by improving the defenses of our little compound.
Finally on 19 January an NVA officer was captured performing a reconnaissance of the wire surrounding the KSCB. This office had the entire plan for the attack from the northern Division (NVA Division 325 C) that was to attack KSCB beginning on 21 January.
The information on the pending attack was known to the leadership at Khe Sanh and throughout the relevant portions of MACV, BUT not in the District Headquarters. The scene was set for the events of the next almost 80 days.
Some time ago one of my readers asked that I write about how the rules of engagement (ROE) severely restricted US forces freedom of action and thus played a significant role in the resultant “loss” in Vietnam. In this case ROE were linked to limited war. What is limited war you ask?
Limited war is where one side in a conflict decides to limit its application of military force for a whole series of reasons. The Vietnam War really had two phases:
- The pre-1 April 1968 phase where the US was fighting to win though with significant limits on the application of force, and
- The post 1 April 1968 date where the goal was to achieve a negotiated agreement. Initially this phase had even more restricted ROE, but after Nixon’s perception of North Vietnamese intransigence there was a significant loosening of the ROE—decreasing the limits on the use of military force.
The above raises several questions:
- What were the initial limits and why were they imposed?
- What is so significant about 31 March 1968? What were the limits in the ROE?
- What were Nixon’s relaxation of limits?
When the US began its escalation of the use of force in Vietnam in 1964/5 there were significant limits placed upon the forces. Cambodia and Laos were off limits to conventional forces, as was North Vietnam. The bombing of North Vietnam was severely limited as to the targets that could be engaged. The whole theory of limited war was meeting a test. A test that it failed, but more about that later.
These limits were imposed on US forces because of a fear that any expansion of the war would cause the Chinese to intervene. The memory of Korea was still keen in strategists’ minds. There was also fear of a confrontation with the Soviet Union. For these reasons there were severe limits placed upon US forces.
In late 1967 the North Vietnamese tested these limits with the extreme shelling and limited attacks across the DMZ in the vicinity of Cam Lo. Unbeknownst to the Americans this was a test—a test to see if it would abide by its limits and not invade North Vietnam. When the US did not invade the North Vietnamese were free to move several divisions west to come down the Ho Chi Minh trail and attack Khe Sanh. Which they did.
What is so significant about 31 March 1968? The evening of 31 March President Johnson announced his partial bombing halt as a means to entice the North Vietnamese into negotiations to end the war. It was at this point that the war was “lost.” As recounted elsewhere (Expendable Warriors) a proposed offensive military action into Laos was deemed to be politically unacceptable. The war had been won on the ground in Vietnam but lost politically. The US was unwilling to lift its limits and win the war on the ground and North was not fighting with any limits. Instead increased limits were imposed on US forces.
North Vietnamese intransigence and an attempt to disengage US forces while not increasing the degree of loss lead to the Nixon Administration strategy of Vietnamization. This was coupled with several expansions of the war—relaxation of the limits imposed on US forces. First was the invasion of Cambodia as an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sanctuaries and to buy time for Vietnamization to take hold.
The second expansion was Lam Son 719A—the invasion of Laos in 1971 to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. For several reasons this Vietnamese attack with US support was a miserable failure. The main reason probably being the loss of surprise—the NVA were waiting and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) got mauled.
The final escalation was the use of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong. Previous bombing restraints/limits were relaxed and a massive bombing finally caused the North Vietnamese to agree to a settlement. In hiding the overall loss Nixon/Kissinger called it “Peace with Honor”. The POWs came home. T
In Vietnam we relearned the lessons of Korea. When one side is fighting a limited war—limited in ways and means and the other side is fighting an unlimited war—applying all of the ways and means at its disposable to win the outcome is a t best a draw. Does or should the MacArthur dictum: “there is no substitute for victory” apply? In the Gulf War we saw the limits replaced by the Powell Doctrine of “Over-whelming Force.” However there were limits in that conflict such that several years the second Bush administration felt that it had to fight another war against Iraq—in short to do what the first Gulf War had prevented –the over throw of Saddam Hussein.
To return to the original issue of ROEs and limited war it should be clear that at no time except a nuclear threat will the United States not fight a “limited war.” But the extent of those limitations will clearly have a potential impact on the outcome of the conflict. Politicians and military strategists must decide before the conflict begins as to whether any limits being considered will prevent the achievement of the military objectives that have flowed from the political objectives of a conflict.
Returning to John Mason Glen’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) We must also set the record straight about General Westmoreland and the strategy in Vietnam War. Again Mr. Glen displays his lack of historical perspective by attributing the strategy of attrition in the Vietnam War to General Westmoreland’s analysis of the battle of the Ira Drang Valley. (The basis of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once, Young and Brave.)
Glen correctly paints General Westmoreland as the perfect image of a soldier—World War II leader, Airborne Infantry leader, former Superintendent of West Point—with a very stiff soldierly look. Westy, as he was called by cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field in Vietnam was all that Glen describes. One must also remember at this point in history the Airborne Mafia, as it was called ruled the Army. There was admiration for the Airborne coming out of World War II. President Kennedy was enamored with the Special Forces (Green Berets) all of whom were airborne qualified. Glen attributes Westmoreland’s strategy to this background and does not attribute the country’s experience and successes to the strategy in Vietnam.
When Westy was superintendent at West Point I was a cadet there studying military tactics and history. Much of our studies revealed that the US military strategy grew out of Grant’s defeat of Lee. The battles of the Wilderness in late 1864 and 1865 were battles of attrition. The North had the wherewithal in terms of men and equipment to fight a war of attrition against the South. This strategy succeeded. The lesson learned was that attrition warfare was a way to win.
The world wars in Europe and Asia were also wars of attrition where superior resources were able to win the day, over time. When one couples the US military experience of success through attrition warfare with Robert McNamara’s “bean counting” revolution in the Pentagon one can understand how body count became the measure of success for the war in Vietnam. If more bad guys were killed in an engagement than good guys then the good guys “won”. This became the approach in Vietnam.
Given this view that attrition / body count would cause the enemy to stop fighting one can clearly understand the desire of a set piece firepower intensive battle to crush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Khe Sanh offered this opportunity. The hope was that the NVA would go for the bait that was the Khe Sanh Combat Base and provide a large number of targets to be attacked by superior fire power and destroyed. For this strategy to succeed the bait could not be compromised by the NVA learning of the plan. The close-holding of the intelligence that the NVA was going to attack Khe Sanh lead to my advisory team in Khe Sanh village being “expendable”. We were part of the bait and could not leak to our Vietnamese counterparts what was coming for fear that they in turn would leak it to the NVA. The solution was to just not tell us what was about to occur.
Many of the readers of Expendable Warriors have commented on how critical we deal with General Westmoreland. One former Chief of Staff of the Army refused to endorse the book because of this perspective. I must admit that the after taste of being “expendable” may have colored my perspective. However, I have learned the bigger lesson—strategic leaders must make strategic decisions based upon the bigger picture. In this regard the small advisory team and mixed force of Vietnamese, Bru Montagnards and Marines may have truly been expendable. Though we will probably never admit it.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines did not lose the war in Vietnam the politicians and strategists did. In April/May of 1968 the strategy had succeeded. The NVA and Viet Cong had been defeated by all body count measures, but the political will to win was gone. The political will had not been considered by the strategists of the day. It was not until Colonel Harry Summers published his book On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that Clausewitz’s dictums on political will were brought again into consideration by strategic thinkers. Colonel Summers was part of the Vietnam negotiating team and his discussion with a North Vietnamese counterpart is often quoted. He told his counterpart: “we won every battle.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied “But you lost the war.”
If one reads my writings on conflict termination he will see Colonel Summers’ views used as a basis for defining what it means to win. Body count is also dismissed as the failed measure of success that it is. A subject of another blog in our continuing discussion leading up to the 50th anniversary of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) we can anticipate a plethora of articles about the battle that decided the Vietnam War. The first of these was in the New York Times on January 1st (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) The article by John Mason Glen is spectacular in its attention grabbing title but weak on strategic analysis. Having lived through the battle and written about it in Expendable Warriors: the battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, I feel uniquely qualified to rebut Glen’s argument.
The main theme of the article is that the attack on Khe Sanh was a diversion to draw American forces away from the populated areas in anticipation of the Tet Offensive which started 9 days after the beginning of the siege of the KSCB. This argument is inaccurate for many different reasons:
- The attack on Khe Sanh had been anticipated for 3 months. Elements of 2 Army Divisions had been moved north in vicinity of Hue and Quang Tri. It was these forces that blunted part of the attacks on those two province headquarters.
Map of the Khe Sanh area. Hue is just off the map to the southeast (lower right corner of the map)
- Khe Sanh was reinforced by 4 battalions of Marines with most of the reinforcements arriving after the North Vietnamese Army launched its missile and artillery barrage on 21 January 1968. (More on the multiple implications of this attack in subsequent articles.) 4 battalions of Marines in the bigger scheme of things was not consequential to stopping the Tet attacks.
- The diversion of air assets to support the defense of Khe Sanh was not as significant as Glen would have one believe. Mush of the air support used was B-52 carpet bombing not pin point close air support. Such bombing approaches were inappropriate for populated areas.
- Glen mentions the internal opinion divisions within the North Vietnamese leadership. One faction was focused on the Tet offensive and the other on Khe Sanh. He correctly points out that one faction focused on the general uprising goal while General Giap was seeking to break the American public support for the war by the attack on Khe Sanh. He wanted to repeat his success at Dien Bien Phu where the French public support for the Indochinese war was destroyed. To people like Glen it was one or the other. Why couldn’t they have been reinforcing? Glen does not examine this point.
- The agony of Khe Sanh played out for 77 days on the screens and in the newspapers of main street America. This is where the war was lost! Certainly Tet contributed to the loss but it was Khe Sanh that was the deciding factor.
- It should be noted that in the Burns PBS documentary which has been critiqued on these pages the siege of the KSCB is barely mentioned—another of its fatal flaws as has been recounted on these pages.
- In fact both Khe Sanh and Tet were significant failures militarily for the North Vietnamese. They lost both battles. The war was there to be won, but the political will to do so had been lost. Giap had been right. (There is a unique event highlighted in my book that makes this point explicitly.)
But the bottom line is that the battle of Khe Sanh was won and the war lost at the same time.
In my next response to the Glen’s article I will respond to his critique of General Westmoreland. Stay tuned!
This episode has three major thrusts.
The first focuses on American casualties in the Central Highlands and south of the DMZ that divided North and South Vietnam. The DMZ was part of the Paris accords of 1954 that ended the French Indochina war. There is also a discussion of enemy body count. The argument was that demographics argued that the North Vietnamese did not have the manpower to replace their losses.
I have also been a critic of body count as a measure of combat effectiveness and thus a measure that a side was “winning.” Body count does not measure will to endure. Many have argued that body count as measured in number of body bags was the US weakness that our opponents discerned coming out of the Vietnam War. Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to deter the US from restoring Kuwait in the first Gulf War, claimed that the US should prepare for many body bags. This weakness came from the weekly body count—US and opponents—that were released by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam.
The second thrust was that body count meant that the US was winning. This is juxtaposed against a belief that all relevant measurements showed that the US won the war before it started.
Third is a teaser for the upcoming episodes as Hanoi lays plans for a massive surprise offensive. What the episode does not reveal is that the fights around Con Thien and the DMZ were really a test by the NVA. The North Vietnamese leadership wanted to verify that the US would not invade North Vietnam. Once assured by the actions along the DMZ they were free to move more than 2 divisions towards Khe Sanh for January 21st attacks there.
If the authors of this series were really interested in a strategic analysis that above would be apparent.
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.
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.