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Khe Sanh—the intelligence build up

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.

Command and Control in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO)

area map

Khe Sanh Area of Operations

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) it will be useful for the reader to understand the very confused and dysfunctional command and control relationships that existed in the Khe Sanh AOO.  There were at least 5 different higher headquarters.

The advisory team of 5 soldiers responded to the Province advisory team in Quang Tri.  The District Chief Captain Tinh-A-Nhi responded to the Province Commander who was a full Colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He was located in Quang Tri.

The Special Forces (Special Forces Detachment A-101) at Lang Vei along the border with Laos reported to a C Team headquartered in Hue Phu Bai, which in return reported to the Special Forces Group in Danang.

In the village headquarters was the headquarters of a Combined Action Company (CAC-O) and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP O-1) of 10 Marines and about 25 Montagnards.  The CAC reported to Colonel David Lounds the KSCB Commander but also had a battalion headquarters in Danang.

In addition to Advisory Team 4 there were two intelligence operatives–George Amos and LT Jaime Taronji in that group of soldiers who ended up fighting in the village.  As “spooks” we saw very little of them but when the fighting started they were there.  They responded to a headquarters in Hue Phu Bai.

Located as an appendage on the western edge of the KSCB there was a special forces Forward Operating Base (FOB-3).  The men of FOB-3 with their Montagnard soldiers conducted reconnaissance and raids in North Vietnam and Laos.  They reported to a Battalion commander in Hue Phu Bai and Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG or SOG) in Saigon.

Finally there was a two man intelligence team located in the village headquarters that reported to a headquarters in Danang.

Colonel David Lounds as the senior American officer in the Khe Sanh AO exercised very loose operational control over the units in the area.  All the units would go to the Marines at the combat base for support, but when that support was not forthcoming they would go to their parent units.  This was especially true for the Special Forces and Advisory team.

The Marines at KSCB reported to the 3rd Marine Division headquartered in Dong Ha many miles to the east.

The relations between the Army units—special forces and advisory team—and the Marines were so bad that they had developed their own code terms and frequencies to coordinate with each other so the Marines could not listen in.

Additionally each of the units mentioned had very different missions and therefore different objectives.  So the lack of unity of command resulted in a loss of unity of effort, which is what the whol concept of unity of command is all about.  Unity of effort is supposed to flow from unity of command.  All of the units would be working towards a common goal.  The Marines goal was to kill NVA.  The Advisory Team and District Government’s goal was to provide political leadership for the people of the area and to provide them security from small enemy forces.  A-101’s mission was border surveillance and to block the major avenue of approach into the area—route 9.  The SOG team at FOB-3 only staged in Khe Sanh for out of area operations in Laos and North Vietnam.  Thus no unity of effort.

This spaghetti bowl of relationships was the situation that existed when the battle of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968.

 

Limited War and Rules of Engagement

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:

  1. The pre-1 April 1968 phase where the US was fighting to win though with significant limits on the application of force, and
  2. 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.

General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy

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.

Was America Duped at Khe Sanh

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!

Vietnam War; Episode 7 The veneer of civilization and Episode 8 The History of the World

 

The two episodes are painful to watch because they show the unravelling of civil society in the United States as an exit is sought form Vietnam.  Nixon was to call it “Peace with Honor.”

The most painful thing for me was to revisit the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.  The police riot and the protestor riots sickened me.  I had just returned from Vietnam and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I actually called home and told my folks “that at least in Vietnam I was armed and knew who the enemy was.”

It was reactions like mine caused Richard Nixon to win the presidency, promising law and order at home and peace overseas. In Vietnam, the war went on and soldiers on all sides witnessed terrible savagery and unflinching courage. The episode is short on highlighting the courage and focuses on the ravages of war. The number of casualties shown and the extent of their wounds was greatly overplayed.

It is interesting that there is no mention of Jane Fonda in the vividly displayed anti-war activities.  Hanoi Jane was actually a rallying image for the forces in Vietnam and the veterans.  She is still mutually hated by most Vietnam veterans.

Episode 8 focuses on the plummeting morale of the troops in Vietnam. It also argues that the Vietnamese Armed Forces were corrupt, while trying to explain “Vietnamization”.  Vietnamization was the strategy that allowed President Nixon to begin withdrawing American troops.

The episode paints the incursion into Cambodia as a strategic mistake because of the public debates the rectitude of the war.  The My Lai massacre contributes to the renewal of the anti-war excesses.

Since the entire documentary is short of strategic explanations and long on adding to the history of moral outrage at the war it is not surprising that the invasions of Cambodia and Laos are not explained.  Their purpose of course was to try and gain time for Vietnamization.  It can be argued that in this regard they were a success.  I say that while reminding the reader of two things:

  1. The invasion of Laos was a tactical defeat for RVN
  2. If the invasion had occurred in 1968, not 1971 the results would have been much different.

The final note that I would add to this discussion is how important Nixon made the return of the POWs.  Their health and welfare was a rallying issue for most Americans.  Their importance gave the North Vietnamese more leverage in the negotiations.

Part 6 “Things fall apart”

September 24, 2017

This episode covers the time period from January to July 1968.There are really two parts of the episode:

  1. The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.
  2. The political turmoil in the United States linked to the war, the death of Martin Luthur King and to some extent the death of Bobby Kennedy.

The brutal battles of the Tet offensive occurred just two months after Gen. William Westmoreland had assured the press that the North Vietnamese are “unable to mount a major offensive,” The presentation argues that American forces were surprised by the scale and scope of a coordinated series of attacks. However, it also quotes several sources as saying that they saw something coming but had not pieced the information together.

The attacks on the eve of the Tet holiday in late January 1968, were intended to cause the ARVN to fall apart and the civilians to turn to support the communists, The surprise attacks on cities and military bases throughout the south, caused the VC and NVA to endure devastating losses but casted grave doubt on President Lyndon Johnson’s promise that there is “light at the end of the tunnel.”  The focus is on the political loss of credibility.

It is interesting to hear President Johnson talk about the lies and misreporting of the main street press.  Sound familiar?  The press focus was on Saigon.  The picture of the Police Chief executing a VC who had just kille3d a soldier and his wife and 4 children dominated the news coverage.  (Of course the atrocities committed by the VC are never mentioned.)  One of the VC survivors is quoted as saying that they paid a high price for that picture.

The brutality of the Communist Tet Offensive unfolds DAILY on television, increasing opposition to the war. The episode notes that Tet failed Although it fails from a military standpoint but it had a  devastating effect on American opinion about Vietnam involvement. We see the entire comme3ntary from CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, known as “the most trusted man in America,” when he expresses his opinion that the war is hopelessly deadlock. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson reportedly says, “I’ve lost middle America.”

What is missing from this entire episode is any discussion of the ‘agony of Khe Sanh”.  Khe Sanh is treated as a secondary battle in comparison to the Tet offensive.  I have heard this argument before and have tried to put it into perspective using the NVA’s own strategy in my book Expendable Warriors: The Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.(Pages 135-136).  .I spend over a page debunking the side show assertion of the episode. In the  conclusion I question the side show assertion by noting that 5000 Marines, Soldier, ARN and Brou Montagnards tied down and ultimately destroyed 2 divisions that could have been used elsewhere.  Secondly assert that victory at Khe Sanh or victory in the cities during Tet would have been victory.  Finally, I debunk the assertion that Khe Sanh was a diversion by noting that over two divisions were drawn to the Northern Corps and thus were available to counter the attacks on Hue and Quang Tri.  These forces did not get involved in Khe Sanh until after the destruction of the Tet offensive communist force and thus the diversion argument fails in the shadow of military reality.

On 31 March President Johnson stunneds the nation by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

I argue that it is at this point that the war in Vietnam was lost politically.  Johnson had forgone a military victory.  Interestingly on the next day, Major Paul Schwartz briefed Major General John Tolson, Commander of the forces that were about to relieve the Khe Sanh Combat base, about the 1st Cavalry Division’s next mission to attack the remnants of the NVA who had escaped Hue in the Aschau Valley about 40 kilometers or so south of Khe Sanh.  Major Schwartz’s concept was to use the Corps sized force that was relieving Khe Sanh and continue west into Laos, turn south on the Ho Chi Minh trail and enter the Aschau valley from the west rather than the east.  This would have done several things:.

  1. Achieved tactical and possibly strategic surprise
  2. Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, and
  3. Used the 90 days of supply that were at Khe Sanh

Tolson interrupted the briefing by saying: “Didn’t you hear the President last night? What you are proposing is politically impossible.”

The war was to run on for 7 more years when it was virtually won at that point in history.

Vietnam: Part V “This is what we do” (July to December 1967)

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.

Part IV: Resolve

September 20, 2017

This episode focuses on North Vietnamese troops and materiel stream down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south. The flow is uninterrupted by U.S. airpower over Laos.

Meanwhile ARVN struggles to “pacify the countryside.” By safeguarding the population in strategic hamlets, increasing the use of popular force units to guard villages and aggressive patrolling.  This effort was of marginal effectiveness according to the documentary. This result may not be as negative as the series would have us believe.  This will become much more evident a year or so later when ARVN and others do not join the VC during the Tet offensive.

The episode also includes the growing antiwar movement. The authors attribute this to college students who have avoided the draft. This draft avoidance is also allegedly a cause for the force being more and more populated with uneducated and lower intelligence personnel.  This is truly a slap at those brave men and women who served.

As the need for more troops for Vietnam increased, draft rules were changing and this further fueled the anti-war movement.

Finally, the episode argues that the soldiers and Marines discover that the war they are being asked to fight in Vietnam is nothing like their fathers’ war—mostly World War II.  As one of those soldiers whose father was killed in World War II, and who is a student of war. there was no illusion that the war I was fighting was like my father’s. However, during the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. I sometimes likened my experience to the trench warfare of World War I.

Part III: The River Styx


This is third in a series of commentary about “The Vietnam War” PBS series airing now. See also my blogs about Part I: DejaVu and Part II: Riding the Tiger.


September 20, 2017

Part III focused on the introduction of US ground troops into the South Vietnam.  In doing so it started to lay the groundwork for the eventual disillusionment of the American body politic.

We are introduced to a young high school graduate and his family.  We know that in a future part of the series he will be killed and the audience will have had its heart strings played.

What was truly interesting in this almost 2 hour segment was the leadership styles introduced and the emerging critique of President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the Vietnamese leadership and the humble Ho Chi Minh.  We learn that there Le Duan, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam was the driving force behind the aggressiveness of the North Vietnamese.  He is credited with advocating the introduction of the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam.  This is a little known fact.

The South Vietnamese leadership was unstable at best, according to the series.  It mentions numerous coups by different military leaders and mentions in particular General Nguyễn Khánh…  I mention him because I can remember him being introduced to the Corps of Cadets during lunch in 1964.  The US military went out of its way to gain the support of the different Vietnamese leaders.

President Johnson is shown to be much more calculating than is normally the case.  He had what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was a blank check for the introduction of ground forces 10 days before the events in the Gulf occurred.  He also ordered the introduction of 3 battalions of Marines secretly.  There is a brief mention of the 1964 Presidential election where Johnson hammered Goldwater on escalation to include nuclear weapons while Johnson portrayed himself as a reluctant warrior.  The opposite of what was to become reality.

LTC Hal Moore and his battalion of the 7th Cavalry and the battle of the Ira Drang Valley are a focus of the study.  My friend Joe Galloway talks extensively about Moore’s leadership—first into the battle and last out.  Unfortunately, one critical event is not mentioned.  During the height of the battle of Ira Drang Valley Moore leans against a tree and disconnects from the battle swirling around him and tries to anticipate what he can do to influence the battle 10 to 20 minutes into the future.  This is a skill that every leader should seek to achieve.  Anticipate what will be needed rather than reacting to the minute.

We can hope that this focus on leadership continues into future parts of the series.

Part III Continued

Why groiund troops?  The series gave two reasons for the introduction of ground troops into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the two are actually related.

President Johnson, even though he had won the election 1n November of 1964 was reportedly worried about being humiliated.

The second reason is the pyric victory that the Vietnamese Army won at Banh Gia.

The Viet Cong had launched a major offensive on December 4, 1964 and captured the village of Binh Gia, 40 miles southeast of Saigon. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) eventually recaptured the village. It took an eight-hour battle and the reinforcement of the initial assaulting force by three battalions which were brought in on helicopters. Losses included an estimated 200 ARVN soldiers and five American. advisors killed.

Reportedly battles such this, in which ARVN suffered such heavy losses at the hands of the Viet Cong, convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that the South Vietnamese could not defeat the communist without the commitment of U.S. ground troops to the war. The documentary refers to this as a turning point in the conflict.

The actual turning point occurred several months earlier when Le Duan caused the infiltration of NVA units into the south to increase.  It is this infiltration that made the pyric victory possible.

As we continue through the series there will be several other turning points.

Part III continued

This documentary has habit of inserting what appear to be throw away lines except they are value loaded.  In this case the idea was planted like gospel that the anti-war movement was legitimate.  This concept must be considered as the series develops.