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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.

 

Part II: Riding the Tiger

September 19, 2017

I watched with fascination as the second installment of the PBS Vietnam War “documentary” unfolded last night. The revisionist version of history continued. The “Riding the Tiger” episode dealt with the period 1961-63. With this installment the slippery slope to the eventual withdrawal in 1975 has begun as has the “waste” of lives and treasure.

The attempt to clothe the events of 1961 in new clothes was fascinating. Several theses are advanced: President Kennedy was a “victim” of history. Buddhist monks were continually immolating themselves. The South Vietnamese military were both cowards and incompetent. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were great warriors and nationalists. I could go on.

Some historians have argued for the last few years that President Kennedy would never have gone through the build-up that President Johnson did. The one comparison I found truly amazing was the President who was dynamic and went against his generals’ advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis followed the generals from a position of not wanting to appear “weak”.

This juxtaposition of the President as strong in one instance and weak in another shows the difficulty that historians are having to enhance the Kennedy image in spite of historical reality.

Kennedy went to Texas because he had to enhance the possibility of being re-elected in 1964. His play for the black vote was more of the same. In short, he was a political opportunist. Once the commander in Vietnam announced in 1963 that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel he may well have been appealing to the opportunist President. We will never know.

What we “learn” in this episode is that the United States backed totalitarian leaders and as a result we were doomed to fail. This documentary has not yet addressed the feelings of the many warriors who fought in Vietnam who believe their efforts and sacrifices were for naught.

Without acknowledging those deep wounds, the film’s attempts to heal the divisions created by the Vietnam War seem doomed to fail.

Part I: Déjà Vu

September 18, 2017

The Vietnam War, a 10-episode, 18-hour documentary which premiered last night allegedly seeks to correct the record that generations of American have grown up with—a mistaken war that the United States lost. Its press claims that it is also reportedly the deepest exploration of the origins and the fighting of the war. This sets a high bar given the Vietnam War has been one of the most widely reported conflicts in history as it was the first war that was piped nightly into the homes on main street USA. It was here that the war was eventually lost. I’ll be watching with interest to see if this point comes home.

In 1961 when I stood on the Plain at West Point to be sworn in as a new cadet the idea that in five years time some of us standing there would be dying in Vietnam was unimaginable. Our class began to be aware of the growing conflict in Vietnam in 1962-63. By the time we graduated in 1965 we had studied the division of French Indochina and many other insurgencies and what had worked for other militaries.

We had attended Ranger School and some of us were parachute qualified. Did this help us in Vietnam? We will comment on that at the end of the miniseries. When the war was over my West Point Class had lost over 30 combat fatalities and we are still counting the losses from Agent Orange and other causes. Will future episodes respect the loss of these great Americans?

The first episode of the new PBS Vietnam War series felt like reliving history through a focus that serves the interests of left wing historians. If the Déjà Vu episode is indicative of the lens of the entire series, it will further antagonize many veterans who are convinced that such historical revisionism disguises the war that was won by their blood sweat and tears and lost due to the efforts of leftist journalists and their anti-war student leftists.

It is this dichotomy of views that the PBS miniseries fails, at this point, to address. To be exact the insertions of body bags into the historical mistakes of the French compounds this image.

 

North Korea: Next Steps?

As the debate swirls about North Korea’s latest shows of force:

  • Launching a missile over Japan
  • Exploding what may be a thermo nuclear weapon of some size bigger than that used against Hiroshima

There is need to consider the next steps for the west and North Korea.  Several weeks ago North Korea seemed to be backing down as its rhetoric and actions slowed after the US show of force. And then last week the US and South Korea conducted the military training exercise that the North had been trying to stop.  The training included an attack by B-2 bombers and other aircraft against simulated North Korean targets.  This was obviously part of the signaling that the US has been doing trying to deter the North Koreans.  It obviously didn’t work!

One doubts that UN ambassador Niki Haley’s comments that:”We have kicked the can down the road long enough, there is no more road left.” Or Secretary of Defense Mattis”s comments that the US can annihilate North Korea will have any effect. Another UN declaration condemning North Korea will also not have any effect.

A UN declaration that any country that trades with North Korea will have all of its trade from the other member nations suspended might be tried.  The US stopping $600 billion a year of trade with China would be significant, but is not likely. It would harm the US as much as it might harm China.  Conversely, it might create the leverage that President Trump has been seeking in negotiating with China about trade in general. Interesting—the short term pain might be worth the long term gain—increased pressure for China to rein in North Korea and a new trade arrangement between the US and China.

On the military front the US is dropping its limits on the weight limit of South Korean missiles—they will be able to carry more powerful warheads.  The Japanese are talking g about pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.  We haven’t heard a Chinese response to this discussion, yet. (One must remember that the Chinese have said that they would defend North Korea against a US attack, but would not get involved if the North Koreans started a conflict.)  Are the Japanese (or the US and South Koreans) trying to provoke the North Koreans to truly step over the line in the sand—whatever it is?  What do the North Koreans have to do to provoke the disarming and decapitating attack we talked about in an earlier article?

  • Fire missiles near Guam?
  • Fire missiles at Japan?
  • Take some form of aggressive action towards South Korea?
  • Begin the mobilization and readiness enhancement that are necessary on the road to war?

It is interesting to note that there has been no mention of the last bullet above and yet it is the most important indicator that military conflict may be coming.  Given the limited transportation and other logistical shortcomings of the North Koreans should they begin mobilizing for war this would be a very critical indicator.  One wonders if they could stop the mobilization once it started.  (History reminds us that many authors of contended that once the mobilization started before World War I it could not be stopped. “How can I stop if he doesn’t?)

The diplomatic posturing will continue as will the threatening rhetoric, but will there be military signaling by missile launches or other activities that cross that mystical line in the sand.  That is what we must look for, anticipate and be fearful of.  In the meantime the North Koreans will continue to try and be relevant and considered a true international actor.

North Korea and media madness

The media has gone wild in reaction to North Korea’s announcement of a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward Guam, a US territory and major military hub in the Pacific.

The announcement warned that the North is finalizing a plan to fire four of its Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan and into waters around the tiny island.  The media hasn’t made the differentiation between the island itself and the waters near the island. The report said the Hwasong-12 rockets would fly over Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures in Japan and travel “1,065 seconds before hitting the waters 30 to 40 kilometers away from Guam.” It would be up to Kim Jung-Un whether the move is actually carried out.

If North Korea were to actually carry out its threat and launch missiles into the international waters near Guam it would certainly constitute an escalation of the war of words that have enveloped the Korean Pennisula.  Such a missile test would clearly pose a potential threat to a US territory upon launch. This would put the United States in a much more complicated situation than it has been during previous missile launches.

When initially launched how long would it take to determine the impact point and thus if the launch were a test or an actual first shot in a potential conflagration.

It is extremely unlikely North Korea would risk potential annihilation with a pre-emptive attack on US territory. It’s also unclear how reliable North Korea’s missiles would be against such a distant target.

The current escalation of tensions could lead to pressure for the US and Japanese military to try to shoot down the North’s missiles in midflight if they are heading over Japan and towards Guam.

Guam has the airbase from which many of the aircraft that might attack North Korea would be launched.  Thus it represents a potential pre-emptive target.

This potential of a pre-emptive strike raises the stakes significantly.  Would the US launch on warning of an attack?  Would it prefer time to consider options by destroying the missiles before they impact?

The launching of a salvo of four missiles by the North Koreans might be an attempt to make it harder to intercept all of the incoming missiles. Conversely, North Korea is only believed to have 5 launchers for the Hwasong-12 missiles.  Why would they use and thus put at risk 4 of their 5 launchers in a test?

The situation is full of risk and miscalculation but it is not as grave as the media madness would suggest.

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