On Controlling The War

The problem facing American units in the Spring of 1968 and subsequently, the period of this Monograph, was one of bringing evading enemy units to battle during the quiet periods in between his "high points" of attack and of limiting the damage during these high points so that the pacification program was not interfered with. The situation clearly called for a change in tactics by friendly troops in order to bring the enemy to battle on our terms as has been mentioned earlier, rather than on his terms. The solution arrived at, as a result of analyses of combat operations and experimentation, was to find, encircle and break up the enemy main force and provincial battalions and as the enemy broke down into smaller sized elements to lower the scale of friendly operations to attack the small enemy units on a continuous day and night basis. The unexpected by-product of this dispersed style and constant pressure was that enemy units at all levels were weakened, reducing their ability to generate replacements from local guerrilla units, and resulting in large numbers of ralliers and the progressive loss of control of the people. The net effect of these interacting defeats on all elements of the enemy system was that the enemy lost capability geometrically rather than arithmetically. The general philosophy that unrelenting military pressure to bring security was the most important way to develop an atmosphere in which pacification could flourish was transcendental. It was the best pragmatic way to control the war.

The Attrition Strategy

Some observers of the Vietnamese war have criticized its "attrition" strategy, particularly in its earlier phases. It could have been more properly termed a strategic defense initially and gradually became more and more active as the South Vietnamese government and forces became more organized. It ended up as an offensive defense.

It is interesting to note that most wars, since the "nation in arms" concept of the French Revolution, have relied heavily on attrition-World War I and II and our own Civil War being prime




examples. Wars which have been won primarily by maneuver have been the exception rather than the rule. Usually maneuver, attrition, interdiction, and direct attacks on the enemy's base have been combined, according to the nature of the war itself, to gain a victory or a draw. The Vietnamese war has been no exception-direct pressure, that is attrition, was applied to neutralize the enemy units and to strain his personnel and logistic support organization. Interdiction of seaborne supplies was made effective and efforts were made to cut off landborne supply lines by in-country operations and by bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bombing of the enemy's home base was conducted within certain limitations. Pacification completed the circle by progressively cutting the enemy off from in-country resources. It could be theorized that attrition was more important than in Western European wars because enemy units, if out-maneuvered, would not surrender and in many cases could avoid encirclement or envelopment by slipping away in the dense


jungle. As a result, they had to be rendered ineffective over a period of time through the cumulative loss of manpower, equipment and supplies. In summary, the Vietnamese strategy by 1969 and 1970 was reasonably classical considering the problems posed by political limitations (sanctuary, bombing halt, and so forth) , but attrition did assume an important central role. Our conclusion, considering the circumstances, is that it was not an attrition strategy, although attrition was important, but a fairly complete strategy. This complete strategy was not fully effective until late in the war as it took considerable time to organize some aspects of it. However, it should be recognized that the many constraints on operations in Vietnam made the allied operations most difficult to carry out effectively. The bombing pause, the partial Laotian sanctuary, the complete Cambodian sanctuary, the inherent difficulties of a semi-guerrilla situation, the instability of Vietnamese society and government, the tremendous will and ruthlessness of the Communist North Vietnamese, the difficult conditions of terrain and jungle, made the Vietnamese War an uphill struggle all the way.

Body Count

The 9th Infantry Division and II Field Force, Vietnam have been criticized on the grounds that "their obsession with body count" was either basically wrong or else led to undesirable practices. While the basic inference that they were "obsessed with body count" is not true, one could advance the thought that keeping tabs on enemy killed and kill ratios might lead to a more cold blooded approach than would otherwise be the case. It seems desirable to take this criticism head-on lest some readers assume that the general approach inevitably leads to undesirable practices.

In the first place, the Constant Pressure concept and Working on the Enemy system were based on the reasoning that the best way to defeat the enemy and to protect the South Vietnamese people was to utilize maximum force against the entire Communist system. This theory has been proven correct many times and in many places in Vietnam. The soft approach has been tried many times with a noticeable lack of success. The deceptive aspect of the soft approach was that it worked well on the surface for a period of months until the enemy organized a response and then retrogression set in.

The Malaysian experience tended to support the soft approach as it was quite successful in that case. What the casual observer missed was that the Malaya insurrection was a relatively weak and soft Communist effort, whereas the Vietnamese effort was a real war made possible by massive external support and intervention. As a


result the rules in Vietnam were almost the opposite from Malaya. This was graphically illustrated by the experience of the Australian Task Force. This fine outfit, one of the best in the theater, had every advantage. It had Malaysian experience in the jungle, stabilized units, extensive training and so on. Yet its successes were based on innovation and its least productive efforts were based on Malaysian type operations.

Once one decided to apply maximum force, the problem became a technical one of doing it efficiently with the resources available. In many areas this required real skill and iron determination as the enemy was usually able to stay alive and at least stay even for years under moderate pressure. However, the Constant Pressure concept, well applied, did not lead to a brutalizing of the conflict. In fact, the reverse was true. It was a provable fact that it led to more prisoners of war and Hoi Chanhs than a soft approach. It also led to less civilian casualties and damage. It resulted in fewer friendly casualties in both killed and wounded. More importantly, pacification progressed more rapidly. Thus we see a system which entailed maximum force and higher enemy casualties initially, but, in the long run, wound the war down and facilitated all the developments necessary to defeat the enemy and protect the people. The avoidance of civilian casualties and body count padding was more a matter of training and standards regardless of the approach involved.

Thus, it can be said that the 9th Division and II Field Force Vietnam approach which emphasized maximum damage to the enemy ended up by "unbrutalizing" the war, so far as the South Vietnamese people and our own forces were concerned. The Communists took a different view, as could be expected.

The Search and Destroy Operation

It will be noted that there is little mention of the Search and Destroy Operation in this Monograph. This omission was not deliberate but incidental. In the first place, the Search and Destroy Operation was rapidly falling into disuse during this period, and we personally had very little experience with it. In the second place, we did not wish to discuss operations with which we were not personally familiar.

As we understand it, the original idea of the Search and Destroy Operation was a multi-battalion reconnaissance in force which sought out large enemy units and then attempted to encircle and destroy them. It not only gave good ground coverage in jungle terrain, but during the period when enemy units were strong and


combat effective, it enabled friendly battalions to be kept in hand in order to render support to a hard pressed unit if necessary. As the enemy units were ground down, the friendly units spread out and conducted independent battalion reconnaissance in force operations (sometimes called sweeps) and then gradually worked down the scale to small unit reconnaissance operations. Unfortunately, the term hung on longer than the operation and tended to become a blanket term for any offensive operation. To the best of our recollection, the term was cast into limbo by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam during this period, but it died hard due to the tendency of returnees to use terms that were current during their previous tours.

In 1968, in the 9th Division, the Search and Destroy Operation had been overtaken by events although the battalion reconnaissance in force was used to deal with really tough base areas. We gradually worked into the company reconnaissance in force coordinated at battalion level, followed by the platoon reconnaissance coordinated .at company level.

In II Field Force, Vietnam, with large enemy units and heavy jungle, the phase-out of the operation was not as rapid. The last large scale Search and Destroy Operation that can be identified was a sweep through the Michelin Rubber Plantation in the winter of 1969. As the enemy began to deteriorate, the friendly units spread out, even in the jungle, and by the winter of 1970, company level reconnaissance was the rule even up against the Cambodian border.

The Search and Destroy Operation described in the press as a sort of scorched earth tactic was beyond our experience. We have read that Search and Clear Operations, particularly those involving the destruction and resettlement of a tough Communist fortified village, were resorted to earlier in the war. We can recall no instances of such operations in our area of responsibility, either actual or played up in the press. We do recall a few very small resettlement operations which were undertaken, most reluctantly, at Government of Vietnam initiative in areas where the Government of Vietnam could not generate adequate security forces. These required high level approval, both U.S. and Government of Vietnam.

In connection with the above discussion, the Vietnamese Army was slower to abandon mass sweeps. It was difficult for a Vietnamese commander to send a company into a place where a regiment had been decimated four or five years earlier. (The American commanders had the advantage of not being aware of the earlier catastrophe.) However, the Vietnamese finally worked their way down the scale also.


Controlling the War

In examining the Vietnamese war, particularly in its early stages, one could see many-situations in which the Communists, although not necessarily successful, were able to give the Allies a hard time. The set-piece ambush, the set-piece attack on an isolated post, the seizure and defense of a populated area, and the development of a fortified village or hamlet were all examples of operations which the Communists executed many times and were difficult to handle without incurring excessive friendly military casualties and, in some cases, undue civilian casualties or damage. The Communist style of making war was inherently destructive to the people and physical resources of a country. The Communists "liberated" the countryside by destroying roads and bridges. They controlled the country by breaking up its social and governmental structure and applying force and terror against the people. By fortifying villages or by seizing inhabited areas; they forced the government into heavy combat which harmed the people and destroyed civilian resources. Their organization of the masses to support the Communists absorbed the total manpower and financial resources of the country, leaving nothing for economic progress. Many other examples can be cited of the inherent destructiveness of a Communist inspired war. It was that way by philosophy, doctrine, and choice.

On the other hand, an aggressive and skillful Allied effort could seize the initiative and damage the enemy severely with low casualties and little, if any, harm to the civilian population. The casual observer of the Vietnamese War would resist this conclusion. He has been so conditioned by reading dramatized newspaper accounts of the war that he visualizes Vietnam disappearing under the smoke and flame of bombs, artillery shells, and unnamed nefarious devices even at this late stage. However, if one looked at the facts, it was quite apparent that the more the Allied side gained control of the war, the less destructive the war became. If one studied the III Corps Tactical Zone (around Saigon) in 1968-1970, the picture was quite clear. The enemy units became weaker and weaker, friendly military losses declined, civilian casualties declined, damage to houses and crops was relatively rare, B-52 and Tactical air sorties declined markedly, and were delivered in uninhabited jungle areas, artillery usage declined, rice and other crop production increased, roads and bridges were rebuilt, economic and social conditions improved, the government operated more effectively, and so on. Inherently, the Allied effort tried to protect the people and rebuild the country.




An interesting theory can be developed from these observations. If the Communists were able to seize the initiative and conduct the war according to their own rules, Communist successes would have been more frequent, friendly losses higher and the general damage to and disruption of the civilian community more widespread. On the other hand, if the Allies had grasped the initiative and imposed their own rules, the reverse would be true.




This theory was difficult for the Government side to apply. In the Vietnamese context, at least, there seemed to be some basic superiority of force ratio that had to be reached. While it was not the classical 10 to 1 ratio, it did seem to be somewhere in the 4 to 6 to 1 area. Then, of course, the friendly government had to get itself organized well enough to function while being subjected to Communist attacks and interference. There were also innumerable localized problems-geography, terrain, the nature of the people, and so forth. The proper tactics were not easy to define- heavy firepower, light firepower, large or small unit operations-there were many possible approaches.

However, with all these explanations if one observed the Malaysian experience and the Vietnamese experience, it appears possible over a long period of time to defeat a Communist insurgency if the resources and will can be assembled. However, and of equal importance, if the government side and its allies can seize the initiative and control the war, it can "win" with fewer losses and less damage to its civilian structure than otherwise.


page updated 19 November 2002

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