Limitations and Problems in the Use of Analysis

The use of operations analysis was inherently a difficult task in Vietnam. As mentioned previously, to analyze a problem one should be able to describe the process in some detail, obtain reliable data inputs, and establish an adequate feedback system. These tasks varied widely in difficulty and seemed impossible in some areas.

Combined arms operations at all levels (that is Corps, division, brigade and even battalion) were too large and complex to study in toto by analytical methods. Pacification was similarly complex. The technique employed was to isolate pieces of the problem which could be analyzed. The remainder had to be attacked by means of judgment, professional skill, experience and sometimes intuition. The overall integration always had to be done on this basis. Even in areas such as small unit techniques which responded well, on the surface, to analysis, the actual cause and effect relationships could not be traced out with confidence. These comments should not discourage attempts to improve operations by analysis and otherwise; they should merely underline the obvious point that the human mind can somehow grasp large problems by means which are difficult or impossible to duplicate on paper.

It should also be understood that many "new" doctrinal concepts (such as the constant pressure idea) were actually not "new" but well-established doctrine which proved to be more pertinent in a particular phase of the war. Some concepts were implemented because the necessary organizational measures had finally been taken (for example, pacification) , others because a real technical breakthrough had been made (for example, the Jitterbug). In sum, Vietnam was full of people with good ideas; but people who could select useful ones and implement them were not as easily found.

A confusing element in the equation was and is that outstanding leadership (military or civilian) transcends or overrides the standard rules. One must always ask whether something works because it is executed by an artist, whether it is basically a good idea, whether it is too difficult for general use, and so on. To the artist with a deep


knowledge of the war, a decision may appear simple and logical. To a less gifted person, the decision may seem illogical or based on intuition. One man's knowledge is another man's intuition.

The process of analysis and improving efficiency while desirable tended to confine one's thinking in a set framework. This could be prejudicial to change and innovation. The Communists were fairly clever at eventually devising defensive measures against a new tactic and as a result it could be expected to be less and less profitable as time went on. This placed a premium on changes to keep ahead of the Communists and to retain the initiative. The Communists' reaction to continuous changes and innovation was relatively slow and uncertain so the cumulative effects of many innovations was quite productive. In sum, while using analysis, one should foster change and innovation.

One should avoid working on the flat part of the learning curve and "gold plating" projects. This could lead to large effort for small return. If one stayed on the steep part of the efficiency curve, a little extra effort could bring back modest but worthwhile returns. This idea of doing a fairly good job with reasonable effort was hard to get across to Americans as their nature was to try to do the best job possible.

Statistics were effective and necessary. However, the quantity of reports and the amount of detail had to be watched, so the chain of command would not become a reporting machine.

Computers were quite useful. Unfortunately, the division level computers available were glorified business machines with the usual handicaps of slow speed, low capacity, and over scheduling. More advanced computers would have been helpful. A more general problem was the rigidity of computer data bases and programs. As the situation changed, they tended to become outdated.

Some specific examples of these internal problems may serve to illustrate them more clearly.

The standard mines and booby trap approach was to progressively elaborate and sophisticate the overall program. The analytical approach was to isolate the few most important elements and to focus a simpler program on the individual soldier. The innovative approach was to partially finesse the problem by emphasizing night ambushes.

The use of analyses and its factual approach was useful in deflating the idea that the Communists were "six feet tall." There was a tendency to assign to them many capabilities, as a matter of course, which were quite rare or almost non-existent. The U.S. tendency, at least, was to assume that the Communists were tricky and skillful


adversaries. Actually, they were pretty dull and pedestrian, and if one faked them out of their standard approach, they were almost helpless.

Problems involving social, sociological, cultural and language patterns were very difficult to handle. Our Prisoner of War program produced satisfying results, both absolutely and relatively, but we could never break the language and indoctrination barrier. The South Vietnamese Army was more successful than we, probably due to a minimal language and racial obstacle. Psychological Warfare was a most difficult area in which to pin anything down.

As previously mentioned, pacification and combined arms operations were primarily managed by normal civilian and military management techniques and analyzed on the fringes.

The Vietnamese War was replete with other examples where the reasons for success or failure were not completely understood.

This lack of knowledge or understanding was the greatest problem in Vietnam for both sides. One could speculate that five honest men could study any aspect of the war and prove to, their satisfaction that five different things were true. A biased person could always find enough information to prove his point to his own satisfaction. A good rule in Vietnam was to assume that a study which clearly proved something was either superficial or loaded. This difficulty worked both ways-the Communists were so captive to their own doctrine that their operations were sometimes quite unproductive. The Central Office for South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese headquarters which essentially ran the war in southern South Vietnam, both politically and militarily-was very dogmatic and hidebound. In III Corps at least, our greatest ally was the Central Office for South Vietnam-their reaction or action was quite predictable. They were completely locked on to a big unit war approach which played into our hands completely. Even the South Vietnamese who really understood the war required tremendous mental flexibility. Westerners had a similar problem in sloughing off their western ideas. The end result was that a relatively small percentage of people had the insight and grasp to deal with the war constructively and creatively.

We are not suggesting that operations analysis was impossible in Vietnam. We are only suggesting that the "fog of war" and the rapid changes placed a high premium on the element of military experience and judgment in guiding the application of the analytic process. Some areas clearly fell outside the scope of the analytical art at that time.

One could question whether the approach described here would be readily transferable to a more classical "western type" conflict.


In Vietnam, with all its ambiguities, one was dealing with a highly repetitive operation. It was somewhat comparable to an assembly line-whereas one could visualize a "western war" as an episodic or climactic affair with periods of intense decisive activity followed by longer periods of low activity. It would appear that this type of conflict might require a different approach from an analytical point of view.


page updated 19 November 2002

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