Grab Their Belts To Fight Them

Book Review

Book by Warren Wilkins.

Published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland.  312 pages, 2011.

Warren Wilkins has written a valuable book on the early phases of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.  The Vietnamese adage of “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them!” was an attempt to neutralize massive American firepower by hugging the enemy, a tactic used by the Soviets fighting the Germans in World War II.  Wilkins makes a well-researched argument that redefines and cuts through the popular mythology of the Viet Cong being a insurgency of fighters in black pajamas.  Wilkins, a Fellow at the Center for Threat Analysis, demonstrates that between 1965 and 1966, the Viet Cong conducted large scale complex operations at the regimental level, forcing General William Westmoreland to fight a large footprint, expensive big unit war.  The North Vietnamese conducted massive combined arms ground tactics using infantry, artillery, and even armor, a tactic useful against the French, but tactically disastrous when faced with America’s combined air, sea, and ground arms.  Wilkins dissects several key battles between Viet Cong and U.S. combat forces that resulted in deep strategic soul searching in Hanoi and Washington.

In Grab Their Belts to Fight Them, readers will get inside the minds of North Vietnamese divisional commanders like General Tran Van Tra, and the better known General Vo Nugyen Giap, the architect of the 1954 Battle of Diem Bien Phu against the French.  After the Battle of Ia Drang in 1966, Giap’s influence waned as senior commanders considered potential strategies against the United States.  Their discussions centered on whether to shift the war to an insurgency or continue big unit operations despite the effectiveness of U.S. air and helicopter-borne assets that decimated these formations. Readers will gain an appreciation of the capability and discipline of a Viet Cong Army that was well trained, well-equipped, and whose commanders were concerned about mounting casualties.  In the west we think of a logistical tail, in which supply units support front-line combat units, the North Vietnamese thought of the logistical nose, meaning they prepped the battlefield logistically before deploying combat units.  The North Vietnamese conducted massive operations which were carefully scripted and rehearsed.  Improvisation in large unit warfare was not a strong trait of either the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army and would be a problem for many former Soviet indoctrinated armies.    

Wilkins has done us a service with this new book. While my specialization is al-Qaida, it is important to appreciate that the late al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Abdul-Aziz al-Muqrin appreciated the Vietnamese insurgency tactics, which themselves built upon Mao Tse Tung’s insurgency principles.  Wilkins book helps me to better understand the importance of preventing al-Qaida from gaining the capacity to transition to big-unit wars that the Viet Cong undertook between 1965 to 1966, while simultaneously raising the issues of legitimacy and strategic communications in insurgencies.  However, winning an insurgency is not as simple as insurgents gaining the capacity to fight large unit wars or COIN commanders defeating insurgents in big unit wars as the Vietnam War ultimately showed.  The book also shows the power of managing the narrative, with Hanoi painting a picture of being —to sacrifice to the last person, and that their efforts were mainly guerilla based, versus the reality that they were concerned with casualties, and did conduct large scale coordinated operations, being well equipped and trained. Wilkins book helps keep these realities in focus.

The author wishes to thank his ICAF colleague CAPT Chan Swallow, USN for his edits and for discussing this book.

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Comments

Outstanding ! Will be looking hard for this one. Thanks for the book review .

I haven't read it yet, but based on this review I'm definitely adding it to the reading list. Since I'm biased to view war from a UW perspective, I especially liked this quote in the review above:

"In the west we think of a logistical tail, in which supply units support front-line combat units, the North Vietnamese thought of the logistical nose, meaning they prepped the battlefield logistically before deploying combat units. The North Vietnamese conducted massive operations which were carefully scripted and rehearsed."

We still have those in our ranks and academia who think this war was primarily a COIN fight, but it wasn't and a simple review of the major battles (since 9/11 the only thing that came close to this level of intensity on a large scale were the battles of Falujah). I think the Marines use of hybrid warfare is the best descriptive term for modern warfare (WWI and beyond). Despite our organizational focus on irregular warfare in the best decade, I think excessive attention has been focused on nation building, development, etc. which have their role, but not at the expense of not understanding guerrilla warfare. I suspect this book will help shed some light on tactics and strategies for guerrilla and hybrid warfare that is seldom studied outside of Special Forces.

David, I'll take your advice and order it from the library.

A few months ago I added this to a thread on books being read: 'Started and a rare venture for me into the 'big' Vietnam War: So far impressive, particularly the explanation of how the VC and NVA became so skilled'. The writing style sometimes is very odd when describing combat actions, which I found jarring. Overall I was interested, but glad I picked it up at a reduced price. So for SWJ Blog readers wait till it appears in a library!