Assessing Pacification in Vietnam: We Won the Counterinsurgency War!

ABSTRACT

This essay provides the perspective of a Foreign Service Officer who was involved in Vietnam in several capacities, including Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), during 1965-75. He maintains that the South Vietnamese, with massive U.S. assistance, were decisively winning the counterinsurgency war by 1970 and had essentially won it by the time of the ceasefire. This was confirmed by a thorough study undertaken by the National Security Council’s Vietnam Special Studies Group (1970) and subsequent developments and assessments. By 1972, the war had become overwhelmingly conventional in nature, and the Viet Cong insurgents did not play an important role in determining its final outcome in 1975, when the South Vietnamese forces were overwhelmed by the North Vietnamese Army. Whether or not the South Vietnamese could have prevailed in the conventional war that followed the insurgency, had the U.S. continued to provide air and logistic support, is a “counter-factual” question that cannot be answered.

Few people realize that our side – the South Vietnamese, with massive assistance from the United States – actually won the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. Pacification, the term we generally used in those days for counterinsurgency, was a success! Some “revisionist” scholars, such as Lewis Sorley, Mark Moyar, and others, have come to understand this. I have believed it since the early 1970s.

Following my 1965-68 assignments as vice consul in Hué, staff aide to Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, and assistant province senior advisor with the pacification program in Quang Tri, the State Department sent me to another war zone: Cambridge, Massachusetts, where student anti-war protesters brought Harvard to a standstill for several days. I was there to get a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government, and one of my professors was Henry Kissinger, whom I had first met during one of his visits to Vietnam. He left Harvard in January 1969 to become National Security Advisor in the new Nixon administration. After I had completed my studies that spring and returned to the State Department to work as a Vietnam analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in October I managed to get myself seconded to the National Security Council as the State representative on the newly-created Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG). I welcomed this opportunity to work for my former professor.

A Change in Strategy

Until 1968, although U.S. forces won all their battles, and South Vietnamese conventional combat forces won most of theirs as well, the pacification effort had met with little success in wresting control of the countryside from the Viet Cong. In the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, however, with enemy forces weakened by their heavy losses, there was an intensified focus by the U.S. and South Vietnamese commands on pacification. This involved a new population-centric strategy in which clear-and-hold operations replaced search-and-destroy operations, progress was measured by improved security in the villages and hamlets rather than by body counts following battles, and the previously disjointed U.S. structure for implementing pacification was unified into a much more effective civil-military organization called CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). Soon, there were signs of progress, and by 1969, the change was noted in Washington. However, there was still considerable mistrust of the official reporting from Saigon, which had long been viewed as overly optimistic, especially after the shock of Tet made General Westmoreland’s 1967 claims of steady progress and diminishing enemy capability look out of touch with reality.

Kissinger and the new administration recognized the critical importance of pacification and control of the countryside in successfully implementing their strategy of gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces, strengthening the South Vietnamese government, and achieving a ceasefire that would leave the South Vietnamese in a position to maintain their independence. Thus, Kissinger ordered a thorough study of the situation in the Vietnamese countryside to be undertaken by the NSC, and the VSSG was created for this purpose. Managed by a senior NSC staff member, the study team included two CIA officers, three military officers, a Defense Department civilian, and me, representing State. All of us had Vietnam experience. It was made clear to us from the beginning that we were to conduct the study and develop our conclusions as independent analysts working for the NSC, not as representatives of our home agencies. 

(Experienced bureaucrats will recognize that this mandate was more problematic than it might seem, and in fact I soon found myself in conflict with my boss at the State Department, a career civil servant who had strong opinions about the Vietnam War even though he had never so much as visited the country. For the purposes of the VSSG project, which for seven months became my full-time job, he was not in practice my boss, although he didn’t see it that way. Forced to choose between his instructions and those of Henry Kissinger, I chose the latter. This worked out fine until my annual performance evaluation, which nearly ended my Foreign Service career.)

Measuring Population Control

We began the study with a thorough review of pacification-related reporting from all the agencies involved. The objective was to develop an accurate picture of the degree of actual control by each side of the populated rural areas of South Vietnam, beginning in January 1967 and continuing through December 1969. Using data from the Hamlet Evaluation System (monthly reports on security, governance, and socio-economic factors prepared by U.S. advisors in each district and province), and validating it for relevance and accuracy with other reporting and observations, we developed a “VSSG control indicator” that assigned the population of each hamlet to South Vietnamese Government (GVN) or Viet Cong (VC) control only if the security organization of one side was strong enough to exclude the other side from any practical control of that population.  (South Vietnam was administratively divided into 44 provinces, each of which had about 6-8 districts. The districts were divided into a dozen or so villages, each of which contained perhaps 8-10 hamlets. Hamlet populations varied from a few dozen people to several hundred.)

Specifically, a hamlet was considered under GVN control if:

  • It was protected by security forces evaluated as adequate by the U.S. District Senior Advisor (normally an Army captain); and
  • A fully functioning GVN administration was resident 24 hours a day.

A hamlet was rated under VC control if:

  • It contained resident VC guerrillas or if it was subject to attack from within the village or nearby areas; and
  • The VC political infrastructure was resident or able to inhibit GVN activity.

Hamlets that did not meet the criteria for control by either side were rated under the influence of the stronger side or of both sides.

Following this development of a conceptually sound way of defining control of the countryside and analysis of the data and reporting available in Washington, which was completed in December 1969, the next phase of the project consisted of in-depth studies of 12 key provinces, including field visits to these provinces by the VSSG analysts. The province studies and visits continued through March 1970. In addition to further validating our control indicator and developing a comprehensive assessment of pacification in these provinces, we were asked to examine the implications of our findings for U.S. troop withdrawals, which were then getting underway, and for a potential ceasefire then being discussed.

VSSG Conclusions

The final VSSG report was completed on April 15, 1970.  This now-declassified report, entitled “The Situation in the Countryside,” should be available in manuscript form in at least some archives of Vietnam War material. I obtained a copy from the library of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.  Here are its principal conclusions:

  • During 1967, VC control of the rural population dropped only slightly, from 52% to 49%, while GVN control inched up from 16% to 20%. The remainder was contested, under varying degrees of influence by both sides. (The GVN had control of all the urban areas, which contained about 38% of the total population.)
  • With the Tet Offensive in January 1968, VC control of the rural population jumped to 55% while GVN control fell to 14%, as South Vietnamese forces were withdrawn from rural areas to defend cities.
  • By the summer of 1968, the respective control figures had returned to pre-Tet levels and the GVN began to make rapid progress in the pacification struggle. This progress continued throughout the rest of 1968 and all of 1969.
  • In December 1969, the VC controlled only 8% of the rural population, while the GVN controlled 62%. Adding in the urban areas, this meant the GVN controlled 76% of the total population, the VC controlled 5%, and 19% was under some degree of influence by both.
  • This rapid rate of progress was slowing in late 1969 and early 1970, as new North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces were being introduced while U.S. units had begun to withdraw.
  • GVN territorial forces (Regional Force, Popular Force, and People’s Self-Defense Force) had increased substantially in size and had become more effective, and GVN administrative leadership had improved, although serious weaknesses remained in both.
  • While the VC had lost much of their previous popular support, this was mostly the result of the enemy’s declining military position rather than a cause of it. Popular support generally followed rather than led control, and current majority support for the GVN remained subject to reversal if enemy military fortunes improved.
  • Despite the impressive gains in pacification, the enemy was not near defeat in early 1970. He had adopted a protracted war strategy, building up NVA forces in remote base areas and cross-border sanctuaries while awaiting an advantageous political settlement or, failing that, planning an escalated military strategy following withdrawal of U.S. forces.
  • GVN regular and territorial forces were not yet sufficiently strong to maintain the current level of control without substantial U.S. assistance.

The war’s trajectory from 1970 to its end in 1975 generally bore out the accuracy of the VSSG assessment.

Post-Ceasefire Perspective

Soon after conclusion of the VSSG project, I departed the State Department for an assignment in Chiangmai, Thailand; but I was called back to Washington in 1973 to serve as political officer on the Vietnam desk in State’s East Asia Bureau. In that capacity, I had access to the relevant data and reporting as well as the opportunity for extended visits to Vietnam, so I tried informally to follow up on the VSSG findings. I reached the following conclusions:

  • From 1970 until the 1973 ceasefire, pacification progress had continued but much more slowly than previously, and after the ceasefire, the struggle for control of the countryside was essentially stalemated.
  • At the time of the ceasefire, the GVN controlled close to 80% of the rural population plus all the urban population, or about 90% of the total. Enemy control was about 5%, with the rest contested.
  • The regular South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and territorial forces had continued to improve under the “Vietnamization” program as U.S. forces were withdrawn. This was demonstrated when they successfully turned back the all-out enemy offensive of 1972 without the assistance of U.S. ground combat forces (albeit with massive U.S. air and logistic support).
  • After the ceasefire and the drastic reduction of U.S. military and economic assistance which shortly followed, the strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese forces declined rapidly during 1974 and early 1975. In contrast, the North Vietnamese regular forces during this period had fully recovered from their 1972 defeat and were stronger than ever before. The Ho Chi Minh trail had become a highway, bringing almost all the North Vietnamese Army into base areas in or near South Vietnam, where they were preparing another all-out offensive.
  • The Viet Cong insurgency had been weakened to the point that it was no longer a major element in the war, which by 1972 had lost almost all the characteristics of an insurgency. It had become overwhelmingly a conventional war fought by conventional forces, and it remained so after the ceasefire (which was never effectively observed by either side).

Final Visit

On my last visit to Vietnam, in late 1974, I spent three weeks traveling in Quang Tri, Hué, and Danang as well as consulting in Saigon with Vietnamese friends and Americans in the U.S. Mission. Even though the government was still in control of an overwhelming majority of the population, it was clear that the situation was becoming desperate. While NVA attacks were increasing and intelligence pointed to strong and rapidly growing North Vietnamese forces preparing for a massive general offensive, supply shortages were forcing the South Vietnamese to reduce military operations and curtail training; lack of fuel and spare parts had essentially grounded the air force; some units at the end of long supply lines were literally running out of ammunition; and – not surprisingly in such circumstances – morale was declining rapidly.

Combining these findings with data available in Washington, I wrote a report that drew considerable attention in the State Department, including from Secretary Kissinger. Contrary to the still-optimistic reports coming from Ambassador Graham Martin and the U.S. Embassy, I concluded that in the absence of immediately and massively renewed American support (which had become politically impossible because of Congressional opposition) South Vietnam would fall and the war would be lost not later than the summer of 1975.

In his memoirs (Years of Renewal, Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 483), Kissinger discussed my report and quoted from it:

On December 20, 1974, the State Department’s Vietnam desk officer, James R. Bullington, wrote a moving and extraordinarily prescient report after a visit to Saigon….Interspersing his report with human interest vignettes of the growing despair among South Vietnamese, Bullington concluded that, without the supplemental [appropriation from Congress], South Vietnam’s position was hopeless. We had reached the point where, if the supplemental failed to materialize, only one option would be left to mitigate our country’s dishonor:

If the supplemental fails, we should also consider ways and means of saving as many anti-Communist South Vietnamese as possible. For example, do we not have a certain obligation to those many thousands of Vietnamese and their families who are present or former employees of the USG? To fail to help such people escape would, I believe, add considerable dishonor to our defeat in South Vietnam.

Conclusion

The counterinsurgency we waged in Vietnam was failing prior to 1968, but thereafter the new population-centric strategy, the increased support for South Vietnamese forces, the heightened focus on pacification, and the improved effectiveness achieved with the CORDS reorganization, all combined to bring success during the 1968-72 period. By the time of the ceasefire, the Viet Cong insurgents were no longer capable of playing a major role in determining the outcome of the war. In 1975, it was not insurgents, but the regular army of North Vietnam, operating in division-size formations and supported by armor and artillery, that defeated the armed forces of South Vietnam, which had been crippled by drastic cuts in U.S. funding and supplies. The North Vietnamese were forced to adopt this conventional war strategy because of the failure of the insurgency they had sponsored in the South.

Whether or not South Vietnam could have prevailed in the conventional war with North Vietnam that followed the insurgency, had we continued to provide air support plus sufficient aid and logistic assistance after 1973, is a question of counter-factual history that can never be answered.

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If “pacification” means permanently driving insurgent / guerilla forces from a country, and it should, the percent of pacification success for a geographical area, actually for a country, is only one of two numbers. A country is either not pacified (0%) or it is totally pacified (100%). Total pacification requires that enemy insurgent / guerrilla forces be defeated and either surrender or be driven out of the area allowing the government to leave control of cities, towns, and rural areas to civil authorities including the police—which in this case would have enable ARVN’s divisions to be redirected to securing their country from invasion. A successful pacification campaign would have allowed ARVN to concentrate its forces in selected locations south and east of their borders with North Vietnam and Laos. Base areas from which they could have been appropriately directed against invading NVA forces should that occur and a base area where appropriate reserves could be maintained. Successful pacification in South Vietnam would have also required that one hundred percent o that country have been cleared of NVA / VC forces. Absent that result the enemy has a base area from which to move back into areas from which they have been temporarily driven once foreign forces supporting the government have left the country. Instead, in South Vietnam locally overpowered VC / NVA forces elected in true guerilla warfare form to withdraw in the face of superior forces and awaited the opportunity to return once government forces and / or foreign supporting forces withdrew from the area and the country, which is what is occurring in Afghanistan.

Once American ground forces left the country the South Vietnamese Army found its units scattered around the country unsuccessfully attempting to keep control as they found themselves under attack from effectively returning VC / NVA forces. The U.S. / ARVN effort to “pacify” the South while holding the NVA main line divisions at bay required a combined ground force of approximately 1,00,000 men and a massive airpower capability provided by fighters USAF squadrons based in Vietnam, Thailand, and Guam, Navy squadrons based on nearby stationed aircraft carriers. Absent US forces ARVN lacked sufficiently sized, adequately equipped, and concentrated divisions available to defend their country against a large scale conventional invasion from the North. Given the number of divisions the NVA sent South in their attempt to take Khe Sahn in 1968 and their earlier operations against the French and the dismal performance of the ARVN in their advance against the Southern terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and subsequent retreat it should have been obvious to US and ARVN generals what the NVA military strategy would be once American ground forces departed. Unaided, against the NVA, ARVN and its Air Force simply lacked the force level to survive and was doomed once US forces departed. See “Communist Offensive Strategy and the Defense of South Vietnam,” Parameters, Army War College, Volume XIV, No. 4, Winter 1984, p. 3 at http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/Articles/1984/1984%20nguye...

Accordingly, evaluating the success of a pacification campaign on a village by village basis in South Vietnam, or in any land, misses the point and reflects that too often U.S. military officers (which I was once) and members of our diplomatic corps think tactically or operationally without addressing strategic goals and objectives and whether the tactics implemented support a viable military strategy.

There should have been only one reason for our nation’s military intervention in South Vietnam and that was to have secured that country’s independence—regardless as to whether I believe that was a practical and realizable strategic goal given the stature among the Vietnamese population of Ho Chi Minh et al and the comparative capability of Giap and the NVA versus the ARVN and their generals once we withdrew. On this basis, the US / ARVN million man efforts to pacify South Vietnamese towns was a colossal strategic waste and failed to support the US strategic goal underlying our military intervention in the Vietnam Conflict. It would not have enabled the ARVN to successfully combat the NVA on a conventional basis, resulted in their forces being scattered in small units around the country, and absorbed budgeted funds that should have been redirected to other parts of our military. Further, the casualties suffered simply degraded our military’s future capability and lowered its morale.

The Nixon / Kissinger administration intended to abandon this country’s effort in South Vietnam and leave ARVN and company to perform on their own. They just did it a ridiculous and wasteful manner often practiced by politicians. Their policy of Vietnamization, i.e. to "expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops" was simply a face saving political delaying tactic to pacify their right wing political supporters, and it most certainly should have been a warning to America’s military leaders conducting the war in Vietnam. Our military leaders should have only concentrated on a (futile) effort to train and equip the ARVN and withdrew our troops into protected environments. What would Nixon and Company have done, forced their (not so) early retirement, deprived them of a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff? When (draftee provided or any of our) troops know we are withdrawing from a combat zone, none wants to be sacrificed in that effort. The US failure to continue supplying the ARVN and / or the Vietnamese Air Force after we withdrew and before the NVA invaded the South said it all.

The US post-Tet offensive failed to contribute to the strategic goals underlying this country’s intervention in Vietnam and that is how it should be judged—not on strategically meaningless village level tactical successes.

Gian: Very much appreciate your response. A clarification that I would make is that allowing the array of bases/mini-bases/infiltration routes to persist ensured the intolerable vulnerability of populated areas to the units ensconced in these bases, and that these units empowered the VCI. Whether the terrain-determined (forest or marsh, sometimes combined with adjacent rubber) yet strategically placed bases could have at any point been eradicated practically is a question beyond my capability to address. Re: the VC units--For sure some of these survived/were reconstituted. But I suspect you'd agree that even province units had the benefit of PAVN fillers. And PAVN C2 became ever more significant. I recall the capable VC D14 Battalion that was our nemesis in Tay Ninh, whose CO, pseudonym Nam Nghia, was a local VC and a local icon, until 1973, when under some pretext PAVN incarcerated him (reeducation?). [Not hanging my point on this anecdote--just thought you might find it interesting.]

As for survival of the VCI, our view in MR-3 was that Phoenix generally was a failure, and that while CORDS performed commendably in its work with RF/PF, in encouraging/stiffening the resolve of some district and province chiefs, and as reports officers, Phoenix and its successor, POPAT (Protection of the People Against Terrorism)were not among our successes.

Cheers,
Mike

Mike: Agree about the threat of the PAVN and how it tied down the ARVN. But there was also the VC infrastructure that remained in place, and although it had been beaten down hard during Tet, the VC main force was still a threat as well. It was the combination of these three elements that caused the SVN Gov to do as you say, population centric coin to the "extreme." I just grow weary of the better war argument that the US and SVN Gov had "won" the war in the south (Sorley's chapter 13 in "A Better War" titled "victory")implying that the southern communists had been defeated, and the only thing left to do was stick around and fend off the conventional threat of the NVA. If that was the case then the ARVN (along with the RF/PFs) would not have had to become tied down in an area security, population control mission, and could have instead massed in appropriate areas to deal with the NVA conventional threat. But the war was never as discrete and simple as either insurgent or conventional but always a combination of both.

Ken: Agree with your clarification of my point about continuity. To be sure parts of MACV and CORDS in combination with the SVN Gov aggressively pursued pacification after Tet, but the American Army (except for certain units like the 173rd and Washington Green) remained as you say doing search and destroy after Tet and until the very end. The most that can be said about difference from before is that there was a greater effort to link American search and destroy operations to SVN pacification efforts. That link had been there prior to Tet, although once Vietnamization as policy came into effect and it was clear the US was leaving, the link between search and destroy and pacification became tighter.

One, let's avoid the snide asides. A person can have a strong opinion of the war without visiting a country. Presidential contender, General Dwight David Eisenhower campaigned on ending the war in Korea without having stepped foot on the peninsula.

Two, the article regularly refers to "control" of the population, but never to "support." This is telling.

And this leads me to three. While we may have been able to win, if we simply ignored (or massaged) public and congressional opinion, should we have done so? Should America be in the business of supporting the assassination of a Vietnamese President one year, then carpet bombing for the defense of that government the next? Won't rational and intelligent people the world over see what is going on and recoil in horror? Is this the response America wants from the rational and intelligent people of the world? Was there any chance that the Vietnamese people were ever going to love us like they loved Uncle Ho? Again, President Eisenhower's words on Ho's popularity are informative and Johnson's calling it "the biggest damn mess" and "What is it worth to this country?" [Listen to McGeorge Bundy push war on Johnson here: http://www.wyzant.com/Help/History/HPOL/record.aspx?id=27] are helpful.

It is impossible for us to guess how the previous few decades of Vietnamese history would have gone had we mouthed, and even offered, support for a Ho Chi Minh led government, all the while inducing him to stay true to his Jeffersonian proclamations. It is hard to imagine it would have been worse.

None of the Vietnamese that I worked with loved Ho. Quite the opposite.
Many of them came south to avoid same. They didn't love us either but those who decided to fight were grateful for the help in defending their homes from people who had become roving bands of thieves and bandits.... not the ideological crusaders they were painted to be. They just wanted everyone to go away. They could have turned on us (like the Afghans do) and earned their reward but chose to fight for their homes; not for the GVN and certainly not for Ho.

I concur with Joshua's statement about the snide remarks. What is more, the one snide comment I see shows that the commenter did not read the article: "Following my 1965-68 assignments as vice consul in Hué, staff aide to Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, and assistant province senior advisor with the pacification program in Quang Tri..."

This is what I was talking about, Peter

"(Experienced bureaucrats will recognize that this mandate was more problematic than it might seem, and in fact I soon found myself in conflict with my boss at the State Department, a career civil servant who had strong opinions about the Vietnam War even though he had never so much as visited the country."

I read the article in its entirety, which suggests to me that either your instincts, or your powers of deduction, are flawed. In either case, you should cease to trust them.

Joshua, When you referred to "us" avoiding snide asides, I thought you were referring to the comments section. I was referring to another commenter who seemed to be implying that Amb Bullington was only writing from documentary research. I was pointing out that he had been there and I thought backing you up. In any case, sorry to have provoked you so severely into making a snide remark.

It is an important perspective that comes from "being there." Similary, there are powerful biases that come from "being there" as well. We all live on planet Earth, but we would all describe it from our own experience and time upon it. Yes, we would expand that by what we have read as well.

War histories from the perspective of the participants are a great read, bu they don't help much in understanding the larger context of the conflict, why it began, why it ends, what events and efforts led to what effects, etc.

My concern with this article is that it falls into that camp of seeing the VC insurgency aspect of the conflict as somehow being separate from the larger conflict of which the NVA was a separate, but interrelated aspect. It is like saying that the Germans defeated our infantry, but lost to our Air power. Totally illogical.

Cheers

Bob

Interesting. When I log in, I get immediately logged out if I attempt to comment on MAJ Munson's quotes from Gen McChrystal about COIN in Afghanistan being a math problem. However, I can comment here? Let me answer both in a round about way since they are related.

Afghanistan has about 28,000,000 spread out over 250,000 square miles. If you break it down using the 20 per 1,000 rule of thumb, you end up with about one platoon of 40 troops per 49 square kms (7km x 7km, or 5km x 10km in a valley). That sounds perfectly reasonable for a country as rural as Afghanistan. It sounds like mission impossible for ten thousand SF troops covering the same area with just 8-man A-teams. Could be more envisionable using air-inserted platoons of Rangers/SEALS as a QRF.

Imagine the same kind of math exercise applied in Vietnam with its dispersed hamlets, but good fortune of being a narrow country enabling helicopter insertion/resupply side-to-narrow-side, and allowing bombing/resupply from the sea. Only in Vietnam or urban Iraq, the visibility in many areas was measured in feet instead of hundreds if not thousands of Afghan or Anbar meters. The search and destroy tactic applied in Vietnam was correspondingly crazy given the likelihood of ambush given so many places for an enemy to hide in point blank range. Enter Agent Orange and health problems, and Daisy cutters to create LZs.

If you would use a math ratio when planning offense or defense, using math to tackle COIN/stability problems is equally reasonable. The math in this case involves METT-TC mission variables associated with mission distances, enemy and population density, terrain size/complexity and fields of fire/visibility and mounted/dismounted/heliborne access, shear numbers of troops available spread over the key terrain (population), time available to reinforce TIC by ground, air, and artillery, and civil consideration regarding most dangerous ethnicities located in what population areas and densities.

Don't forget that someplace like Iraq, numbers of troops matter to secure urban and oil infrastructure sorely lacking in Afghanistan. Put down the surges all you want, but they worked and were essential to cover the areas and populations involved since the enemy was embedded in those populations in Iraq cities, and Afghan towns nestled in mountains/valleys/desert plains.

The same kind of math exercise was applied -- fruitlessly -- in Viet Nam. South Viet Nam was about a third the size with less than half the population of Iraq. Even allowing for the vegetation and terrain differences, over 1M Viet Namese, Australian, US, Korean, Thai and other troops and security personnel could not even begin to establish control in the country.

Anyone who puts excessive (read: very much at all...) reliance on use of a math ratio when planning offense or defense numbers to fight will likely be defeated by someone who can't count...

Metrics have a place, many places in fact. Tactical operations are almost never such a place.

Bullington says, “At the time of the (1973) ceasefire, the GVN controlled close to 80% of the rural population plus all the urban population, or about 90% of the total. Enemy control was about 5%, with the rest contested.“ Earlier stats he provides about how we lost control of countryside hamlets when massing elsewhere for Tet, provide added emphasis on the need for dispersed population-centric forces. Those numbers along with his final report indicated that only Congress’ failure to resupply ground forces and provide airpower for the South was why we lost. A once hidden Ho Chi Minh trail became a NVA superhighway because nothing was there to deter it.

As for numbers related to war in general, of course math plays a role except it typically is intuitive and couched in different unit-size terms. Nobody would advocate planning an attack or defense against an enemy regiment with a U.S. company. Why is it any smarter to claim a bunch of A-teams can withstand attacks by 250-300 Taliban. Both scenarios are numbers-related. No leader would believe Soldiers can advance 100 miles a day on foot but they can do it in an hour in a helicopter. That is both technology and math-related, as is the range and effectiveness of weapons and sensors. Artillery is extremely numbers-intensive, as is joint aviation employment. COIN population densities also are a factor of force-size numbers during wide area security.

In Afghanistan, the enemy recognizes numbers when they use 400-700 meter harassing and RPG direct fires to avoid a dismounted maneuver response or accurate ISAF fires against seen/unseen targets. They and we also time how long the aerial QRF and MEDEVAC will take. One in eight convoys ends in an Afghan IED casualty. It’s possible that number would be higher against North Korean or Iranian infiltrators using mines and direct fires.

Therefore, it matters little if our tanks AND future GCVs have invincible side and frontal armor. That simply expedites running out of gas when our many 500 gallon beast’s fuel supply trucks are destroyed attempting to resupply on complex terrain with ample ambush opportunities. Alternately, enemies will fire from high ground onto our vulnerable top armor and escape over no-go and urban terrain where armor cannot follow.

In addition, because predicting where we next will fight is difficult, we cannot adequately preposition, or move stocks easily from adjacent prepositioning because the equipment and intratheater lift/sea assets become missile targets. As a result, the added armor and fuel supplies complicate armored BCT employment or force them to become a months-later follow-on force secondary to AirSea efforts. We no longer call Abrams/Bradley units heavy BCTs, but they will only get heavier in tons, cube, and fuel trucks in a future with tank-sized GCVs and a third maneuver battalion.

That remains the most damaging math problem for our Army given the lack of air and sea deployment assets, and an enemy A2/AD strategy. In Afghanistan, numbers-related costs of getting fuel and other supplies into country over landlocked supply lines has become an excuse to claim that “COIN” and ground combat costs one million per Soldier per year. Poppycock. That is a cost distortion related to anecdotally long supply lines not experienced in Vietnam and often related to joint airpower fuel costs driven by combat over uniquely-large and isolated areas with dispersed forces.

Both the initial/continuing deployment and resupply numbers are too often forgotten when pointing to 2006 Israel/Lebanon or past armored warfare as a model for a heavy hybrid warfare future. Israel had neither deployment nor long supply line challenges compared to our Army. The Red Ball express supported much lighter armor. The Germans proved at Bastogne that the heaviest armor is meaningless if you run out of fuel. Some of their Blitzkrieg strategy was related to attempting a fait accompli prior to running out of fuel. That didn’t play well against the USSR during a long winter, facing more static armor and infantry.

Given our opponents successes using primarily light forces in both OIF/OEF and Lebanon, the Army should seek enhanced light/medium force lethality using lighter, air-deployable fuel-efficient JLTV and Strykers with active protection and V-hulls, new longer-range infantry weapons, smart mines and mortars, lethal UAS teamed with manned lift and attack reconnaissance aviation, and lighter, more-effective networked sensors. Abrams/GCV battalions can augment and lead light/medium forces, but divisions with a mix of armored, Stryker, and light/airborne/air assault BCTs are more supportable for logistician and deployment planners and division leaders as they calculate the unavoidable numbers.

Search and destroy and movement to contact might make sense on open terrain. From the 58,000 dead and 300K wounded in Vietnam, it certainly was an errant strategy for the complex terrain characterizing that conflict. The fruitless bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail also remains a lesson for any future strategy emphasizing long range bombing against PLA assets hidden in tunnels, under canopy, and in urban areas under dense smog and seasonal clouds. I’m still waiting to hear how unescorted stealth bombers will survive attacks from J-20s and other fighters that need only an approximate bomber location.

Current war examples of aerial collateral damage to dispersed Afghan populations would evolve to unfavorable CNN coverage as bombs guided only by radar, imaging IR, or jammed GPS coordinates killed thousands of Chinese civilians, and destroyed their homes and vehicles. In other words, an AirSea airpower strategy “rationally” institutionalizes a level of civilian deaths far higher than anything SSG Bales allegedly caused in his stress/trauma-induced irrational snapped condition. Meanwhile, long range bombers would do little to dislodge PLA dispersed amongst the Taiwan population, while killing more allied civilians than smaller pinpoint munitions and ground direct fires.

The casualties of a more static, dispersed, and defensive COIN war using such munitions has been a fraction of those of Search and Destroy with carpet bombing in Vietnam, or the armored-commute-from-FOBs tactic of early OIF. The CORDS and Operation Phoenix approach appeared more successful and got more resources later in Vietnam. The COPs disperse adequate GPF to protect rural and urban populations and respond to massed threats while answering local CCIR. Similarly, as General Allen’s testimony to Congress pointed out, the night raids and lethal UAS have proven enormously successful, with few civilian casualties. No wonder the Taliban and their ISI buddies get Karzai to cry foul. It is so effective that the sole means our enemies can stop them is through inaccurate portrayal of atrocities.

There is a place for tactical airpower augmenting ground and naval forces. If U.S. carrier-based and bomber airpower had been allowed by Congress to destroy the massed NVA attack in 1975, the end state of that war may have been different. Airpower is devastating against large conventional forces conducting offensives, or exposed enemies away from urban densities on terrain like Libya and high speed corridors.

On the other hand; Chinese, Iranian, Hezbollah, or Syrian ground forces/rockets/TBM/mortars/artillery; hiding in cities or vast complex terrain and tunnels is not an easy airpower solution. Let’s hope airpower and ANSF-support restrictions are not imposed by Congress precluding support against massed attacking Taliban forces after most of our forces leave. Airpower works in many situations. Obviously, it is more effective when ground forces direct airpower via an embedded JTAC and their maneuver dislodges hiding enemy forces out into the open.

Move Forward,
I've been getting logged out when I try to do things too so I'll work with our tech expert to see if there is something afoot. Thanks for the comment.

Re:

Few people realize that our side – the South Vietnamese, with massive assistance from the United States – actually won the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. Pacification, the term we generally used in those days for counterinsurgency, was a success! Some “revisionist” scholars, such as Lewis Sorley, Mark Moyar, and others, have come to understand this. I have believed it since the early 1970s.

My concern is that you are "stovepiping" victories and successes in Vietnam using this perspective. The 'big picture' (whose political will prevailed)is more important to Vietnam's future than the 'little picture' US/South Vietnam winning the counterinsurgency war. Also I think Mao had three components to revolutionary warfare-- defensive guerrilla, parity guerrilla, and conventional war-- to achieve the political will of the insurgent/Communist force. If this is accurate (?) would not the eventual NVA victory over South Vietnam be more important than materially (body counts) losing the parity guerrilla phase of the greater conflict?

It seems to me that it is many of the same voices calling for ensuring we "preserve successes" in Iraq and Afghanistan that also call up this version of Vietnam War history where we "defeated the insurgency" but only later did the Nation of South Vietnam fall to the Nation of North Vietnam in conventional warfare.

It makes me scratch my head.

First, the whole construct of there being two separate nations of Vietnam was a Western fiction imposed to contain the expansion of communist influence into South East Asia. For that nationalist movement against Western Colonialism it merely marked a phase toward ultimate success and provided them a legal sanctuary from which to continue their efforts toward their ultimate goals.

Second, the Maoist model of insurgency followed in Vietnam was built around the concept of building through phases up to ultimate conventional combat to finalize the campaign, recognizing full well that such efforts ebb and flow between phases until such point that ultimate success is attained. Yes, we were able to move the insurgency back to phase one in much of the country as we took advantage of the Kissinger’s "decent interval" to pack our bags and leave. That was not a "defeat" of the insurgency, but merely a temporary suppression of the insurgent. There is a big difference. One must actually address the political conditions driving the insurgency to "defeat" it. Military action can only "suppress."

Today in Afghanistan hard military effort has also severed to suppress the insurgency in many areas. But so long as GIRoA is dedicated to being a monopoly of the former Northern Alliance, excluding proportional membership by representatives of those tribes, families and the Pashtuns as a whole due to their affiliation with the old Taliban government, there is no resolution of the political essence of the insurgency, so therefore no "defeat" of the insurgency.

Military leaders tend to see insurgency in military terms, and while insurgency certainly can often be quite warlike in character, it is for such revolutionary movements very much political in nature. We still believe that the old Colonial guidebooks on COIN that promote that all the foreign power need do is pick a favorable King and declare him to be "legitimate," while employing the military to suppress those local nationals who disagree with such foreign intervention. Such practices were obsolete by the time the Brits folded their Colonial tent in Malaya (where the insurgents lost, the Colonial Brits lost, but the people of Malay ultimately won). Military victories are interesting, but they do not decide such contests.

No, we did not "defeat" the insurgency in Vietnam. Nor have we "defeated" insurgency in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most Americans cannot even recognize the distinction between the revolutionary insurgency between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and the resistance insurgency between the people of Afghanistan and the ISAF/Northern Alliance occupiers of their homelands. Most Americans certainly can't recognize the even more varied conflict in Iraq, where there was Sunni Resistance, Shia Revolution, Kurdish separatist, and AQ UW and guerrilla operations all going on at once. Each requiring its own unique and focused approach based upon the unique aspects of its causal roots, rather than conflating them all by the similarities of the tactics applied.

We did not defeat the insurgency in Vietnam, but our efforts there did certainly delay Vietnamese Self-Determination by a couple of generations. How long are we willing to delay Self-Determination in our current interventions? Are we better served by friendly governments held forcefully in place over angry, anti-American populaces; or are we better served by populaces that appreciate being allowed the fundamental right of self-determination that may have governments we don't approve of?? I know what the old answer to that question is, and I suggest it is high time we move on to the answer that is right for the world we live in today.

Cheers!

Bob

My comments stem from my experiences during a tour in Vietnam, not just from reading about it. Comments on this war based primarilly on documentary research (as opposed to personal experiences) should keep in mind that Vietnam was not well documented and so the documents you are reading are certainly incomplete, lacking in context and probably written with an eye towards CYA. For example my District Team did the monthly CORDS Report and that was it.

I was MACV, initially as a MAT officer and then as a District Senior Advisor. In that capacity, I worked with a couple US units, the 9th ROK and the ARVN, RF, PF, PRU and other units with which we shared an AO.

While the USARV mission may have been search and destroy from start to finish, my recollection is that USARV post-Westmoreland operated much more frequently in Company and Platoon sized ops as opposed to Bn and bigger. Whether that was because there was less need for big ops since the experienced VC took heavy losses during TET of 68 or because of a change of emphasis, I can't say. This is based on talks with my classmates from OCS about the way they operated.

I can say that there were significant US resources involved in pacification. Each Province and District had a separate team. There were several MAT teams in each Province that the Province Senior Advisor deployed to Districts as he saw fit. Fewer pacified hamlets meant more MAT teams in that District. This was entirely outside of and connected only tenuously with USARV so maybe that is news to some. To the best of my knowledge the MACV CORDS structure using MATs was NOT in place before Genl. Abrams came to Saigon.

As to the VC, they probably were reconstituted to some extent after TET but the VC we dealt with post-TET were no great shakes. Men on my teams who were on their 2nd and 3rd tours told me that these VC were not anywhere close to as dangerous as those they had encountered on earlier tours. By the time I got there (1969) we pursued the VC and tried very hard to leave the NVA to USARV. My point being that, while there probably were VC in at the finish, they were not what turned the tide... it was the NVA unfettered fighting people who didn't even have bandages... it was not Charles. The ARVN, RF and PF could have handled them just fine.

I don't think there's any real research out there regarding the reconstruction (even if it was just symbolic) of the VCI after the 1972 offensive. It's also worth remembering that for the full narrative of their side of things, it was almost essential that the North give some credit (deserved or not) to the VC after 1976.

Both sides in the historical debate are equally guilty of cherry-picking when it comes this issue. For example, I notice Gian didn't mention the 1972 Easter Offensive, which gave the North ample opportunity to re-infiltrate cadres into areas that might have been secured during the time covered by the article. The Viet Cong were decimated by both Tet 68 and 69, but it's foolish to believe that they were not at least in part rebuilt between 1972 and the final battles in 1975. Attempts on both sides to reduce Vietnam to a simple "I told you so" platitude are doomed to failure, I'm afraid.

And we won't have a clear picture of the North's plans and intentions until their archives are opened. Those who doubt this should refer to the changes in Eastern Front historiography once Russia began opening archives.

The operational framework for the US Army from 1965 to 1972 remained search and destroy. To suggest that there was some radical transformation with the US Army toward pacification under Abrams is not to understand and appreciate the primary historical record. To be sure the Gov of South Vietnam committed heavily to pacification after Tet with the Accelerated Pacification Campaign (APC) but the American Army's operations remained search and destroy until the very end.

It is also factually incorrect to argue that the Viet Cong had little to do of significance with the final conventional victory by the NVA during 74 and 75. James Trullinger's book, for example, "A Village at War" shows how VC cells assisted in the final conventional campaigns by the NVA. If the VC were essentially defeated then why did the SVN Government commit almost the entire ARVN to area security if the VC were no longer really a problem and the only threat remaining was one of a conventional NVA threat?

The desire for a "better war" in Vietnam will just not die.

I hope my friend Ken White goes easy on me this time.

Gian: Re: ARVN tied down providing territorial security.

I suggest that the villages were indeed threatened, but the threat emanated from PAVN operating from the widely dispersed in-country base areas, mini-bases/infiltration routes that were re-infiltrated and units reconstituted pari passu with removal of US pressure as we unilaterally withdrew.

In MR-3, to which my experience (1971-5) was limited, exposure of the villages resulted from a population pattern determined by terrain features grossly exaggerated by extensive rural depopulation. An overflight of the Region would have made plain the "ribbon" analogy. The Solidly GVN-held areas were the populated strips or ribbons encasing the main land LOCs. Vulnerable outposts and contested communities were the outliers outside the "ribbons." The GVN-held ribbons ended at the northern, outer defensive arc around Saigon that excluded War Zones C and D to its North. Schematically, the highways radiated out of the hub of Saigon like spokes of a wheel. Consequently, the vast areas between the spokes were essentially triangular, with vertices at the outskirts of the Capital Special Zone, from which raids, often by well trained PAVN Dac Cong (commandos)as well as indirect fire, threatened even the Saigon-Bien Hoa urban hub. (Residual VCI cadre networks, often family networks by virtue of survival spanning generations, provided assistance in way station, historically Revolutionary hamlets in the overgrown marshes at the doorstep to the urban area.)The vast empty lands between the "spokes" sheltered the base areas, and became PAVN's by default, the GVN outliers under perennial pressure. This,I suggest, was quite literally population-centric COIN at its reductio ad absurdum, with the firmly GVN-held population enclosed in elongated enclaves within the vastness of the countryside. GVN controlled most of the rural population, but at the expense of abandoning perhaps the lion's share of the territory. VCI certainly remained, but their enforcement muscle was provided by the PAVN unit in proximity.

Easy it is... ;)

"The operational framework for the US Army from 1965 to 1972 remained search and destroy."

Edit that sentence to read '...for US Army Vietnam from...' and you'd be correct. MACV OTOH got heavily into CORDS etc, a shift that was barely noticed by USARV whose combat units continued to seek combat. No surprise there...

However, any way one looks at it, the war changed after Abrams took command. Monumental changes? No. However there were changes for the better given the nominal mission. Which pace Robert C. Jones (and Matthew B. Ridgeway...), should not have existed -- but that's another thread...

The VC never went away as a political entity but their combat power was so degraded as to be inconsequential, ARVN merely tried to insure that stayed the case. You're correct in implying that the war was not 'better,' its conduct was merely improved slightly. Very slightly. Not enough to make much difference -- but then, almost nothing would have done that. Tactical success cannot correct strategic ineptitude. Nation building is a study in congenital ineptitude.