Small Wars Journal

Military Advisors Reflect on Vietnam War Experiences

Thu, 08/30/2012 - 5:21pm

Military Advisors Reflect on Vietnam War Experiences

By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2012 – Two former military advisors who served with Vietnamese units during the Vietnam War spoke about their experiences in the Pentagon yesterday and shared their thoughts on advisory programs and counterinsurgency operations.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and retired Army Lt. Col. James Willbanks took part in a panel discussion on “Advisors in the Vietnam War,” along with Andrew Birtle, chief of the Military Operations Branch at the Army Center of Military History. The panel was part of the Historical Speakers Series sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office.

Birtle opened the program with an overview of the U.S. advisory effort in Vietnam. An expert on counterinsurgency operations doctrine who authored books on the subject, Birtle outlined the development of the military advisor program from the first U.S. advisors in 1950 until end of the war in the early 1970s.

“Perhaps the most common emotion advisors experienced in Vietnam was the frustration of being held responsible for something they could not control,” Birtle said. “Nothing was more frustrating than the feelings that one’s efforts were falling on fallow ground.”

Zinni spoke after Birtle, sharing his experiences as an advisor to a Vietnamese Marine unit in 1967. The general, who eventually rose through the ranks to lead U.S. Central Command, said his primary duties as an advisor in Vietnam were to help coordinate fire support, air capability and operations with U.S. units. Working, living and eating with the Vietnamese – and operating all over South Vietnam -- gave him an insight into the conflict that he said he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

“Those who saw that war from inside a U.S. unit – despite the fact that certainly they saw plenty of combat, as we did – they saw a different war than I did,” Zinni said.

“I saw the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. I saw the war through the eyes of villagers that I lived with. I saw the war through the eyes of Vietnamese soldiers and Marines there weren’t there on one-year tours, but were there for the duration,” he said. “I saw the war from the Delta to the DMZ. I saw the war from Cambodia to the coastal plains in the east. And it was a totally different perspective than I was hearing from my counterparts.”

Zinni said he saw the most benefits result from Vietnamese units that built relationships with U.S. units over time, in which U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers could get to know and trust each other over time. He said it worked well with relatively small Marine Corps units, as well as with Army airborne and Ranger units.

“One of the strengths of the advisor unit, besides the fact that we didn’t have advisory teams and we sort of immersed ourselves into their organization and culture, is that we connected to the Vietnamese Marines very closely,” Zinni said.

But Zinni said there was a price to pay for being that close to the local forces.

“The advisory effort, when you were totally immersed in the culture, took a toll on you. By the time my advisory tour was coming neat to its end… I had contracted malaria, mononucleosis, dysentery and hepatitis,” Zinni said. “I was down to 123 pounds.”

This was not an uncommon phenomenon for service members in advisory roles.

“Most of the advisors suffered health issues and very few advisors finished a whole tour without a significant health problem or eventually being evacuated because of a health problem,” Zinni said.

Despite the physical hardships,  Zinni said the experience gave him “a sense of what this war was all about” and made him realize that the U.S. was failing to give the South Vietnamese people a good enough reason to put their lives on the line.

“If we didn’t capture the hearts of the people, if we couldn’t give them something to fight for, if we weren’t willing to ensure that the government was responsible to people, and we weren’t willing to cut off a base of supply that was endless, we eventually could not win that conflict, despite all the victories on the battlefield,” he said.

Zinni said he felt military leaders did not pay enough attention to knowledge gained in Vietnam, as attention shifted elsewhere after the war ended.

“Vietnam was rich in the lessons we never learned,” he said.

“The enemy beat us strategically; they didn’t beat us tactically,” Zinni said. “They didn’t beat us in terms of what we were able to develop in military capability with the South Vietnamese, but they beat us psychologically, and they beat us strategically. That lesson was never carried over.”

Willbanks spoke after Zinni. Now the director of the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Willbanks arrived in Vietnam as an advisor in 1971, when only four U.S. Army infantry battalions and a total of fewer than 125,000 U.S. troops were left in the country. He was assigned to an advisory team supporting an Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, division.

“I was a captain with two and a half years in service, on my first combat tour,” Willbanks said. “I was being asked to advise a 40-year-old ARVN battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel who had been fighting most of his adult life. “

Because of his lower rank and relative inexperience, Willbanks said he sometimes had difficulty in getting the battalion commanders to listen to his advice. His duties during the early part of his tour involved assisting and training the Vietnamese in staff operations, acting as liaison to the remaining U.S. units in the area, helping with combat operations planning and accompanying the battalions on combat operations in the field.

Willbanks said everything changed when the North Vietnamese launched the “Easter Offensive” on March 31, 1972. He volunteered to replace a wounded advisor in provincial capital city of An Loc, where a battle raged day and night for the next two and a half months.

“At this point, the focus of my efforts shifted to coordinating U.S. combat support,” Willbanks said. “I spent all my time adjusting artillery – at least in the beginning, and pretty soon we had no artillery to adjust – air strikes, and also coordinating attack helicopters and fixed-wing gunships, calling for dustoff medical evacuation and coordinating aerial resupply.”

Willbanks said being in An Lac at that time was an experience different than anything he had ever conceived.

“It was a desperate battle that seesawed back and forth as the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese forces fought each other, sometimes house to house, block to block, room to room,” he said.

The South Vietnamese forces held out, and the battle began to die down as the summer wore on, but Willbanks was wounded for a second time and evacuated from the city. Once he was released from the hospital, he spent the rest of his time helping the ARVN recover from the Easter Offensive. He said he left the country at the end of his tour “feeling pretty good” about what he’d been able to accomplish in helping the South Vietnamese forces.

Speaking generally about advisory efforts, Willbanks said there was less of an emphasis on the advisory effort and a shift away from it once U.S. ground troops started arriving in Vietnam. This eventually meant that not all advisors had the right qualifications, training or ability for the job. The advisory tours were often less than 12 months, which created turbulence hampered the ability to form a bond between Vietnamese troops and their U.S. advisors.

Eventually, the emphasis began to shift back to the advisors, as combat troops left Vietnam, but Willbanks said he thought it was too late by that point.

“From a personal perspective, I found the advisory duty very difficult. The duty required decisiveness and aggressive pursuit of the mission, but it also called for patience and restraint – a conflicted mix, to say the least,” he said. “The reality on the ground often flew in the face of the need to report progress.”

Willbanks said advisors “walked a tightrope” when it came to their duties. They had to be involved and proactive without stifling the initiative of the Vietnamese commanders. They had to be empathetic to their counterparts and understand their culture while being honest about the units and their leaders.

Perhaps most importantly, Willbanks said, advisors had to find a way to build a relationship with their counterparts without making them too dependent on the advisor and on U.S. combat and service support.  This proved to be a problem when the U.S. withdrew and the Vietnamese were left on their own.

“I have to say, even with all the difficulties involved, and even knowing how it all turned out, I’m proud of what I did as an advisor in Vietnam, and I only wish we could have done more,” Willbanks said. “The South Vietnamese were good people, and they deserved better than they got.”



Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 02/10/2013 - 2:21pm

You are not a sentimental bunch, this civilian (i.e., me) well knows. Nevertheless, I would be remiss in not noting that this type of informed and spirited debate teaches a great deal to the uninitiated like yours truly. Too bad it does not occur on other, extra-military, issues as well; ours would be a better republic for it. Thank you, all.
Ned McDonnell.


Sat, 02/09/2013 - 10:36am

There are some striking similiarities between the article describing the advisor effort in Vietnam and the advisor on the Security Force Assistance Advisor Teams (SFAATs) now deployed to Afghanistan. For instance:

Striking similarities
1. Advisors attached to Vietnamese (Afghan) units see a different war than the officer or NCO in a regular line unit.
2. Relationships built over time between advisors and the advised unit (Vietnamese or Afghan) provide the most benefits.
3. “If we didn’t capture the hearts of the people, if we couldn’t give them something to fight for, if we weren’t willing to ensure that the government was responsible to people, and we weren’t willing to cut off a base of supply that was endless, we eventually could not win that conflict . . “. (the word “Vietnam” and “Afghanistan” could be interchangeable here).
4. “I was a captain with two and a half years in service, on my first combat tour” . . “I was being asked to advise a 40-year-old ARVN battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel who had been fighting most of his adult life.” If you survey the SFAAT team leaders in Afghanistan advising the ANA kandaks (battalions) you will find the same situation. Although the TLs were supposed to be 0-4s; in 2012 over half of them were 0-3s . . . and they are advising kandak commanders who are usually 40-years-old or older and had been fighting the war for over ten years.
5. Advisors “walked a tightrope” – “they had to be involved and proactive without stifling the initiative of the Vietnamese commanders”. Yep, same thing in Afghanistan.

Striking differences
1. Total immersion into Vietnamese organization and culture. This is not happening in Afghanistan for the most part (era 2012-2013); although you will find some exceptions. Requirements to travel in multi-vehicle convoys, separate bases for ANSF and U.S. advisor teams, Insider Threat (Green-on-Blue), Force Protection rules and directives, and other limiting factors decrease the effectiveness of the advisor in Afghanistan when compared to the advisor in Vietnam.

Mike in Hilo

Sat, 02/09/2013 - 10:40pm

Robert C. Jones:

The Vietnamese acknowledged that their nationality was composed of three distinct ethnic groups: Northern, Central and Southern (essentially Deltaic).
Among other differences, each had its own dialect--broadly mutually intelligible, but not always so; distinct physical phenotype (skin color, features, body built, etc...I could usually tell a Northerner from a Southerner by looking at them); Buddhist sect (Mahayana in the North and Center, Theravada in the South); attitude toward foreigners (Northerners--yes, the Catholics!--viscerally anti-French and anti-Chinese, very chauvinist,...Southerners virtually void of virulent, nationalist chauvinism, yet partisans of a real, deep-seated Southern regionalism, which was used by but not invented by the French). Each of the three groups had a robust contempt for the other two. Intermarriage was frowned upon, for example..(If communism has by now successfully integrated Vietnamese society, that would be a noteworthy achievement). Reunification was decidedly not the message which resonated among the ethnic Southern masses. And to suggest that by 1975 a significant number of ethnic Southerners were convinced that the DRVN held legitimate claim to rule the South is, IMO, a step too far. As I have previously pointed out, though, the allied side was hard put to fully unleash and make use of the anti-Northern sentiment simply because the face of the GVN regime, whether Diem or the neo-Diemist Thieu government, was itself so manifestly Northern. I mean, the power base was a Northern Catholic constituency and a civil service and officer corps that were disproportionately heavily of Northern ethnicity.

Concur "Communism was a useful vehicle"--in Vietnam as elsewhere in the colonized world--for a hardcore of nationalist leaders to awaken and harness the dormant power of the masses to their ends. But in this case, the end served was Northern irredentism.


Mike in Hilo

Sun, 02/10/2013 - 1:42am

In reply to by major.rod


These incidents were not common. More frequent were cases of the advised unit fleeing ignominiously in a firefight, leaving the wounded adviser behind to bleed to death... Or someone from the advised unit opening the gate to the US portion of the base to enemy sappers who, quid pro quo, would ignore the ARVN or RF/PF, who would of course not engage the enemy....As for ARVN or RF/PF ringers shooting their buddies in coordination with the enemy during an enemy assault on the unit's position, not uncommon....had this in my AO, really exasperated my counterpart the Sector commander..

But you are looking for documentation...Access may require some effort..From my Vietnam experience, if it wasn't classified, it usually wasn't worth reading. And the higher the classification, the better the material. (Similarly, Vietnamese documents of any value would be stamped at least "Kin" =Secret.) So, the particularly "sensitive" details of incidents would not be found in official, lightly classified reports such as the MACCORDS monthly province reports, but would appear in more highly classified, special communications. Now, every one of the 44 provinces had a CIA team. The information you have requested would likely have been written up under the signature of the CIA POIC (Province Officer in Charge). I have no idea how you would even begin with a Freedom of Information inquiry, or how much you'd need to provide to get the ball rolling by way of context, date, place, names, etc., but do not know how else you'd get hold of this stuff.

I'll use this opportunity to digress: I strongly concur in the quotation in the interview regarding holding the adviser responsible for failings of the counterparts. As a civilian CORDS adviser, I was struck by the unfairness of a system that assigned responsibility without providing authority to our military advisers. These advisers were praised for their counterparts' achievements, but they would be taken to task if, God help them, a counterpart unit got overrun. The advisers had absolutely no command authority over the counterparts, of course.



Fri, 02/08/2013 - 5:13pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Thanks for what you could find Bill.

Bill M.

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 2:47am

In reply to by major.rod

It is going to be tough to find. Several books address these attacks, and how the higher echelons covered them by misrepresenting them. It isn't hard to go through various historical books and find numerous examples of ARVN defecting during a firefight, or find stories of teams being pulled out because they couldn't trust their counterparts (see Dispatches).

Most attacks on advisors were considered VC infiltrators which may be true, but I'm not sure how you determine that with confidence (same in Afghanistan) unless you get an opportunity to interrogate them. I don't think the data exists, so it would take quite an effort to extract excerpts from the various texts.

Some limited info found online that isn't overly helpful.

1964September 19th A Montagnard uprising flares up at five CIDG camps around Ban Me Thout in the Central Highlands (II Corps) . Angered at mistreatment by the Vietnamese, the rebels kill a number of LLDB (Vietnamese Special Forces) soldiers and imprison several US advisors. The rebellion ends after five days of negotiations, with the GVN agreeing to organize a conference of highland leaders in Pleiku from 15 to 17 October.

Pearce immediately ran about, hurrying his men into the bunker. "As I did," he said. "I saw an ARVN soldier run by and fire his carbine into the hammock where I should have been sleeping. The minute the mortars began falling, an ARVN position on the left opened fire on our 50-caliber machine gun crew. I also saw an ARVN soldier run by tossing grenades into the company command post." Waves of Viet Cong, blowing whistles and laying down deadly automatic weapons fire, were inside the barbed wire perimeter within 15 minutes.…

It also is hard to make any meaningful comparisons with Vietnam and Iraq. There were some comparable problems, but green on blue attacks were then treated largely as infiltrators, relations between U.S. and host country forces were usually better since the cultural differences were smaller and the recruiting base was better educated. Vietnam already had forces, and both the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Iraqi officers and noncommissioned officers were more experienced.


Thu, 02/07/2013 - 7:52pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

Thanks David. I know it happened. My problem is convincing others that it did because it is so poorly documented. A name would be great. Is the thread still active? Link?


Thu, 02/07/2013 - 5:29am

In reply to by major.rod

Major Rod,

This question came up on the SWC thread 'Green on Blue'(pgs.14-15), with a question by 'TheCurmudgeon' and a "lurker" added their comments via moi:
'Vietnam had lots of problems with Vietnamese troops attacking Americans, though they didn't make the news that the ones in Afghanistan -- sad as they are -- have made. In one incident (recorded in the archives) a whole advisory team was pulled out because of the danger from the local "friendly" troops. I've heard other stories'.

Hubba Bubba

Fri, 02/08/2013 - 9:24am

In reply to by major.rod

My only thought on this thread has to do with the context versus content.

Content: "green on blue" categorized in Vietnam and Afghanistan as HNSF firing on US Forces in an effort to kill them.

Context: a significant number (I hestitate to use the word 'majority' because I cannot recall the exact percentages and also doubt ISAF accuracy) of green on blue incidents, including those occuring in my units, had far more to do with a personal grievence versus an infiltrator working directly, indirectly, or inspired by the enemy.

An anecdotal example: had a formation of Frenchies running in PT formation past an ANP that was kneeling down on the side of the road doing his daily prayer. They ran directly past him, but apparently remained on course and came extremely close to him, perhaps kicking up some dust as they passed. This action inspired the ANP to pick up his AK47 and hose them down, killing several. He later stated that he was inspired by Allah to do this because the men directly offended Islam. Contextually, here is my point- most Afghan HNSF are Islamic (yes, not all)...does the context of the Islamic ideology make for a different environment for Green on Blue when considering Vietnam?

Vietnamese were predominantly (although not a majority) Buddhist, with smaller elements of Catholicism and other eastern faiths, as well as pockets of Islam- with of course the Marxist atheist movement that eventually took over. So, does the context of Buddhism change this discussion, in that we are talking about vastly different paradigms-

I do not want to devolve into any religious arguments here- I only want to address the overarching paradigms from my western and tainted perspective-

1. Buddhism (thus many of the Vietnamese "green" in any incidents) reflects a cyclic and holistic position on time, space, life, etc. It is not 'eschatalogical' in my view- there is no final judgement day or end-of-the-world final battle between good and evil, or believers and non-believers. There is no monotheistic perspective, and attaining a god-like status (becoming a Buddha) is possible by anyone- but attained by few. Reincarnation and Karma create very different contextual considerations- Buddhists are keenly aware that any actions in this life will impact the next one; bad actions are like cosmic scar tissue that the "soul" (for lack of a better term) carries on. Thus, would this change the context of any motives for green-on-blue incidents in that conflict, and would it therefore render irrelevant any attempts at comparing them? Would such comparisons lead one down the road of simplistic linear causality? "This is like that, therefore..."

2. Islam (thus most of the ANSF "green: in any incidents) reflects a divine eschatalogical paradigm. There is an end to the world, a judgement day- where a final "good versus evil" showdown in some form will occur. It is divine because it represents the will of a monotheist belief- Allah. Additionally, Islam directs believers to consider actions that one could categorize fratricidal incidents (or murder of non-believers) as just and deserving of reward in the afterlife. Thus, unlike a Buddhist that considers many reincarnations and successions of life (I do not want to get technical in the Buddhist perspective of timelessness and how linear time is an illusion- but that is also important), the devote Muslim considers actions in this one life that directly impact his treatment in the permanent afterlife where he will be judged on what he did, and did not do.

So- this goes beyond motive. This goes beyond time (1960s versus 2000s), this goes beyond nation states, and this goes beyond histiography- a key consideration regardless. How we prefer to interpret history (thus our histiography) reflects our own paradigms. To consider two distinct conflicts and seek out a similarity requires us to rise above these paradigms as best we can- and consider what contextual differences are present that render a green-on-blue incident in Vietnam contextually distinct from one that occurs in Afghanistan, just as one that occurs in Mexico should also be rather contextually different.

Just some thoughts-

Hubba Bubba (now in grape flavor)


Thu, 02/07/2013 - 7:38pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Yes Bill, I would appreciate that tremendously.

I'm in a discussion with a former marine over on who takes the position that green on blue didn't happen in Vietnam mostly because it's not documented.


My position is green on blue is not a new thing. We've had allies who had traitors in their ranks that have taken action against us. Today's 24/7n news and technology allows this phenomena to take center stage. Some go as far as to take these attacks as evidence of how poorly we are doing In afghanistan because it seems like it never happened before. I agree that green on blue isn't a good "symptom" but it's not unheard of either and there are a lot of factors in play besides the locals hating Americans.

Again, any documentation is appreciated. Heck, I would even think some MILGRPS since nam have had issues. Heck, we had Mexican federales shoot up CIA trainers not long ago.

Bill M.

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 1:08am

In reply to by major.rod

There were quite a few examples scattered through various books. I'll see if I can dig up a couple from my notes. It happened to SF also. I am sure it happened to our allies and partners also in conflicts where they used the this approach. You will have some successes and some failures.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 8:20pm

In reply to by carl

yes, thank you!

Anything else out there folks?


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 5:26pm


Request some help. Doing some amatuer research. Anyone know of documented cases of green on blue during Vietnam?


While I certainly was not an advisor with the South Vietnamese, I do recall evenings in the O Club at NAS Pensacola in the Summer of 1965 listening to VNAF Officers (then training there) openly expressing their dislike and disrespect for their nation's political and military leaders and their openly expressed admiration for "Giap," who they thought was a great general who had driven out the French.

We, American Officers, never expressed our thoughts -- just listened, and I must say listened in amazement. Unlike their leaders, none of them had fought for the French.

Did they keep fighting for another decade, obviously; but during a major portion of that time US ground troops were in their country (along with others providing air power and naval gunfire support)propping them up and carrying on the fight.

What fascinated the most about Zinni's comment was his statements that:

"Despite the physical hardships, ... the [advisory] experience gave him “a sense of what this war was all about” and made him realize that the U.S. was failing to give the South Vietnamese people a good enough reason to put their lives on the line. .... If we didn’t capture the hearts of the people, if we couldn’t give them something to fight for, if we weren’t willing to ensure that the government was responsible to people ... ."

According to biographical detail Zinni was an advisor in 1967, thirteen years after South Vietnam became an independent country.

If after 13 years an officer from a foreign nation has to provide a local military unit's officers and men a "good enough reason to put their lives on the line" for their unit or country and "if WE couldn't give them something to fight for ...," in the psychological recesses of their mind that war was over for them. If the members of an established military unit don't have it in their hearts to fight for their country and their service, to make the necessary sacrifices without foreign provided support and motivation after 13 years of existence -- they had already lost, it was only a question of when they were going to give up.

North and South Vietnam were both ruled by de facto dictators.Those supporting the one in the North apparently were more dedicated and more willing to sacrifice themselves than those supporting the Southern dictator. The question or lesson from that experience and environment should have been -- Why was the US military committed to this region to keep the then current Southern Dictator in power? What were this nation's strategic interests in that effort? That is the key lesson to be learned, the rest are tactical issues that should perhaps should have been obvious.

Was it necessary to fight a war to comprehend that as Zinni noted: [If] we weren’t willing to cut off a base of supply that was endless, we eventually could not win that conflict, despite all the victories on the battlefield.”

When I was a young officer, my E-9 father retired in 1967 with more than 30 years in the military. A number of years before that I had asked him (half jokingly) why don't you volunteer to be one of the advisers to South Vietnam for whom the Navy was then advertising. The old (to me) Chief immediately responded by saying, "If they order me to go I will do my job, but I don't volunteer to keep dictators in power." He understood the problem with that war in Vietnam before it really began to heat up.


Sun, 02/10/2013 - 7:16pm

In reply to by carl

Carl, I think what you're failing to consider here is that if the quantity of external support were the deciding factor in that conflict the South would have run away with it in the early stages. The South received vastly more support from the US than the north did from the Soviet Union, by many orders of magnitude. South Vietnam was alone in the world not because they'd been abandoned without cause, but because their own corruption, incompetence, and duplicity had alienated every possible ally. There's a limit to the resources anyone will toss down a black hole.

If the British hadn't armed French POWs and facilitated the re-entry of French troops in the south in 1945, the whole country would have broken away from France at that time and become independent, probably under Communist rule. Sometimes swimming against the tide just delays the inevitable, often at vast expense.


Wed, 09/05/2012 - 7:06am

In reply to by carl

Every (now obviously former) ARVN or VNAF officer I personally knew expressed their view that Vietnam was a single country and theirs a single people. All had lived through the Viet Minh's war against the French as pre-military age youth, were well educated, and (if they lived) fought until the end against the NVA -- just like the Southerners did in this country against the North from 1861 - 1865. Everyone of them, from the mid-1960's forward, openly expressed nothing but contempt for what they perceived was the dishonesty, and ineptness of their political leaders and military generals in higher positions.

As a collective group, in independent conversations, they expressed respect only for a very small number of generals at the division level or lower or for General Ky of the VNAF -- all of them viewed as politically ineffective and unable to rescue the South. These were the Lt.'s, Captains, and Majors of the ARVN and VNAF and had never fought for the French. Almost everyone of them expressed open admiration for Giap expressly for having driven the French out their land. They may not have liked the dictatorial politics of the (then) Northern Vietnamese political leadership, but they held the same dislike for the dictatorships of the South from Diem forward.

Why did these ARVN / VNAF officers fight for the corrupt / inept Southern dictatorship to the end -- I don't know the answer to that question. I can only ask why similarly in this country did countless small farm owning Americans, living in the 1861 South who never owned a slave and never would have, go off to fight in a rebellion to preserve the slave holding property of an upper class of Southerners who viewed those same local lower class Southern whites as Poor White Trash (PWT). It is one of the great psychological mysteries underlying warfare.

Former General Zinni describes the so-called South Vietnamese people in 1967 -- thirteen years after their supposed country was formed -- as needing (therefore lacking) a good enough reason to put their lives on the line for the South Vietnamese government, as not having their hearts in that fight, and needing Americans (foreigners)to give them [the 1967 South Vietnamese] something to fight for [and]needing Americans to ensure that their government was responsible to that people. That is not a description of a people / a side who were going to succeed in a de facto civil war in an emerging (or reemerging) nation.

I am not going to comment on Rant Corps comments on the level of American casualties in that war and how or why they occurred, absurd assessments are just that.


Wed, 09/05/2012 - 7:27am

In reply to by carl

A system error caused this repeat and the editing feature apparently does not allow for complete deletes, sorry.


Wed, 09/05/2012 - 7:25am

In reply to by carl

A system error caused this repeat of this response. Editing does not allow for deletes.


Tue, 09/04/2012 - 11:36pm

In reply to by RantCorp


As I pointed out to Bob Jones, North or South has little to do with it as so many nations are artificial constructs to one extent or another. And from a brief reading of Wiki on the the history of the area now encompassed by Vietnam, it didn't get to be Vietnam until 1802. Prior to that parts of the area had been part of the Khmer empire, Champa and a rather confusing set of competing Vietnamese states or ruled by China. So I figure there is considerable historical precedence for different govs ruling different areas of what is now called Vietnam.

I am glad you expressed yourself about our not invading North Vietnam. That wasn't part of the discussion but a man has to get these things off his chest. You didn't contest my point about the Vietnamese Communist Party engaging in the conquest of the South for the purpose of establishing their rule over the whole country so that makes me feel better.

That bit of imagery about the Wall is quite imaginative but seems a bit strange to me. We were fighting the NVA since 1965 and after TET we were fighting them even more. So your explanation about the potential length of the wall lost me.

It is interesting that you use the words "Had Nixon and Westmoreland chosen to end the war" rather than "Had Nixon and Westmoreland chosen to end American participation in the war". That illustrates a what great success the Communists had in setting the parameters of the discussion of the war. That they could have ended their efforts thereby ending the war was never an object for discussion, only the cessation of ours were seen as a possibility. It also shows a dismissal of the interests or even existence of the South Vietnamese when ending our participation in the war was equated with ending the war. I admit that in practical terms that was the result since the Soviets and Red Chinese didn't end their support for the North, but it does show how wrapped up we were with we. Interesting that this framing of the discussion was so successful it is still used without question by some going on 40 years lateer.


Tue, 09/04/2012 - 5:00am

In reply to by carl


The first Vietnamese State was declared in 2789 BC and represented the creation of one of the longest recorded histories of nationhood in the world. ‘North’ and ‘South’ Vietnam were created in Geneva in 1954 after the French were defeated by the Viet Minh. IMO a bunch of Europeans drawing a line on a map on the other side of the planet ( after having their asses kicked up around their ears) says a great deal about European arrogance and nothing about Vietnam and the Vietnamese.

However having said that I believe the decision not to pursue the war north of the DMZ had very little to do with political boundaries or nationalism and more to do with cold hard numbers. Rightly or wrongly the DRV believed they were fighting an existential war – they believed the US intended to reverse their War of Independence and that the US was willing to destroy their country in order to achieve this aim. More importantly the Peoples Republic of China believed that after the Vietnamese were defeated the US would invade China.

In other words both the NVA and the PLA believed they were faced with a war of annihilation.

This wasn’t something which was whispered in the political corridors of Hanoi, Peking and the Parisian Left-Bank this was told very bluntly and very publicly to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon by the likes of General Ridgway (saviour of the Korean War, SAC of Europe & US Chief of Staff), General Shoup ( Commandant of the Marine Corps and MOH winner) and General Gavin( leader of the Airborne at D-Day who refused a fourth star so as to protest against the Vietnam War) and ambassador to France.

Leaving aside the obvious domestic political and economic issues these men, and many generals still in uniform, in the late 1950s and early 1960s explained the military factors which made victory in Vietnam impossible. They represented a body of opinion which from a perspective of military service and honour was unchallengeable. Compared to these men Westmoreland was a greenhorn.

McNamara had a genius for reducing massive complex entities into numbers to reflect likely outcomes. I think it’s helpful to attempt to comprehend the numbers he gave to Kennedy and Johnson by leveraging a visual we are now familiar with and thus can better relate to the scope of the argument. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is 150 metres long and contains 58,000 plus names and counting. It basically represents the KIA in the war against the strategic auxiliary force of the NVA – the Viet Cong and the Air Defence arm of the NVA for the US airmen KIA in the north.

If the US had pursued the ground war into the middle of Vietnam there would today be a second ‘Wall’ representing the War against the NVA. McNamara calculations suggested that this ‘Wall’ would have contained 150,000 names and to visualize the analogy this memorial wall would probably be 500 metres long.

However both these ‘Walls’ would have been dwarfed by the memorial to the ‘Wall’ containing the names of the Americans KIA fighting the PLA around Hanoi and the Red River Delta. This would probably stretch for 4 or 5 kilometres covering all of Constitutional Park and contain perhaps a million names. Like the WW1 memorials in France many of the names would have no known grave as the war would probably have gone nuclear.

The old generals were absolutely convinced that there was no other possible outcome and were scornful of those who argued the Domino Theory. The Domino Theory particularly incensed Shoup and the public statements he chose to condemn the escalation were of such scathing nature that only a Marine General wearing the MOH could have gotten away with. Furthermore Ridgway publicly argued as early as 1963 that Ho would contain China as the Vietnamese would not allow anyone to hijack their War of Independence – not the Japanese, not the French, not the Americans and especially not their ancient enemy the Chinese. Considering the relationship the US now has with China one can only marvel at these old soldier’s strategic vision.

By early 1966 McNamara and Johnson both realised the old generals were right. It defies belief that the Commander in Chief, the Sec. for Defense and the military establishment knew the war to be pointless and would end in humiliation & disaster but could do nothing to prevent escalation. Had Nixon and Westmoreland chosen to end the war they would today be lauded as national heroes but instead they chose the very opposite.




Sat, 09/01/2012 - 11:25am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

That the the "North" and the "South" were political constructs is neither here nor there. Most of the countries of the world are to some extent artificial constructs. If the Communists got snookered and had to content themselves with tyrannizing only half the place for 20 years before they were able to subjigate (sic) the rest, them is big boys rules. So some people who feared and loathed the Commies (for good reason) were able to be free of them for 20 years until they were conquered and that was good for them. I suppose you could look at the Communist efforts to take the South as being motivated by their being in a snit over not getting what they figured they were owed, in fact that may be a good way of looking at it. But embarking on something that resulted in hundreds and hundreds of thousands of deaths because of being in a political snit isn't too noble in my opinion.

When you say "by Western Leaders for Western Purposes" you are making it all about us again. There were a lot of anti-communist Vietnamese who were quite relieved that they could live in a part of Vietnam that wasn't communist. They had their own opinions and motivations. They didn't call up "Western Leaders" and ask them what they should think. They already knew. The Catholics you mentioned are an example. They knew they didn't like communism much and so they acted in accordance with that. Your sentences about Catholics make it seem that their opinions were somehow illegitimate and their political actions should, should have counted for less. I figure they might disagree with you.

You mention the "well documented corruption of the Southern elections". This is in contrast to the well known tolerance of dissent exhibited by the gov of the DRV I suppose.

Ho at least was a Red for a long long time before all this. The ideological tenets of him and his boys appeal were in place before WWII. They didn't just want the French out. They wanted the French out AND the commies in. The first wasn't good enough without the other, as they proved.

After the French were out the conflict was about extending the rule of the Vietnamese Communist Party to all of Vietnam. There is no other logical explanation. Unless...unless you count the existence and opinions of the Vietnamese opposed to the Party for nothing. If you do that, then you can logically say their struggle to extend their rule was about liberty and independence without indulging in a grotesque distortion of reality. It makes some feel good I suppose. Results in bad things for the people whose existence is discounted. (I am forever amazed that you can tie together the political philosophy that resulted in the Declaration of Independence and the Vietnamese Communist Party. Simply amazin'.)

But all that is detracting from my original observation. The North Vietnamese Communists won because their supplies were not cut off. The South Vietnamese lost because we cut off their supplies. You can't win a gunfight if you have no bullets.

You are right that Afghanistan is going to be Vietnam Redux, but only partially. We will bug out and eventually cut off supplies and money to the anti-Taliban Afghans. The Pak Army/ISI will not cut off money, sanctuary, supply, training and intel support to Taliban & Co. Neither will the less obvious supporters of MO and his boys. So the situation is the same in that respect. It is also the same in that we will have told the Afghans that we will always stand by them and we will have lied...again. Where things differ is that in 1975 South Vietnam was all alone in the world. Nobody much cared if it the fell to the North. Afghanistan isn't like that. A whole lot of countries will care a whole lot if Taliban & Co threaten to take the place over and those countries will do something about it.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 08/31/2012 - 6:38pm

In reply to by carl


Look, first, there was no "South" until the Western world forced the victorious Viet Minh to accept the booby prize of a "North" after they defeated the French. The whole South and North states of Vietnam were totally artificial Western constructs made by Western Leaders for Western Purposes. In effect, we created a legal sanctuary for the continuing insurgency to base out of, and also provided it a legal voice into the global forum. Not smart.

Second, I would never argue that many of the people living in the South did not want to be Communists. But you miss the purpose of ideology in insurgency. A leader picks the message that speaks to the target audiance so as to facilitate success. Ho and Giap were spot on in picking up the communist/ land reform agenda and adopting the Maoist strategy. It was the right one for the populace they sought to motivate and it worked. It resonated with much of the populace of the south, particularly in rural areas where so many were tenant farmers. Also you need to realize that much of the urban, voting populace in the South were Catholics purposely imported from the North or that fled from the North, further skewing the "facts." The well documented corruption of Southern elections cannot be ignored either.

But to reiterate, the conflict was never about spreading communism, it was about attaining liberty, independence, legitimacy and sovereignty. Communism was simply the vehicle to get there. We were freaked out about our own interests and the spread of communism, so we turned our back on our fundamental principles contained in our Declaration of Independence, and rationalized that travesty in the name of ideology and national interest. We were wrong. We need to accept that. We acted out of fear. We did not learn the lesson and we applied the same ideological/fear-based "logic" to how we defined our goals in Afghanistan as well. Vietnam strategy Redux.


Fri, 08/31/2012 - 6:06pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Once the French left, they were gone. The colonialists had left but the Communists continued the struggle to take the South. They based that struggle on the overthrow of the political system of the South, landowners vs. tenants etc. That was ideological. The communists countries supported the North because they wanted that ideology to spread, we supported the South because we didn't want it to spread. After we got there in big numbers the Communists could overlay anti-colonialism on top of their ideological struggle but the spread of the ideology was always primary. Ideology was primary.

Ultimately of course, their ideological solidarity trumped ours. They kept the supplies coming and we cut ours off. The North then won and the South lost.

One of the things I think you discount is the sincerity and importance of anti-communist feeling in the South as you discount the sincerity and importance of anti-Taliban feeling in Afghanistan. There were in the one case and are in the other a lot of people who feared and loathed Communists and fear and loathe Taliban & Co. They decided that on their own. We didn't decide that for them. They decided that neither Communism nor Taliban & Co. is not best for them and they fight against it. To say that we decided what was best for us and not them is arrogant. They are perfectly capable of deciding what is best for them. To suggest that we did it is to make the whole thing about us.

I think you err in not attributing anti-communism and anti-Taliban & Co. to the reasoned judgment of people on the spot in determining what is good for them. They aren't blank sheets of paper upon which we write. They know better than we and act in a large part for themselves.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 08/31/2012 - 4:23pm

In reply to by carl

It was important to us, but it did not define the conflict. It was why we jumped into the middle of a nationalist movement. When China fell in '49 and we risked losing one of our two vital national interests (the Eurasian landmass being dominated by an enemy or coalition of enemies) we changed the goals of our containment strategy from that of containing the advance of Sovietism, to that of the containment of Communism. We became ideologs, and in order to do so had to abandon our commitment to the advancement of self-determination to one of the prevention of communism. That was a decisive inflection point for US strategy.

But we didn't understand that ideology is the grease that moves nationalist movements along, it is not the definition of why the movement is happening or what the endstate will be. We acted on our fears for our interests, and what was best for the people of Vietnam was a much lower and completely expendable consideration. That is equally true in Afghanistan today.

We still don't understand the role of ideology in nationalist movements, and we are even more ideological today than we were in the 50s. This is our greatest handicap in getting to a logical framework of a workable grand strategy for the world we live in today. We just can't accept the strategic lessons we refuse to learn. Much more convenient to simply debate tactics.


Fri, 08/31/2012 - 3:27pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I don't think political ideology was moot at all. It was of fundamental importance. It was one of the main reasons the South resisted the tender ministrations of the North and one of the main reasons the Communists fought to conquer the South even though it was free of foreign occupation. Ideology was the reason the North was supported by Communist countries and the South was supported by the US and some allies. Those Communist countries proved much more constant than we did and the South lost. I agree that the effort, of the Communist Party of Vietnam to conquer and rule the whole of Vietnam, was not to be denied. No matter what we did or the South did, the Communists were going to up the ante and the Soviet Union and Red China were going to back them and they were going to do that because the DRV was a communist country. You are right, the main factor wasn't really us, it was a matter of determination. They and their allies had more of it than the US did and the South lost.

Modern people forget that Communism during the 20th Century wasn't a quaint idea that meant well but whose time had past like it is viewed now. It was a fire breathing monster with a mouth that dripped innocent blood. People from all over the world really really really didn't like the idea of a communist takeover. Ideology was important.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 08/31/2012 - 2:30pm

In reply to by carl

Carl, while this is factually accurate and indeed significant, it is why things ended WHEN they did, not why they ended HOW they did.

The decisions we made in the 1950s were far more decisive than any that we made to enter in force in the mid-60s, how we executed tactically over the 8 years of heaviest engagement, or the decisions we made to withdrawal in the 70s. And far more significant than any of that is the much longer history of Western involvement in the region and subjugation of the populaces there to various Western interests.

Who ultimately led the effort that prevailed to re-establish legitimate, sovereign governance, and what political ideology they subscribed to, and who assisted their efforts is largely moot. This was an effort that would not be denied and any combination of leaders, ideology and assistance may well have come and gone in the effort. We were just one obstacle for our own reasons for one small period of time. We make it all about us. It wasn't.

It seems to me the main strategic lesson of the Vietnam conflict is one of basic logistics. If your supplies and money are cut off and the other guy's aren't; you lose and he wins. North Vietnam was never cut off by the Soviets and Red Chinese. They won. We cut off the South Vietnamese. They lost.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 08/31/2012 - 8:22am

“The enemy beat us strategically; they didn’t beat us tactically,” Zinni said. “They didn’t beat us in terms of what we were able to develop in military capability with the South Vietnamese, but they beat us psychologically, and they beat us strategically. That lesson was never carried over.”

Gen Zinni is correct in that it is the strategic lessons that escape us. I differ with him in his assessment that this is where the enemy "beat us," but it is certainly where they out understood, out executed and outperformed us. But it is where we beat ourselves.

We from the military community and equally those from the policy community in the US are so very uncomfortable with the unavoidable and inseparable nexus of political policy and military strategy. I'll give CvC an "Amen" and a high five on that point any day. Yet we draw hard lines of demarcation between civil and military thought and action, and we suffer for doing so.

The strategic policy errors of Vietnam are startlingly similar to the strategic policy errors that leave us mired in Afghanistan. We make unrecoverable strategic policy errors at the very beginning, and then convert every metric of their failure over time into tactical lessons that we apply to our actions on the ground.

All action is tactical. All forces are tactical. All weapons are tactical. But EFFECTS from actions, forces and weapons can fall across the range from tactical to strategic.

Gian, here is a lesson to consider: In both conflicts we measured the objective, easily observable, analyzable, reportable tactical effects of our actions and measured our "victory" and "successes" in those terms; while we largely ignored and did not understand the largely subjective, unobservable, hard to assess and report STRATEGIC metrics of those same actions that persistently were moving in the wrong direction.

100 tactical successes are like being able to 100 sets of 1 push-up. It might look good on paper, but it doesn't make you a stud. Particularly when each of those single tactical successes in accompanied by a completely misunderstood, and therefore ignored, strategic failure.

Another lesson is that our policy rationale and framing of both of these conflicts created predictably unwinnable situations. Do it once? Mistakes happen. Do it twice? Three times? Don't put this on the backs of the men and women on the ground. This was strategic malpractice at the highest level. That's the book, and I'll help you write it: "Strategic Malpractice - Lessons not learned by American Leaders."

Perhaps most importantly, Willbanks said, advisors had to find a way to build a relationship with their counterparts without making them too dependent on the advisor and on U.S. combat and service support. This proved to be a problem when the U.S. withdrew and the Vietnamese were left on their own.

I suspect the testimony was more lengthy than that summarized by the news release and for one I would love to read the rest of their testimony if available. We all benefit by listening to the warriors who went before us.

A couple of thoughts, first even if we did the advisor mission better it is doubtful it would have resulted in a different outcome due to the overall flawed strategy, but that is not an excuse for failing to do the advisory mission well. We should always excel at the tactical and operational level, those are levels we can control and improve upon. Sometimes we're handed a faulty strategy to pursue and there is little we can do about it. There were many lessons that should have been learnt from that gallant advisory effort in Vietnam.

I think the quote above from LTC Wilbanks applies equally, if not more so, today to our advisory effort in Afghanistan. We didn't begin with a reasonable end in mind and as a result we either intentionally or unintentionally made the Afghan security forces dependent to a large degree upon ISAF support. This is a case where failing to learn at the tactical and operational level may well result in a strategic failure.

The relatively recent approach we used in Afghanistan of surging more trainers and advisors was ill advised in my opinion since it simply resulted in greater dependency on the coalition, and it also is partially to fault for the green on blue murders. We were in too much of a rush to create a specific number of Afghan troops as though a formula that prescribed the appropriate ratio of troops to civilians would magically result in a victory.

Frankly, some of our Generals should have been relieved for providing this ill conceived advice and then creating the smoke and mirrors facade that they were successful. In short we applied an industrial age approach to mass produce security forces, and those forces hailed from an agricultural age society, and then we attempted to lead them with information age technology, and now we want to hand the reigns over to them and say here you go. We repeatedly fail to learn and it hard to find an acceptable reason to describe why we're so stupid as an organization.


Thu, 08/30/2012 - 10:33pm

Thanks to the advisers for their service. I always pay attention to Col. Gentile's comments. I was never at the strategic level. However, those who run down or reject the Vietnam experience anger at least a couple of million old Vietnam Vets. I was on two TDY A Teams in 65-66, 9th Inf Div Delta 68-69, and a District Senior Adviser 72-73. So, I saw Vietnam before the build-up, during the build-up, and at the close. This is what I see from my experience: 1) Serve more than one tour and learn the language. 2) Don't assign an FNG to advisory duty unless they work for someone with experience. 3)I did the Area Assessment for my small area. a)The people did not like the outsider North Vietnamese. However, regardless of who was running things, the family was the important unit. The people would do what was necessary to preserve family. b) Education was important. About 85% were literate. They also educated their girls. Women had lots of influence in business. c) They would fight to defend their area. They didn't do as well out looking for trouble. 4) Fire support was necessary. Do not level the playing field. 5)Vietnamese locals would fight the defensive fight without fire support. They had difficulty with the offensive fight without fire support. **Set up the defense of a village / hamlet like an area ambush. Kill lots of enemy. Locals know who do not belong. 6) Keep in mind that large NVA units were introduced in 65. In March 65 an NVA Battalion hit Camp Kannack. The SF Team and Yards left 119 (?) dead NVA in the wire. Think that word didn't get around? Since 65 we could face local force, main force, or NVA. That changed the way we did our business. 7) No amount of local pacification effort after TET of 68 could stand up against an NVA Regiment coming out of a safe area without the regular units and lots of fire support. Most replacements were outsiders. It wasn't truly a guerrilla war. 8) However, about 92% of the people were under government control by 1972. I believe this is a direct result of the CORDS operation in coordination with the regulars. Most Vietnam veterans were just like the advisers in the article. They were proud of what they had done. Welcome home, we were winning when we left.

Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 10:15pm

In reply to by gian gentile

I would think that the Vietnam experience would have taught us not to lose our hard-won local and regional expertise every 6 to 12 months, by rotating people in and out of theater, right on schedule, irrespective of military need. Neither the Iraq nor the Afghan experience negate the hypothesis, induced from the Vietnam, that the United States is much too insular and self-absorbed a nation to conduct stability operations outside its national boundaries and its cultural comfort zone. If you ever want to win such a war, send in the troops for the duration and have them learn the locals' language.


Thu, 08/30/2012 - 10:45pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Zinni was there, he walked the walk. You didn't. He is honorable and does not pull punches. I'll go with Zinni.


Thu, 08/30/2012 - 9:37pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Gian that ain't fair. You are just being argumentative for its own sake and it sounds soreheaded. It looks bad. I ought to know. I do that more often than I care to think.

gian gentile

Thu, 08/30/2012 - 7:30pm

In reply to by SWJED

Now that is just not true Dave. But ok, i will take the bait; tell us what lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam War.

Let me guess what you might say: We focused too much on firepower and enemy destruction and not enough on winning the allegiance of the Vietnamese people; didn’t apply the enduring lessons of coin like the British in Malaya and instead fought the war in the American army's comfort zone--big unit operations searching out for a big battle; should have pointed the American army toward greater efforts and direct involvement with pacification rather than on fighting the NVA and VC main force.

Or am i wrong and have you different lessons from Vietnam to offer up?

Key quote by Gen Tony Zinni: “Vietnam was rich in the lessons we never learned."