Small Wars Journal

The Spatial Dimension: Population-centric COIN at the Expense of Abandoning Territory Overdone to a Reductio ad Absurdum - A Vietnam Case

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 2:11pm

The Spatial Dimension: Population-centric COIN at the Expense of Abandoning Territory Overdone to a Reductio ad Absurdum - A Vietnam Case

Michael E. Hauben

On a TDY to the US in January 1971, John Vann, who had recently left the MR-3 DEPCORDS (Deputy for CORDS to the Commanding General, Third Regional Assistance Command) slot to head CORDS (Civil Operations Rural Development Support, the US COIN advisory effort) in MR-4 (Mekong Delta), delivered a presentation at the State Department’s CORDS training center in Arlington, in which he shared his vision of the war settling into an indefinite period of low-intensity conflict in which squad and platoon size Territorial Forces and VC units stalked and engaged each other with small arms--a testimony to the degree to which Revolutionary forces found themselves on the ropes by 1970. Plainly, Vann had failed to recognize the enemy’s strategic shift to North-Vietnamization adopted as a countermeasure to denial/removal of the local recruitment base by attrition and relocation, and that the enemy base areas were being significantly re-infiltrated by People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) as he was speaking. Highly trained PAVN sappers, not Southern rustics, would lead even in the protracted warfare phase. When the US protective shield was removed as US forces departed, these base areas in combination with a long, permeable and indefensible border, would serve to funnel North Vietnamese units through the abandoned lands to the populated strips and even the Capital Special Zone. In that same presentation to our overlapping classes of army field grade officers plus a handful of civilians at the training center, in a moment as candid as it seemed self-congratulatory, Vann stated with certitude that the degree of pacification that had been achieved in MR-3 by the time of his transfer was the most that could possibly be achieved anywhere in the country. Once I was there, it became clear to me that this meant holding the population but abandoning perhaps the lion’s share of the territory. A SE to NW over-flight of MR-3 in 1971, as I flew to my assignment in Tay Ninh, revealed a heavily populated ribbon along the highway, which paralleled the Vam Co Dong River. Terrain features broke the ribbon in several places, e.g., the rubber plantations of Hau Nghia, an enemy sanctuary since the 1940s organization of the rubber workers as an early source of Viet Minh cannon fodder. Notably, northeast of the “ribbon” was a huge, lunar wasteland void of villages and pockmarked by bomb craters. This vast, seemingly unlivable area included a large portion of Binh Duong Province, and also large swaths of Hau Nghia and Tay Ninh Provinces. Hence, on the northeast flank of National Highways 1 and 22, over which I was flying from Saigon to Tay Ninh, population clusters gradually thinned out the farther one got from the road, population-supporting rice lands increasingly morphing into bombed-out rubber plantations, finally giving way to the heavily fought over Michelin Rubber Plantation well to the northeast. Meanwhile, on the southwestern flank of the road, the land between the Vam Co Dong River and the Cambodian border similarly exhibited a marked diminution of population clusters off the road. Plainly, “maximum possible” territorial security meant that the GVN had traded territory for population control. Resettlement, free-fire zones and bombing had emptied huge tracts of land on either side of the firmly GVN-held ribbon, save for some isolated “outliers.”

I have called the communities outside the main, populated ribbons “outliers.” Aside from the off-road settlements observed on the aforementioned over-flight, the outlier rubric would also include those few settlements in the Plain of Reeds. Other outliers were any population clusters in War Zone C, which existed basically at the sufferance of the enemy. Similarly for War Zone D. Others were those in or adjacent to any other of the terrain-determined (jungle or swamp) enemy base areas, to include the end-of-the-road populations extending into the vegetation-covered marshes at the end of the “Saigon River Corridor” infiltration route, even within line of sight of the Saigon skyline.[i] Frequently, such outliers were “Return to Village” sites. These were communities that had been relocated to GVN-held, secure areas from their original locations to deny the enemy a population base, and which were reestablished, with a modest GVN stipend to each family, in their original sites that were now, post 1969, deemed to be secure— a dubious prospect given the geographic constants that had made security difficult in such locations in the first instance. 

At the micro-level, the configuration of areas of primary GVN vs. National Liberation Front (NLF) influence may indeed have called to mind a mosaic or a leopard spot pattern. But if one observed a wider geographic expanse, the ribbon analogy obtained: Solidly GVN-held areas were the populated strips or ribbons encasing the main roads. Vulnerable outposts and contested communities were the outliers outside the “ribbons.” Notably, local people were well aware of where the often-abrupt boundaries between enemy and GVN control lay. An example I well recall is traveling on a small road in SE Tay Ninh (Hieu Thien District), on a bridge on which guarding RF pointed to a parallel country road, with its own bridge, only a couple of hundred yards upstream, telling me “that road” belonged to the VC…Later, at the terminus of that road, a local on a Vespa motorscuter coming out of that road stopped my vehicle to warn me to go no further as the road belonged to the VC. When I related my experience to the District Senior Adviser, I was told that it was merely a case of the road’s being frequently mined by the enemy…I suspect the Vietnamese version to be a closer reflection of reality.

In MR-3, the GVN-held ribbons ended abruptly where the roads intersected the outer defensive arc that formed a shield protecting Saigon. The arc stretched from Tay Ninh in the West to Xuan Loc in the East,[ii] and served to exclude War Zones C and D to its north.[iii]  Schematically, the highways radiated out of the hub of Saigon like spokes of a wheel. Consequently, the vast areas between the roads (populated ribbons) were essentially triangular, with vertices at the outskirts of the Capital Special Zone, from which indirect fire could threaten even the Saigon-Bien Hoa population hub. These empty lands, which sheltered base areas, would become PAVN’s by default, the GVN outliers often under some iteration of a state of siege or, at least, subject to oil-spot like enemy influence/domination.[iv] Plainly, here was a quite literally “population-centric” COIN at its reductio ad absurdum, with the firmly GVN-held population enclosed in elongated enclaves within a vastness in which the enemy roamed, his movements constrained mainly by friendly harassment and interdiction artillery fire, and in which friendlies operated only sporadically and only in force (usually sweeps).

Sir Robert Thompson’s iteration, usually in an internal security context, of the Clausewitzian dictum to “secure your rear base” would acquire an additional dimension: Territorial security would need to be redirected against the external threat, given the reality of GVN’s base consisting essentially of narrow bands, which contained the population, exposed to assault from the persisting enemy in-country base areas outside the bands. Hence, Territorial Forces (RF/PF--RF being a provincial mobile force, PF largely providing static village defense) and supporting ARVN would have their hands full providing a more demanding territorial security for the populated zones. The conflicting demands of holding PAVN from breaching the outer defensive arc around Saigon, which enclosed the populated areas (and some enemy base areas, as well) on the one hand, and the perennial territorial security requirement tying down substantial forces on the other, would weigh heavily on ARVN and RF, the latter, by 1975, increasingly operating in mobile battalions that had been coalesced into regiments. Consequently, ARVN would be left with a critically inadequate strategic reserve to meet new threats. Thus, in the final, 1975 onslaught, ARVN with RF lacked the capacity to react to multiple diversionary assaults by enemy local forces and to deploy the necessary concentration of force on multiple fronts to halt PAVN advances toward the capital.[v] Overstretched ARVN, further weakened by US Congressional reduction, with a vengeance, of  POL, ammunition and equipment re-supply to a trickle, was simply overwhelmed.

End Notes

[i] To cite one example, this was literally true of Long Truong Village, a ”Return to Village” site of perennially dubious security in Thu-Duc District, Gia Dinh Province, in the marshlands of the Dong Nai River floodplain between Bien Hoa and Saigon, which the author regularly visited in the course of his duties in Gia Dinh 1972-75. Enemy dominance was displayed in the village chief’s referring to VC, with unheard-of respect, as “those gentlemen” (cac ong in Vietnamese), and by VC forbidding a farmer from tilling any fields he had beyond 300 meters off the road, as punishment for his son’s enlistment in the ARVN Airborne. 300m was the tacitly agreed boundary beyond which (in the tree line) full enemy control was acknowledged. Nevertheless, the village had PF, whose demonstrations of independence met with stern enemy disapproval: When PF began regularly to sleep in the schoolhouse, in defiance of VC orders, the VC blew it up—an indication that, Kalyvas notwithstanding, insurgents will commit loosely targeted acts of violence even in communities they influenced heavily, usually to set an example.

[ii]For the defensive arc as the objective of probing assaults in the April 1974 PAVN Strategic Raids Offensive, see LeGro, COL William, Vietnam: From Cease Fire to Capitulation (Washington, DC, US Army Center of Military History, CMH Pub. 90-29, 1985) Chapter 10, Strategic Raids. ( and

[iii] However, some base areas that had never been eradicated remained within the arc, which, in this sense, was outflanked from the start.

[iv] From the author’s observations, outlier communities were often adjacent to enemy base areas or mini-bases of forbidding terrain. The paradigm that obtained with respect to such communities in the 1971-75 timeframe consisted of a PAVN unit, often of battalion strength, based in the area in question, determining the behavior of the inhabitants in the surrounding communities, irrespective of their underlying political leanings. The PAVN unit also empowered the residual Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI), the network of political cadre, who were often close relatives of VC combatants during this period.  

[v] The conundrum of wrestling with the two objectives at odds with one another, territorial security commitments vs. a strategic reserve ready to parry major PAVN advances toward Saigon, has been widely treated in the literature. (Not so, however, the causal role of the spatial dimension discussed herein.) LeGro, COL William, Vietnam: From Cease Fire to Capitulation, Chapter 17, The Last Act in the South, details the results, during the final,1975 Offensive, of the fatal predicament of an overextended ARVN.

About the Author(s)

Michael Hauben is a retired Foreign Service Officer who was a civilian member of of the CORDS Province Teams in Tay Ninh and Gia Dinh, Republic of Vietnam, 1971-73. After the termination of CORDS in February 1973, he served in its successor organization, the Office of the Special Assistant to the Ambassador for Field Operations (SAAFO), as the US Embassy’s Province Representative to Gia Dinh and, concurrently, intermittently, to a number of other provincial governments “because we were shorthanded,” all in Third Military Region, until evacuation in 1975.