Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency in Vietnam

Sun, 02/01/2009 - 5:29am
Counterinsurgency in Vietnam

Lessons Learned, Ignored, then Revived

by Rufus Phillips, Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency in Vietnam (Full PDF Article)

By the end of 1954, coup plotting was foiled so the army could begin seriously considering its pacification assignment. No one knew whether the Vietminh might reinitiate active resistance with stay-behind cadre in the zones they were evacuating so we had to help prepare the army for possible combat as well as for an active pacification campaign to win the support of the civilian population which had only known communist rule. During the first occupation operation we tried to improve troop behavior mainly through lectures. One such lecture was given to army truck drivers to stop them from running over people and their livestock when they passed through villages. After that lecture, I witnessed these same drivers getting back into their trucks only to go off barreling through villages scattering people and chickens right and left. Obviously a few lectures were not going to do the job. The first occupation was a learn-as-you-go affair. Communist resistance was passive not active and the operation went off without serious adverse consequences but without creating a strongly positive relationship between the army and the population.

Consequently, in preparing for the next occupation of a large zone in Central Vietnam containing about two million people, the army leadership with our help undertook much more intensive training in troop behavior and civic action all the way down to the platoon level with skits illustrating good and bad behavior as well repeated lectures. The army as servant of the people and civic action -- actively helping the population -- was instilled as every soldier's duty down to the lowest private. As a consequence, the entire occupation came off without a single untoward incident between the troops and the population. Towards the end of the operation, people were actually coming out of their houses voluntarily offering drinking water to the soldiers. (It was the dry season when daily temperatures climbed over 100 degrees). The popular response in turn generated real pride down in the ranks. While there was no active combat, had it occurred I believe the positive attitude of the army towards civilians would have prevailed. The population's initial fear and indifference turned into active support as the local people began identifying arms caches left behind by the Vietminh (the existence of these caches clearly indicated they intended to return), as well as fingering active Vietminh stay-behind cadre.

Counterinsurgency in Vietnam (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


mike (not verified)

Wed, 02/04/2009 - 12:49am

Mr Phillips:

Your book is excellent also. Too bad that it didn't hit the bookstands years ago, although I understand that based on the outfit you worked for that you probably had to overcome some serious resistance to publication.

As an aside, General Krulak just recently passed away. Sorry that you and he locked horns. But he turned out to be a champion for pacification efforts in Vietnam regardless of his beef with you personally. He was instrumental in the "hearts and minds" campaigns and the Combined Action Program CAP in I Corps.

Many at the time thought he should have been given a fourth star and promoted to Commandant of the Marine Corps. But I guess he bucked heads with LBJ too many times. MacNamara and LBJ blessed Westy's use of unrestricted firepower in the south. LBJ wanted someone to kill commies. Krulak wanted pacification in the south but wanted to inflict the north with some of that unrestricted firepower.

Lewis Sorley stated in his bio of Army C/S General Johnson (who also wanted to bring the war to the north) that less than 10% of AF and Navy bombing sorties during the Vietnam War were over North Vietnamese territory. I have no idea if that is true. But if it is true I wonder what percent of those bombing runs were over South Vietnam which we were trying to save. Some say that LBJ was leery of bringing in the ChiComs. I would be interested in your opinion on that?

Sorry for the ramble.

Again, excellent article and excellent book!

Ken White

Sun, 02/01/2009 - 3:31pm

Excellent paper. Thank you for first person corroboration of some points I have made here.

As one who complained fruitlessly about some of our so-called tactics in Viet Nam and particularly about the 'harassing and interdiction' (H&I) fires, I'd like to thank you for your efforts.

I understand that a similar technique to H&I fires is being used in Afghanistan. If so, that proves we strongly resist learning from our mistakes...