Viet Nam
Part 8: Military Science, Tactics, and Strategy
by Robert L. Kocher
In his book In Retrospect, McNamara quotes a then-classified paper issued by General Westmoreland defining the U. S. military objective of “ending the war in the Republic of Vietnam by convincing the Viet Cong and the DRV[Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam] that victory was impossible, thereby forcing an agreement favorable to the RVN [Republic of (South) Vietnam] and the United States” [1].

I hope, for the sake of Westmoreland’s reputation, and for the sake of the reputation of the U. S. Army’s general staff, that the above strategy was not his or indicative of the quality of thought of the military, but was one forced upon him. It had been the implicit military and civilian policy position for some time. It is a recurrent theme throughout McNamara’s book. It was not the objective the military was in agreement with, if they were in their right minds, but was the one remaining through the process of having been denied other options.

The result of this policy was foreseeable inevitable prolonged disaster. There was no way it would come close to working. It was a recipe for military failure insuring that military success will never happen. It was also a guarantee that political negotiations would never happen because under the policy expressed there was no reason for the North to agree to anything at all.

When the goal ends at making the enemy understand he can not win, it doesn’t mean he will ever lose nor that he is being told to understand that the situation is taken seriously enough, or is serious enough, that he could lose. If he doesn’t see the threat of disastrous loss, he is under little motivation to quit or negotiate. The real message was a coded assurance to the enemy that he would never lose. The secondary message was that there would never need be any justice for the people the enemy killed. The military statement of the Viet Nam theater of operation was the equivalent of announcing permission to throw Molitov cocktails at you because you have a sprinkling system, and eventually whoever is doing it will tire of it after learning they can only partially burn your house down at any particular moment. When it’s somebody else’s lives and villages getting firebombed, or it’s your own troops, they have realistic reason to become demoralized or even think you are insane or perhaps working for the other side.

Political Lines

It is tactically self-defeating to fight a war in which enemies are allowed to pull back behind an arbitrary line and regroup without fear of invasion or counter-invasion, while they are allowed to invade you. It results in a unilateral pressure. The enemy has nothing to lose and is essentially under no real threat. They have complete initiative and control over the military timetable and focus of attack at relaxed convenience. Their staging and supply areas are not denied to them by strategic invasion and occupation. They do not need to deploy or maintain a dedicated defensive structure. All their forces can be employed in an offensive mode. They can maintain hostilities forever on their own terms, with essentially no threat to themselves. It is a recipe for slow military suicide. Anybody with any intelligence knows that. Under the approach that was being employed in Viet Nam, twenty-five people could wear down and defeat the entire American Army. At no time should a military operation be conducted in such a way that the enemy is unilaterally allowed to determine any rules of military engagement whatsoever. If that mistake is made, the first rule they make is that they win.

As an absolute military principle, once hostilities begin, the enemy, and that includes the enemy leadership, should have no place or period free of direct military pressure. Gudarian understood that. Patton understood that, Doolittle understood that. Rommel understood that. There are no politically drawn geographical battle lines in applied tactical warfare. The battle line should always be immediately in front of the enemy’s face, or one foot behind his rear end, no matter where he moves–whether it’s Hanoi or the north pole.

As an ordinary military principle, if one side disperses its forces it is militarily catastrophic because it allows concentrated military action to advance into strategic occupation of tactically critical enemy terrain or homelands, and leadership, nearly unopposed. On the other hand, if the enemy is assured concentrated military action will not be seriously directed toward that goal, particularly in sparsely populated terrain which offers cover and concealment, the enemy can disperse its forces into a pattern of constant diffuse harassment from mobile and hidden positions, and one man can have the effect of ten. In the terrain and population density of Viet Nam, using standard tactics, it would require from a very minimum of thirty or more friendly troops to control one guerrilla fighter under the above limitations of warfare.

The Russian Analogy

Assuring an enemy control over his home or base territory immobilizes indigenous opposition to the enemy within that territory. The invasion of Russia by the Germans in World War II was initially successful without significant opposition. The Russian military and people were sick of Joe Stalin and viewed the Germans as potential liberators. They would have been willing to join the Germans to free themselves from Stalin. Hitler had the war against Russia won. German armies had the opportunity to march to Moscow through streets lined with cheering Russian supporters.

In a stupid move, the SS came in to declare Russians inferior beings and put them in concentration camps. To avoid that, the Russians began to fight like hell against the Germans and eventually destroyed the German army. That was one of the major mistakes that cost Hitler victory in World War II.

Ho Chi Minh was not popular. His strong centralized system of control violated the political culture of Viet Nam. There had been a number of serious internal uprisings in the North which had been subdued by hard military response. Several entire cities were nearly wiped out to secure his hold on the North. There is no reason to believe that the ordinary people in the North were enthusiastic about undergoing hardship or being conscripted for extending Minh’s revolutionary vision to a South that had no real meaning beyond abstraction. There was no motivation in terms of re-unification or nationalism. Historically, the South had been a separate country. Ho Chi Minh’s agenda represented no advantage while conferring considerable suffering upon the people of the North. Given their choice, the ordinary people in the North would probably have preferred to remain at home doing what they had always done without being bothered.

“The People Love Ho”

Close to a million people had already fled Ho’s regime. There were probably a couple million more in the north who would have aided anyone who would free them from him. A hundred thousand anti-Minh cooperatives could provide information enabling dissolution of Minh’s internal political command chain. Indigenous dissatisfaction with Hanoi was strong and was waiting to cooperate with anyone offering outside relief. However, by guaranteeing we would not move north on the ground, we also guaranteed the integrity of the political policing structure which maintained his grip on the country, and we thus immobilized internal collapse.

It’s important to realize the important difference between iron will of the people versus iron will of distant leadership.

In an oppressive regime 15 percent of the population can very easily control the other 85 percent and has done so on numerous occasions as a matter of historical fact. This is particularly true if that 15 percent of the population has control of the communications and propaganda structure while being able to deny use of that structure to any opposition. It is to the advantage of that 15 percent to continue doing so because they enjoy privileges of rank and distance from hardship. On the same basis, an oppressive regime can field strong armies of unwilling and unenthusiastic conscripts who are too controlled and intimidated not to fight. Most armies are composed of people who would rather be somewhere else than be shot at. One of the reasons uniforms were originally adopted was to be able to identify and discipline deserters in battle.

By way of illustration, Pol Pot was able to maintain such a captive population control structure while he killed 25 percent of the Cambodians and subjected another 50 percent to abuses that were nearly lethal in his determination to build the ideal communist society. The Cambodian population obviously hated it, but needed outside help to break Pol Pot’s organizational grip.

This is also true in instances where an unarmed population is subject to brutal inadequately-opposed guerrilla insurgencies. According to Sir Robert Thompson, who had success in opposing communist insurgency in the Malay Peninsula, 35,000 Viet Cong were able to control a population of 5,000,000 people in an area of South Viet Nam in 1964 [2]. It was done with the same technique and rigorous brutality employed in the Pol Pot regime. According to Thompson, page 27, 25,000 civilian South Vietnamese were abducted or murdered between 1956 and 1965, exclusive of battle casualties, along an increasing curve as the Viet Cong increased their hold [3]. In 1961 when the Viet Cong began to move in earnest, there were 6,130 assassinations and 6,213 abductions.

Thompson says:

When, during the insurgency period, retribution is coupled with terror, acts are committed whose brutality is hardly credible in a law-abiding society. On one occasion in Quang Ngai Province, when the Viet Cong regained control over a village which had been in government hands for some period, they seized the headman and his family, disemboweled his wife in front of him, hacked off his children’s arms and legs and then emasculated him. This method of dealing with ‘traitors’ is certainly an effective way of winning that “popular support’ which so endears insurgent movements to less-informed critics of the local government and of those western governments which support it [4].

It should be added that it was endearing to liberal western journalists who deliberately failed to report it or find it objectionable. God bless Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather for their support of such murderous brutality by helping to hide its reality.

Since the headman may have lived, this would have been listed under “abduction.”

North Viet Nam had already been in that state continuously. For practical purposes North Viet Nam was a large concentration camp filled with reluctant inmates. As with all such structures, a small number of tightly organized and controlled guards and enforcers can control a large captive population. The control dynamics are both complex and fragile. In the event the control dynamics become weakened or fragmented to the point where inmates feel secure in revolt, the system can collapse. One military goal of forces opposed to an oppressive leadership is physical presence to break up indigenous oppressor command and control dynamics.

People living in oppressive societies and conscripted into oppressive armies may become institutionalized much the same as abused women become inverted in bad marriages and may defend husbands who nearly kill them because they lack an alternative. A similar institutionalization occurs among men who have spend substantial time in prisons. Imprisonment and constraint becomes a predictable and secure way of life to which they become adapted, and they would not know how else to live. While such parallel institutionalization reduces potential active opposition to oppression within an entire country, active support by such mentalities for an oppressive regime is shallow. What evolves is a type of resigned docile compliant numbness in the population which becomes resistant to change. (It seems to be developing in America under the prolonged impact of liberalism.) For this reason, it is essential to provide any indigenous opposition to a regime with hope and support by moving quickly and aggressively before they become institutionalized. A second aspect is that an indigenous resistance movement should be organized and supported as an alternative to institutionalization.

In chess the game is only won by check-mating the opponent’s king. It makes no difference how many pieces and pawns the opponent has left on the board, when his king is killed, the game is ended. Until the king is killed, the game is not ended. And it is the same way in life.

Hearts and Minds

In military operations against an oppressive regime, action against the aggressor’s army in the field may be instrumental, but is seldom decisive. It is a necessary tactic and should be conducted with seriousness, but by itself it will not solve anything. No practical military victory is decisive until it creates a direct perceived physical threat to the top oppressive operational leadership. An oppressor who is not directly threatened has no motivation to change. All military operations must be directed toward that ultimate goal. If the oppressive leader and his cadre lose people from the other 85 percent of the sociopolitical structure, including the military, in their minds they have lost nothing. The 85 percent of the population were nothing but faceless pawns to be manipulated and sacrificed anyway as tools of the state. With such sacrifice. the status and power of the leader and cadre continues. That is their only concern and goal. If they operate under the imposed framework of fighting for a political idea, the idea continues to be enforced in the homeland.

There is a romanticized myth around this based upon imprecision of thinking and sympathy with the ideology of the oppressive regime. It was particularly evident as a propaganda ploy by the radical left in this country to support communist actions in Viet Nam. The argument claims the reason leftist military action persists in the face of continued defeats or apparently overwhelming opposition is because of spirited profound dedication to the ideas of a political cause. (This reasoning applies only to leftist military actions, by the way. Leftists are viewed as motivated by idealism. Non-leftists are depicted as being motivated by fanaticism.) However, that is not why the fighting goes on. The fighting goes on because the military action is at a place where it has not directly affected the comfort levels or safety levels of the controlling interests who are blithely sending other people out to kill or be killed.

Clever support and installation of a leftist government can be achieved by sympathizers or subversives infiltrated within the opposition political structure through purposely bungling or sabotaging military opposition to the leftist movement, then falsely claiming that the leftist’s successes are due to his strength of ideology rather than sabotage of military opposition through subversion.

In many cases the leader and portions of the oppressor political cadre may be pathologically detached from reality to the point where realistic threat is not perceived or of interest. In a word, they are nuts, insane. Every good left- wing political movement should be, and is, built around several percent intractable true believers, or sometimes just Gestapo-type sadistic psychotics, as enforcers to control the people. Once that pathological intertwining is integrated into the movement as policing and controlling elements, reality, sanity, morality, or impending doom all become irrelevant while the population is forced to sacrifice to the end. Military losses among the pawns become irrelevant. The imposed leadership control must be broken to break the grip those people and the system have upon the masses and to degrade the capacity to impose further military action through pawn sacrifice.

The Isolation of Leaders

The war and fighting will continue as long as the leader and 15 percent controlling interests remain unaffected and want to continue with the help of their two to five percent or more psychotic enforcers. If they are insane enough, they’ll continue until they are killed. In most cases they must be captured and/or killed because that is the only thing that stops psychopaths. The people who are sent out at lower levels to fight and be killed aren’t highly motivated spirited idealists. They are being forced to fight for someone else’s ideological commitment or insanity and don’t have anything to say about it in a political environment where the person next to them may be a member of the secret police. Any continuation of hostilities is only a demonstration of the oppressor’s grip upon the people, not commitment of the people. Eventually, of course, the pawns in the oppressive structure are positioned such that they must fight to win for their own survival. The pawns will also grow to hate the opposition for reasons having nothing to do with ideology. As they are forced to participate, they become committed to what they are doing.

The Viet Nam War policy of showing the other side they could not win never touched nor inconvenienced the people at the top in Hanoi who were running the operation. Nor did it break the controlling chain of command. The military tactics and strategy were as irrelevant as if we had bombed Arizona. What was stated in the Westmoreland and similar statements was a thinly veiled announcement of protection of the communist leadership and apparatus compelling continuation of the war. It is hard to understand why more American people didn’t see through it then, and don’t to this day.

A good parallel can be drawn to the gladiatorial contests in old Rome. Large groups of people were forced to fight each other to the death in arenas for amusement of the emperor and the privileged public. On any given day, half the gladiators might lose their lives. There was not much future in it for most of the gladiators and they weren’t very ideologically committed. However, they were serious about their jobs and were invariably quite punctual in showing up for work because they weren’t able to break the Roman controlling structure.

On the other hand, if the emperor had suddenly found his butt kicked into the middle of the arena among people chasing after him with swords and spears, there would have been a hurried subjective reevaluation and drastic change decreed regarding gladiatorial contests. That’s the issue and the difference. The ultimate goal of a military operation is to kick the emperor’s butt into the middle of the arena as soon as possible.

At the initial stages, war between nations may be viewed as gladiatorial contests where one or more leaders whose own lives are not yet in jeopardy conduct the contest at a more distant arena. This was the essential allowed continued position of Ho Chi Minh and other leftist ideologists in Viet Nam. One of the military strategic tasks is to put the enemy’s leadership and privileged into the center of the arena as quickly as possible. This was never done in Viet Nam.

McNamara’s Folly

A group meeting with President Johnson in November of 1967 elicited a memorandum from McNamara. There is a key sentence which makes the point talked about here. Referring to North Viet Nam’s will to fight McNamara says, “Nothing can be expected to break this will other than the conviction that they cannot succeed.” What is amazing is that McNamara was able to get away with making such statements. What he was really doing, through clever manipulation of language, was remove all risk from, and pressure upon, the enemy and assuring them they would not lose. This had been the basic operating premise for six years. It contained substantial errors of reasoning bordering on the psychotic and was basically irrelevant. In the first place a vague political/geographical boundary is substituted for more accurate concrete reality. “The North” has nothing to do with anything. The motivational and organizational dynamics of the war resided in a small group of people, Ho Chi Minh and others, who happened to be safely quartered in North Viet Nam, formerly the country of Tonkin. This distinction is important.

Until that small group of people safely in the North were seriously threatened, and probably killed, nothing would change. It was specifically ‘their’ will which had to be broken. Nobody else’s will counted, because it was the determination of that small and rather comfortable group that would be the single deciding factor.

To put it into simplistic folk language, the name of the game being played by the communist leadership in the North was, “Let’s you and him fight until the very end.” Nothing in McNamara’s statement changed that game. When the game becomes, “Let’s you and me fight and you’re going to get killed,” the game loses detached amusement value.

In a parallel military confrontation, Iran and Iraq recently fought a prolonged war that reportedly killed off as much as a possible 50 percent of the male population of a generation on each side shelling each other across boundaries. Why did the war continue for so long? The answer is simple. The war continued because the wrong people were being killed or suffering losses. The top leadership was never under direct threat or killed.

McNamara and others supposedly thought, or claimed to have thought as part of some type of deception, in terms of displaying overwhelming opposition. There is no such thing as overwhelming opposition unless that opposition is used in an overwhelming manner. A well equipped army of 400,000 men against a poorly equipped army of 10,000 is not an overwhelming force. It is a

potentially overwhelming force. If it doesn’t act incisively to remove opposition and destroy the opposition’s controlling leadership, it is a collection of 400,000 directionless clay pigeons who are going to suffer astronomical losses. That is what our men were in Viet Nam. The communist caught on to it immediately.

If you guarantee or imply, either explicitly or through the implication inherent in inept patterns of military action, that the first and ultimate order of business is not the destruction of opposition top leadership while the men in your army are used as targets of opportunity, it is disrespect for your own people. It is a criminal act against the men in your own military which should be punishable by death with no statute of limitations.

Ironically, the McNamara statement, “Nothing can be expected to break this will other than the conviction that they cannot succeed,” was actually describing the condition that was to be inflicted on the American side, not the communist side, during the war. With the inept, if not deliberately subversive, mishandling and immobilizing of American military participation, the American side, instead of the communist side, would be sabotaged and ground down to the point of conviction that success or resistance was impossible—while McNamara argued that it was somehow the other way around. It is incredible that McNamara was not challenged on this.

The Appearance of Confrontation

What occurred was an outward appearance of military confrontation masking an exquisitely engineered plan for prolonged American and South Vietnamese defeat.

There has developed a ludicrous chivalrous attitude that we should not assassinate or kill foreign leaders, even in time of war. Even in the Gulf War there was the silly idea that a systematic attempt to hunt down and kill Saddam Hussein violated some sort of code. Why? Not doing it violated sanity. That is exactly the opposite of the way it’s supposed to be. The person who starts the mess should not to be sitting back in privileged nonchalant safety while the common soldiers are made to die slugging it out on the ground. The eligibility for being killed should be a universal equal opportunity experience among the opposing side with the first priority being the person who was responsible for starting and continuing the slaughter. If an American soldier is expected to take a bullet, the clown on the other side directing that soldier’s death should be eligible for the same fate, be he Chairman, Premier, King, or President.

In the case of communist crackpots or others, opening their mouths about intention of starting revolutions and killing people is sufficient enough declaration of serious intent to constitute moral cause, and even obligation, to remove them preemptively in self defense rather than see thousands or millions of lives lost later. It’s their choice. In the real adult world it reasonable to expect hostility in return when you threaten to kill people. Contrary to recent practice, war is more effective, less costly, and even more just, when the killing is first applied to those at the top, and then works downward rather than starting only with expendable poor souls imprisoned at the bottom while the thugs at the top remain at comfortable distance.

There are only two military strategies that count in operations against oppressive systems. One is to take immediate physical control over opposition population and land, and then provide enough security so that indigenous opposition to the oppressor can join you in capturing the leader(s). The second is to move quickly without waiting for internal aid and capture or kill the leader(s).

Why was there a D-Day and a Normandy invasion of Europe rather than restricting action to continuing to shoot at Nazi planes as they bombed England to prove to Hitler that he could not succeed? The answer is obvious. The war would have continued at Hitler’s convenience until the Nazi leadership died of old age. The Normandy invasion is the only thing that would have worked.

The only thing that would have ended the Viet Nam conflict would have been to directly threaten Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh, and the thugs around him. Unless the conflict was entered with this level of understanding and commitment, the result would be military disaster and endless useless American and South Vietnamese deaths. Anyone who did not have this understanding should not have been in a command or decision-making position whether in the military–or in Washington.

“Measured” Military Response

There was floating around the intellectual climate the concept of measured military response. The idea was to use only enough military counter-force to push the enemy back into his boundaries and deny him his goal. Presumably, after repeated pushes back into containment and denial of his military goals he would realize the impossibility of his goals and give up his military effort. It was to be a little like the idea of conditioning a rat or monkey in a psychological laboratory or repeatedly slapping a child’s hand for reaching for the wrong thing. There are several serious errors of reasoning in this.

The first thing that the enemy leadership learns in this situation is that his goals are obtainable. He learns that the penalty for wanton criminal transgressions is not being captured and being brought to justice, but remaining within an area of safety to engineer new initiatives. The seriousness of risk is removed. His chances continue indefinitely. (Saddam Hussein has been a more recent demonstration of this truth.) War becomes an amusing game where the basic military and political structure engineering the war continues indefinitely for the following reasons.

1) Enemy architects at a comfortable distance from the action do not directly experience the consequences and remain aloof from negative reinforcement.

2) Measured response carries on a war at a level within the capacity of the enemy to participate and re-participate.

3) Measured response is severely debilitating to the morale of troops waiting to be attacked and killed, while they were only allowed to push the attackers behind a line of safety and then wait to be attacked again. In such a situation, you might as well sell chances and award stuffed panda bears as prizes for every American killed.

4) Measured response violates psychological law and basic rules of survival. When someone is trying to kill you the consequences should not be measured response, but appropriate response. It is a reasonable response to become angry about it and to hunt down whoever is doing it by all possible means before they try it again or are successful. Measured response in place of appropriate response is conditioning people into passive schizophrenia. Who was conditioning whom in the concept of measured response was open to question.

We were conditioned to believe the situation in Viet Nam was impossible. The situation wasn’t. The tactics and strategy we employed were. The leadership we had in Washington was.

For practical purposes the strategy America applied in Viet Nam was such that we conducted the war for the North Vietnamese through assurance that no serious threat would be made to their homeland or leadership. The American side provided the correct manpower exquisitely misdirected, immobilized, and mis-deployed in such a way as to produce maximum destruction of manpower and morale within the American military as well as maximum destruction of support at home. Meanwhile, small groups of communists were able to wander freely through South Viet Nam terrorizing the rural villages at convenience. One hundred of them divided into groups of five had the effect of an entire army as the villagers everywhere would huddle in fear at night to wonder who was going to be hit next. Five hundred could bring down an entire nation.

Suppose a political group of five hundred people based in New Jersey came into New York City with machine guns and killed people periodically, but they weren’t pursued into New Jersey and mauled when they returned to resupply their ammunition. Further, suppose there was an implicit guarantee that they would not be pursued in New Jersey. In three months the millions of people in the New York metropolitan area would be panicked and would collapse and eventually be forced to agree to surrender to the 500, who would then claim it was a democratic decision by virtue of the agreement involved. Measured response of waiting to see if they attacked New York again or if they felt they couldn’t succeed would be properly viewed as insane. Then why should the same approach have been expected to work in Viet Nam?

Safety dominates over ideology or politics. If there is not absolute seriousness in guaranteeing the safety of the people, eventually they will be forced to capitulate to the oppressor, not as a matter of affection for his ideology, but as a matter of personal survival. Expecting people to wait and be killed indefinitely while intellectuals play with gossamer concepts such as measured response or whatever forces those people to gravitate to the only remaining possible source of safety or survival, the enemy. In a master stroke the leadership in Washington assassinated the president of Viet Nam, then forced the people in South Viet Nam to gravitate toward the communists to save their lives, then afterward claimed the reason the war was lost was because so many people failed to resist, sympathized with, or joined, the enemy.

In an amazing inversion of logic, the personal safety of the communist leadership was assured in the North, while the personal safety of the South Vietnamese was not guaranteed.

Ho Had No Incentive to Settle

The easiest way to evaluate the military tactics we employed is to ask the question, was there any way the North Vietnamese communists were threatened with a military catastrophe from which they could not have easily extracted themselves? The answer is, fighting on their own timetable of convenience on somebody else’s land—with no potential danger to their own staging areas, homeland, or leadership—if they lost a skirmish or momentarily withdrew, never.

Was there any reason for Ho Chi Minh et al to negotiate a peace or a treaty? Absolutely not. There was little or nothing they wanted that they didn’t already have. The communists were already assured of the best benefits any negotiation could possibly offer them. If they wanted a rest, they could discontinue attacks for such time as was convenient or enjoyable, for whatever time they wanted. In fact, if they did not engage American or South Vietnamese troops, they need not withdraw, but could move about to position themselves to advantage at rest. At any arbitrary time they could resume military engagement while in the intervening period Americans and South Vietnamese would be required to endure constant pressure of staying on full alert in an immobilized South Viet Nam waiting for the next arbitrary decision in the North or elsewhere. What motivation was there for the Northern leaders to negotiate concessions when they had what was for them the best of all worlds? The North would be fools to negotiate away a superior position such as that. Eventually, they took the country.

The pseudo-intellectual fops at Kennedy’s, and later Johnson’s, Harvard-on-the-Potomac-River debating society, otherwise known as Washington, never considered anything from that realistic frame of reference and continued to argue for eventual negotiations. That’s making the charitable assumption the ultimate destructive consequences (for America) were not the real ultimate intent.

America violated every known military and political principle in conducting the Viet Nam operation. There were a few attempts to drop small clandestine South Vietnamese army units into the north. The tactic should probably have been devastating. The idea had the support and planning of an advising general who was a North Vietnamese agent. He would then have North Vietnamese units waiting at the drop zone two weeks ahead of time to kill or capture the units. Nobody caught on that this was happening?

William Colby makes the point that McNamara made the mistake of escalating the war by increment [5]. No man of military background and talent would do that for two reasons. To do so sacrifices enemy surprise and vulnerability. All great generals throughout history understood the importance of surprise and shock. Caesar built bridges across the Rhine, went across with his legions, then returned all in the same day to daze Ariovistus. Patton would break through a front, then come from behind the enemy’s own lines to hit him in the rear. Rommel trained his troops superbly to hit from the side least expected because it was thought to be impossible.

Contrary to this principle, the increased troop deployments and other activity took place in a fashion such that the enemy could adapt ahead of time. The critical necessary military elements of surprise and shock were lost.

Could the war have been won militarily? Absolutely and probably in a short time.

Kennedy, Johnson, and the Fops

It would have required a radical change in civilian leadership. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson had military experience or that peculiar development and discipline of the mind which is a requirement for military operations. Neither one of them had the depth required to make military level decisions or policy. Johnson was acceptable for anyone wanting a domestic left-wing social agenda, but was otherwise incompetent. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson were equipped to handle situations requiring depth or insight, and neither had the requirements to be president.

Their advisors were hollow academic showpieces who, if not subversives, lacked intellectual and background qualifications for their positions. Lansdale and Colby were the two people who had the most, perhaps anything, going for them.

To win the war the first thing that had to be understood was that it would be necessary to offend somebody. At this point we can bring in the dramatic arts department to protest the possibility of plunging the entire world into a nuclear holocaust. The smallest risk is argued as being unacceptable if it risks incinerating the world. Then, is there ever a line to be drawn? Where is a line to be drawn?

Did this mean that every time the communists didn’t get their way they had but to scowl and we would give them what they wanted—out of conjecture that they would have a tantrum and destroy the earth?

At the beginning the decision had to be made to either win or get out with no consideration given to making a half-efforts and pulling back in fear, sacrificing tens of thousands of men in the process.

It had to be understood the situation was serious and was going to require military commitment and angry civilian support. From what was known about guerrilla movements, at least 100,000 troops would be required much earlier than they were actually employed.

Any military operation must be suited for the type of terrain and the type of enemy. The American military was, and is, well suited and predisposed to carry on operations suitable for the European theater of operations in World War II in which a superiority of materiel and firepower can be focused on a concentrated opponent along a well-defined and visible position. This type of enemy was also put in a position of having to defend its capitol and homeland against invasion and occupation.

The American military in recent decades is not a combat infantry military. It is a technological and armor military, weak in squad level and individual combat ability. To be blunt, America has forgotten, and is now unable, to fight in a war that can not be conducted primarily with push-buttons and cellular phones.

Jungle Fighters

There is a well-known story from World War II. A captured Japanese soldier was asked who the best jungle fighters were. When asked about the Aussies and several others, he said they were very good. An American officer expectantly asked the Japanese whether he thought the Americans were good. The Japanese is reported to have said, “No, Americans first remove the jungle, and then fight.”

From a practical standpoint of confronting necessarily concentrated Japanese forces who were themselves occupying foreign territory and who were dependent upon supply from home, such operation made sense and was successful.

After World War II and Korea, the American military at top levels had grown lax, complacent, and unimaginative. The comfort levels and political manipulations of general grade officers became dominant and were not to be disturbed.

When I was drafted in 1961, the training at Fort Leonard Wood was based upon World War II equipment and overwhelming materiel philosophy. The M1 rifle we were using in training was one of the finest combat rifles ever designed, but was not being used outside of training centers. There was training with antique, leftover rifle anti-tank grenades that could barely be aimed and would have been ineffective against soup cans. The squad tactics we were shown were cursory and irrelevant. Most people were shipped out without basic modern military combat skills relative to what they would need on the front line. Most of the people shipped out of basic training would have been unable to defend themselves in small unit warfare, let alone pursue aggressive attack. It was to continue that way for at least several more years. Nobody reviewed the training procedures or rocked the boat, and nobody gave a damn.

Diffuse guerrilla warfare in a jungle situation where opposition leadership is implicitly or explicitly protected, and where the enemy’s tactics are controlled by terror rather than physically obvious and structurally defined occupation, is a far different situation requiring different skills and orientation.

The type of diffuse jungle wars that occurred in Viet Nam are won at the individual, squad, platoon, and company levels. Plans and orders from brigade and division level commanders become useless if there are platoon and squad level deficiencies. There needed to be solid preparation at that level. At least by the middle of 1963, large numbers of top quality junior officers and NCOs should have been sent to Viet Nam for front line experience and education. After six months these people should have been brought back to train large numbers of troops for jungle type warfare. An experienced leadership training corps of 10,000 should have been built up by the end of 1964 who were training another 300,000 people. Basic training should have been upgraded, modernized, and increased in length by a minimum of two weeks. There should have been concurrent development and training in appropriate squad through company level tactics.

The great Marine sniper, Carlos Hathcock, made over 90 confirmed kills at distances of up to 1,000 yards on the basis of rifle marksmanship and civil war vintage, rugged, individual-centered Indian-warrior combat skills. This was the type of combat skill needed in Viet Nam. With 1,000 more like him employed early in the conflict, the Viet Cong would have been destroyed or demoralized in a year. This was the direction the military needed to go.

Oval Office Masturbation

That type of military professionalism and combat ability is difficult to produce in Americans raised in front of TV and accustomed to air conditioning. Nobody at any level of the armed forces wanted to bother with it, and this softness would be a critical factor in success or failure of the anti-guerrilla campaign. But it had to be developed in an elite corps capable of extensive penetrating anti-guerrilla deployment. It should have been developed to give more men in this country a sense of seriousness, self-confidence, and self respect which has been sorely lacking in recent periods. About the only people who now have any use for them is some of their mothers. The reason the President of the United States can run around the Oval Office with his pants off playing with himself, and have it found acceptable, is because such behavior has become the normal level of expectation for American men in recent years.

Specialized counter-guerrilla infantry units should have been developed. Every counter-guerrilla infantry platoon should have had at least four K9 units. In my guerrilla warfare training library, one area where there is complete emphasis is, in the event you are a Guerrilla being pursued by a force of any kind incorporating dogs, the absolute imperative for your survival is to kill the dogs first rather than the personnel. (Note: “If the enemy does not use dogs you have a good chance of remaining undetected. Consequently, during fire fights, concentrate your fire on dogs and their handlers. They are among your greatest enemies.” [6])

Dogs are among the most lethal dense-foliage anti-guerrilla forces known. You can dig a hole, hide, or escape into jungle and ordinary infantry will never find you. But, dogs will nail you every time and can cover areas faster and more thoroughly than infantry could ever hope to. They’ll cover a 10-acre field of thick vegetation the same way hunting dogs will flush out quail. They give pursuers the equivalent of x-ray eyes while those who are being pursued can not see dogs until it’s too late. In this case the foliage can work against the guerrilla as much as for him. As amusing as it sounds, 20 good, well-trained Rotweilers, properly observed and supported by snipers, will drive and destroy a dispersed battalion of jungle guerrillas.

In an ordinary situation a small band of guerrillas in high grass can ambush a company while the people under fire will have little initial idea the ambush is waiting, or where the fire is coming from. By the time the company reorganizes, the guerrillas begin to recede and fade into the underbrush where there is no chance of finding them. It’s a sport. Dogs turn it into a death wish.

(In 1963 I petitioned for the employment of large-scale utilization of canine units and special tactics, but was rebuffed. There had been limited trials of dogs in anti-infiltration techniques that had been highly successful.)

Distributed Targets

There is a relative weighting of the advantages and disadvantages of being a guerrilla, versus being a member of a military group of superior size that has control over the air and is able to form large invulnerable troop formations and technological firepower concentration areas.

The individual soldier representing the large technological force can bring the power of that force to his command in thirty seconds by use of a radio, even though the nearest large force emplacement is ten miles away. If a concentrated enemy element is found, devastation of that element is as close as a call to the nearest artillery battery or aircraft coordination site. An isolated infantry squad has the firepower of a battalion at a moment’s notice. Supplies are readily available by air or truck.

This sounds like an absolutely foolproof, certainly-won confrontation. In practice, it has gaping holes in it because certain premises need to be fulfilled. It assumes the enemy will collect in large groups. It assumes the position of those groups will be found. If those conditions are not fulfilled, all the technological power in the world is useless. You end up blowing up half a mountainside or many square miles of jungle hoping to knock out three guerrillas by accident. As it happened, in the early part of the Viet Nam war our military was frustrated by guerrilla refusal to expose themselves and participate in large scale direct military engagement that made concentrated firepower useful—which was smart on the guerrilla’s part.

Two to five guerrillas could enter and terrorize an unarmed village at night, withdraw a quarter of a mile and hide in the jungle, then return the next night. If an ordinary squad or platoon sent out to find them happened to pass within a few feet of the guerrillas the next day, they probably would not even realize they were there.

The guerrilla’s power lies in his being difficult to find in the jungle. As long as the guerrilla stays away from large groups and stays hidden, massive concentrated fortification and firepower of his enemy become irrelevant or useless. It’s like trying to kill dispersed invisible flies by swinging a two-by-four.

According to Thompson, “It is the secret of the guerilla forces that, to be successful, they must hold the initiative, attack selected targets at a time of their own choosing and avoid battle where the odds are against them. If they can maintain their offensive in this way, both their strength and morale automatically increase until victory is won.” [7]

What are the disadvantages of being a guerrilla? The guerrilla is always isolated and can not call for help from other forces. He does not have the numerical strength to establish concentrated larger scale formations, or to attack such formations and fortifications. He can not be easily resupplied.

As long as the guerrilla is not seen or located, he is king of the jungle with the possible exception of one other person. Once seen or located, he is completely vulnerable. One or several guerrillas can not survive an attack by an experienced infantry squad. Dogs bring the specter of discovery and change the balance. K9 detection is lethal to individual or small groups of guerrillas.

If guerrillas collect in group defense for any period it increases the probability of their detection whereupon artillery and superior numbers and firepower then eradicate the guerrillas.

Tracking snipers are essential in anti-guerrilla warfare; they are co-kings of the jungle. As mentioned earlier, before retiring due to ill health, the great marine marksman/guerrilla Carlos Hathcock was responsive for nearly 100 confirmed kills, many of whom were important or critical personnel. Two good snipers can play havoc on guerrilla activities up to half a mile from their position. Snipers should be equipped with high-power scopes, night-vision scopes and certain other equipment and tactics which are classified. The sniper representing a numerically and technologically dominant military organization can call for artillery support.

Anti-guerrilla companies should have been developed for combating guerrillas within Viet Nam parallel to the Special Forces concept. Each platoon should have had two K9s and two snipers per squad. The development should have proceeded to brigade and even division level as quickly as possible. Large scale sweeps should have been made of guerrilla-inhabited areas. Snipers should have stationed themselves within range of villages experiencing communist harassment at night.


According to Thompson, “It is not often realized that in guerilla warfare guerilla forces are just as vulnerable to ambushes as are government forces . . . Many of the most successful ambushes in Malaya were carried out by small parties of two to five men at night, on small tracks which the terrorists were known to be using.” [8] This is the type of combat ability that should have been developed on a large scale by the U. S. military.

By the middle of 1965, when communists were sending regular regiments south, there should have been a sophisticated army of over 300,000 men sent to Viet Nam, en mass, with sophisticated officers and NCOs waiting for them with invasion plans. Simultaneously, there should have been another 200,000 in training. Within two weeks after arrival all troops should have emplaced. Fifty thousand anti-guerrilla personnel should have been positioned for action against communist forces within South Viet Nam. Fifty thousand should have been airborne and other mobile units prepared to seal off Hanoi from the north. Two hundred thousand should have been emplaced at the southern borders of North Viet Nam.

Beginning at dawn, a full scale invasion should have begun with massive shoulder to shoulder formations along a line. Beginning an hour before, the heaviest possible bombardment should have begun on all northern military targets throughout the country, including Hanoi, and continued for support, shock, and confusion. The invasion force should have driven northward to Hanoi, found Ho Chi Minh, executed him and any known accomplices, and stuck their heads on poles for public display. The exact details of the troop movements are not important. There would have been some leapfrogging and coastal invasions and whatever to hit Hanoi. The basic idea is easy to grasp.

This may at first sound like the ruminations of a disordered mind. Let it be pointed out that in December of 1967, we had 485,000 troops in the south being killed while they were milling about with no sense of direction and inflicting no real damage upon the enemy—and there was bombing of the north which had proceeded incrementally, was directed toward improper targets, and had allowed the communists do disperse or bury targets underground. It was going to continue for years.

The panicky arguments for not doing this bring up China and/or the threat of provoking nuclear war with the destruction of all mankind in the balance

What is the basic threshold or principle behind provoking nuclear war? Would the fall of Hanoi have provoked a nuclear holocaust? Why? Was the survival of Ho Chi Minh so important? If the survival of Ho Chi Minh was that important to the communist world, was the survival or success of Ho Chi Minh’s revolution in the south equally as important? Then it can be argued that if the Kennedy and Johnson administration’s masochistic military operations in the south had somehow worked, instead of nearly destroying America and delivering South Viet Nam to Hanoi, it would have provoked a similar temper tantrum in the communist world that would have resulted in their raining bombs on America.

At that point the only appropriate and honest alternative would have been to kill Diem sooner rather than later, and simply say of South Viet Nam, “Here it is, take it,” without bothering to go through a meaningless, contrived theatrical production that took close to 60,000 American lives and put tens of thousands of others in wheelchairs.

Would China have sent troops? Execute the military operation quickly enough and withdraw so that when Chinese troops arrived they would find Ho and his friend’s heads waiting on poles.

Clearly, if the people in South Viet Nam were allowed to live, develop, and prosper in peace without a communist government, it was going to offend a lot of people. If that offense was endurable, then the war could be won militarily.

At the war’s very beginning, the South Vietnamese village home guards should have been armed and trained. That they weren’t, indicated serious lazy indifference on the part of people in our government and military.

Ho Chi Minh was not invulnerable or a military genius. He wasn’t even militarily competent—and had a losing situation. He simply was never seriously opposed, or even criticized. The Viet Nam War was lost here in America, not in Viet Nam. From the standpoint of military science and tactics, the military action in Viet Nam was easily winable. The real front line was subversion and incompetence in America.

It was obvious to Ho Chi Minh, and to anybody else, that if he would simply continue hostilities on his own terms from protected areas, with little personal or military risk, then the continuing U.S. military attrition, combined with subversive elements in America, would assure him victory and that’s what happened. It’s impossible to believe McNamara and others like him did not realize the same thing. It is for this reason that an exasperated Barry Goldwater labeled McNamara a yo-yo, a polite understatement which was used to portray Goldwater as abrasive and insensitive.

The Viet Nam War wasn’t easy to lose. Not only massive incompetence, but also dedicated, exquisitely sadistic, subversive genius was required to do it.


————————————————–References[1] Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books, New York, 1995, p. 209.

[2] Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1966, p. 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 27.

[4] Ibid., p. 25.

[5] William Eagan Colby, with James McCargar, Lost Victory, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 1989, p. 123.

[6] Major H. von Dach Bern, Swiss Army, Total Resistance, Panther Publications, Box 369, Boulder, Colorado, 1965, p. 81.

[7] Thompson, p. 115.

[8] Ibid., p. 118.