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operations conducted 1966 - 67


 
 

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A Re-evaluation of Strategy

Captain Robert J O'Neill MID

After our return from Long Son Island, the pace of our operations eased during late November and December. Several more American convoys were scheduled to use Route 15 during this period and so we had to return to the routine of road security duties in alternation with the Sixth Battalion after the return of the latter from Operation Ingham. We were also engaged in several cordon operations directed at Hoa Long for by this time the pressure of other commitments had relaxed sufficiently to enable us finally to clean the hard core of Viet Cong cadre out of the village. In between these battalion operations, each of the rifle companies carried out patrols and laid ambushes on tracks known to be used occasionally by Viet Cong for moving into central Phuoc Tuy. Although the battalion was still quite busy during November and December, pressure on the battalion headquarters staff was relaxed, permitting more attention to be given to the fundamental basis of our long term strategy.

This break came at a convenient time, for after six months of operations against the Viet Cong we no longer had to treat them as a theoretical entity. Our earlier approach had had to be conservatively based because we did not know our enemy's weaknesses as clearly as his strengths. Now that we had established ourselves at Nui Dat and had enjoyed some success in breaking Viet Cong power in the central part of Phuoc Tuy we had a basis for ruthlessly scrutinizing both our aim and our methods to see if we were acting to bring the war to a successful end in the shortest possible time with the least number of casualties. The Task Force Commander, Brigadier Jackson, and later Brigadier Graham, had laid down a broad policy for operations which permitted the battalions an appreciable degree of initiative. In order to use this freedom to the greatest effect we carried on a continual debate concerning our operations.

The driving force behind this rethinking of our attitudes was Colonel Warr. He had been stimulating discussion of our methods ever since the battalion had been raised and scarcely a week passed in which he did not ask me what our aim in Phuoc Tuy was and then proceed to debate the matter for half an hour or so. After some months of this dialectic, in which all the officers of the Battalion Headquarters and the Company Commanders participated, we felt that we had established enough of a principle, based on both our education and our experience, to warrant its formulation in words and its wider distribution for further comment and effect. Colonel Warr asked me to prepare a paper analysing what we knew and deducing a course of future action for the battalion.

The most fundamental question seemed to be the determination of our aim. Was it to kill Viet Cong, to bring the main force to battle, to isolate the main force from the people, to assist in civil reconstruction, to restore Government control to villages or to cut the Viet Cong supply lines? As strategy can be most effectively applied only with knowledge of the opponent's aim, it was important to consider exactly what the Viet Cong were attempting to do in order to achieve a victory.

Quite clearly the fundamental element in the Viet Cong strategy was the people. They were fighting the war for control of the people and they could achieve this in limited war only by winning the support of a large group of the Vietnamese nation. The Viet Cong were not fighting for specific pieces of territory, for they held that no ground was vital if they were confronted by superior forces. The one essential element for the success of a guerilla war was the support of the peasants, for if that sea refused Ho's fish refuge and nourishment where else would succour be obtained?

The Viet Cong had commenced the war by assailing the minds of the peasants. The first Viet Cong forces were the village cadres which had lain dormant from 1954 to 1957. Beginning slowly and concentrating on increasing their own numbers with additions of high quality and dedication, the cadres set about undermining the position of the Government by attributing all the ills of peasant life to Diem and by promising remedies when the Viet Cong came to power. Once they had the committed support of a group of peasants the cadres were able to build their own military power, sufficient in some areas to take them over, village by village, from the Government. Where the Government was too strong to be ejected outright, its troops were harassed and fatigued by constant pinpricks. As Viet Cong support throughout some localities grew, so it became possible for them to form small standing forces composed of regular soldiers. The first of these, of company size, began to roam about the country in 1959, attacking small Government posts, ambushing convoys, and terrorising Government officials so that the Viet Cong seized control of the spaces outside the forts and compounds. Without being able to prevent the Government forces from moving about in medium concentrations, they took psychological control of the open countryside and jungles away from the Government.

The psychological supremacy established by the Viet Cong aided their recruitment and after two years the mobile companies were expanding themselves into battalions, capable of driving Government forces out of the settled areas. The process continued with growing success and, in 1964, main force regiments composed of three battalions of infantry and a support weapons battalion were raised. The men were mostly South Vietnamese, a good number of the officers were North Vietnamese and the weapons were Chinese, Russian or Czech. Yet the purpose of these regiments was not to win the support of the people, but to throw back the forces of the Government and by a process of continued expansion and amalgamation to inflict final crushing defeat on the Government Army. In order to achieve this aim, the main force soldiers had to keep apart from the people, based in deep jungle and mountains, emerging from a veil of tight secrecy to strike a decisive blow and then to disappear before a stronger blow could be struck back by the Government. Once the Government forces had been thrown back, the cadres came forward and began taking over the control of the people.

All of this process may be familiar, but it is important to examine the growth of the Viet Cong in its historical context in order to evaluate the relative importance of the cadres in the villages and the main force units. It emerges clearly that it is the cadres who are the active elements in achieving the aims of the Viet Cong. It is through these groups that the Viet Cong have built themselves up and it is they who control the efforts of the peasantry under Viet Cong influence. The main force units exist as a shield and as a sword in front of the cadres but without the cadres the main force achieves nothing more than the neutralization of the Government military effort, and the way is left open for the Government cadres to extend the scope of their control.

After this consideration of the aims of the Viet Cong and their methods of achieving these aims, we can return to consideration of the Government aims. It is commonsense that the aim of any government which hopes to endure in South Vietnam is broadly based popular support. This can only be enduring if the Government can provide security on a continuing basis so that civic action and the Revolutionary Development programme can proceed uninterrupted. Unless villages are protected and free from Viet Cong control, the Government teams can be assassinated, and the building materials, the food and the medical supplies will go to the Viet Cong instead of to the peasants and their families. Consequently, while the broad aim of forces on the Government side is to win and hold the support of the people, this is not a practical possibility until the local Viet Cong influences have been removed and the main force rendered impotent to interfere with the Government workers.

Therefore, while the most direct means of winning the war lies in eliminating the Viet Cong cadres from the villages, positive Government action to administer the population cannot be put into effect until the main force Viet Cong regiments in a particular locality have been neutralized and are kept from interfering with the restoration of Government control. Hence the first step in the conduct of operations in a province which has been the theatre of action for large main force units, has to be the removal of the main force threat from the populated areas.

Whilst these considerations do not go as far as specifically to require the destruction of Viet Cong main forces for the restoration of effective Government control, the notion of the necessity of the destruction of an enemy's armed forces for the attainment of victory is so deeply entrenched in the minds of many, including both participants in and commentators on the Vietnam war, that the proposition that the prime target of the war is the Viet Cong main force requires special examination.

In essence, military strategy usually boils down to a choice between direct and indirect methods. Direct methods imply the physical destruction of the enemy's means to wage war as a preliminary to the imposition of one's political will on the enemy, and are exemplified by the Franco-Prussian war and by the Western Front of the First World War. Indirect methods seek to attain the political objective of the war by avoidance of a frontal clash between opposing forces as exemplified by the tactics of Fabius Cunctator, Lawrence in Arabia, and Guderian in 1940. Indirect methods have had their most recent expression in the doctrines of Mao Tse Tung and their application has been seen in China, in Indo-China, and, until the formation of large main force units by the Viet Cong, in Vietnam. One of the most articulate proponents of direct methods has been Carl von Clausewitz, in whose works the advocates of direct methods have found ample support by notions such as:
'The aim of all action in war is to disarm the enemy.'
'We have only one means in war―the battle.'
'The bloody solution of the crisis, the effort for the destruction of the enemy's forces, is the first born son of war.'
'Philanthropists may easily imagine that there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming the enemy without great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. . . That is an error which must be extirpated.'

However, a more careful reading of Clausewitz shows that he himself recognized a few limitations to these dicta, viz.:

'The object of a combat is not always the destruction of the enemy's forces. . . its object can often be attained as well without the combat taking place at all.'
and,
'The waste of our own military forces must, ceteris paribus, always be greater the more our aim is directed upon the destruction of the enemy's power. The danger lies in this-that the greater efficacy which we seek recoils on ourselves, and therefore has worse consequences in case we fail of success.'

It is interesting to compare with Clausewitz the doctrines of the Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in the fourth century B.C. and to whom Mao Tse Tung owes much for the formulation of ideas which are often wrongly ascribed to Mao. Sun Tzu has expressed his ideas on the destruction of the enemy's forces thus:

'I. Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.

2. To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a battalion, a company or a five-man squad is better than to destroy them.

3. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.'

These ideas of Sun Tzu are fundamental to the indirect method and they stand in clear opposition to those of Clausewitz. The relative success of indirect methods over direct methods has been amply demonstrated in the history of warfare, as described particularly by Liddell Hart in his Strategy-the Indirect Approach. However, in many parts of Vietnam such as along the Demilitarized Zone and in the Central Highlands the strength and aggressiveness of the main force Viet Cong was such that little scope was left for indirect methods. In Phuoc Tuy at this time the situation was very different for the main force regiments had already been driven out of the central part of the Province by direct offensive action. Provided that the main force units were kept isolated from the people they could maintain themselves in health and fighting efficiency only by assistance from other areas, especially North Vietnam. For the Viet Cong in Phuoc Tuy such local isolation would be a grim situation for they were at the end of a supply line from the north several hundred miles long, all of which was subject to interdiction and was under heavy stress to meet the existing demands which were made of it. The physical strain of living in remote jungles and mountains would be very likely to reduce these main force units to such a low level of effectiveness that they would cease to be anything more than nuisance value.

 

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