A Vietnam War Misconception
DRV command and control in Hanoi was unquestionably the enemy’s Center of Gravity, the war having been, from the start, a top-down-driven DRV enterprise, reunification an assertion of Northern irredentism that had never resonated well with the Southern people. Remarkably, expedience required NLF cadre in the South to soft-pedal this key objective[i]. Nor did its twin, nationalist goal of liberation from US occupation motivate Southerners to fight[ii].
By my 1971-75 tenure in MR-3, most rural people had shifted their loyalty away from the NLF when US firepower in the highly kinetic 1967-69 phase decimated the units into which their sons had been conscripted, the casualty rate so high as to evoke military historian Melton’s “looming demographic collapse.[iii]” Decimation of both, NLF and PAVN units had occurred, but the NLF troops (the VC) had been the shock troops of the Tet Offensive and as such, were disproportionately ground down. Their collapse confirmed the metamorphosis of the conflict from the insurgency phase into conventional warfare already underway prior to Tet and signaled the failure of insurgency as the pathway to victory. The dependence of vestiges of insurgency upon main force unit presence became ever tighter. In remote areas adjacent to challenging terrain—generally rugged, jungled hills or overgrown wetlands—that sheltered enemy base areas, the PAVN main force unit, often a battalion, ensconced in such a base area exerted a pervasive influence on surrounding settlements. Providing “muscle” to the VCI cadre within these populations, often family members of VC combatants, it obtained obedient support from the local populace, literally under the gun, irrespective of where the people’s hearts stood, “civilian agency” being absent then and historically from the Vietnam context, save as an American myth. By my time, those geographical areas, remote to be sure, that remained loyal to the NLF were those that had subsisted literally in the shadow of a large communist force over a long period of time, often inter-generational, so that original reasons for fighting were long forgotten, the conflict having evolved among those people into a blood feud where loyalty to NLF was reduced to loyalty to family.
Flatly erroneous to the point of calumny is the currently widely held belief, even among the allegedly well-informed, that the VN conflict was lost because the US military insisted on pursuing an enemy-centric strategy, the centerpiece of which was pursuit of enemy main force units. In fact, this attrition-based strategy was responsible for the 1970-71 low point in enemy activity that some (Sorely, inter alia) have labelled the point at which the US and its allies won the war[iv]. Notably, there was an invariable concomitance between population insecurity and the presence of enemy main force unit(s). We had forced a retreat into Cambodia from MR-3 of the divisions that had altered the balance of forces thereby imbuing the popular psychology with confidence in a communist victory and greatly emboldening local forces. Mass relocation of the population to GVN-held zones had synergistically supported separation of populace from enemy. There, under the principle cuius regio,eius religio, their conscription into RF/PF and ARVN proceeded apace. (But the reverse was also readily observable, PAVN units re-infiltrating their old, strategically placed base areas by 1971 pari passu with the unilateral US troop withdrawals—thereby flanking Saigon’s Defensive Arc in MR-3.) Thence onward, in accordance with a DRV strategic shift to reliance on PAVN, the enemy local forces would prove useful in conducting diversionary ops subordinate to the thrust of the PAVN main forces, but local force usefulness would by no means extend to essentiality in bringing about a communist victory. Nor would local procurement of even rice for cacheing be a critical element in the logistics of overrunning the RVN, as reliance on supplies transported from the North became a viable alternative. (Northvietnamization had brought even the key VCI responsibility of local procurement within the purview of PAVN Logistics Command.) Paradoxically, corollary to the less critical nature of local procurement was the concomitant diminution in relevance of a standard coercive COIN measure, strict commodity controls, at which GVN had shown itself an abject failure. The invasion by PAVN main force units was the indispensable element that drove victory in 1975, helped by the better positioning resulting from PAVN advances in the 1972 offensive into areas—essentially a strip along the western borders of the country—from which ARVN had been forced to retreat. And, as noted above, PAVN units had long been pre-positioned in their fortified in-country base areas well behind ARVN lines.
In my experience in MR-3 1971-75, I found neither ARVN nor US officers (including senior CORDS officers), who thought for a moment that the improved security situation by 1970 was owed to the myriad winning hearts and minds “Pacification” projects. (Signaling their lack of relevance, CORDS wisely delegated WHAM advisory responsibilities to a Philippine contract firm, thereby freeing even civilian advisory team members to focus on more significant issues.)
Territorial security, i.e., protecting the GVN-controlled populated zone was essential, but this was a purely defensive, yet manpower intensive, posture. Sorely[v] quotes General Abrams as admitting that a US territorial security role would have required a far greater troop strength than the US had available; hence tasking US units to stave off enemy main force incursions from cross border sanctuaries, halting men and materiel well before they neared populated areas.
In the end, where unit leadership was sound, ARVN and territorials fought bravely, with staggering casualties, until ground down by the overwhelming numbers and firepower of the enemy in the 1975 denouement. RF, now sans advisers, holding its own against PAVN regiments, was testimony to the efficacy of CORDS’s FID aspect. The negotiated 1973 exit of US ground forces from the conflict was a travesty, a cease fire “in-place” which allowed PAVN forces to remain in their in-country base areas. It was followed mid-year by a Congressional ban on US air support, and the following year by a cutback well below the agreed-to level of US logistic support, at a time when the enemy logistical pipeline was proverbially clogged with Chinese and Soviet hardware. “Our guys” were literally rationing bullets and close to running out of gas. RVNAF, well overstretched by the daunting territorial security obligation coupled with the need to stave off enemy incursions along a long and porous border leaving scant allowance for a strategic reserve, would face the enemy from a position of weakness.
Strategically, the US would have had to place atop its attrition strategy the gold seal of severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Alternatively, of course, strategic bombing of the North would have broken the will of populace and leadership there while also ensuring against stalemate perpetuation. (Feasibility of the bombing was unfettered in Nixon’s 1972 overture to Mao and enhanced by the synchronous development of a US smart-bomb capability.)
[i] See Duncanson, Dennis J., Government and Revolution in Vietnam, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, London., 1968, p.296. (“South” is delimited by the Southern dialect, i.e., MRs-3 and-4.)
[ii] See Race, Jeffrey, War Comes to Long An, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1972, p.179 (footnote)
[iii] See Melton, Stephen L., The Clausewitz Delusion, Zenith Press, Minneapolis, 2009, pp. 21-24, wherein Melton offers calculations of losses that would convince a population to shift loyalties in a war against foreign occupation, drawing upon data from VN and other conflicts: 50 percent combatant casualties and 5 percent death rate suffered by the general population…Patently, these numbers accord with civilian and communist combatant casualty figures incurred within the RVN, but losses in North Vietnam were, of course, far lighter.
[iv] See Sorely, Lewis, A Better War, Harcourt, Inc., San Diego, New York, London, 1999, Chapter 13, “Victory.”
[v] Ibid, p.139