Small Wars Journal

Book Review

Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War Peter J. Munson Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:30am

Dr. Kevin Woods and his colleague Williamson Murray have brought to life the Iraqi perspective on various conflicts, ranging from Operation Desert Storm to their latest work on the Iran-Iraq War.

Grab Their Belts To Fight Them

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 9:58am

Book by Warren Wilkins.

Published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland.  312 pages, 2011.

Warren Wilkins has written a valuable book on the early phases of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.  The Vietnamese adage of “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them!” was an attempt to neutralize massive American firepower by hugging the enemy, a tactic used by the Soviets fighting the Germans in World War II.  Wilkins makes a well-researched argument that redefines and cuts through the popular mythology of the Viet Cong being a insurgency of fighters in black pajamas.  Wilkins, a Fellow at the Center for Threat Analysis, demonstrates that between 1965 and 1966, the Viet Cong conducted large scale complex operations at the regimental level, forcing General William Westmoreland to fight a large footprint, expensive big unit war.  The North Vietnamese conducted massive combined arms ground tactics using infantry, artillery, and even armor, a tactic useful against the French, but tactically disastrous when faced with America’s combined air, sea, and ground arms.  Wilkins dissects several key battles between Viet Cong and U.S. combat forces that resulted in deep strategic soul searching in Hanoi and Washington.

In Grab Their Belts to Fight Them, readers will get inside the minds of North Vietnamese divisional commanders like General Tran Van Tra, and the better known General Vo Nugyen Giap, the architect of the 1954 Battle of Diem Bien Phu against the French.  After the Battle of Ia Drang in 1966, Giap’s influence waned as senior commanders considered potential strategies against the United States.  Their discussions centered on whether to shift the war to an insurgency or continue big unit operations despite the effectiveness of U.S. air and helicopter-borne assets that decimated these formations. Readers will gain an appreciation of the capability and discipline of a Viet Cong Army that was well trained, well-equipped, and whose commanders were concerned about mounting casualties.  In the west we think of a logistical tail, in which supply units support front-line combat units, the North Vietnamese thought of the logistical nose, meaning they prepped the battlefield logistically before deploying combat units.  The North Vietnamese conducted massive operations which were carefully scripted and rehearsed.  Improvisation in large unit warfare was not a strong trait of either the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army and would be a problem for many former Soviet indoctrinated armies.    

Wilkins has done us a service with this new book. While my specialization is al-Qaida, it is important to appreciate that the late al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Abdul-Aziz al-Muqrin appreciated the Vietnamese insurgency tactics, which themselves built upon Mao Tse Tung’s insurgency principles.  Wilkins book helps me to better understand the importance of preventing al-Qaida from gaining the capacity to transition to big-unit wars that the Viet Cong undertook between 1965 to 1966, while simultaneously raising the issues of legitimacy and strategic communications in insurgencies.  However, winning an insurgency is not as simple as insurgents gaining the capacity to fight large unit wars or COIN commanders defeating insurgents in big unit wars as the Vietnam War ultimately showed.  The book also shows the power of managing the narrative, with Hanoi painting a picture of being —to sacrifice to the last person, and that their efforts were mainly guerilla based, versus the reality that they were concerned with casualties, and did conduct large scale coordinated operations, being well equipped and trained. Wilkins book helps keep these realities in focus.

The author wishes to thank his ICAF colleague CAPT Chan Swallow, USN for his edits and for discussing this book.