Military history



Reflections and Perceptions

The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.…


and prescient analysis of the future course

of the Viet Minh war with the French

Lessons were drawn and political decisions were made in the closing days of 1965, both in Washington and in Hanoi, that flowed directly out of the head-on collision of two determined armies in the Ia Drang Valley. Projections of the eventual cost in human lives and national resources, and even the eventual outcome, were promptly drawn for the American president, Lyndon Johnson, by his cool, numbers-crunching secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, and just as promptly set aside. This was America’s war now, and America had never lost a war.

In Hanoi, Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap looked hard at what he perceived as the important lessons of the Ia Drang campaign and was heartened by what he saw: “After the Ia Drang battle we concluded that we could fight and win against the Cavalry troops. We learned lessons from this battle and disseminated the information to all our soldiers. These were instructions on how to organize to fight the helicopters.

“We thought that the Americans must have a strategy. We did. We had a strategy of people’s war. You had tactics, and it takes very decisive tactics to win a strategic victory. You planned to use the Cavalry tactics as your strategy to win the war. If we could defeat your tactics—your helicopters—then we could defeat your strategy. Our goal was to win the war.”

In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, and his principal deputy, General William DePuy, looked at the statistics of the thirty-four-day Ia Drang campaign—3, 561 North Vietnamese estimated killed versus 305 American dead—and saw a kill ratio of twelve North Vietnamese to one American. What that said to two officers who had learned their trade in the meat-grinder campaigns in World War II was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.

In Hanoi, President Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident. Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory. In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.

There was one man in a position of power in Washington that fall who knew that the name of the game had changed in Vietnam. Secretary of Defense McNamara was on a trip to Europe when President Johnson asked him to return home by way of Saigon for first-hand briefings on the Ia Drang battles. McNamara talked with Ambassador Lodge and General Westmoreland in Saigon, and then flew to the An Khe base camp for briefings by General Harry Kinnard and myself.

During my twenty minutes I did my best to convey to McNamara and his party a vivid picture of the North Vietnamese soldiers who had fought against us at X-Ray: well-disciplined, determined to the point of suicidal fanaticism, and boiling down off the mountain in the kind of human-wave attacks not seen since Korea.

McNamara’s silence as I concluded was significant. He now knew that the Vietnam War had just exploded into an open-ended and massive commitment of American men, money, and matériel to a cause that he was beginning to suspect would be difficult to win. By the time he got back to Saigon, McNamara began tempering his usual public optimism. Before boarding the flight back to Washington, he told reporters: “It will be a long war.”

On the plane, McNamara dictated a top-secret memo to President Johnson, which stated that it was now clear that North Vietnam was not only matching but exceeding the American buildup, and would continue to do so. McNamara wrote that only two options were open: The United States could go for a compromise solution—withdrawal under whatever diplomatic cover could be arranged—or the president could approve General Westmoreland’s requests to more than double the number of U.S. battalions fighting in Vietnam from thirty-four to seventy-four by the end of 1966. He concluded with these words: “Evaluation: We should be aware that deployments of the kind … will not guarantee success. U.S. killed-in-action can be expected to reach 1,000 a month, and the odds are even that we will be faced in early 1967, with a no-decision at an even higher level.”

A more detailed memo to LBJ, dated December 6, 1965, reflecting the consensus among McNamara, General Westmoreland, Ambassador Lodge, the Pacific commander, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared:

We believe that, whether or not major new diplomatic initiatives are made, the United States must send a substantial number of additional forces to Vietnam if we are to avoid being defeated there [emphasis added]. We recommend: That the U.S. be prepared to increase its deployment of ground troops by the end of 1966, from 34 combat battalions to 74 combat battalions … If the 74 U.S. battalions, together with increases in air squadrons, naval units, air defense, combat support, construction units and miscellaneous logistic support and advisory personnel which we also recommend, were to be deployed it would bring the total U.S. personnel in Vietnam to approximately 400,000. The end 1965 strength of 200,000 would increase during 1966 at the rate of approximately 15,000 a month. It should be understood that further deployments (perhaps exceeding an additional 200,000 men) may be needed in 1967.

McNamara again repeated his estimate that the North Vietnamese would match any American escalation and that by 1967, the number of Americans killed in action would reach a thousand per month. And again he reiterated the bottom lines: “If the U.S. were willing to commit enough forces—perhaps 600,000 men or more—we could ultimately prevent the Democratic Republic of Vietnam/Viet Cong from sustaining the conflict at a significant level. When this point was reached, however, the question of Chinese intervention would become critical.”

The McNamara memo added: “It follows, therefore, that the odds are about even that, even with the recommended deployments, we will be faced in early 1967 with a military standoff at a much higher level.…”

In mid-December, President Johnson convened a White House meeting of his top advisers. Will Bundy says that McNamara’s option number one—get the hell out of Vietnam now, while the getting is good—was never seriously considered nor was it pressed by McNamara. Option number two—the huge buildup of American combat and support troops—was readily approved by all, including McNamara. Ever the numbers cruncher, McNamara told the gathering, “The military solution to the problem is not certain; [the odds of success are] one out of three, or one in two.” McNamara did push for a bombing pause to prepare U.S. public opinion for the coming escalation.

Those of us who commanded American soldiers in the opening days had already undergone one crisis of confidence in the political leadership’s commitment to the struggle when President Johnson refused to extend enlistments and sent us off to war sadly understrength and minus many of our best-trained men. Now, in the wake of the Ia Drang, American political determination was tested again, and again found wanting.

We knew for a fact that the three North Vietnamese regiments that we had fought in the Ia Drang had withdrawn into Cambodia. We wanted to follow them in hot pursuit, on the ground and in the air, but could not do so under the rules of engagement. Washington had just answered one very important question in the minds of Hanoi’s leaders.

General Kinnard says: “I was always taught as an officer that in a pursuit situation you continue to pursue until you either kill the enemy or he surrenders. I saw the Ia Drang as a definite pursuit situation and I wanted to keep after them. Not to follow them into Cambodia violated every principle of warfare. I was supported in this by both the military and civilian leaders in Saigon. But the decision was made back there, at the White House, that we would not be permitted to pursue into Cambodia. It became perfectly clear to the North Vietnamese that they then had sanctuary; they could come when they were ready to fight and leave when they were ready to quit.”

General Kinnard adds, “When General Giap says he learned how to fight Americans and our helicopters at the Ia Drang, that’s bullshit! What he learned was that we were not going to be allowed to chase him across a mythical line in the dirt. From that point forward, he was grinning. He can bring us to battle when he wants and where he wants, and where’s that? Always within a few miles of the border, where his supply lines were the shortest, where the preponderance of forces is his, where he has scouted the terrain intensely and knows it better than we do.”

Will Bundy was then assistant secretary of state. Of that period and that decision, he says, “I suppose from a strictly military point of view, going into Cambodia would have been a net plus. But there was a good deal more at stake. We were trying to preserve a facade of Cambodian neutrality. Lyndon Johnson had a friendly feeling toward Prince Sihanouk; Richard Nixon did not. But it seems to me that if you started playing that game the other side would simply say, all right, let’s fight on a wider field. Unless my initial conclusions are wrong, Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia did exactly that. We began bombing a ten-mile strip over the Cambodian border, and the North Vietnamese began operating twelve miles inside. By the time we went in on the ground a year later we had to go twenty miles deep. It simply shoved the war deeper into Cambodia, and the other side would just keep moving deeper, unless you moved in and took over all of eastern Cambodia, and that is a very large piece of terrain.”

For me, the next hint that something was terribly wrong in the way we were pursuing the war came early in 1966, when I led the 3rd Brigade—including the battalions that had fought at X-Ray and Albany—into another meat-grinder campaign, this time into the heavily populated Bong Son plain on the coast of Central Vietnam.

The Bong Son, a densely populated rice-farming region, had been under Viet Cong control for years. Now North Vietnamese regulars had moved into the area. It was my understanding that our job was to clear the armed enemy from the region and then turn it over to the South Vietnamese army and civilian authorities to secure and administer over the long haul.

Our first problems came with operating in so heavily populated an area. The same awesome firepower—artillery, air strikes, and ARA—that had saved our lives in the unpopulated Ia Drang Valley now, despite our best efforts, began taking a toll of innocent civilians killed and maimed, villages destroyed, and farm animals slain.

On our air assault into the Bong Son on January 28, 1966, I was on the first lift, and charged into the tree line. There was a small thatch-roofed house in the trees; inside, a peasant family huddled, frightened out of their wits by the artillery prep fires that had landed all around them. A lovely six-year-old girl was bloody from a shrapnel wound. She was the same age as my daughter Cecile, back home. I summoned the medics, but I left there heartsick. None of us had joined the Army to hurt children and frighten peaceful farm families.

The fighting was vicious and, by the time the enemy had been routed, 82 of my men were dead and another 318 wounded. A high price to pay, but the Bong Son had been liberated. Right? Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and his wife, Mai, dressed in matching black flight suits with purple scarves, arrived at my headquarters for a briefing on the battles. I emphasized that we were turning control back to the Vietnamese government.

Within one week after we pulled out, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Main Force units had returned to the villages of the Bong Son. My brigade would be sent back in a show of force in April and again in May when we lost many more men killed and wounded. After the May operation it was very clear to me, a battlefield commander not involved in the politics of it all, that the American Mission and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam had not succeeded in coordinating American and South Vietnamese military operations with follow-on Vietnamese government programs to reestablish control in the newly cleared areas. If they couldn’t make it work in Bong Son—where the most powerful American division available had cleared enemy forces from the countryside—how could they possibly hope to reestablish South Vietnamese control in other contested regions where the American military presence was much weaker. But this was 1966, and early in the war. All I could do was hope and pray that our terrible sacrifices would eventually contribute to achievement of America’s objectives in Vietnam. Late in 1966, the entire 1st Cavalry Division was moved to the Bong Son, where it remained for nearly eighteen months as an army of occupation.

One more fatal flaw in American policy soon began to bite hard. Largely in order to pacify the public and to demonstrate that so powerful a nation as the United States was hardly troubled by this distant police action, the Johnson administration decreed that the tour of duty for American troops would be twelve months (thirteen for the hard-luck Marines). No citizen-soldier would have to stay in Vietnam a day longer. Those who had survived and learned how to fight in this difficult environment began going home in the summer of 1966; with them went all their experience and expertise. Replacing them was an army of new draftees, which in due course would be replaced by newer draftees. The level of training drifted ever lower as the demand for bodies grew.

Even more devastating to the morale and effectiveness of every American unit in combat was the six-month limit on battalion and brigade command. This was ticket-punching: A career officer had to have troop-command time for promotion. The six-month rule meant that twice as many officers got that important punch. It also meant that at just about the time when a commander learned the terrain and the troops and the tricks and got good at the job—if he was going to get good—he was gone. The soldiers paid the price.

In late June 1966, my turn was up as commander of the 3rd Brigade. When my replacement, a colonel straight out of the Pentagon, showed up to take over, my brigade was in the field, fighting near Dong Tre. It would have been criminal, in those circumstances, to relinquish command to a man who was still pissing Stateside water, and I flatly refused to do so. The change of command was delayed ten days, until the fight was over. A month later, on August 8, 1966, my replacement sent Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry back into the Ia Drang Valley by itself, and twenty-five men were killed in one terrible day.

I had hoped that my next assignment would be to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, where I could pass along what I had learned in Vietnam to the young officers who were headed for combat. It was not to be. In fact, only one of the hundreds of officers who had gone through airmobile training and a year in the field with the 1st Cavalry Division was assigned to the Infantry School. I was sent instead to Washington, D.C., where I was told my next job would be on the Latin American desk at the U.S. State Department. Great job for someone whose only foreign languages were French and Norwegian.

In short order, those orders were changed to a one-year assignment to the office of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s International Security Affairs Directorate, under John McNaughton. As half of a two-man Vietnam section, I was primarily charged with putting together “trip books” for the Vietnam visits of McNamara and key Defense and State Department officials, and with fielding “Congressionals,” constituent questions and complaints about Vietnam policy passed along by senators and representatives.

For the next year I watched Bob McNamara and John McNaughton, both brilliant men, go through hell as they struggled unsuccessfully to get a handle on the war and the pacification process in Vietnam. At the end of that year neither of them was any closer to finding or creating such a handle. An office wit summed up what was happening in Vietnam sadly and succinctly: “Although we have redoubled our efforts, we have lost sight of our objective.”

What, then, had we learned with our sacrifices in the Ia Drang Valley? We had learned something about fighting the North Vietnamese regulars—and something important about ourselves. We could stand against the finest light infantry troops in the world and hold our ground. General Westmoreland thought he had found the answer to the question of how to win this war: He would trade one American life for ten or eleven or twelve North Vietnamese lives, day after day, until Ho Chi Minh cried uncle. Westmoreland would learn, too late, that he was wrong; that the American people didn’t see a kill ratio of 10-1 or even 20-1 as any kind of bargain. But we had validated both the principle and the practice of airmobile warfare. A million American soldiers would ride to battle in Huey helicopters in the next eight years, and the familiar “whup, whup, whup” of their rotors would be the enduring soundtrack of this war.

Finally—even though it took ten years, cost the lives of 58,000 young Americans and inflicted humiliating defeat on a nation that had never before lost a war—some of us learned that Clausewitz had it right 150 years earlier when he wrote these words:

“No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

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