Saturday, February 20, 2010

Decisive Battles: Tet 1968

Tet (Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy) (First Phase) Dates: January 31-March 28, 1968

Forces Engaged: The total number of troops that fought in the battles that comprised the Tet Offensive is very difficult to pin down, especially since while several units fought at multiple times in different locations many units and even individual soldiers fought everything from firefights lasting minutes or second to sieges lasting days. So the best we can probably do is list the overall numbers of troops in theatre.

U.S. (including foreign allies South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand): approximately 450,000 troops, including:
9 U.S. infantry divisions (including Marine divisions)
1 U.S. armored cavalry regiment
2 separate infantry brigades
1 ANZAC infantry brigade
2 ROK infantry divisions
1 ROK marine brigade
1 Royal Thai regiment (brigade equivalent)
and a large contingent of naval riverine and USAF support. Probably about 5-600,000 troops under GEN Westmoreland of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF - better known as the "ARVN"): roughly 380,000 total army (12 divisions) and 9,000 marine (2 brigades) ground troops. Support forces included 38,000 RVNN and RVNAF. Many of the engagements were fought during Tet by the "Regional Force" reserves, about 220,000 part-time semi-mobile troops and the local "Popular Force" defense volunteers, 173,000 troops for a total of about 820,000 troops under President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.All together, somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3 million troops.

People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN): Intelligence estimates at the time varied significantly. About 130,000 "regular" North Vietnamese troops were said to be within the Republic of Vietnam in January, 1968 by the RVNAF. These included four full divisions involved in the battles around Khe Sanh as well as numerous individual PAVN regular units involved in the Tet attacks. Probably between 130,000 and 150,000 infantry.As the PAVN had 26 numbered divisions of approximately 10,000 troops per division in 1968, these 236 battalions represented roughly half of the ground force strength of the North Vietnam (the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" or DRVN).

People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF): the armed "wing" of the Viet Cong rebel forces attempting to take over the RVN. Overall strength at the time of Tet varied from 150,000 to as many as 200-250,000. These soldiers varied greatly in quality as well, from the local irregulars - the propaganda poster VC farming rice by day and ambushing GIs by night - through the "Regional Force" to the chu luc Main Force battalions, virtually indistinguishable from the North Vietnamese regulars.Roughly 330-500,000 troops all arms under the direction of GEN Giap.

The Sources: Well documented.
The Wiki entry, itself a surprisingly well-written and documented work, mentions U.S. Army studies of the war as well as the PAVN's own official history.

The Campaign: To understand the strategic significance of Tet you have to understand the strategic position, and especially the political position, of the U.S. Army and government on January 30, 1968.

Vietnam was, like almost every other French colonial legacy, a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a secret all tied into a neat ball of utter fucking disaster. The French, incompetent at colonial rule as always, had combined this with being incompetent at defending their colony, which fell to the Japanese in 1940. Having shown that they could be defeated by one group of Asians, the French insistence at refusing to release their hold on the Vietnamese - one of Asia's truly irascible fighting peoples - was building a road to mayhem.

The French were handed their ass by their former chattels in 1954, but proceeded to weasel out of just giving the place over to the people who beat them by dividing the place and handing the south half - where most of the French expatriates and the Viet clients had been busy growing rubber prior to decolonization - to a fellow named Bảo Đại, who seems to have been a decent enough guy for a man who spent most of his life as a phony "emperor" of a supine colony.Bảo Đại was promptly defenestrated by one Ngô Đình Diệm when the latter decided to go from "prime minister" to "president" without the bother of getting elected (or having a Frenchman make him one, which was how they'd been doing it recently). Diệm, in turn, called off the plebiscite that would probably have taken the whole camorra over to the regime of Hồ Chí Minh ruling in the North, and the war was on.

We feared Hồ because he was a yellow Red, and because our political class was way too familiar with the whole "Who lost China?" ratissage that had followed the defeat of Chiang and the Nationalists in 1949 and didn't want to be the last one standing when the music stopped playing "The East Is Red". Significant U.S. military involvement in the RVN had begun in 1965. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had become ensnared fighting the commies, but mostly with advisers and Lend-Lease. After attacks in February, 1965 which killed American soldiers at Pleiku and Qui Nhon then-President LBJ send U.S. bombers over the North (in February) and decided in March to commit U.S. maneuver elements which led to the Marine landings at Da Nang in April.On January 1, 1965 16,000 U.S. military were posted within the RVN. By January 1, 1966, the number was 184,000. This would rise to the 450,000 by January 1, 1968.

Between 1965 and 1968 the Johnson Administration was in a bind. It understood that it was faced with a patient and hardened enemy who had no place to "go" if they lost. But it also had a public who had long since forgotten the bloody, inconclusive guerrilla wars against dusky savages like native tribes and Filipinos. For three generations Americans expected total force and decisive victory. The sanguine stalemate in Korea was widely seen as having helped cost the Democrats the 1952 election, and no sane politician wanted to be seen as the next victim of the next Joe McCarthy.

So the U.S. government began to deliberately blow sunshine up the American public's ass.

I know. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Here's the good summary of one such debate from the Wiki entry:
"This prompted the administration to launch a so-called "Success Offensive", a concerted effort to alter the widespread public perception that the war had reached a stalemate and to convince the American people that the administration's policies were succeeding. (T)he news media then was inundated by a wave of effusive optimism. Every statistical indicator of progress, from "kill ratios" and "body counts" to village pacification was fed to the press and to the Congress. "We are beginning to win this struggle" asserted Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey on NBC's "Today Show" in mid-November. "We are on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress." General Bruce Palmer, Jr., one of Westmoreland's three Field Force commanders, claimed that "the Viet Cong has been defeated" and that "He can't get food and he can't recruit. He has been forced to change his strategy from trying to control the people on the coast to trying to survive in the mountains."
Westy himself said in November of '67: "(the communists were) unable to mount a major offensive. I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view."

In a bizarre precursor to Dubya's inane "Bring 'em on." dare, Westmoreland also said "I hope they try something, because we are looking for a fight."They did.

Most historians and the Vietnamese actors themselves admit that the "General Offensive and Uprising" was something of a desperation throw. U.S. engagement - and especially U.S. airpower - had hammered both the field forces and the DRVN economy. The Northern politics surrounding Tet are intriguing. The government of the DRVN was at the time divided into three main parties. "Militants" or hard-liners, led by First Secretary Lê Duẩn, Lê Ðức Thọ, and General Nguyễn Chí Thanh the head of Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), communist headquarters for the South, wanted to attack the Southern government directly and take over through military victory. The "Soviet" party, led by Trường Chinh and Defense Minister Võ Nguyên Giáp,

believed that political agitation and soft power would do the trick. The "centerists", led by President Hồ Chí Minh and later by a Lê Ðức Thọ who defected from the militants, proposed "negotiating while fighting", with the end of a settlement that would eventually lead to northern domination.

The main fighters were Thanh, who wanted a general offensive in the south which would employ all the PAVN/PLAF maneuver units in an attaque à outrance that would bring the oppressed masses in the South out to do a Bastille on their American puppet rulers, and Giáp, who believed that American combat power, particularly airpower, made conventional war prohibitively costly and who wanted to fight the war of the flea.

The internal struggle between the factions resulted in the "Revisionist Anti-Party Affair" (vu an xet lai-chong Dang) in the summer of 1967. The militants used the Party apparatus to arrest hundreds of soft-liners and pro-Soviet members of the communist government. Giáp, hero of Dien Bien Phu, was too big to take down but was isolated and forced to follow the dictates of the militants. These dictates were codified in Resolution 14 of the party Central Committee in October, 1967, which laid down the goals for Tet: rejection of negotiations, abandonment of "protracted (guerrilla) warfare", and an offensive in the towns and cities of South Vietnam.Ironically, Thanh drew up the plans for Tet in April, May and June of 1967 and then went to a booze-up in July, got plowed and died of a heart attack. Giáp took over the implementation of the plan.

The Plan: Basically, the idea was to demonstrate along the borders to draw the dangerous American maneuver forces, artillery and air support away from the mainly coastal cities in January before opening the initial attacks all across the country but largely in the two major cities of Saigon and Hue. Attacks would include most of the urban areas of South Vietnam and attacks on major allied bases. Giáp considered a major demonstration against the Marine base at Khe Sanh necessary in order to protect his supply lines and divert American attention.Giáp considered the strategic objective of Tet to be weakening or destroying the power base of South Vietnam through popular revolt fomented by military victory. There has been much speculation since 1968 about two "conspiracy theories" concerning "secret" Tet objectives, however, which I should discuss.

The first is whether Tet was intended to influence either the March primaries or the November presidential election in the U.S. The answer for this is simply no. Documents captured at the time and statements of the Vietnamese participants since make it clear that the political leadership in the DRVN had no idea how their attacks would be seen in the U.S. They were happy to exploit the resulting shock and dismay but had no way of anticipating or attempting to create it.The second is whether the entire operation was an elaborate maskirova designed to cover Hanoi's destruction of the power of the COSVN and northern domination of a post-war Vietnam. This, too, appears to be an urban legend.

The "militants" believed that Tet would lead them to power in the South, while the "moderates" and the remaining soft-liners were willing to go along, if also willing to accept less than total victory if it meant a break from aerial attack and an opportunity to open negotiations leading to a political takeover. (It's worth noting that two of the three primary American proponents of this notion are Norman Podhoretz and Harry Summers, both wrong about virtually everything else about Vietnam.)I suspect that both the "moderates" and pro-Soviet soft-liners wept few tears about the loss of Southern militant leadership during Tet. But the losses would also hurt the military operations of the PAVN, hardly a desirable result. So, sadly, another perfectly good conspiracy theory shot to hell.

Beginning in October the PAVN initiated a series of engagements that are known as the "Border Battles". In October a PAVN brigade attacked at Song Be and another attacked the Special Forces camp at Loc Ninh that resulted in a ten-day fight that gutted the PAVN regiment. Another attack centered around Dak To committed four regiments of the PAVN 1st Division against the U.S. 4th ID and 173rd Brigade, ARVN 42nd Infantry Regiment and an airborne battalion.After 22 days both the PAVN 1st and the US 4th Divisions were exhausted, and the 173rd was badly beaten up, and for what appeared to be no reason. The Wiki entry comments "MACV intelligence was confused by the possible motives of the North Vietnamese in prompting such large-scale actions in remote regions where U.S. firepower and aerial might could be applied indiscriminately. Tactically and strategically, these operations made no sense."

Perhaps the pinnacle of nonsense took place between 21 JAN 68 and the end of March at the old CIDG-MAC/SOG outpost of Khe Sanh in the Huong Hoa district of Quang Tri province, just a short drive down Route 9 from the Demilitarized Zone.The "siege" of Khe Sanh is really a topic in itself. Over a period of some two months between two and four PAVN divisions encircled, bombarded and assaulted the combat outpost. About 200 or so Marines died, perhaps 1,000 PAVN troopers...but the real significance of Khe Sanh was on the mind of the American commander. GEN Westmoreland considered defense of the post crucial to the point where a significant amount of U.S. combat power was shifted north into the I Corps AO; 50 U.S. maneuver battalions were there by the end of January, 1968. As Tet broke over Vietnam Westmoreland prepared (but didn't release) a statement reading "The enemy is attempting to confuse the issue …I suspect he is also trying to draw everyone's attention away form the greatest area of threat, the northern part of I Corps. Let me caution everyone not to be confused."The diversionary attacks had worked. Now it was time for the big dance to begin.

Probably the most repeatable rule of warfare is that no plan every survives contact with the enemy. The corollary should probably be that no plan ever survives contact with the soldiers tasked to carry it out. Tet was no exception. The "border battles", with their immense cost and apparently pointless objectives, should have had every intelligence agency in the South quivering with nervousness. One commander, LTG Fred Weyand of III Corps was suspicious of the weird PAVN/PLAF activities in his AO, which included Saigon. He requested reinforcements for the Capital District, and Westy ordered 15 U.S. battalions back to Saigon from the Cambodian border to increase the garrison to 27 maneuver battalions, a crucial move in the upcoming attacks.- On 28 January 11 Viet Cong cadres were captured in the city of Qui Nhon while in possession of two pre-recorded audio tapes appealing for a popular rising in the cities.

- on the night of 29/30 January Nha Trang, Ban Me Thuot, Kontum, Hoi An, Tuy Hoa, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Pleiku were all attacked. Supposedly this had something to do with a mistake or difference in the lunar calendar in the northern provinces. All the attacks included mortar or rocket prepping the (mainly) ARVN positions for simple mass PLAF main force ground assaults. Almost all of these attacks were wiped out with heavy PLAF losses by daylight.

A countrywide stand-to was still not ordered.
"At 03:00 on the morning of 31 January communist forces assailed Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Dinh in the Capital Military District; Quảng Trị (again), Huế, Quang Tin, Tam Kỳ, and Quảng Ngãi as well as U.S. bases at Phú Bài and Chu Lai in I Corps; Phan Thiết, Tuy Hòa, and U.S. installations at Bong Son and An Khê in II Corps; and Cần Thơ and Vinh Long in IV Corps. The following day, Biên Hòa, Long Thanh, Bình Dương in III Corps and Kien Hoa, Dinh Tuong, Go Cong, Kien Giang, Vinh Binh, Bến Tre, and Kien Tuong in IV Corps were assaulted. A total of approximately 84,000 communist troops participated in the attacks while thousands of others stood by to act as reinforcements or as blocking forces. Communist forces also mortared or rocketed every major allied airfield and attacked 64 district capitals and scores of smaller towns."
The Tet Offensive had begun and the entire nation of South Vietnam seemed to be aflame.

To tell the end at the beginning, Tet was a disaster for the PLAF. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 of the roughly 175,000 Viet Cong troops committed to the attacks in and around Saigon were killed, tens of thousands more wounded or captured. Of the 7,500 PAVN/PLAF involved in the fight for Hue between 2,000 and 5,000 were killed. More crucially, the VC infrastructure and covert organizations all over the South were crippled by the deaths and capture of key personnel. And not a single recorded case of popular uprising occurred. The COSVN, the Central Committee and the "militants" had been disastrously wrong.The two most desperate battles were in the Saigon area and Hue, and they serve to illustrate the course of the debacle...and the strange way that battlefield defeat became strategic victory for the communists. Let's look at them; first Saigon, then Hue.

The Engagements (Saigon and Huế):

Saigon: Of the 84,000 troops committed to the active assaults on 31 JAN, about 10 battalions of VC Local and Main Force soldiers were tasked six objectives in downtown Saigon: the new U.S. Embassy was perhaps the most visible and public.The others included a variety of military (ARVN GHQ at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Long Binh HQ for the RVN Navy) and civilian (Independence Palace, the National Radio Station) All of these were assigned to the C-10 Sapper Battalion recruited from Saigonese. Viet Cong Local Force battalions targeted the central police station, the Artillery Command and Armored Command headquarters, all at Go Vap. Biên Hòa Air Base and ARVN III Corps headquarters received 2 VC battalions, while Tan Son Nhut Air Base, northwest of Saigon was attacked by 3 battalions. Thirty-five battalions; PLAF and PAVN, were part of the Tet mission in Saigon.

In addition, the VC had thoroughly penetrated the RVN security in the capital. Officers, politicians, public figures and others in positions thought critical for the support of the government of the South were targets; their addresses and movements had been tracked down and hit teams were sent out in the last night of January to kill them and their families. Many of these people were killed - this part of the operation was quite successful.

The remainder were, for the most part, typical of the fate of the Tet attacks and attackers. Let's look at the attack on the U.S. Embassy for an example.Since 1968 U.S. Embassies have been attacked eight times (although of the eight half were in either Lima, during the Shining Path insurgency, or Beirut, during the civil war in Lebanon. The remaining five include the 1979 Tehran takeover, an attack in Karachi in 1979, a bombing in Kuwait in 1983 and the Al Qaeda bombings in Africa in 1998) but at the time the idea of an American embassy being attacked - even in a war zone where the U.S. was fighting on the side of the enemy of the attackers - was inconceivable to an American public whose war consisted of watching "Combat!" and "The Rat Patrol" and the nightly news.[I should add that I was an eleven-year-old then fascinated by the battle footage then aired on the news. To me the most fascinating part always came at the end of the Friday night NBC Nightly News - then called the "Huntley-Brinkley Report"

and my father's mainstay of world information - when the sound would go off and the screen would show just three visual cards; an American flag above the number of U.S. KIAs for that week (typically in the high two to low three figures), an RVN flag with a higher number (typically three figures) and finally the red/blue-with-the-gold-star DRVN flag with the highest number (never below three and usually a four-figure value). At eleven I couldn't understand why the enemy Reds didn't just give up...]

At any rate, it was 2:45am when the U.S. Embassy attacked by a 19-man sapper team. These guys entered though the undefended perimeter wall by blowing a hole through it with a simple satchel charge.The group must have taken some time getting through the hole - not a large one as you can see from the picture, giving the small USMC guard on night duty time to lock the chancery doors. The two military policemen pulling gate guard at the "night gate" - SP4 Charles L Daniel and PFC William E Sebast - died as well as a man could, doing their duty to the end. They locked the gate and managed to kill both the VC patrol leaders soon after the assault team got inside through the hole in the wall.This made all the difference; without their officers and despite having forty pounds of C-4 the assault team ran in aimless circles in the embassy grounds until 18 of the 19 were shot down. I should add that the efforts to relieve the embassy were fairly chaotic. Two MPs responding to Daniel and Sebast were killed, the rest of the Marine guard never did get inside the compound until after a large force of GIs from the 716th MP Battalion arrived, a platoon from the 101st tried to air assault onto the roof at 5am but was driven off by fire...finally the MPs and USMC guard force broke in and shot down the remaining VC.At 8am the Embassy was officially declared "secure"

Speaking of the evening news: here's a typical news broadcast of the fighting in Saigon and at the Embassy:

The Wiki entry for the Embassy building has a good summary of the night's fighting. The objective was purely symbolic, I should add - less than a dozen people were inside the chancery building when it was attacked. And the VC had horrific luck in battle. But for the U.S. public, the event was a real shock. Despite an army of 500,000 and three years of fighting the enemy we had been told was ready to surrender had managed to attack the very symbol of U.S. power in the capital city of our Vietnamese "ally".

The other Tet attacks this night met much the same fate as the Embassy assault; ARVN and U.S. forces, greatly assisted by their mobility and air support, brutally smashed the VC/PAVN attacks. Most of the assault forces and assaults were crushed by midday on the 31st. The exception was in the Chinese neighborhood of Cholon and around the Phu Tho racetrack, southwest of downtown Saigon.This area was razed in fierce fighting between several ARVN units until 7 MAR. Finally the area was declared a "free-fire" zone and the ARVN Rangers moved in, fighting from house to house until the last living thing had been killed.

Huế: Again, the PLAF/PAVN stormed into the city center in the dark morning hours of 31 JAN.In this case the main effort was to secure something called "The Citadel", a 19th Century walled fortress north of the Perfume River that served as HQ for the ARVN 1st Division and other city garrison troops. If the attackers had expected the "puppet" troops to fold they were highly mistaken. MG Truong's 1st ARVN Division fought hard, and the situation remained in flux for the first day. Most of the rest of the city fell to the attackers, however, who seem to have done some random butchery on people they didn't like - perhaps 500 to 2,000 people, including foreign civilians, priests, policemen, government officials and political enemies were confirmed killed or simple disappeared - while digging in to resist the inevitable counterattack.And this was inevitable. There was no "general uprising". The majority of the Vietnamese people kept their heads down, and the VC and NVA forces were now exposed in the cities to the merciless and overwhelming ARVN and U.S. firepower. The month-long fight to retake Huế was bloody for the Marine, U.S. Army and ARVN troops involved, but the outcome was foregone and the casualties inflicted on the northerners and their southern allies crippling.The Wiki entry sums things up succinctly: "Except at Huế and mopping-up operations in and around Saigon, the first surge of the offensive was over by the second week of February. The U.S. estimated that during the first phase (30 January – 8 April), approximately 45,000 communist soldiers were killed and an unknown number were wounded. For years this figure was held as excessive, but it was confirmed by Stanley Karnow in Hanoi in 1981. Westmoreland claimed that during the same period 32,000 communist troops were killed and another 5,800 captured. The South Vietnamese suffered 2,788 killed, 8,299 wounded, and 587 missing in action. U.S. and other allied forces suffered 1,536 killed, 7,764 wounded, and 11 missing."

The Outcome: Grand tactical U.S./ARVN victory.

The Impact: Tet was seen as a disaster of the first order for the COSVN by both the political leadership in the North and the U.S. leadership at MACV.

In 1969 a COSVN directive read: "Never again and under no circumstances are we going to risk our entire military force for just such an offensive. On the contrary, we should endeavor to preserve our military potential for future campaigns." More than 20,000 PLAF/PAVN troopers "rallied" to the Southern forces in 1969. Although the attacks on the cities had enabled the VC to gain control in much of the countryside the horrendous losses in Tet crippled many of the VC cadre and caused much of this gain to be lost as the U.S. moved away from the direct-action tactics of search-and-destroy and the big sweeps under the incoming MACV commander, GEN Abrams.

However, the effect of Tet on the political situation in both the South and the U.S. would prove decisive.

In the RVN the offensive was just another bad day for a "nation" that had had many of them. President Thiệu used the chaos and the resulting anger to consolidate his power.This, in turn, helped narrow the power base in Saigon. The RVNAF continued to train and fight in the mold of their American trainers and suppliers without anything like the economy and manufacturing base the U.S. Army and Air Force had. Although Thiệu was distrusting of the U.S. long-term commitment to his country he made no attempts to prepare for the day when his soldiers would have to fight alone.

In the U.S. the effect of the offensive was shocking. We were used to the idea that American arms and American causes were inevitable and inexorable. The seeming torrent of body bags, the stories of ARVN soldiers and Vietnamese policemen fleeing rather than fighting, the seeming pointlessness of the brutal fighting made American civilians skeptical of the war and more inclined to support an end, regardless of the outcome. Part of this was the direct effect of the Johnson Administration's decision to make the news from Vietnam all sunshine and lollipops. Part of this was the American public's determination to be fat, dumb and happy. But a huge part of this was the massive miscalculation on the part of the U.S. government, beginning with Eisenhower, of the strategic importance of Vietnam and the difference between a homegrown revolutionary and a world-wide Communist conspiracy.

On 18 February 1968 MACV posted the highest U.S. casualty figures for a single week during the entire war: 543 killed and 2,547 wounded. Mainly as the result of Tet (including the "mini-Tets" that followed in the spring and summer of '68), the Year of the Monkey went on to become the deadliest year of the war for the U.S. forces with 16,592 soldiers killed.For all the cautionary tropes of dominoes and Red Menaces most Americans saw no point in an endless war in southeast Asia. Worse, this war now seemed not to be ending, but intensifying. Tet didn't look like a failed gamble, but like a harbinger of worse to come - it was like a Battle of the Bulge without a Berlin to conquer. Shocked by reality after years of official lying, the U.S. public saw Vietnam now not as a domino that needed propping up but a bloody jungle road leading...nowhere.And so the U.S. public began voting not with its feet but with its children; visible draft-resistance, draft evasions and deferments skyrocketed. Johnson refused to run in 1968. The country spiraled down into disorder, and to Nixon. Tet had proved decisive, not in the way its planners had anticipated, but decisive all the same.

Touchline Tattles: Perhaps the most enduring image from Tet is this one: ARVN BG Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a VC prisoner.The circumstances are fairly twisted as is so much of the war in Vietnam. On 1 FEB 68 the victim, who may have been either one Nguyễn Văn Lém or a similar looking fellow named Le Cong Na, was caught in civilian clothes by Loan's unit. He may or may not have been part, or leading, a hit team targeting RVN police officers and their families. He may have been a VC propaganda or covert operations officer. Either way, he was handcuffed when Loan produced a revolver and used it to put a round through the VC prisoner's brain housing group.

The U.S. public had seen nothing appalling about the liquidation of civilians in the firestorms of Dresden or the incineration bombing of Tokyo and Kyoto, had seen no crime inherent in the starvation of native tribes or the incarceration of Filipinos in concentration camps. It surveyed without anguish the notion of "free-fire" zones in Vietnam, where anything moving was an enemy and would be killed.

But this image, and the others that symbolized the personalized horror of war, like this one,and this,brought home the ugly face of war to the U.S. public and it responded with a revulsion it had not shown before and has not since.

So in a sense, when General Loan raised his arm and squeezed his trigger, he helped shoot dead his own cause, his own country and his ally's concern for them both.

Pretty good shooting for a .38 caliber revolver.


Ael said...

While growing up in Canada, I recall being grateful that we had avoided getting into Vietnam.

Time has not changed that perception.

Thanks for a wonderful write-up Chief!

rangeragainstwar said...

Nice post.
You speak of the armed wing of the PLAF, but we never hear of the armed wing of AQ.Then as now we lump em all in a wad.
The VN war ,as per your art was a classic city slickers v. the poor country bumpkins-same as AFGH.
Since i'm more cynical than you-if thats possible-i buy into the theory that the NVA wanted to emasculate the NLF/VC to secure their firm takeover of the south.The southerners were less controllable and had different agendas.
The pic of Westy shows why we always loose these shootemups.Look at his clean demeanor and uniform. Check out the staff weinies with the briefcase standing with their thumbs upo their butts. You get the idea.
The Tet fighters would've done better to blow up the Caravelle Hotel where all the newsmen lived-forget the embassy.

FDChief said...

Ael: It speaks volumes for the stupidity of the American public that I was less than two years away from being drafted when the draft ended. I had no clue; I neither supported nor opposed the war, I had no plan to deal with my draft notice when it came.

I'll bet a lot of young guys who ended up getting off the plane at Tanh Se Nhut were there with all the informed consent of a man stuck on an escalator...

Jim: The thing I always marvel at when I read and write about Vietnam is how wrong so many "smart" people were. The press, the soldiers, the politicians...everyone running around being so clever, so cunning, all that strategizing and politicking...and so many of them got it wrong.

To be honest, the people I blame the most are Truman's and Eisenhower's foreign policy guys. They were so wrapped up in their domestic political fears of NOT wanting to be the next "Who lost China?" guys and their Commie Red Comintern fantasies to see that they probably could have worked a deal with Ho back in the 50's if they'd have dropped the fucking French imperial fantasy and told the goddam Frogs to had the keys to the Viets and grab a hat.

But Westy...yeah, putting a WW2 artilleryman in charge of a military assistance mission to a foreign guerilla civil war. Shrewd.

FDChief said...

Jim: Re: the "let's you and him fight" thing...I believe what I wrote in the post; I really don't think that the "soft-liners" and the moderates hoped that the hard-core southerners would get themselves killed. I think they hoped they'd win. But I suspect that Giap, at least, had a sneaking suspicion that Tet would go badly for the militants and given they way they'd rat-fucked him was perfectly OK with that. So while I don't think the northerners and the pro-Soviet clique intentionally set it up to kill off their enemies, I think that at least some of them had an idea of what was coming and were perfectly happy to look the other way whistling while the COSVN crowd ran into the buzzsaw.

Barry said...


"The Tet fighters would've done better to blow up the Caravelle Hotel where all the newsmen lived-forget the embassy."

Jim, please shove. If you'd like to get mad at some allegedly traitorous Americans, the people who actually ran things in the USA are much better to be mad at.

Part of the problem that the USA had with the Vietnam War was that the powers-that-be quite successfully offloaded their guilt on some guys running around in long hair and beads, which allowed those PTB to continue f*cking the country.

rangeragainstwar said...

I have NO HOSTILITY at all for the journalists living in the Caravelle or anyplace else.
I'm speaking as a observer.The payoff would've been just as great or greater AND the Cara was a much softer target.
It would,ve made a statement beyond the importance of the target.

FDChief said...

Jim: Thing is, the Reds had an unintentional source of propaganda in the international press. So by leaving the Caravelle standing and hitting the Embassy (along with all the other targets) they kept their lines of communication open to the outside world.

I don't think they knew this then, but the example stuck, and now look at us; every guerrilla, rebel, terror and criminal organization in the world knows that they can use the neutral press to get their message out. No need for spending millions on PAOs, television spots, ads, sending their talking heads on the Sunday mouse circus. Just make sure you blow something up where the foreign journos can see it.

And the problem is the journos are caught in a bind. If they report this stuff they come out looking like defeatists at best and traitors at worst to the hard right. If they don't - or they report only the military/administration's spin - you get what happened in '68; weeks, months and years of bullshit sunshine and lollipops and suddenly all hell breaks loose and everybody panics and freaks out.

I don't really have a good answer, as conducting an intelligent, patient and smart foreign policy would require a intelligent, smart and patient public and political class, and we don't seem to have one now, if we ever did.

rangeragainstwar said...

I roger, but my point is that by blowing up the Hotels this would point out that not only is the hinterland insecure ,but that the govt couldn't even secure foreign journalists.Let alone the population.
Interestingly the 68 Olympics Mexico City with the US athletes giving the black power salute which was published instantaneously world wide was the watershed event for terror groups realizing the full potential for the media exploitation.Hence 4 years later we saw Munich hostage taking etc...
This reenforces your point, but in 68 the NVA/NFL didn't know this at a conscious level. Maybe they did at some level. The battlefield shifted to the front page of a newspaper or TV news.They got the msg.
To my memory-here we go!The Caravelle was only about a mile or so from the US Embassy.There were clusters of hotels used by USAID etc.. in the area, to include the Continental Palace where a lot of foreign dignitaries hootched up on a regular basis.Many hotels right near these were dedicated to US military personnel, but i can't remember their names-maybe the Golden?The Peninsula?The President just down the road. All lucrative targets with gtd payoff-you know-high value targets.
My best guess is that the hotels were paying protection to the NLF and were collection points for intel provided by dumb ass GI's trying to get laid.
Anyway ,i'm blathering.

Pluto said...

Great article, Chief. Your emphasis on the fact that both sides had unrealistic expectations going into the battle is dead-on. Also accurate is that the locals (at least local to the region) had more staying power than the US soldier.

Wouldn't resemble any recent conflicts, would it?

FDChief said...

"My best guess is that the hotels were paying protection to the NLF and were collection points for intel provided by dumb ass GI's trying to get laid."

Not blathering at all - reminds us that one of the problems with history is that it loses a lot of the details in trying to neaten everything up for the history books.

Think about all the wheels within wheels going on that February; locals working for/against locals. locals working for/against the GIs, local cops working for/against local crooks, local crooks working for/against the VC, Americans working with the Southerners but also for their own objectives, Americans dealing on the local black market with the local the various spooks from all's like one of those Chinese puzzle balls.

And, yeah, writing this did make me think about the degree to which we don't really understand what we're doing in central Asia anymore than we did in the RVN.

rangeragainstwar said...

While eating at the Continental sometime in 1970 ,i used to sit at the outside tables to over watch my jeep,a VN national climbed a statue and hoisted the NFL/VC flag.
Nobody did anything until the White mice came and hauled him off.
This was in front of the national assembly.
What i'm trying to convey is that it was all rather a joke. My meal was rather nice, other than that.
War is swell.

FDChief said...

While heroically liberating the island paradise of Grenada I sat up on a hillside laid out on some C-rat cardboard reading a paperback novel and sunbathing my feet. Every once in a while I'd look down and watch the guys from my sister battalion play tag with a couple of dead-enders, shooting and grenading their way around the little houses.

Other than that it was a pretty nice day.

Wars - big or small - are wierd.

rangeragainstwar said...

Are wars weird, or rather is it that we are weird?
I find it very strange that this entry did not generate more play.