10 August 2007

The Failed Strategy Of 1967

When the Marines landed in Vietnam, they had a plan. In fact, by past experiences, they had developed an entire book on guerilla warfare and pacification of the population. The Marine Corps leadership wanted to establish permanent positions around the densely populated coastal areas: Da Nang, Phu Bi, etc. Having established these areas to provide safe havens for the local population, these areas would gradually be expanded to increase the Marine's area of influence with the local population. By furnishing security and all types of aid to the locals, they could be won over.

There were other reasons for using this strategy. First, it denied access to the local population by the VC. They could not get supplies from these areas, influence the locals with their doctrines, or recruit new members into their ranks. Secondly,the VC or NVA sitting in camps in the mountains were rendered ineffective as a fighting force unless they wanted to attack our well established fortified positions. To make them come to us and fight on our terms, a situation in which they could not win.

Sounds good, so what happened? Enter Gen. Westmoreland. Now, Gen. Westmoreland, the supreme commander of all US forces in Vietnam, had different ideas. Army doctrine was developed during the Cold War and was designed to fight the Soviets in Europe in large scale battles.

The Marine Corps command resisted as far as they could go, but eventually had to adopt Westmoreland's strategy for fighting the VC and NVA in Vietnam. After all, the Army had one page in its manual on guerilla warfare.

The problem for Gen. Westmoreland was, how to draw the NVA out into large scale battles in the area near the DMZ. The tactic of roving battalions was his answer. The roving battalions became the bait to draw the NVA out into the large scale battles that Westmoreland wanted. Once engaged, the NVA could be destroyed by our superior supporting arms: planes, helicopters, tanks, artillery, etc. Gen. Westmoreland believed that if we could kill enough NVA the North Vietnamese would eventually quit. This is known as a war of attrition. This tactic might very well have worked near the DMZ, except for the fact that in early 1967 we allowed the NVA to start using the DMZ as a sanctuary from which to attack us. Once the NVA had artillery: rockets, mortars, and men in the DMZ, everything within a 20 mile arch became a sitting duck. That's why time spent near the DMZ was known as "time in the barrel", as in shooting ducks in a barrel.

By a strange coincidence, a war of attrition was exactly what Gen. Giap, the North Vietnamese commander wanted. He didn't care how many men he lost as long as he could bleed us. Sort of a slow death by a thousand cuts. It was the way he defeated the French and he believed it would work against the Americans. When President Johnson allowed the NVA to use the DMZ while it was off limits to the Marines, he played right into Gen. Giaps hands. The perceived advantage of U.S. supporting arms was negated as soon as the NVA was allowed the use of the DMZ.

Other factors worked against us as well. The weather, especially in the rainy season, kept our aircraft grounded. Tanks and other armoured vehicles could not traverse the terrain. The element of surprise was also on the NVA's side as they had us outnumbered and could choose when and where to make their fight. The area of responsibility of the Marines was too large for us to commit the needed manpower to the DMZ. Add to that the fact that we used a rifle that jammed all the time and could not be depended on and it's a wonder we could hold the line at all.

This is also why we followed unit after unit, fighting, bleeding, and dying over the same ground time after time. In the overall scheme of things it didn't matter as long as we killed more of them than they did of us.

This whole strategy was exposed for the failure that it was when Gen. Ray Davis took charge in early 1968. Bases were closed and moved back beyond the range of the nva's guns and no longer would infantry (roving battalions)
protect fixed installations. Under new leadership and fighting as a true mobile force, five NVA Divisions were destroyed in four months and North Vietnam was asking for a cease-fire.

None of what I have said should be taken as a failure of the men doing the fighting in the "barrel" to do their job. To the contrary, we were never defeated,even though fighting under almost impossible conditions. Anyone who ever spent time in the barrel can be proud of the job they did and the men they served with.

Semper Fi,
Bill Sellers
Golf 2/4 67-68

1 comment:

Doug Todd said...

We seem always to be taking the strategies of a previous war into any new engagement. So far it seems to always fail.

Much of the trouble was micro-management from Washington.

This piece is well thought out and very well presented! Thanks!