U.S. Combat Advisers in Vietnam Knew the Score and Got Ignored
American officers advising the South Vietnamese Army repeatedly warned Washington that the war was misguided. This, they quickly learned, was the fast track to career suicide.
While attending the Armed Forces Staff College in late 1964, just as the U.S. Army was gearing up to deploy its own combat forces to Vietnam, Col. Volney F. Warner attended a speech by the Marine commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene. Before he began his talk, Gen. Greene asked his audience of a hundred 100 majors and colonels a pointed question: “How many of you think that U.S. forces should be sent to fight in Vietnam and draw the line against communism there?”
Virtually everyone in the audience raised their hands enthusiastically. Then Greene, a decidedly hawkish member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked a second question: “How many think we should stay out of Vietnam?” Six officers raised their hands … hesitantly. Warner was among them.
“There are a few cowards in every bunch,” quipped the commandant.
But those six officers weren’t cowards. They were soldiers and Marines who had recently returned stateside from tours of duty as advisers to South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) combat units. They knew from firsthand experience what the senior leadership of the American armed forces did not: That the ARVN officer corps, like the government it served, was riven by nepotism, corruption, and indifferent to the plight of the peasantry it was supposed to protect. Moreover, the ARVN was fighting a decidedly unconventional, “people’s war” against small units of guerrillas with tactics and doctrine developed by the U.S. Army for conventional conflicts between regular armies. Not surprisingly, it was losing.
And finally, the advisers had come to understand, much to their dismay, that the top generals and admirals in Saigon and Washington clung tenaciously to this conventional way of war, despite paying lip service to the counterinsurgency training and doctrine that the war in Vietnam seemed to require. This, coupled with the fecklessness of the ARVN, did not bode well for American prospects in Southeast Asia.
In Vietnam, U.S. ground forces would be facing off against a superbly organized and highly motivated insurgency that enjoyed widespread support among South Vietnam’s 14 million peasants. The communist-led National Liberation Front in the South was largely an indigenous movement, but it was supplied with weapons and well-trained military and political warfare specialists from the People’s Army of Vietnam—the formal name for the North Vietnamese regular army.
The more Warner and the best of his fellow advisers learned about the political and social forces that fueled the civil war in South, the more skeptical they became about the efficacy of using conventionally trained American combat forces to defeat the insurgency in the South. Part of the problem was cultural. The commanding generals in the early ’60s in Vietnam—men such as John O’Daniel, Samuel T. Williams, Paul Harkins, and finally, William Westmoreland, had come of age as junior officers in World War II. To a man, they were deeply imbued with “victory disease” that blinded them to the extraordinary political and organizational strengths of their Vietnamese adversaries. Under no circumstances could they imagine how a largely guerrilla army with no air force or tanks could possibly defeat the ARVN, let alone the most technologically advanced army on the face of the planet.
Nor were these men, or the officers on their staffs in Saigon and Washington, intellectually curious about Hanoi’s politico-military strategy, despite its startling success against Vietnamese rivals, and the French. When field advisers like Warner filed negative after-action reports detailing the superior tactics and aggressiveness of communist troops, and the glaring deficiencies of the ARVN, their reports were routinely dismissed, and the advisers told to “get on the team.”
Advisers in the early ’60s who questioned the validity of the invariably sunny reports from the senior U.S. command in Vietnam to Washington about progress in the field were often given negative fitness evaluations and shunted off to career-ending billets. General Harkins, U.S. commander in Saigon from 1962 to 1964, was the most notorious purveyor of naïve optimism—and the least receptive to bad, i.e., candid, news. His command’s assessments, entitled “The Headway Reports,” seldom left any doubt about which way things were going.
“Very quickly,” writes David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, “his command became a special, almost unreal place, both isolated and insulated from reality … Rather than reflecting what was happening in the field, Harkins’ shop reflected his Washington orders, and the facts would be fitted to Washington’s hopes.” Intelligence reports were routinely doctored, and “the Vietcong capability was always downgraded and reduced.”
The senior leadership of the Army had gotten things wrong from the start in Vietnam. It had assumed the daunting task of organizing and training the ARVN in 1955. Viewing the nascent conflict with the communists in Southeast Asia through the distorting lens of the Cold War rather than on its own terms, the Army’s trainers organized the ARVN on the American model, as a nine-division force designed to repel a conventional invasion from North Vietnam, similar to the one the North Koreans had launched in June 1950 against pro-Western South Korea.
This was unfortunate, as Hanoi’s strategists in the late ’50s and early ’60s never for a minute contemplated such an invasion. Instead, the communists launched a well-conceived campaign to break down the legitimacy of the fledgling Saigon regime under Ngo Dinh Diem with propaganda, political subversion, and guerrilla warfare. This effort was spearheaded by 15,000 clandestine communist cadres left behind in the South after the French Indochina War, but it grew like wildfire in the countryside, where a shadow government under the direction of the National Liberation Front soon took hold. Diem, an authoritarian Catholic, repressed the Buddhist majority and rival political parties with an iron hand, driving many non-communist southerners into the arms of the NLF.
The ARVN’s senior officers were generally reluctant to engage their forces against the Vietcong for fear of taking casualties, and thus incurring the wrath of Diem for “losing face.” And so the dirty work of battling the insurgency fell very heavily on the ill-trained regional and local paramilitary forces, the Civil Guard and Village Self-Defense Corps. They were no match for the Vietcong; in fact, the paramilitary forces became a major source of weaponry for the communists, allowing the insurgency to expand in number and lethality rapidly throughout 1962 and 1963.
From the earliest days of his presidency, John Kennedy, himself a serious student of communist “wars of national liberation,” put pressure on the U.S. Army brass to alter its doctrine and training, and that of the ARVN, to what he called “a new type of war, new in its intentions, ancient in its origins—war by guerrillas, subversives, assassins, war by ambush instead of combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by erosion and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him … It requires a new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new kind of training.”
This appeal, say scholars Andrew Krepinevich and John Nagl—former Army officers both—was greeted with a singular lack of enthusiasm by the Army’s senior leadership, with the exception of a few outliers. Studies were prepared on counterinsurgency. British experts like Sir Robert Thompson, who had enjoyed success in running a counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya, were brought in and consulted. And the subject of counterinsurgency was inserted into the curriculum of military training schools. Yet even in infantry training, conventional warfare remained the key focus throughout the early ’60s.
In the end, the Army took the view that the lethality of conventional combat as waged by U.S. forces was such that no guerrilla force could long survive. A new Army manual in 1962, Operations Against Irregular Forces, asserted that “most tactics for counterinsurgency remain extensions of, or resemble, small unit tactics for a conventional battlefield.”
Trouble was—as the combat advisers soon learned—this was dead wrong. Most “tactics” in counterinsurgency concern patrolling to keep the guerrillas away from the populace, and implementing civic action programs designed to build confidence among the population in the government’s ability to respond to the people’s needs and concerns. Thus, military operations must be closely coordinated with political and social reforms in the countryside for a counterinsurgency campaign to work.
The most dedicated and perceptive advisers in Vietnam in the years before U.S. combat forces arrived in strength (1965) could see that the ARVN’s tactics—learned at the feet of its American trainers—were alienating the population they were meant to be winning over. They were too focused on killing guerrillas from afar with supporting arms, rather than providing security to the people. Col. Daniel Porter, an adviser operating in the Mekong Delta, pointed out to Gen. Harkins that the ARVN’s heavy reliance on bombardment of Vietcong strongholds invariably lost the element of surprise, and killed far too many civilians. “Only on rare occasions,” wrote Porter, “will commanders attempt to contain VC [units] which have been bottled up after nightfall.”
In effect, Porter argued in several after action reports, ARVN operations were alienating the population from the Saigon administration and pushing them into the open arms of the communists.
When pressed by reporters about the dire effects of heavy firepower on the peasantry in the villages, Gen. Paul Harkins would have none of it: “It really puts the fear of God into the Vietcong. And that is what counts.”
Col. Arthur Gregory, another field adviser in the critical Mekong Delta at that time, took issue with the commanding general, as did most field advisers with the courage to speak truth to power. He opined that most of the American advisers he knew felt that the war “was only 15 percent military and 85 percent political. It’s not just a matter of killing Vietcong, but of coupling security with the people’s welfare” in the countryside.
Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, widely considered one of the most effective and committed U.S. Army advisers in South Vietnam in the early ’60s, did not mince words with Harkins about the inadequacies of conventional American tactics, or the performance of the ARVN in the field. Vann was dismayed over the ARVN generals’ excessive reliance on artillery and air support; their enduring refusal to close with the enemy; and their lack of concern over civilian casualties.
Vann argued that America’s crusade in Vietnam was doomed unless the ARVN began to adopt the tactics and operational mode of their adversaries. The VC adhered to a strict code of conduct in their interactions with the villagers. They never stole from them; never molested women; they paid for whatever food they obtained. And they were masters of small-unit infantry tactics that the ARVN had long neglected and that were indispensable in fighting a “people’s war.”
On January 2, 1963, Vann participated in a battle around the Vietcong fortified village of Ap Bac, about 50 miles southwest of Saigon. At Ap Bac, 350 guerrillas armed only with machine guns and rifles went up against more than 2,000 ARVN troops and their American advisers. The ARVN attacked in armored personnel carriers (APCs) under an umbrella of air support, including napalm, as well as artillery. The VC stood their ground, pinning down several ARVN companies and blunted the initial attack.
ARVN commanders refused to mount follow-up infantry or APC assaults to rescue their wounded and dying comrades, despite Vann’s increasingly urgent pleas all the way up the ARVN chain of command to Saigon headquarters. When the VC began to withdraw from the village, the ARVN field commander refused to give chase, though he had ample assets to do so.
By battle’s end, five U.S. helicopters had been shot out of the sky. The ARVN suffered more than 200 casualties. Three Americans were killed. Several hours after the VC had escaped, a scheming ARVN general staged a fake assault, and claimed he had driven the enemy from the field. Artillery fire in the staged attack killed four of his own soldiers.
General Harkins, ever the purveyor of upbeat news, claimed Ap Bac was a victory because the Vietcong had been driven from the village. Vann knew better. “A miserable damn performance, just like it always is,” he fumed, within earshot of several American correspondents. Off the record, Vann would tell confidantes in the press corps what was wrong with the ARVN: Too many cowardly and incompetent men were given general’s stars because of loyalty to Diem rather than military ability. Most units were inadequately trained before going on operations. Listlessness was endemic among the enlisted men, and desertion rates perilously high.
The battle of Ap Bac, opines Neil Sheehan—who was covering the battle for the United Press International, and later wrote a brilliant book about Vann in Vietnam called A Bright Shining Lie—compelled this driven American adviser to launch a crusade “to convince the military and political leadership in Washington that the only way the United States could avoid being beaten in Vietnam was to drastically change strategy … Vann saw the elements of this catastrophe with more clarity than anyone else in Vietnam at the time, and he was determined to do everything he could to prevent it.”
Thanks to Vann’s sterling reputation and contacts, he was ultimately able to secure a hearing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington about what needed to change if the United States and South Vietnam were to prevail in Vietnam. A couple of hours before he was scheduled to give his briefing, General Maxwell Taylor, chairmen of the JCS, nixed the presentation when he was informed of its substance. He didn’t want bad news on the record.
History, of course, is very much on the side of Vann, Porter, Warner, and the other advisers who risked their careers by speaking and writing candidly about the real dynamics of the Vietnam War. By early 1965 the Vietcong were on the verge of overthrowing the regime in Saigon, and had gained control over two thirds of the population in the countryside.
Lyndon Johnson and his senior policymakers believed they had no choice but to send American combat units to South Vietnam to prevent the collapse of the Saigon regime. Vietnam had become, in their eyes at least, a test case of American resolve to stand firm against communist “wars of national liberation.”
But the seeds of disaster had been laid before the first American troops hit the beach at Danang in March 1965.
The U.S. military’s searing experience in Vietnam did, of course, prompt a great deal of soul searching within the services about the way they had conducted business, and about the dangers of manipulating—or ignoring—candid reporting from its soldiers on the ground. Since the fall of Saigon, all the services have placed much more emphasis on collecting uncorrupted information from the field, and incorporating lessons learned there into training and doctrine. And there is a widespread awareness from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down through the ranks that the skills and tactics required to fight insurgencies and other “asymmetrical conflicts” are vastly different than those required for conventional war.
Whether the U.S. military packs the gear to win “political wars” remains a much-debated question.