Small Wars Journal

Postscript: Lessons from a Field Adviser’s Perspective

Mon, 11/02/2015 - 8:30pm

Postscript: Lessons from a Field Advisor’s[i] Perspective

Michael Hauben

Map of III Corps Tactical Zone (Third Military Region), Vietnam

Source of map: US Army Center of Military History, American Military History, Volume II, Chapter 10, p.311 (Map 13). The map shows the provinces, the enemy redoubts War Zones C and D and the Iron Triangle (the latter within the Saigon outer defensive arc), the anchors of the Saigon Defensive Arc, Tay Ninh in the West and Xuan Loc in the East, and the main highways radiating out of the Saigon-Bien Hoa population hub. These “spokes” of the wheel, along which most of the population was clustered under GVN control that are shown on this map are Highways: 4 (southward to the Mekong Delta), 1 (northwestward to merge with Highway 22 to Tay Ninh City), 13 (north), and 1 (northeastward to Bien Hoa and thence east toward the central coast of Vietnam). The eastern anchor of the defensive arc, Xuan Loc, which ARVN valiantly defended in April 1975, lay on this route. Not shown is Highway 5 leading south from Saigon toward Go Cong in the northeastern Delta. Highway 15 (shown) connecting Bien Hoa and Vung Tau to the southeast was not a major population locus, for reasons of terrain cum security. The road passed over higher terrain than was suitable for rice production, and thus traversed rubber plantations which provided cover for the enemy. And, in southern Long Thanh District of Bien Hoa Province, near the Phuoc Tuy Province line, encroaching nearly to this road on the east, were the forested hills of Base Area 303, perennial home to at least one battalion of the 274th Regiment of the PAVN 5th Division.

Introduction: Context

This set of conclusions is the result of retrospective analysis of my on-the-ground observations, anecdotal, to be sure, in Vietnam‘s Military Region III (MR-III—the belt of provinces around the latitude of Saigon, from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border) 1971-75. The paper distills field experience, as seen through the lens of exposure to seasoned counterinsurgency (COIN) practitioners and the literature during training under Department of State auspices in preparation for Vietnam,[ii] the conclusions derived from the field experience refined and tested by subsequent research. In the latter, over the years, I have used the growing body of literature to sharpen the conceptual framework of the principles governing COIN I had learned; and to confirm or refute the validity and wider applicability of my anecdotally based findings, and better define their context.

Two closely linked, overarching conclusions emerge, which appear repeatedly in the paper as constant threads. First, of the array of recognized principles governing warfare between insurgent and counterinsurgent, the Vietnam case demonstrated the primary relevance of one, rather specific in detail; particularly as applied to expeditionary COIN, it suggests its own remedy: The collaboration of the populace is determined less by its sympathies than by the longstanding presence, close at hand, of a heavily armed force, with unmistakable signs of staying power and a demonstrated readiness to use violence to exert control. Beyond any immediate intimidation, the effect on the populace of a sufficiently overwhelming display of such force cum assurance of permanence will be to instill the conviction of inevitability of ultimate victory. Second, the presence of in-country, enemy sanctuaries will not allow the government’s counterinsurgency enterprise to succeed. The narrative focuses heavily on these base areas. Their peripheries were the loci of the relationship I have noted between the populace and the armed presence which determined its behavior. They were causal, as well, to rendering the defense of the Region untenable, by imposing an unsustainable territorial security requirement on the populated zones, in this Region, essentially narrow strips along major roads with flanks exposed to assault. The armed forces of the Republic would face the insoluble conundrum of defending these populated zones while also staving off the North Vietnamese divisions straddling the porous border and maintaining a strategic reserve.   

The aforementioned two conclusions imply that a response to insurgency weighted toward elimination of the enemy’s combat units offers the best prospect to protect the populace [see “The Paradigm 1971-75” below], and tactically, mean a likely reliance on troop-intensive attrition.

More broadly, even a failed enterprise calls for a correct diagnosis of the causes for failure, lest erroneous lessons be drawn and the same errors repeated. An example of misdiagnosis fashionable over the years has been attributing failure to the strategically mistaken alignment of the US against that irresistible force, an ingrained, strident nationalism. Yet research and personal experience found such chauvinism remarkably lacking among the Southern (i.e., of the Mekong Delta and adjacent MR-III) people, who were obligated to adopt this sentiment only through force-feeding by Communist cadre. [see “Re: Nationalism and the Ethnic Dimension” below].[iii]

Hence, the central proposition: that defeat was not the fulfillment of historical necessity, but the result of accumulated, ill-advised choices, American and Vietnamese. Its implacability notwithstanding, Northern irredentism repelled; armed force was the determinant, though assisted by the Republic’s internal contradictions as well as the Party’s successful manipulation of a dwindling number from among the most marginalized.

Among actual causes manifest in MR-III, those ascribed to flagging US commitment at various critical times include, inter alia, acquiescence in the persistence of the fatal geographic handicaps, the in-country enemy base areas as well as cross-border sanctuaries; while an unforgivable failure of the political will to enforce its own laws cast the top echelon of Government of Vietnam (GVN: South Vietnam) leadership as reluctant rulers and called resolve into question [see “Re: Legitimacy” below]. If there was cause for the government’s legitimacy to be called into question, this was it. Beside this, GVN’s most damaging failing in my presumptuous judgement, its other, more widely acknowledged faults pale.

The Lessons

From Attrition to the Ties that Bind--Conscription of Young Males into Territorial Forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Converted Rural Families into Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) Dependents, Thereby Solidifying Loyalty:[iv]

By mid-1970, the US and GVN had all but won in MR-III. The enemy units were decimated and the three People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN: North Vietnam Army) divisions threatening the Region, the 5th, 7th and 9th, had been pushed well into Cambodia. (We had not, however, eradicated the in-country base areas, a failing that would ultimately prove deadly to GVN.) The grinding attrition by US kinetic activity 1967-1969 had done more than decimate the enemy units, thereby, as a practical matter, removing enlistment in VC combat units as an alternative for young men with a disposition toward violence. The traumatic losses through attrition that affected so many families directly also brought home to the rural populace (for a while) that the Revolution had lost, thus creating a psychological vacuum parallel to the physical one of absence of sizable enemy units. Besides, a great many rural families now found themselves permanently relocated--urbanized, or at least, removed to firmly friendly-controlled areas where their movements were subject to surveillance. Thus the unthinkable for many families, abandoning the Revolution and donning a GVN uniform, now seemed inevitable. The final identity shift was effected by tying rural families, including some who had previously supported the VC, to ARVN and Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/PF), through universal male conscription (initiated 1968), now unhampered by the presence of large enemy units; thereby making the families of the conscripts permanent military dependents. (RF were mobile forces organized in companies that regularly operated together in battalions, commanded by the Province Chief, concurrently Sector Commander. PF, under actual command of the District Chief though nominally under the Village Chief, were responsible for static defense of the hamlets and limited patrolling. Thus, RF/PF were the elements mainly responsible for territorial security—essentially, defense of the populated areas.) The ensuing identification of the new dependent families with the armed forces of the Republic was a bond not only of shared fate/survival, comradeship, and membership in a privileged community; but also of life-sustaining benefits--entitlements dispensed to dependents, who accompanied their military relatives wherever they were stationed. Soldiers and their families thus found themselves comfortably enmeshed in a net of dependence and belonging that bound them to GVN. Conscription, because it bestowed military dependent status wholesale, was by far the most effective of the “pacification” measures in cementing the gains made by attrition and relocation and ensuring there would not be yet another shift in loyalty back to the Party. In comparison, the impact of attempts to buy loyalty, as through Village Self Development projects and even land reform, may be judged de minimis. The sustainability of this link to GVN would be sorely tested when, by 1971, unilateral US troop withdrawal allowed resuscitation and the accelerated re-infiltration of the enemy base areas, with PAVN offensives ensuing. Yet the ties withstood this change in momentum and even the ultimate shift in the balance of forces in favor of the enemy.[v]

The literature, at best, mentions the phenomenon only in passing. The enemy, in contrast, recognized the implications of having numerically significant ARVN and RF/PF families, therefore hostile to PAVN and the Revolution, dispersed throughout the rural population.[vi]

Most significantly, counterinsurgent success was shown to be achievable even with highly flawed implementation of resource controls and neutralization of the enemy political infrastructure, the latter attempted through a generally failed Operation Phoenix, two elements deemed essential to then-state of the art COIN. Thus, Vietnam may have demonstrated the viability, in a “hybrid warfare” case of main force-capable insurgency, of a revised trinity of critical COIN elements, viz., relocation, attrition, and mass conscription for self-defense.

The Paradigm 1971-75: In-Country Base Areas are Centers for Extension of PAVN Influence Over Nearby Rural Communities: The “paradigm” defined the relationship between the enemy and the rural populace in MR-III. The PAVN unit sheltered in a traditional, terrain-determined base area was the primary driver of the behavior of the populace in the surrounding communities.

Beginning early 1971, the bases, which had been severely degraded by US kinetic activity, were resuscitated and re-infiltrated by PAVN, and units in the bases reconstituted with PAVN fillers, essentially pari passu with the unilateral withdrawal of US forces.[vii] ARVN proved demonstrably incapable of maintaining the necessary level of pressure on these base areas to foreclose their revival. (ARVN III-Corps forces had their hands full keeping PAVN at bay in adjacent Kampong Cham Province, Cambodia, while at the same time providing territorial security for the population concentrations, which displayed a peculiar geographic configuration in strips encasing the main highways. For a discussion of the consequences of this arrangement, see “The Geography of the Populated Zones Imposes a Permanent Territorial Security Requirement” below). Typically, the affected communities in close proximity to the base areas were hamlets that were in or abutted challenging terrain--jungle or swamp--which, because it afforded cover, had originally determined the long-standing locations of the in-country bases, mini-bases and infiltration routes. Such a community would exist in the shadow of the PAVN unit, often of battalion strength, that occupied the base in the adjacent jungle. Influence would radiate from the base to such surrounding communities in the enemy’s version of the spreading “oil spots.” Within the hamlet, residual Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI: the Communist Party’s clandestine network of political cadre) cadre, often relatives of VC combatants, would terrorize their neighbors into obedience because of their ability to call upon “muscle” provided by the PAVN unit. I have called such communities “outliers” because, isolated to some degree, they lay outside the relatively heavily populated, GVN controlled strips.[viii] Often these were “Return to Village” (RTV) sites—communities that had been relocated to the GVN-controlled zone in the first place years earlier because they had been controlled by the VC. Now that security was deemed to have improved, the inhabitants were allowed to return, with a modest government stipend, to their original location, to find that the situation that obtained in their surroundings had changed only superficially. An example of such an outlier under pressure was the southernmost village in Long Thanh District of Bien Hoa Province, near the border with Phuoc Tuy Province, which perhaps deserves to be cited as the “type” locale for the syndrome. This community was at the foot of the jungle-covered hills of Base Area 303, home to a battalion of  the PAVN 5th Division’s renowned 274th Regiment. Within the village, five families of VC combatants lorded it over their neighbors. Village police were in a state of paralysis and would crowd around the visiting US Province Representative’s vehicle begging that he use his influence to get them transferred before they got killed.[ix]

I found economic status, i.e., the poverty/lack of security nexus, to be a less than reliable indicator of the status of security/control, compared to base area proximity and the geographic isolation with which it was often associated. An example where longstanding geographic proximity to a base area may actually have contributed to prosperity was the southwestern panhandle of Tay Ninh Province, squeezed between Hau Nghia Province and Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province. Here, rice producing, rural, relatively isolated, “outlier” hamlets, with PF ostentatiously visible guarding the many culverts on the single, narrow but asphalted access road, displayed numerous overt signs of prosperity, e.g., a proliferation of new, stucco houses, pickup trucks and power tillers, their prosperity enhanced by supplying rice, at above the market price, to PAVN Base Area 713, which loomed just across the border.[x]

The Geography of the Populated Zones Imposes a Permanent Territorial Security Requirement: A problem grounded in failure to eradicate the in-country, enemy base areas; and holding on to population concentrations at the expense of sacrificing territory, surrendering depth (a population-centric COIN reductio ad absurdum).

In January 1971, the legendary John Vann, “adviser exemplar,” who was on a TDY assignment to Washington DC had occasion to address overlapping classes at the CORDS (Civil Operations Rural Development Support; the US advisory effort supporting GVN COIN) Vietnam Training Center in Virginia, which I was then attending. In a moment in the presentation that was, at once, as candid and insightful as it seemed self-congratulatory, Vann stated with certitude that the degree of “pacification” that had been achieved in MR-III by the time Vann completed his tenure as head of CORDS in the Region, was the most that could possibly be achieved anywhere in the country. Later that year, shortly after I arrived in Vietnam, I found myself in an Air America Pilatus Porter aircraft en route from Saigon to my assignment in Tay Ninh, a province bordering Cambodia, some 60 miles to the northwest. Our overflight revealed population clusters along Highways 1 and 22, with lands largely void of settlements outside the populated strip along the highways. The emptiness was most dramatic in the vast, lunar landscape pockmarked by bomb craters that stretched along the northeast. The overflight first brought home to me the chilling conclusion that “maximum possible pacification” meant that population control (which required concentrating the population in friendly-held areas) had been bought at the expense of ceding control of the lion’s share of the territory. Thus, in MR-III, the geographic configuration of the GVN-held zones, in which the bulk of the population resided, made the maintenance of territorial security in perpetuity a necessary, troop-intensive imperative. This was irrespective of the degree of loyalty of the populace or motivation of the security forces. The fact that these zones were principally elongated strips, without any depth to speak of, encasing the main, land lines of communication (LOCs) meant that both flanks of each such strip were constantly exposed to the prospect of enemy assault from the abandoned lands between the strips, which localized enemy base areas and mini-bases. 

As the major LOCs converged on Saigon akin to the spokes of a wheel, so did the sparsely populated lands between them extend to the edges of the Capital Special Zone. There, swamplands in the floodplains of two major rivers provided natural cover for launch-pads for indirect fire and raids into the urban area (the latter, beginning late 1974, preparing the ground for an offensive) emanating from the terrain-determined “outlier” communities even at Saigon’s doorstep.[xi] This was, after all, the terminus of the Saigon River Corridor Infiltration Route.

During the reversion to protracted warfare from 1969, a severely degraded PAVN, impelled by the fundamental need to maintain at least some degree of momentum to halt further erosion of morale and support from an already dwindled population base, embarked upon an aggressive, special operations, raiding strategy that maximized the use of highly trained “sapper” commandos, who would sally forth from such base area launchpads so critical to this strategy, to wreak havoc “inside the wire” of carefully selected RVNAF and US military facilities.[xii] (PAVN punctuated this phase of small but frequent, lethal sapper raids with periodic frontal assaults on multiple targets, “high points” in which it would incur heavy casualties. Emerging from and dissolving back into the abandoned lands outside the populated zones, it did not have far to go. It thereby succeeded in convincing a war weary populace that it would never cease fighting, no matter how high the cost, and in demonstrating that, even in its weakened state, it possessed  the ability to inflict serious damage.)[xiii]

The general case of the outliers, communities that existed outside the populated strips, posed a special challenge. Often isolated by difficult terrain, e.g., swampland or jungle, adjacent to enemy base areas or astride infiltration routes (as were the aforementioned outliers at the terminus of the Saigon River Corridor Infiltration Route), such communities were marked by the threat of imminent, targeted violence to intimidate the populace; accommodation was rife and GVN control tenuous, sometimes limited to daylight hours.

The conundrum of facing a daunting territorial security requirement while at the same time maintaining a strategic reserve sufficient to counter PAVN advances on Saigon’s wide security perimeter rendered ARVN’s position in MR-III untenable. (The overlay of the calamitous 1974 reduction in US logistic support was, of course, the final nail in the coffin.) But as the elongated shape of the populated zones was problematic in-so-far-as the abandoned lands between these zones included  long-established, resuscitated base areas sheltering PAVN units, the remedy that suggests itself would have been the elimination of the PAVN units, inseparable from eradication of the base areas; a mission unfortunately beyond the capacity of ARVN if undertaken on a necessarily Region-wide basis.[xiv]

Re: Legitimacy:

Legitimacy ceases to be a meaningful issue in the absence of a credible alternative that is widely viewed as more legitimate than the governing entity. During the years of my tenure, 1971-75, one would have been hard put to find anyone among the Southern populace who accepted the legitimacy of Northern irredentist claims to the South, outside the narrow coterie of well-indoctrinated Party cadre (who, anyway, did not rely on this as a recruitment pitch—see “Re: Nationalism and the Ethnic Dimension” below). Furthermore, in a world in which loyalties shift toward whomever appears to be winning and in control, the importance of the concept of legitimacy in its current, western sense, necessarily slips a notch. I.e., the winner is ipso facto legitimate.[xv] Taking the argument one step further, in such a world where control impresses, the perception of legitimacy is underwritten by the winning side’s exercise of coercive authority to impose its laws over the people it now controls—an imposition of authority possible only because the winning side has succeeded militarily in ousting the competing exerciser of coercion.[xvi] The same principle of the primacy of victory accords priority to the destruction of the enemy combat units.

Widely respected military historian and strategic thinker Colin Gray has defined legitimacy in the COIN context as derived, in part, from public confidence that the government will prevail in the end; thus, resolve would be a prominent indicator.[xvii] Sadly, in regard to these intertwined issues of resolve and the political will to exercise coercive authority, GVN’s diffident reluctance, if not outright disinterest, in exercising its authority to enforce its own laws pertinent to the imposition of law and order fostered the perception of abdication of leadership by reluctant rulers lacking seriousness of intent as well as resolve. Such a perception inevitably eats away at legitimacy in the sense that it raises the question in the public consciousness, “What right do such reluctant rulers have to the reins of power?” This was deeply disquieting to a populace that viewed the prospect of a DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam—North Vietnam) takeover with profound fear and revulsion, yet realized that they were stuck with a leadership that inspired more ridicule than awe. And while the competing legitimacy of DRV rule was popularly rejected, questions relative to the regime’s resolve inevitably served to reenforce an already palpable war weariness.

Examples of the failure to enforce included a seeming blind eye to rampant crime, ranging from a 1973 car theft epidemic to heroin distribution in the Saigon area; consistent refusal to evict squatter invasions that had become commonplace in rural areas in 1973-74; an apparent free hand to anti-government agitators and demonstrators in the Capital Special Zone (greater Saigon) during 1974; and most egregiously, a capture and release policy toward VCI, which explains why, despite some capacity for identifying VCI cadre, the stated, neutralization of VCI objective of Phoenix and its successor from 1972, Protection of the People Against Terrorism (POPAT), run by National Police Special Branch, was largely unattainable. This syndrome had obvious ties to the issues of accommodation of the enemy and corruption, but was often simply a matter of attempting to placate some perceived constituency. The apparent irresolution that manifested itself in such selective abandonment of enforcing the state’s writ and wide-ranging removal of restraints on lawlessness, eclipsed, by far, other possible impingements on legitimacy, such as the stain of dependence upon a foreign power. That this was probably GVN’s single most damaging systemic failing was a concern shared by so many of the CORDS field advisers I knew then. In response, while it existed, CORDS strove mightily to infuse needed backbone—our role, after all—but the drawdown of US combat forces did not encourage steadfastness. The apparent irresolution of GVN was in stark contrast to the Communists, still grudgingly admired for their ruthlessness at a time when their message no longer inspired.[xviii]

Reflections on US Misapprehensions Re: Nationalism and the Ethnic Dimension:

From the outset, the US was obsessively concerned with projecting a stridently anti-colonialist image that it assumed would, by drawing distinctions between Americans and the French and pointing to a shared anti-colonial heritage, resonate with the South Vietnamese masses. On the other hand, it remained consistently ignorant of the depth of the Southern ethnic consciousness—and contemptuous distaste for North and Central Vietnamese, considered alien ethnic groups—in the ethos of the Southern (i.e., Deltaic) people. Consequently, the US early-on decided to oppose leadership by the Southern elite because they were so patently Francophile, and threw their support behind Diem, an ethnic Central Vietnamese with strong nationalist credentials but a Northern Catholic power base and constituency. (This constituency, far from representing a Northern elite, were for the most part impoverished peasants, many from the autonomous Catholic bishoprics, who had accepted evacuation to the South as refugees on the orders of their clergy when the country was divided in 1954. There, they were the beneficiaries of a veritable Diem  affirmative action revolution, which meted out favoritism that aroused the resentment of many Southerners of all classes.) But, as Race pointed out in his classic, War Comes to Long An, it was definitely not nationalism that motivated the Southern peasantry[xix] (whom I found so remarkably void of chauvinism in the modern, nationalist sense), to whom colonialism was a distant irrelevancy, to first take up arms at the behest of the Party. Most had never even laid eyes on a Frenchman, anyway. And later, when the battle was joined against the American enemy, neither anti-imperialist nationalism nor “reunification” with the North struck a chord with Southerners, who had other reasons for fighting.[xx] Deep-seated Southern regionalism, which well preceded the French colonialism that used this sentiment to its advantage, both generated animosity against Northern (Catholic) officials of the Diem regime (at time when Party cadre were locals), and inforced the post-Tet backlash against PAVN. Yet the obvious overrepresentation of ethnic Northerners in the civil service and officer corps of the Thieu government precluded the GVN from using ethnic passion as the basis for its appeals to the populace to resist North Vietnamese aggression. But given the depth of feeling that defined Northerners as unwelcome outsiders, it is inconceivable that PAVN’s ethnicity did not of itself motivate Southerners to reject outright the prospect of rule by the DRV. (As for the population segment of Northern Catholic origin, expected to remain loyal to GVN because of their 1954 flight south as refugees from Communism, certainly by 1974, anti-war Communist propaganda was gaining a ready audience in the teeming, North Vietnamese Catholic, urban slums of Saigon-Bien Hoa, now hard hit by a faltering economy, reflecting a noticeable erosion of the inhabitants’ commitment.)

The Perception that the US Commitment was Coming to an End Did Not Encourage Reform or Foster More Aggressive Pursuit of the Enemy; the Resulting Erosion of Morale Had Debilitating Consequences: The widely-held, American belief that host country backbone will be stiffened by the assurance that the US commitment is not open ended and by the certitude of US withdrawal, absent the removal of the enemy threat, is a myth. This is a lesson with potentially generic applicability.

Corruption, in fact, increased dramatically as it became apparent that the regime would not exist much longer. By 1974, officers and government officials seemed, in unison, to be seized with the compulsion to amass as much wealth as possible to sustain a life in exile after the imminent fall.[xxi] Commanders readily drew the pay of  “ghost soldiers,” whose numbers falsely inflated troop strengths of the perennially, sometimes perilously, under-strength units. The entrenched ill of deal making with the enemy did not diminish; it proliferated with the increasing hopelessness engendered by the certitude of US abandonment. The “revolving door” policy for apprehended VCI did not inspire confidence in the government’s future. Also contributing to the mood of breakdown of law and order, a Communist agit-prop (agitation-propaganda) op that fomented highly visible, anti-government demonstrations in the name of the Catholic “People’s Anti-Corruption Movement” in the North Vietnamese Catholic slums fringing Saigon throughout 1974, proceeded unhampered, the organizers immune from arrest[xxii]. Other examples abound: Resuscitation of the enemy base areas meant more accommodation, and opened new opportunities for peasants in the “outliers” to sell rice and POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) to PAVN at above market prices. A persistent phenomenon in Tay Ninh Province was the long line of villagers on foot or on bicycles carrying jerry cans of POL for sale to PAVN, stretching the length of the road through insecure jungle to the transfer point, the Phuoc Tan Market on the Cambodian border. An upscale version of trade with the enemy, referred to as the shadow supply system, involving convoys of 25th ARVN Division “deuce-and-a-half “ trucks with supplies for delivery to PAVN rolling across Tay Ninh Province to Cambodia, with profits kicked up to the very highest levels of the government, flourished during the 1972 Easter Offensive. Promptly, by April 1972, this yielded a slew of sightings in Phuoc Ninh District, western Tay Ninh, of PAVN soldiers in spanking new ARVN uniforms, a commodity that figured heavily in this trade. Our Province Senior Adviser of the Tay Ninh CORDS team, an Army colonel, was livid, as might be expected, but the US, in disengagement mode, was in no position to apply behavior-altering leverage. (Ostensibly, GVN got a quid pro quo for tolerating the shadow supply system: Communist abstention from acts of terrorism in Saigon.) In general, the by now, habitual reluctance to enforce noted in “Legitimacy" above, as well as the extortionist aspect of corruption were amplified, their impact far overshadowing the marginal benefit of the removal of the tarnish of foreign (US) domination.

As early as 1972, it was difficult to find any intelligent, educated Vietnamese who did not believe that the Republic would cease to exist within two or three years. Our Vietnamese counterparts in Tay Ninh, the provincial officials then completing the province’s Four Year Pacification and Development Plan, were not loath to comment that the exercise was a waste of time because, “as everyone knows,” the country would not last till the plan’s out years. Within a couple of weeks after the signing of the January 1973 Ceasefire Agreement, I paid my introductory visit to the Commanding General of a III-Corps ARVN Division which would perform with unquestionable valor in April 1975, holding its ground under his incredible leadership until it was wiped out by attrition. I found him distraught in the knowledge that the 1972 Offensive, which had yielded PAVN significant, permanent territorial gains, presaged far worse to come. He told the officer I was replacing and me that he despaired of the country’s ability to survive the enemy’s salami tactics that would lob off slice after slice of territory without, he was certain, America ever reentering the fray to prevent the demise of her erstwhile ally.[xxiii]

Conclusion: …Nevertheless, Surprising Many, They Fought

Given the irrefutable logic that led the Vietnamese to conclude that their situation was hopeless--based on: the long list of internal contradictions including signs of a delegitimizing GVN irresoluteness superimposed on a general war weariness; the enlargement of ARVN’s mission of combating Viet Cong forces and supporting territorial security by adding holding off PAVN divisions in the border regions and base areas[xxiv]; the terms of a Ceasefire that allowed PAVN units to remain in-country in their fortified base areas[xxv]; enemy sanctuaries directly across the indefensible borders; foreclosing of any prospect for the reintroduction of US tactical air support[xxvi]; and finally, the US reneging on its commitment to maintain an agreed-to level of logistic support[xxvii]--it is remarkable that in the final offensive, they fought as well as they did. In the waning years of the Republic, ARVN saw itself facing a future of, at best, teetering from one PAVN offensive to the next of anticipated, ever increasing ferocity, its sole option, sans direct US participation, to prolong the status quo as long as possible.[xxviii] The question was, at what point would the cost to the ARVN and RF soldiers and their families of certain, interminable warfare exceed that of unpalatable domination by new, unsavory overlords. Patently, pervasive war weariness notwithstanding, by April 1975 that point had not been reached. For years, US field advisers had been tasked with addressing the fundamental question, “Will they fight?”. In MR-III, the battles of the final offensive finally provided an opportunity for a definitive assessment. Incredibly, despite the virtual drying up of supplies, those units, both ARVN and RF that were well led, performed valiantly against all odds and inflicted significant damage on the enemy, until the weight of forces of overwhelming strength ground them down through attrition.[xxix]

The litany of self inflicted ills cited above--the accommodation of the enemy, indulgence in corruption, and, worst of all, the leadership failings reflected as defeatism and lack of resolve (many festering for years)--was adduced by some in the US as prima facie justification for jettisoning the RVN. My questioning such presumption of the inevitability of defeat might, in this light, be taken as a non-sequitur. It ought to be remembered, though, that the final battles in MR-III delivered a contrary verdict. Countering “home front” malfeasance, ARVN and RF demonstrated a growing—over time—obstinacy on the battlefield despite mounting casualty rates, attributable, when it occurred, to able unit leadership.[xxx] Furthermore, the country was subject to an unprecedented degree of intimate scrutiny by a foreign power (the US), which, had it been applied to other third world allies, may well have found the RVN comparatively less wanting. More to the point, most of these failings were an outgrowth of the (unfortunately correct) foreknowledge that the US political/military commitment to the survival of their nation was ephemeral. To a people with a colonial history, who had--it may be argued--therefore inherited a “colonial mentality,” it was simply unthinkable that national survival could endure except under the protective wing of the powerful, foreign ally. It was obvious, after all, that the US had decided that the successful example of virtually unconditional US commitment to another Asian nation we had defended against communist onslaught, the South Korean alliance, was a model we would not apply here.

End Notes

[i] The term “field adviser” was used in a CORDS advisers’ periodical newsletter published by MACV, Saigon.

[ii] Yet, the great majority of the author’s classmates at the Foreign Service Institute’s Vietnam Training Center were Army field grade officers training to be Province or District Senior Advisers.

[iii] N.b.: The author has been careful in ascribing the absence of an actionable nationalism (not to be confused with Southern regionalism, which he found alive and well) to the Southern people only. His countless discussions with Northerners (yes, the Catholics!) revealed a vitriolic, vehement, anti-French, anti-Chinese and often anti-American (but decidedly not pro-Communist) chauvinism conforming to the stereotype.The few Southerners displaying similar anti-French feeling were inevitably former Viet Minh or of Revolutionary family background. (On the other hand, the Central Vietnamese experience of years of Communist rule and indoctrination in Viet Minh Inter-zone V, which the French never reconquered after World War II, may be expected to have informed the Central people’s attitudes in this regard, but the author had scant dealings with them.) Just one example  of politically significant ethno-regional differences. Not insignificantly, in the perception of the Vietnamese people, their nationality comprised three geographically based ethnicities, North, Central and South, none of which, traditionally, had any use for the other two. Class distinction reenforced regionalism in this fragmented society. For example, In the hierarchical, feudal-derived, Southern tradition, fishermen, such as the denizens of the coastal villages of Central Vietnam, were considered an underclass, below even sharecropping rice farmers.

[iv] An article by the author titled “The Ties that Bind” based on and substantially expanding this “lesson” was published by Small Wars Journal and appeared on the Journal website, 13 August 2014.

[v] Thereby violating that principle of insurgency/counterinsurgency which holds that the populace will shift its support to the party it perceives to be headed for ultimate victory.

[vi] See Elliott, David W. P., The Vietnamese War, Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta 1930-1975, Concise Edition (Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003, 2007) p.433, pp.438-439. Elliott cites this as a concern voiced by PAVN General Tran van Tra in connection with the passage of his troops in the final, 1975, offensive, from the Delta to Saigon through populated territory with an abundance of GVN military families, who, he feared, might impede their movement. General Tra over-ascribed in comparing these families to the Communist Infrastructure within the population, but a more adept GVN might have taken steps to organize this constituency to participate in surveillance or political mobilization.

For a description of a strikingly analogous operation, see McAlister, John T. M. Jr., Vietnam, The Origins of Revolution (Princeton, NJ, Center for International Studies, Princeton University, 1969) p.250. During Viet Minh consolidation (o/a 1946), physical conscription of villagers into the nascent Viet Minh armed forces provided the framework for political mobilization of the village population. McAlister points out that absent the French military threat, the Party would have had to devise some other means to create mass participation.

[vii] To cite one example, in a discussion in Saigon, August 1971, the Deputy District Senior Adviser, Ben Cat District, Iron Triangle Base Area, Binh Duong Province, informed the author that the district had suffered a significant security deterioration in the wake of US combat unit withdrawals, ARVN having been unable to fill the breach. In fact, ARVN III-Corps, operating (less than successfully) in Cambodia against PAVN 5th, 7th and 9th Divisions, had been seriously flanked.

[viii] See Elliott, David W.P., The Vietnamese War, Concise Edition, p.11, for confirming statements from the renowned “Rand Interviews” of captured or defected Communists to the effect that by war’s end, supporters of the Revolution were relegated to only the most isolated communities, (and the dwindled, cadre hard core was now largely comprised of the poorest peasants from those communities [pp. 362-371], who, having nothing, owed the Revolution everything).

[ix] Author’s observations on visits to assess the security situation, 1973. This was not unique; the author’s vehicle was similarly besieged by village police beginning late 1972, at Long Truong, a notably insecure  RTV at the end of a single access road in the marshes of an enemy infiltration route, Thu-Duc District, Gia Dinh Province, ironically, a stone’s throw from Saigon.

[x] Testimony to the area’s insecurity and unreliability was the comment of the author's boss, Deputy Province Senior Adviser of the Tay Ninh Advisory Team, when briefed after the author’s first visit to the area in 1971, ordering him not to go back there. This armor officer, a lieutenant colonel with a year served in Tay Ninh at the time, began his remarks with the statement, “Hauben, I don’t want to have to bury you!” 

Enemy base areas provided a bonanza in war profiteering opportunities for officials posted at their peripheries. In 1974, the author ran into the former Chief of Khiem Hanh District, eastern Tay Ninh Province. This ARVN major of North Vietnamese Catholic background was in civilian clothes, temporarily assigned as road construction inspector near Saigon while under investigation for massive rice sales to the enemy when District Chief late 1971. His ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ observation was that his rice selling had made not a tad of difference, since, “You know Khiem Hanh; the VC were everywhere.” A reasonable statement, in view of the fact that this small district housed PAVN Base Area 355.   

[xi] Besides these raids, at this time, urban Gia Dinh, the fringe surrounding Saigon, also began receiving indirect fire virtually every night…One such habitual “launchpad” village in the Saigon River floodplain in Thu Duc District, Gia Dinh Province, connected to the capital’s ramshackle urban fringe by a bridge on Highway 13 North dubbed Cau Moi (=New Bridge, because it was), had been the locus of fighting in the Land Grab Battles around the January 1973 Cease Fire. RF had found the going rough, with a helicopter shot down and a shockingly high total of 36 RF KIA (Source: Village Chief in a February 1973 conversation with the author in the village). Not atypically, these engagements went completely unreported. At this juncture, the author requested a Pacification Attitudes Analysis Survey (PAAS) team of experienced Vietnamese employees of the US  Mission to confirm the extent the enemy had reestablished himself in his traditional stronghold there. The final report painted a chilling picture of a thoroughly terrorized populace (and confirmed the village chief’s report). A late 1974 ground assault on the village office and police station of An Nhon Village, in the urban area, emanated from this village. Two companies and sapper elements perpetrated that attack, which succeed in virtually leveling an entire city block.

[xii] An example was the 8 April 1972 overrunning of the US regional communication facility at the summit of Tay Ninh Province’s Nui Ba Den Mountain, at the southern edge of War Zone C, in which sappers emerged from caves within this rhyolite intrusive rising above the plain, only the top of which had been securely friendly-held while the interior, a maze of caves, was long a PAVN redoubt. In a bizarre postscript, it was patent that some among the RF had allowed the sappers passage through the defenses to the US portion of the base. Only in 1973 was the Tay Ninh Sector Commander removed and placed under investigation for repeated collaboration with the enemy, in an uncommon but welcome act of GVN resolve, whereupon he complained bitterly to the US Province Representative, with considerable gall, that this was all that his years of unwavering loyalty to the Americans had got him. The Sector Commander owed his position to being a well-connected member of the Cao Dai politico-religious sect politically powerful in Tay Ninh which, in any case, was often all too ready to offer succor to the enemy. That his removal was indeed an act of resolve rests on the assumption that it was not effected for some unrelated motive, the very real collaboration serving merely as pretext, a not unheard of scenario in the Vietnam context.

[xiii] The question often arose, why PAVN did not simply avoid contact while the unilateral US troop withdrawal was underway. The author contends that the constant, background accompaniment drumbeat of terrorist assassination by itself would not have been sufficient to induce the needed perception of a momentum shift. See Pike, Douglas, People’s Army of Vietnam, (Novato, CA, Presidio Press, 1986), pp. 227-229, for an analysis of PAVN strategy for the post Tet 1968-1972 period, with a focus on PAVN’s assumption of the guerrilla role formerly relegated to rustic VC, now transformed into the mission of a highly trained, consummately professional corps of “sapper” commandos. Pike believes, however, that the persistent execution of “high points” reflected the assertiveness of doctrinaire opponents of the lowering of intensity that defined protracted warfare, within the PAVN high command. In any case, the impact of the deadly effective, selectively targeted, sapper raids, reenforced by the widely destructive high points, was to enhance the perception of momentum in the public psyche.

[xiv] The Author’s argument here offers a riposte, in a sense, to the position of some analysts looking to the Vietnam experience for COIN solutions to recent conflicts, who have soft-pedaled the effectiveness of what is currently referred to as an “enemy-centric COIN” focus.

ARVN was not loath to tackle some base areas individually, enjoying limited victories in the Tri Phap in the Plain of Reeds, and in the Seven Mountains Region (Base Areas 470 and 704, respectively), both in MR-IV, in 1973. Also, in December 1973, the author, in an Air America chopper overhead, observed a two battalion sweep in the Plain of Reeds swamp, Ben Luc District, enthusiastically ordered by the Long An Province Chief, in which 10 enemy were KIA.  However, the sight of deuce and a halfs (two and a half ton trucks) in Tay Ninh piled high with ARVN bodies from continuing III-Corps operations in Kampong Cham Province, Cambodia, in the fall of 1971, brought home to the author the costly nature of such operations.

[xv] See Duncanson, Dennis J., Government and Revolution in Vietnam, New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1968), p.13. In this encyclopedic history, Duncanson expounds at length on the Sino-Vietnamese tradition that, following contests over succession, has repeatedly accorded the mantle of Heaven post hoc to the new rulers who had been nothing but outright bandits. That this may have been the norm is suggested by the existence of the Chinese aphorism, “Who loses is a brigand, who pulls it off a prince.” Duncanson, a long-time colleague of renowned COIN savant Sir Robert Thompson, was one of the originators of British, control-focused COIN in Malaya and had served with Thompson on the British Advisory Mission to Vietnam in the early to mid 1960’s. He was one of the author’s instructors at the CORDS Vietnam Training Center under the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in Virginia in early 1971.

[xvi] A definition of the COIN/ insurgency dialectic in terms of a struggle between the “coercive authority” of the state used to enforce the state’s writ vs. the competing coercive authority of the insurgents, finds articulate expression in a paper focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan: Kelly, Brigadier (Ret.) Justin, Australian Army, “Cutting Gordian Knots &Thinking Hedgehog Thoughts: The Military Irrelevance of Hearts and Minds,” POINTER, Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, Vol. 37, No. 2., 19 October 2011. As Kelly puts it, the state is able to exercise its coercive authority only once military force has rendered the insurgents incapable of exercising theirs. Hence, two competing legitimacies, each defined by military force as a control enabler.

[xvii] Gray, Colin S., “Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory,” PRISM 3, no.3, National Defense University ((December 2012).

[xviii] Since at the latest 1970, the core focus of the enemy’s propaganda machine was no longer directed to the usual Communist themes, such as land hunger, the class struggle, or nationalism/reunification. Rather, war weariness was the “grievance” that the Party most sought to alleviate. As the Party put it, “If you want peace, you will have to help us. We will never give up; therefore, there can be no peace until we win.” The Party had made the war itself the issue. In 1974, when food prices went through the roof, the message was embellished for the urban population, astonishingly with the promise that after liberation, the restoration of peace would enable all to return to the idyllic rural existence extant before the wars—but neglecting to recall that in that pre-war period, many of the Southern peasantry had been feudal serfs, and governance was the province of the French colonial regime. There were, of course, other local embellishments, generally to the construct of a rural cornucopia that would become accessible only with peace. In Long Thanh District, Bien Hoa Province, in early 1974, local VC cadre were telling peasants that land given by Diem to an Agroville settlement of North Vietnamese Catholic refugees would be theirs once peace under the aegis of the Party was achieved. “We will get rid of these Northerners for you,” they were told, and these lands would then be reserved for local people.

[xix] Race, Jeffrey, War Comes to Long An, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, University of California Press, 1972), p.40, pp.179-180.

[xx] Ibid., p.128. Here, Race points out that even in the “American War,” interviewed former Communist cadre said they had used the class struggle appeal of anti-feudalism to draw peasants into the Revolution, and only subsequently indoctrinated the peasant recruits to see anti-imperialism as a necessary adjunct to anti-feudalism.

[xxi] Sources included an ARVN, III Corps G3 colonel, who volunteered this tidbit to the author in July 1974, with the de rigueur disclaimer regarding the corrupt, “…Not I, of course, but, I regret to say, so many of my fellow officers, especially the more junior ones…”

[xxii]  In June 1974, when monitoring the Movement was the author’s priority, the Movement’s Political Adviser did not attempt to hide his communist affiliation from the author, patiently lecturing him with the intensity of a true believer that the populace had nothing to fear at the hands of PAVN, and that only the Party was capable of imposing order over the chaos that prevailed in the notorious slum facing the entrance to Tan Son Nhut Airbase, where he himself lived in a Spartan home. As he put it, referring with a contemptuous grimace to his fellow North Vietnamese Catholic slum dweller neighbors in nearly impeccable English, “I’m sure you’ll agree with me, these people need someone to tell them what to do.”

In 1976, the former Sector Commander told the author in the US that for some inexplicable reason, President Thieu had ordered that these manifestations be allowed to proceed unfettered and the authorities maintain hands off with respect to the leadership of this and other pro-Communist dissident groups linked to one another through the mechanism of overlapping directorates.The dissidents were not to be considered Communists (even though it was obvious to the Sector Commander that they were), and thus, his hands were tied. Top leadership’s reluctance to enforce exemplified.

[xxiii] The point is, the General’s prescient pessimism did not stop him from choosing to engage the enemy tooth and nail in the final offensive despite recognizing that his was a lost cause. In this he was not unique.

The General had been preparing to host a visit later that day by a former French officer who had fought in the First Indochina War. He was so looking forward to that visit and was animated at the prospect. This prompted the General, an ethnic Southerner, to comment to the author in a statement revealing of the attitude of Southerners toward the French, “The French were not like you….They were committed to Vietnam.” This without a trace of irony. The similarity, across class difference, to the reaction of elderly market women, peasant vegetable vendors, in Tay Ninh, September 1971, is telling. When the author spoke to them in Vietnamese, they remarked that he couldn’t be American; he was a good man and, so, must certainly be French. In the author’s opinion, anecdotal evidence of this kind was too frequent to reflect merely a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

[xxiv] Sorely, Lewis, A Better War (San Diego, New York, London, Harcourt, Inc., 1999) p.166

[xxv] Thus codifying the de facto US acquiescence in the existence of the base areas that resulted from the US stepping away from aggressive operations, certainly by 1971, as unilateral US troop withdrawals accelerated. The Australians withdrew from their AO in MR-III, Phuoc Tuy Province, over essentially the same timeframe to the same effect, removal of pressure on the base areas there (300 and 303) and their consequent revitalization.

[xxvi] Forbidden by act of the US Congress effective 15 August 1973, under provision of the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment.

[xxvii] It was evident that RVNAF leadership did not consider that even an emergency injection of desperately needed US logistical assistance would be sufficient to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. In the first week of January 1975, immediately after the fall of Song Be (Phuoc Long Province), the author told the Gia Dinh Deputy Sector Commander that he had been authorized to inform Province/Sector leadership that the Ambassador still believed Congressional funding for augmented logistical support was possible. Slipping into English (we had been conversing in Vietnamese), the Deputy Sector Commander said, “We don’t need your assistance; we need your tactical air support. Can you provide this?” Plainly he was not just speaking for himself. The memory of the essential role of US air support in the 1972 Offensive was still fresh. The author replied that this was out of the question.

[xxviii] As one of the author’s former Province Chief counterparts put it, in a post-war discussion in the US, “I tried my best to continue the fighting [i.e., to stave off capitulation] as long as possible. I hoped the war would go on for at least some time longer.”

[xxix] For examples (as well as detailed accounts of major engagements), see Le Gro, COL William, Vietnam from Cease Fire to Capitulation, (Washington, D.C., US Army Center of Military History, CMH Pub.90-29, 1985) Chapter 17, The Last Act in the South. Among these, the RF in Long An Province, MR-III, were a standout amongst Territorial Forces for their valiant defense against assault by the PAVN 5th Division, 275th Regiment in April 1975. Achieving greater renown were, of course, ARVN 18th Division together with 1st Airborne Brigade, and Ranger and RF elements in their determined attempt at Xuan Loc, in Long Khanh Province, to halt the PAVN advance down Highway 1 toward Bien Hoa and Saigon.

Over the years, Gia Dinh Sector RF had managed to accumulate a record in which aggressiveness was decidedly not the predominant strength. Nevertheless, even they rallied under determined leadership: In the war’s final week, led by the Sector Commander, an ARVN colonel, they successfully repelled a PAVN force in an engagement at the Saigon port facility at New Port, for which the President, by then Duong van Minh, in the midst of his brief, days-long presidency, awarded the Sector Commander a battlefield commission to brigadier general. (Source: Postwar conversation with former ARVN officers in the US.)

[xxx] The leadership caveat was crucial. Yet US leverage was rarely used to put the right ARVN commanders in place or get rid of the non-performers. The problem was probably intrinsic to an advisory (as opposed to command and control) relationship in which the CORDS advisers were famously assigned responsibility without authority.

About the Author(s)

Michael Hauben is a retired Foreign Service Officer who was a civilian member of the CORDS Province Teams in Tay Ninh and Gia Dinh, Vietnam, 1971-73. After the termination of CORDS in February 1973, he served in its successor organization, the Office of the Special Assistant to the Ambassador for Field Operations (SAA/FO) , as the US Embassy’s representative to Gia Dinh and intermittently, concurrently, to several other provinces “because we were shorthanded,” all in MR-3. His principal responsibility was political reporting. After evacuation in April 1975, he went on to serve in the State Department in Washington, and in USAID in Latin America, South East Asia, Pakistan and Jordan.