Small Wars Journal

The Ties That Bind

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 1:15am

The Ties That Bind: Mass Conscription Reinforced an Attrition Borne Allegiance Shift by Tying Rural Families to Government as Military Dependents: A Vietnam Case

Michael E. Hauben

Abstract: A clearing effort focused on decimation of enemy units through attrition, coupled with relocation of rural populations to areas of government control, made possible the local recruitment of the populace for self-defense and transformed their families into military dependents. A result was the lasting self-identification of the military dependent families, well-dispersed throughout the populated zones, with the Government of Vietnam (GVN). Thus, universal, compulsory, male mobilization succeeded in tying the bulk of the rural population to the government virtually irreversibly, and denying the enemy a recruitment base. This was accomplished despite failings in implementation of two other crucial elements of the counterinsurgency (COIN) model: absence of effective resource controls and hesitancy in uprooting the enemy infrastructure of political cadre. The importance of the ties thus forged lay in their enduring even the change in the balance of forces in the enemy’s favor in the last phase of the war. The foregoing encapsulates not only the success and shortcomings of the GVN’s COIN or “pacification” program, but at the same time, necessarily, those of the US organization, housed within the Military Assistance Command, CORDS (Civil Operations Rural Development Support), which was charged with advising the locally recruited Territorial Forces as well as the entities responsible for enforcing resource controls and neutralizing the political infrastructure. None of the nations recently afflicted by insurgency come to mind as having instituted universal, compulsory mobilization analogous to the Vietnamese one. Indeed, fiscal constraints would have prohibited their doing so. Yet, I believe that the measure’s success—and by extension, that of it’s US advisory, counterpart  activity—at least casts an approving nod in the direction of concentrating COIN advisory assistance on what current nomenclature labels Foreign Internal Defense (FID).  

When I attended the Vietnam Training Center in Arlington, VA, in 1970-71, where CORDS officers, civilian and military, were trained, the winning hearts and minds (WHAM) COIN focus often vaunted by US planners had taken a back seat. Rather, control-driven, UK, “Drain the Swamp” COIN was considered the state of the art. One of its originators, Dennis Duncanson, long-time colleague of Sir Robert Thompson, was one of our instructors. This approach to COIN relied heavily on physical separation of the populace from the insurgent forces and strict resource controls to deny their transfer from the population to the enemy. Uprooting the insurgents’ “fifth column,” their infrastructure of political cadre, was a priority. And, recruitment of local residents to participate in village self defense was a crucial territorial security measure as well as a political ploy to elicit an anti-insurgent commitment from the populace. The shorthand for this model that we were taught was, “Pacification=Occupation +Organization (of the local populace in its own self-defense).” “Pacification” was, of course, the residual term of the French era meaning COIN.

On the ground in Vietnam’s Third Military Region (MR-3. Earlier, III Corps Tactical Zone—the provinces around the latitude of Saigon from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border) beginning in 1971, I found that some elements of this model were indeed in place, others haphazardly so, or honored in the breach rather than in the observance. Resource controls, in particular, were put in place only superficially, patently without seriousness of intent to enforce. This cornerstone of British COIN, as applied in MR-3, leaked like a sieve. Rather, the “Shadow Supply System”[i] involved sophisticated, large scale resource transfers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, the North Vietnamese Army) with payments reaching the most senior levels. Population control, on the other hand, had mixed results. Population relocation on a massive scale had separated the bulk of the population from exposure to enemy combat units. Most of the people were concentrated in areas of GVN control. And GVN surveillance methods were applied. A system imitative of communist block, internal security surveillance had been put in place by the Diem regime as early as 1957, and was based on assignment of responsibility to household heads and issuance of family ID cards (’family books”). The system was effective in identifying outsiders in the community, but unfortunately, during my years in-country, apprehended VC Infrastructure (VCI) cadre were routinely released upon payment of a bribe, or given ridiculously light sentences--signaling failure of this priority of the British COIN model.[ii] The broadly successful element, however was the recruitment, training and deployment in the defense of the populated areas, of local, military age, male villagers. This element of the COIN strategy would result in reinforcing the loyalty to the GVN of a large measure of the rural populace, who instantly achieved the status of Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) dependents, to the extent that it would withstand the severe strains of perpetual warfare punctuated by deadly, PAVN main force offensives. Not surprisingly, CORDS would measure its success and failures by the same yardstick. In MR-3, Phoenix, the CORDS-advised operation intended to neutralize the VCI, admittedly fell grievously short of its objective. CORDS’s standout success, on the other hand, was the attention it focused on the Territorial Forces it advised, thus assuring them of a greater share of the resources and training required to render them combat ready.[iii] These forces, the Regional Forces (RF), mobile forces organized in companies that regularly operated together in battalions, commanded by the Province Chief (concurrently Sector Commander), and the Popular Forces (PF), under actual command of the District Chief, though nominally, of the Village Chief, responsible for static defense of the hamlets, were the elements mainly responsible for the cornerstone of  the post-“clear” phase of COIN in Vietnam, territorial security (essentially, defense of the populated areas).

By 1970, US and GVN had essentially won in MR-3[iv] in the sense that enemy capabilities had been severely degraded and GVN controlled the population; but this was concentrated in strips along main, land lines of communication (LOCs). Off the LOCs lay terrain-determined enemy base areas which we had never eradicated; some, because of a spatial configuration of the narrow, populated areas that was lacking in depth, intruding quite close to population centers. However, as of 1970, the strengths of the enemy units, both main and local force, ensconced in these base areas had been critically degraded by the Tet and post-Tet attrition, to the extent that the enemy in MR-3 was no longer capable of movement in large units. Furthermore, the three PAVN divisions, the 5th 7th and 9th, that habitually threatened the Region had been displaced away from the border by the spring 1970 Cambodian incursion, deep into Cambodia. By 1970, the GVN’s universal male conscription policy, initiated in 1968 in reaction to the Tet offensive, was fully operational. Locally recruited RF and PF troops constituted an armed government presence in all of the populated areas. During this phase, the absence of large, enemy units (massive re-infiltration of the enemy base areas not yet occurring ) allowed the conscription to proceed unhampered by enemy action or intimidation. Degrading of the enemy combatant units had also yielded, collaterally, the decimation of the infrastructure of enemy political cadre, as a result of the cadre having been attached to the units for their protection. (This was not the result of an active effort—Phoenix—aimed specifically at uprooting the infrastructure as such.) The massive  application of kinetic warfare during the 1967-1969 period had largely disabused the populace of  trust in the ultimate victory of the Revolutionary forces, and this shift in perception was probably also a sine qua non for the mass mobilization to succeed. Indeed, this shift was a manifestation of the prime COIN principle: The populace will rally to the side that has convinced them, by what transpires on the ground, that it has the strength and commitment to be the ultimate victor.[v]  (In 1969-70, what counted were US strength and commitment; the Vietnamese peasants had no reason to doubt US commitment yet.) Further, when the enemy units re-infiltrated, a demographic shift in unit make-up toward North-Vietnamization would deny local recruits ascension to command positions, thereby removing this incentive to enlist in the now-PAVN units. Strong Southern regionalism that manifested itself in a deep-seated prejudice against Northerners doubtless played a role as well.

By 1971, unilateral US troop withdrawals had eased the pressure on the base areas, allowing them to be re-infiltrated by reconstituted PAVN units. A reverse “oil-spot” process was underway. In what I have called the outliers, communities outside the main population strips and in close proximity to the enemy base areas, the “paradigm” obtained. Under this model, a PAVN main force unit, generally a battalion, in a base area originally selected because of the excellent cover provided by jungle or overgrown swampland, would dominate adjacent communities existing in its shadow, as it were. The “battalion” would determine the behavior of the people irrespective of their sympathies, by dint of its very presence and the support it provided to residual VCI cadre within the villages, who were often family members of VC combatants. Furthermore, as the “secure,“ populated zones were essentially narrow bands, these areas also found themselves increasingly exposed to sporadic assault from the persisting enemy in-country base areas outside the bands. This phase and the offensives that followed would test the sustainability of the shift of rural families from VC supporters to RVNAF dependents.

Local, fighting age males having traded VC uniforms for RF ones,[vi] the question, then, was whether this allegiance shift would withstand a change in momentum and indeed, in the balance of forces, or whether loyalties would again change apace’  In the event, the RF casualty rate showed a dramatic uptrend as ARVN was handing over main responsibility for territorial security to this force.[vii] Plainly RF were not refusing to fight and, increasingly frequently, to die in battle. And, while the enemy base areas could be entered only in force, RF on mobile operations in their home provinces, which, by definition, generally meant raids into areas where enemy units were expected to be found (hence, at least mini-bases), often performed creditably, with a high rate of contact and significant enemy casualties. The pertinent question, then, in my view, ought not be why ARVN troops rioted in Danang and Nha Trang when they had been abandoned by their officers ahead of these cities being overrun by PAVN in1975, but rather, “What accounted for the failure of local RF troops to revert back to the Revolution over time?” Allowing for the widespread revulsion that NLF overreach and PAVN depredations, underlain by an almost tribal anti-Northern sentiment, elicited among the rural population that had experienced these travails first hand, an additional, inextricable bond was required to ensure the longevity of the tie to the GVN as the momentum trend line turned in favor of the enemy. Significantly, conscription had managed to tie entire rural families to ARVN and RF/PF as dependents. The shared comradeship of the fight for survival was not limited to the soldiers alone. Their families, often in the position of camp followers, were drawn in as well on the GVN side. Not only did families share a natural desire that their side, now GVN, win (not to mention the risk all RVNAF families shared, of being, ipso facto, identified as enemies of the Revolution), but all RVNAF families reaped material benefits--food allowances, living quarters, the privilege of accompanying and residing with their uniformed family members at their duty station. These ties proved to be lasting. I believe that tying the bulk of rural families to GVN through mass conscription of their young males was the single most effective of the “pacification” measures, in comparison to which the impact of the ubiquitous pacification self-help projects, or even land reform, was de minimis .

The rural populace had switched sides from the Revolution to the GVN when they saw the massive attrition grind down the Revolution’s combatants, many of whom were their own sons who had been conscripted into the VC units,[viii] and when they themselves were subjected to relocation. Nevertheless, as early as 1971, the conviction of US resolve and ultimate GVN victory was fast fading. US troop withdrawal was accelerating at the same time that the reintroduction into MR-3 of PAVN main force units cultivated the growing perception that PAVN would never give up and thus, would ultimately prevail. Highly significantly, in contravention of the aforementioned prime COIN principle, loyalty of the RVNAF families did not shift back to the Revolution. And those RF units that were well-led stood their ground against superior PAVN main force units even in the final, 1975 offensive.[ix]

The enemy recognized the significance of RVNAF families comprising a link to the rural populace. Although erroneous over-ascription, PAVN would attribute to RVNAF families the potency of a rival infrastructure.[x] In any case, punishment was regularly meted out to military relatives in the isolated, outlier hamlets under enemy influence.[xi]

Yet, the literature fails to acknowledge the full significance, as a sustainable (i.e., essentially irreversible) COIN measure, of  the transformation of much of the rural populace into military dependents. Nor did US practitioners necessarily, instantly recognize the causal chain (or its full political import) leading from an attrition-delivered allegiance shift permitting mass conscription to take place in the rural areas, to the transformation of the rural masses into military dependents whose new status would serve as cement to bind them irrevocably to GVN.[xii]


The metamorphosis from low-intensity insurgency toward conventional warfare, which finds enemy main force units operating in and increasingly dominating your rural areas, invites enemy-focused clearing by attrition as a countermeasure. The sustained, irreversible efficacy of tying the rural populace to the GVN in the wake of the trauma of attrition by converting them into soldiers and military dependents cannot be understated, in my view. Of the wealth of tactics from the COIN panoply attempted in Vietnam, this stands out as the single most effective “pacification” measure to ensure that the population did not again change sides, right to the finish. It therefore earns a place in the trinity of causal factors, alongside attrition and relocation (the ultimate physical separation of the people from the insurgents), for the dramatic diminution of the effectiveness of insurgency as a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV—North Vietnam) strategy.       

The significance of the effective binding of rural families, and thereby, the majority of the rural population, to ARVN and Territorial Forces in the wake of massive, allegiance-switching attrition cum relocation lies also in its posing a sustainable alternative to the “hearts and minds” COIN innovation favored by the US, involving buying loyalty by funding “pacification” self help projects or even land reform.[xiii] Thus, even in the absence of definitive uprooting of the enemy infrastructure of political cadre or of local resource controls, deemed critical elements needed to attain the “secure your rear base” objective of the state-of -the-art UK COIN model, the enemy was denied a recruitment base while the government gained recruits to implement needed territorial security and a loyal rural population base as well. (The two failings may have been, in part, balanced by, respectively, the above-mentioned decimation of the VCI cadre in the 1967-69 highly kinetic phase; and the fact that the lion’s share of the enemy’s logistic support was external, i.e., from the North.)  This alternative model proved sustainable even after the reintroduction of PAVN main force units erased significant reverses PAVN had incurred under the 1967-’69 attrition, and despite the backdrop, post-1970, of fading popular confidence in the GVN’s prospects.

End Notes

[i] The Shadow Supply System was arguably the primary preoccupation of our CORDS team in Tay Ninh Province during the author’s tenure there 1971-72. A confirming, albeit terse, expression of grave concern by the CIA Officer in Charge, MR-3, regarding the Shadow Supply System’s local logistical support to infiltrating PAVN units, is cited in Ahern Thomas L., Jr., CIA and the Generals, Covert Support to Military Government in South Vietnam ( Washington, D.C., Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1998) p.111.

[ii] Anecdotal examples of the light sentencing and general laxness of anti-VCI enforcement are noted in the monthly Province Report, Hau Nghia Province, Period Ending 30 April 1972, “Phung Hoang [Phoenix],” Headquarters, Civil Operations Rural Development Support, Hau Nghia Province-Third Regional Assistance Command, Advisory Team 43 (3 May 1972).

[iii] It is surprising how haphazard was the portentous assignation of advisory responsibility for RF/PF to CORDS. In 1967 Saigon, two former US Army lieutenant colonels were tasked with designing the organizational chart of CORDS, which they did in an unbroken, sleepless marathon session of some 72 hours. One capped his career with a detail to CIA. The other had been recruited by the legendary John Vann to a CORDS predecessor organization within USAID, and went on to become a long-standing CORDS Province Senior Adviser and one of the longer serving Americans in Vietnam (1965-75). In relating this episode to the author in a 1973 conversation, the latter, by then head of CORDS’s successor organization in MR-3 and the author’s boss, said, “The smartest thing we did was to take RF/PF away from the [US] Army [combat units] and give it to CORDS.”

[iv] Sorely, Lewis, A Better War (New York, NY, San Diego, CA, Harcourt, Inc., 1999) p.217, names a chapter “Victory.” The reference is to the situation in 1970 following the US-South Vietnamese Cambodian incursion. None of the present author’s senior CORDS adviser interlocutors who had been there at the time and witnessed the “before and after” would have disagreed with Sorely’s characterization as such. However, interestingly, both, advisers and ARVN officers attributed the dramatic improvement to decimation by attrition of the enemy units as well as to the displacement of the three PAVN divisions from their habitual perch on the Cambodian border, rather than to  the dissemination of “pacification funds and projects.” The same US sources would concede, by mid-1971, that notable backsliding had ensued as a result of gaps left by US troop withdrawals.

[v] See Gray, Colin S., “Concept Failure? COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory,” PRISM 3, no. 3, National Defense University  (December 2012), “Conclusion.” In his paper, Gray also defines “legitimacy” in virtually the same terms, viz., that political legitimacy is derived, in part, from public confidence in the ultimate victory of the government.

[vi] See Thompson, W. Scott and Frizell, Donaldson D., Eds., The Lessons of Vietnam (St. Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1977) (Simultaneously published in New York, NY, Crane Russak and Co., 1977) p.102. In one of the pieces he contributed to this volume, Sir Robert Thompson cannot get over how impressed he was to witness obvious, former VC in what had been a notoriously pro-NLF (National Liberation Front, i.e., the VC) area pre-Tet, Kien Hoa Province in the Mekong Delta, defending their villages as RF/PF by 1969-71.

[vii] Ibid., pp 256-262.

[viii] See Olivant, Douglas A., “Countering the New Orthodoxy, Reinterpreting Counterinsurgency in Iraq,” New America Foundation, National Security Studies Program Policy Paper, June 2011.(Reproduced in, on the traumatic impact of attrition (of Sunnis at the hands of the Shia) in effecting a shift in the loyalty of the population. He attributes, in part to attrition—the other, main driver being unmistakable evidence of US political commitment—, an analogous change of heart on the part of the Iraqi Sunnis. In so doing, Olivant cites historian Melton, Stephen L., The Clausewitz Delusion, (Minneapolis, Zenith Press, 2009), who posits (pp. 21-25) the existence of a  threshold of casualties which, once reached, convinces the side incurring the casualties that it has lost and has no option but to sue for peace in order to survive demographically as a people. Melton makes the point that offensive wars of occupation inevitably evolve into wars of attrition.

[ix] See LeGro, 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,

for examples, including the valiant defense of Long An Province in MR-3 by RF against assault by the PAVN 5th Division, 275th Regiment, which had invaded from neighboring Svay Rieng Province in Cambodia in April 1975.  

[x] 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.443, pp. 438-439. Elliott cites PAVN General Tran Van Tra, who was concerned that RVNAF families, therefore loyal to GVN, would impede the progress of his troops from the Delta to Saigon in the final, 1975 offensive. 

[xi] Long Truong Village, Thu-Duc District, Gia Dinh Province, offers an anecdotal example. In this “Return to Village” community of dubious security whose population had been originally relocated elsewhere to remove them from VC domination and recently returned by GVN to the original site in the overgrown marshes of the Dong Nai River floodplain, a local resident who was the father of an ARVN Airborne enlisted man told the author in November 1972, that the VC, who regularly appeared at the tree-line, had forbidden him from tilling his fields on account of his son’s military status. 

[xii] An Example is CORDS head William Colby, who, in pursuit of the perennially elusive US goal of a mass organization of political portent, fastened upon the putatively populist, part-time,  militia of over- and under- military age males performing compulsory service, the People’s Self Defense Force (PSDF), as the vehicle of maximum, potential, political impact. Decades later, a fundamental allegiance shift would give rise to other militias, anchored to local elites, who would, mutatis mutandis, as the Sons of Iraq or the Awakening Movement, come substantially closer to realizing Colby’s vision. See Bergerud, Eric M., The Dynamics of Defeat. The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, Inc., 1991) pp. 267-268 for Colby’s high hopes for PSDF, and p. 311 for PSDF unreliability, including defections.

[xiii] In Vietnam, making available project funds as an incentive to encourage village-based leadership (a stated objective) was, in effect, redundancy, as village officials would make a far better living on the customary bribes that accompanied every kind of civil status document or permit issuance. Also, civilian governance by civil servants assigned to the provinces—i.e., delivery of services—was generally performed at an acceptable, rather competent, if less than speedy, level (to be sure, with predictable cost overruns to accommodate kickbacks), often at considerable risk to these officials’ lives. (Personal observations of the author.)   


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.