Notes and Comments About Fighting the Vietnam War

By Various and unknown Authors

Many of the men in my company were draftees from working-class families. They were not anxious to be in Vietnam but went there willingly to serve their country.

An American Division in Vietnam in 1969 numbered perhaps 20,000 men.  Most were not combat soldiers but rather support personnel. The number of infantry actually available for fighting might at best be 4,000, hardly adequate. At our peak strength in 1969, we had 549,000 Americans in Vietnam. Many individuals have questioned why that many men, coupled with our awesome technology, did not suffice to win. Victory was not, however, just a simple matter of numbers and technology.

The 549,000 figure was very misleading because the American Armed Forces operated with a huge logistical tail. For every Grunt in the field, there were approximately seven men in the rear supporting him.  These included cooks, clerks, supply people, maintenance men, truck drivers, military policemen, entertainment personnel, headquarters staffs, and men running PXs. There was also combat support personnel such as artillerymen and pilots, who often saw action, but were not Grunts. Thus, out of a total of 549,000 Americans, there were at best 70,000 infantrymen. Many of these logistical people were necessary. Still, there was too much “fat” in the American Military machine. It most likely could have functioned effectively without some of this support.

In Vietnam, there were never enough infantry battalions to fully suppress the Communists.  While America and its allies did have a considerable edge in total manpower over the enemy, the “foxhole strength,” the infantrymen both sides could put in the field, was close to a one-to-one ratio.  In this category, the Americans, by themselves, were usually outnumbered by the VC and NVA. For example, in mid-1968 the total allied strength of 1,593,300 far exceeded the enemy’s 250,000 men. Yet, since a very large percentage of their soldiers were infantry as opposed to only 14 percent of the allied total, the Communists were nearly equal to us in this key aspect.   Without the necessary manpower, reluctant to fully commit what we had because of the heavy casualties that would result, we relied heavily on firepower – helicopter gunships, artillery, and air strikes. It was standard practice for American units upon contacting the enemy to sit tight and summon fire support.

My training in the states had emphasized using fire and maneuver to close with your opponent; in Vietnam, my Company did not do this. Instead, we radioed for artillery or gunships as soon as contact was made; with few exceptions, there was no maneuver. This accorded with soldiers’ natural tendency to assume a defensive posture when being fired upon; it also minimized American casualties. It was not, however, very successful. The Communists often broke contact before our fire support could arrive, the rough terrain concealed them (making accurate spotting of artillery fire difficult), and the weather often kept our air support grounded. The need to be within range of friendly artillery restricted American movements; also, the lavish use of firepower in populated regions may have caused civilian casualties.

American commanders longed for the day when the enemy could come out in the open and wage a conventional war, where we could presumably destroy him with our technology. But our foe rarely played into our hands in this manner. My unit almost never sighted the enemy, even when engaged in a firefight! Firepower thus had severe limitations in Vietnam. This, coupled with our shortage of infantry, suggests that the picture many had of the war – one of the ample American strengths confronting a relatively primitive enemy was quite misleading. My outfit, for instance, mostly encountered NVA soldiers who substituted skillful tactics and knowledge of the terrain for technology.

Many have noted that one of our key difficulties in Vietnam was the inability to devise a workable strategy, one which commanders and infantrymen could follow in a coordinated fashion with some hope of achieving “success”.  Part of the problem lay in defining “success”: was it how many enemy soldiers were killed, how much land you controlled, what percentage of the population was pacified, or something else? During the years of our heaviest involvement in the war, we largely pursued a strategy of attrition. The underlying idea was simple: if you could kill enough enemy soldiers, they would run out of men eventually and give up (somewhat akin to Grant wearing down Lee in the last twelve months of the Civil War). To apply this in Vietnam, American units were sent into the field to engage enemy forces; such operations were frequently termed Search-and-Destroy missions. If the enemy could be found, then, hopefully, our superior firepower would destroy him. Done often enough, the Communists should reach a point where they could no longer continue the war – or so went the reasoning. ‘It didn’t work.’

  1. This is an approximation. Gen. William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1976), 187, contends that only 40 percent of the troops in Vietnam were support troops. This seems far from the mark. For support of my figure, see Charles R. Anderson, The Grunts (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1976), xi, and Dave Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet (San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1978), 155-156. Charles B. MacDonald, “The In-Country Enemy: Battle with the Viet Cong,” The Vietnam War (N.Y.: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979), 147, notes that in 1967, of the 473,200 Americans in Vietnam, only 10.6 percent were combat infantry, while 75 percent were HQ and logistics personnel.
  2. Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1982), 163, notes this tendency.
  3. Stanton, 53, lists the authorized strength of a rifle company at 164 men. Mine rarely had more than 100 in its three rifle platoons and one weapons platoon which was usually employed as a fourth, smaller, rifle platoon to provide security for Company HQ. At times, field strength fell to below 80. My platoon averaged 25 men, and, lacking men and leaders, we mostly operated with two instead of the standard three rifle squads.
  4. Westmoreland, 147, notes this. Historically this has been characteristic of the American way of war. In WWII, when many have assumed that we had overwhelming superiority, we had barely enough battalions to do the job. See Russell F. Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 12ff.
  5. Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1978), 175, calculates this would leave 88,400 allied soldiers opposed to 70,000 VC and NVA. Thomas C. Thayer, “We Could not Win the War of Attrition We Tried to Fight,” in W. Scott Thompson & Donaldson D. Frizzell, eds., The Lessons of Vietnam (N.Y.: Crane, Russak & Co., 1977), 90-91, states that while we had a 6-to- I manpower edge fromi967 to 1971 over the Communists, the edge in fighting soldiers was only 1.6-to-I (or possibly lower owing to the forces we had to maintain on security missions). By 1972 it had declined to 0.8-to-i.
  6. Stanton, 53.
  7. Summers, 83ff, suggests that we never came up with a strategy at all. Brig. Gen. Douglass Kinnard, The War Managers (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1977), 25, found in a survey that “almost 70 percent of the Army Generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” As quoted in Summers, 105.
  8. Westmoreland, 144ff, explains the thinking behind his selection of a strategy, arguing, essentially, that he had no other choice.
  9. See Lewy, 77ff. Palmer, 117, describes attrition as the “absence of any strategy.” Thayer, in Thompson & Frizzell, The Lessons of Vietnam, 85ff, also analyzes some of the reasons for the failure of attrition.
  10. Palmer, 110- Ill, notes the prohibition against attacking North Vietnam – the “one sure route to victory” – as well as criticizing the failure to close the Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos. Summers, 102ff, feels we focused our attention not on the “source of the war,” North Vietnam, but on “the symptom – the guerrilla war in the south.”
  11. Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, Strategy for Defeat (San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1978), 63ff, discusses this.
  12. Lewy, 136-138, outlines the new strategy.
  13. Westmoreland, 150, asserts that the helicopter “made it possible to overcome the major obstacles posed by rugged terrain.”
  14. See sections of James Webb, Fields of Fire (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978). Although a novel, this is based on Webb’s extensive combat experience as a Marine infantry officer. The men in my unit also sensed this.
  15. Lewy, 83, notes that only a small fraction of allied operations resulted in enemy contact and that most combats were initiated by the Communists. Thayer, in Thompson and Frizzell, The Lessons of Vietnam, 88ff, agrees, though noting the initiative shifted more in the allied favor after the TET Offensive. For an opposing view, see Lt. Gen. John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Material Innovations (Washington: Department of the Army, 1974), 180. This, like other Vietnam studies released by the Department of the Army that I have seen, seems too optimistic about the Army operations it describes.
  16. Westmoreland, 299. Sometimes, but we had a critically wounded man wait well over one hour for a helicopter on a clear day. If there was a good reason, we were not told.
  17. In a Mad Minute, all soldiers around the perimeter would fire their weapons for at least a minute – with the hope of discouraging enemy attacks.
  18. Although a Sergeant, I had to break in as a rifleman the first two weeks until a squad leader position opened up in my Platoon: good for learning the ropes, bad for undermining one’s leadership position. New men inevitably learned the method their unit was already following. It was difficult for them to make changes, even if they perceived the problem – which I did not at first.
  19. Viewed in this light, the idea of one-year tours may have been a mistake, as it did not necessarily boost morale or add to a soldier’s performance. It unquestionably did irreparable damage to unit cohesiveness.
  20. Grunts questioned why officers only pulled six-month tours. The idea was apparently to give an officer experience in several jobs. Thus his second six months would be served in some other capacity, staff work rather than field command. Robert L. Gallucci, Neither Peace Nor Honor: The Politics of American Military Policy in Vietnam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 126-127, ties in the idea of short tours with the persistence of the attrition ground strategy. He notes that one reason why the Army did not learn more and adjust to flaws in the strategy was that rotation limited “the amount of experience individuals could gain” and removed those just mastering their task.
  21. Lt. Col. Anthony B. Herbert (with James T. Wooten), Soldier (N.Y.: Dell Publishing Company, 1973), 251ff, outlines such a policy which he implemented upon taking command of his battalion. Frederick Downes, The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War (N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), 135ff, describes times when his unit operated in this manner, setting daytime ambushes which were successful.
  22. Summers, 1, notes that he said this to a North Vietnamese Colonel, who replied that it was true but irrelevant.

In the field, it meant that units filled with largely inexperienced soldiers were being led sometimes by equally inexperienced officers and sergeants. The roster of a unit fluctuated constantly (we had four vets leave, and four new men arrive, on a single day). It was impossible to develop a sense of belonging, esprit de corps, which would have made outfits more effective, and would perhaps have compensated for some of the other problems we encountered.

How much intelligence was required to comprehend that men who humped all day could not properly conduct ambushes at night, or that soldiers beating through the boonies with 70-pound loads were not in the best condition for a fight should one develop? Yet many units were expected to do this day after day.  A little initiative and imagination might have suggested an alternative to having units sweep through the bush every day and set ambushes every night, which was practically what we did. Almost never did we remain in one spot for more than 12 hours. Almost never did our presence remain unknown to the enemy for long.