America Fights the Wrong War
By SIR ROBERT THOMPSON
IV the end of 1964 the Vietcong were winning hands down in South Vietnam. While main- taining their control over the villages in the
Mekong Delta and their threat to Saigon from the jungle area of 'Zone D,' they were concen- trating regular units in the central highlands for the coup de grace.
Their apparent aims with this force were to cut Vietnam in half, to secure the entry routes at the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail for the infiltration of major units from the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and to seize vir- tually the whole area south of Danang and north of Nha Trang, thus allowing them to mop up the Hue and Danang area at leisure and then to conduct a full-scale war of movement against all the remaining South Vietnamese forces. This would have provided the classic ending for a Mao Tse-tung-style revolutionary war.
There is no doubt that South Vietnam would have collapsed militarily and politically before this threat but for the arrival of American
combat forces in the spring of 1965. The pre- liminary American task was straightforward—
to secure the enclaves while an offensive strength could be built up. The speed with which this build- up was accomplished was remarkalak. In they came,the Marines, the First Air Cavalry, the 101st Airborne and the First Division, to be followed later by the Twenty-fifth. Their immediate aim was simple—to blunt the military spearhead of the joint Vietcong-PAVN attack. This they got the chance to do at the bloody battles of Ia Drang, An Loc and Bong Son.
The Vietcong contributed to their own defeats, partly because they were committed by theory to a war of movement with concentrated forces and partly because they were deceived by their own propaganda that the United States was a 'paper tiger.' They were prepared, 'therefore, to stand and fight, only to be overwhelmed by tre- mendous fire-power, massive air and artillery support, rapid reinforcement by helicopter and the fighting quality of the American soldier.
These battles have been followed in 1966 by continual intensive 'search and destroy' opera- tions in the sparsely populated areas of the central high/ands and 'Zone D,' north-east of Saigon. It has been the American aim to achieve an attrition rate which would destroy the mili- tary threat of the Vietcong and the PAVN reinforcements. The American farces have been quite prepared to risk moderate to heavy casualties in platoon or company patrols, acting almost as a bait, to make contact with major Vietcong units. Once the locations of these units are fixed, they are given the works with every- thing, from B52s to napalm. American military strategy has been simply to 'find 'em and fight 'em.' This is, happily, in keeping with the basic traditional American concept of strategy as getting there 'firstest with the rnostest.'
So far, so good. Heavy casualties have been inflicted on the Vietcong. defections have in- creased, especially from PAVN units, and con- stant harassment has affected morale. The momentum of the Vietcong advance has been halted.
Sir Robert Thompson was head of the British advisory mission in -Vietnam from MI to 1965.
But there are now indications of a Vietcong change of strategy (after much Chinese prompt- ing and advice). Having discovered that the Americans are not a 'paper tiger' after all, they are tending to avoid full-scale battles and to revert to guerrilla tactics. Their likely intentions are to maintain control over the rural popula- tion and to continue penetration of government- controlled areas; to switch the weight of their attacks away from American forces on to South Vietnamese forces; but, at the same time, to keep American forces fully occupied (as they have to date) chasing elusive guerrilla units round the 'boondocks,' and thereby to prevent them from carrying out any constructive role within South Vietnam.
Just as the American forces were originally helped by the Vietcong willingness to stand and fight, so now will the Vietcong be helped by the one-star generals who regard their tour in Vietnam as an opportunity to indulge in a year's big-game shooting from their helicopter howdahs at government expense. There are, however, a few who realise that killing Vietcong and winning battles does not necessarily mean win- ning the war. As one American general remarked to me at the end of February: '1 can go on killing Vietcong for ever, but where's that going to get us?'
Nor is the development of a winning strategy being helped by the expectations now placed on the bombing of North Vietnam. The bombing itself can be justified politically as a retaliation or 'measured response' to North Vietnamese aggression through infiltration into the South. and justified militarily as a means of reducing or slowing-down that infiltration. In this last respect, all targets so far bombed, with great precision and restraint, can also be justified (but are not, in my view, the real issue). Yet there has been no publicised analysis of the effect which, I suspect, is not as decisive on the flow of infil- tration as the hawks have hoped.
The automatic arithmetical progression which is naturally inherent in all bombing offensives has in turn (as it did in the Second World War) 'escalated' the objectives. These are now `to deter aggression' and `to bring Hanoi to the conference table. This is the miscalculation which is distracting attention and diverting re- sources from the development of a winning strategy in the South.
In the end the Americans must come back to the real war in the villages of South Vietnam. The longer they delay. the longer it will take.
Most Americans accept that their overall aim is to restore South Vietnam as a free, indepen- dent and cohesive country which is politically stable and economically expanding. That alone is winning. This demands that the Vietnamese government must steadily regain the countryside, area by area, through a fully supported and strategically directed pacification programme, and that it must then restore a functioning civil administrative machine to hold it_ Progress in these two fields (as yet almost non- existent). combined with military success, will provide a triangular base on which confidence in the future and a stable, even democratic, government can be built. Only a co-ordinated advance .in this manner will reduce and finally deter aggression. Equally, it is only the prospect of defeat within South Vietnam which will bring Hanoi to the conference table, in an attempt to save at least the Vietcong political underground organisation from extinction (as it brought the Malayan Communist party to the Baling peace talks in 1955).
American generals are quick to claim, just because American forces can be lifted by heli- copter into any jungle valley and win a battle there if the Vietcong want to take them on, that they have the military initiative. This is certainly not the initiative required in counter- insurgency. American and South Vietnamese forces will not gain this until they start to recover, by 'clear and hold' operations, the de- veloped and populated areas of the countryside which are the 'popular bases' of the Vietcong. In this way the Vietcong would be forced to commit their regular units to fight for the reten- tion of these areas, or lose the source of their supplies, recruits and intelligence. It follows from this that American military strategy should not be to deploy the maximum possible forces against the regular Vietcong and PAVN units just to inflict casualties, as it is at present. It should be rather to commit the minimum forces against them, sufficient only to keep the Vietcong dis- persed and off balance. Thus the remainder of the American troops could then be committed to pro- viding the punch and protection without which the pacification programme, still left almost entirely in Vietnamese hands, will not gather momentum.
To develop this winning strategy will require some rethinking on a number of points. First, effective machinery will need to be established to allow the Americans and the Vietnamese to work together in directing and pursuing the war. It is the great appeal of the present military operations and the bombing of North Vietnam that they require only perfunctory co- ordination with the Vietnamese; they form a separate American war which can be fought without any frustrations.
Second, the Americans must cease to be im- patient for quick results. A winning strategy will mean a long war, but, when it starts to go right, time will be on the American side. Strategy must be dictated by the situation in Vietnam, not by American domestic politics. The polls that eventually have to be won are those in Vietnam, not those in the United States in November.
Third, American forces will have to get their feet on the ground and keep them there—in the villages to be held. The helicopter can help, but, if continually used in the present manner, it will merely prolong the strategic error and contribute to defeat.
Fourth, the gathering of processable data for computers should no longer be the purpose of an operation. The Vietcong casualty graphs can be forgotten Protect and regain the peasants, and the graphs will look after themselves.
And, finally, strategy is not born of emotion or impulse The long haul of a winning strategy will require a cool. persistent 'maintenance of the aim' by successive American ambassadors and generals. -Tacitus warned us long ago that 'all undertakings of ill-considered impulse, though strong in their beginnings, languish with time.' The non-solutions of the short-cutters and all attractive diversions must be ruthlessly dis- carded. Otherwise, South Vietnam will be en- tirely paved with American non-intentions.
The Americans have displayed the power. Let them now dispose it to win the glory.
Next week Enoch Powell, MP,. discusses Last Avon's plan for peace in Vietnam.