Not everyone agreed with Westmoreland’s approach. The CIA predicted the enemy would avoid major confrontations and thereby preclude a high attrition rate. The VCNVA could control the war’s pace, scope, and intensity by withdrawing into their sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos, and north of the DMZ if they began suffering unbearable losses. Quickly disillusioned with Westmoreland’s pursuit of a military victory, McNamara and other DOD officials favored a more defensive posture that would, over the long haul, frustrate the enemy’s strategy. Some military officers, including Admiral Sharp, thought the VCNVA had such a high tolerance for casualties that they would outlast the U.S. in a war of attrition. And the Marine Corps, especially Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, favored a counterinsurgency strategy, based on the belief that population security was crucial. Instead of pursuing the enemy’s big units, the III Marine Expeditionary Force of two divisions favored Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), MEDCAP patrols, and Stingray operations. Consisting of a Marine rifle squad linked with a local militia platoon, a CAP provided a village continuous protection; wherever a CAP existed, security improved. MEDCAPs offered villagers immediate medical assistance. Small, long-range strike teams equipped with secure long-range radios were called “Stingrays”; backed by quick-reaction forces, they avoided excessive destruction and casualties, especially among civilians, by calling in air strikes and artillery with terminal guidance. The Corps viewed small-unit warfare not as a supplement to big sweeps but as an alternative to them. Westmoreland despised what he considered the Marines’ timidity and pressured them to forget pacification and start killing NVA. Despite its commitment to pacification, the Corps could not avoid fighting a number of big battles along the DMZ. Fought almost exclusively against the NVA, which was concentrated in I Corps in 1966–1968, these slugfests were reminiscent of World War I combat. Nor could the Marines completely compensate for the South Vietnamese government’s incompetence or the cruelties inflicted on peasants by wanton firepower.
Despite festering doubts, the first big search and destroy operation began in late 1965, resulting in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. During the engagement the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) survived its initial combat test. Going to war on rotor blades rather than legs or wheels, the 1st Cav represented a novel concept, since it depended on helicopters for mobility, fire support, and reinforcements. Dropping out of the air into the enemy’s midst, the Cav endured near-catastrophes at Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray and at LZ Albany. Only firepower from helicopter gunships, warplanes (including the first use of B-52s in a tactical support role), and distant artillery saved the Cav. When the fighting ended the division had 305 KIA and 524 WIA, but its commander claimed victory because, according to U.S. military records, the NVA suffered 3,561 KIA and withdrew from the battlefield. Having out-killed the enemy approximately ten to one, MACV believed Ia Drang had validated the attrition strategy. As American forces expanded, Westmoreland sought to replicate the battle. Beginning in 1966 the U.S. conducted a succession of multibattalion (sometimes even multidivision) operations, each designed to find PAVN or VC units and pulverize them with unprecedented firepower. Soldiers also conducted scores of smaller missions. Repeatedly the return in enemy killed and base areas disrupted was disappointingly small when compared to the tremendous effort expended.
An essential concomitant to the ground operations was an air war, which was as fragmented as ROLLING THUNDER. Headquartered in Saigon, the 7th Air Force controlled Air Force planes based in South Vietnam and Thailand. In I Corps the Marines employed their own helicopters, as well as F-4s, A-4 Skyhawks, and A-1 Skyraiders. Carrier-based Navy planes bombed throughout South Vietnam, while the Army utilized its helicopters to move men and material and provide tactical fire support, and provided airlift capabilities with its turbo-prop and jet transports. Beginning in June 1965, SAC’s B-52’s conducted huge “Arc Light” strikes against enemy base camps, troop concentrations, and supply lines; the number increased from 1,538 in 1965 to 6,611 two years later. Finally, South Vietnam’s Air Force supported ARVN. Unlike ROLLING THUNDER, the president imposed few restrictions on these air wars since neither the Soviets nor Chinese cared if the U.S. bombed its ally’s homeland.
Before the war ended approximately 4 million tons of bombs fell on South Vietnam, which was more than four times the tonnage the U.S. dropped on the North. Yet reliable data on the bombing’s effectiveness was scarce. Post-strike ground surveillance was rarely adequate; pilot reports were subjective; and dense foliage, foul weather, and the enemy’s clever tactics limited visual and photo reconnaissance. Although NVAVC prisoners often described the terrifying psychological impact of Arc Light strikes, the lack of evidence regarding their physical effects dismayed 7th Air Force’s commander, General William W. Momyer. Without hard data on what the bombing did to the enemy, the number of sorties and tonnage dropped often became less than satisfactory measurements of the air war.
As it turned out, the attrition-firepower strategy was flawed. Having suffered from U.S. firepower at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley and in several subsequent conventional engagements, the NVAVC began avoiding large-scale confrontations. One reason why so many operations did a lot of searching, but not much destroying, is that the U.S. had a difficult time actually finding enemy forces. Simply stated, the NVAVC refused to be found—except when they wanted to be. Approximately three-fourths of all encounters were at the enemy’s choice of time, place, and duration, and more than 96 percent were with company-size or smaller units, making it difficult to inflict unbearable attrition. When Americans did encounter the enemy, the result was usually not a pitched battle but a “firefight,” a brief, vicious exchange of gunfire at close range, often ignited by an enemy ambush in which the NVAVC fought on carefully selected terrain and from well-constructed defensive positions. As the 101st Airborne’s Major General Olinto Barsanti put it, “Enemy contact in the jungle usually occurs at point blank range, and more often than not the enemy will enjoy the advantages of fortifications, snipers in trees, communication trenches, and minefields to the front and flanks.” Enemy positions were so craftily camouflaged that not even the gun flashes were visible. Because the opening fusillade momentarily stunned those still alive in the ambush zone, the grunts’ return fire was initially sporadic. When they began fighting back in earnest, they established a defensive perimeter and called for external firepower support.
Several factors reduced the lethality of American firepower. Frequently the Communists incorporated a withdrawal phase into their plans and “retreated” before shells, bombs, and helicopter aerial rocket artillery (ARA) gunships arrived. Even if they did not withdraw, the NVAVC rarely endured firepower’s concentrated fury. Fearing friendly fire incidents, artillerymen and pilots did not want shells or bombs to hit close to a friendly unit. Consequently, enemy tactics emphasized “hugging” the Americans and fighting at close quarters. Vast in quantity, firepower often landed well away from U.S.—and close-by enemy—positions. Applying firepower often required a delicate choreography: To avoid hitting each other in midair, ARA, bombs, and shells struck sequentially, not simultaneously. And fire support often came only from ARA and shells. The Army called for air support in only 10 percent of its engagements, primarily because half the ground encounters lasted less than twenty minutes, and many others were too small to warrant outside assistance. Planes that diverted from preplanned missions to meet an emergency arrived over the battlefield in about twenty minutes—just as many firefights ended. If planes “scrambled” from their bases it took twice as long to reach a battle, by which time the enemy was often long gone.
Much firepower was wasted or counterproductive. In 1966 the Army fired only 15 percent of artillery rounds in direct support of troops; the rest went to “harassment and interdiction” (H&I), which meant firing into pretargeted areas where the enemy might (or might not) be. In 1967 an estimated 350,000 tons of H&I shells killed, at most, one hundred NVAVC. Firepower also increased American casualties. Shells and bombs sometimes fell short or went long, or hit the wrong target; an especially grim friendly fire episode occurred in November 1967 near Dak To when an artillery round fell short and a bomb hit a company command post, collectively killing forty-three men and wounding forty-five. Approximately 2 percent of shells and 5 percent of B-52 bombs were duds. The enemy was adept at locating duds and converting them into mines and booby traps. Although not all mines or booby traps came from dud munitions, many did, and in just the first half of 1967 these devices killed 539 Americans and wounded 5,532 more.
Finally, indiscriminate firepower was counterproductive because it killed and maimed South Vietnamese citizens, destroyed their property, and forced people to flee their farms to avoid shells, bombs, and the chemical defoliants (known as Agents Orange, Blue, White, Purple, Pink, and Green) that poisoned the landscape. Between 1965 and 1972 more than 400,000 civilians died and at least double that number were wounded; 20 percent of the population became refuges between 1964 and 1969; and so many fields went untended that Vietnam had to import rice. “Every artillery shell the U.S. fires in South Vietnam might kill a VC,” noted one CI expert, “but surely alienates a Vietnamese peasant.”
When the NVAVC did not want to fight or were hard pressed, they sought safety in Cambodian or Laotian sanctuaries, slipped across the DMZ, or hid inside the South. Since the president forbade Westmoreland from pursuing enemy forces into Cambodia, Laos, or North Vietnam, it meant the NVAVC dictated the frequency and intensity of combat and therefore had substantial control over their attrition rate. As for hiding, an NVAVC unit could disperse over a vast area, hiding among lowland hamlets or under the Central Highlands’ triple canopy jungle. With minimal logistical requirements units rarely stayed in one place for more than a few days, and when on the move they exploited U.S. operational patterns. For example, infantrymen were reluctant to operate beyond the range of artillery support. Since 105-mm howitzers had a range of no more than 10,000 meters, the enemy drew 10,000-meter circles around U.S. fire bases housing the 105s and stayed outside the circles. Or they moved at night or during foul weather, which grounded reconnaissance planes and helicopters. And the VCNVA excelled at military intelligence, in part because American radio communications personnel rarely took adequate security precautions. As one general confessed, “The enemy knew everything there was to know about us,” including when, where, and under what conditions the U.S. was going to strike, which made it easy to avoid contact. The Communists were also camouflage experts: Tunnels and bunkers were so well concealed they were invisible from even a few yards away. The most famous example was at Cu Chi, where tunnels allowed the VC to live near—even directly under—the 25th Infantry Division’s base camp.
One final way the VCNVA avoided American firepower was to rely on “economy of force” measures, such as snipers, booby traps, mines, and standoff attacks. Snipers killed or wounded a grunt here and there, but booby traps and mines truly haunted soldiers. From January 1967 through September 1968, booby traps and mines accounted for approximately 25 percent of all soldiers and Marines who died. Frequent indirect attacks by mortars and rockets—more than 32,000 of them in 1967 and 1968—added to the fear and frustration. Rarely did these measures cost the enemy more than a few bullets, some explosives, or a dozen or so mortar rounds and rockets. In a typical example, during one month a U.S. company had four men KIA and about thirty WIA from booby traps and mines, yet not one of the grunts saw an enemy soldier or fired a single shot.
U.S. inexperience, which made combat units less effective, aided the VCNVA in reducing the effects of American firepower. Westmoreland maintained the standard prewar one-year rotation policy (thirteen months for Marines) to spread the burden of service and to sustain morale, but the results were lowered combat proficiency and a higher casualty rate. Units endured renewed inexperience as veterans completed their tours and novices assumed their places. Not only did this exact a steep price in unit cohesion, but the newcomers fought against seasoned enemy soldiers who served for the duration. The failure to capitalize on hard-won experience had mortal consequences: Twice as many grunts died in their first six months as in the second half of their tours. Adding to the inexperience and detracting from combat effectiveness was the six-month tour for battalion commanders.
Westmoreland, said an officer, “couldn’t have found a better way if he had tried, of guaranteeing that our troops would be led by a bunch of amateurs.” While a six-month tour helped train officers for the next war and nourished their careers, it had deadly consequences in the current conflict. According to a DOD report, in those unusual instances when battalion commanders held their position for more than six months, their units “suffered battle deaths ‘in sizable skirmishes’ at only two-thirds the rate of units under battalion commanders with less than six months’ experience.” Operations that repeatedly moved units from place to place compounded the inexperience of both grunts and officers. “Every time we were getting familiar with an area, we moved to a new one,” lamented a platoon leader. “The enemy always knew the territory. We were strangers wherever we went.”
Despite all their efforts the VCNVA died in large numbers because U.S. ground and air operations were so continuous and American firepower so awesome. But exactly how many perished? One difficulty in assessing the attrition strategy was the “body count,” which became a crucial measure of progress. As with efforts to assess the air war’s effectiveness, reliable data regarding enemy deaths was rarely available. Many body counts were fictitious because getting an accurate count under combat conditions was dangerous. When the NVAVC learned that Americans scoured battlefields looking for corpses, they planted mines and booby traps, posted snipers, and set ambushes. Rather than make an actual count, officers gave estimates, which headquarters rarely questioned unless they seemed too low, in which case negotiations ensued that arbitrarily increased the number. Another factor that inflated the count was including civilian deaths, since many soldiers acted on the slogan that “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.” One of the president’s advisers alerted him that MACV’s numbers were suspicious because “nobody seemed to know how many innocent bystanders, impressed baggage carriers and others have been included in the VC ‘body counts.’” More than 60 percent of the generals who responded to a postwar survey considered the body count a fraud.
Compounding the inflated body counts was the difficulty of knowing how many VCNVA the U.S. was fighting. In early 1967, when MACV estimated VC strength at 277,150, the CIA’s special assistant for Vietnamese affairs believed that number should probably be doubled. Since field reports routinely overestimated enemy dead and MACV underestimated the number of VC, was the attrition strategy really working? Westmoreland was sure it was. In part because MACV arbitrarily removed self-defense forces, secret self-defense forces, and the infrastructure from the enemy order of battle (though it still added the dead from these categories to the body count), he calculated the VC numbered only 224,651 by the end of 1967. So great were enemy losses that Westmoreland believed he had crossed the crossover point; in a speech at the National Press Club he announced Communist hopes were bankrupt and an American victory imminent. Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson was not so sure. “I only hope that he has not dug a hole for himself with regard to his prognostications,” he wrote. “The platform of false prophets is crowded!”