Vietnam: America’s Experiment in Unconventional Warfare


War is a gentleman’s game. Throughout the history of mankind, a natural aristocracy has developed in every society. Whether they were called kings, priests, prophets, chiefs, or shoguns, their duties were identical. While in peacetime they lived lives of extraordinary pleasure, society’s primary purpose for supporting such a class of men was to provide for the protection of their civilization from outside forces. Protecting the society has taken many forms. In Homeric Greece, a coalition princes would go off to battle, each prince with hundreds of ships and thousands of his citizens. During large melee battles a prince would give commands to his troops, yet his primary purpose was to fight in one on one armed competition against an enemy challenger. Homer’s Iliad demonstrates how large battles could be settled by the death of one man. The Trojan Hector challenged the Greeks to send forth a champion to fight him. The victor in the battle would take custody of Queen Helen, whose kidnapping caused the war. The Greeks sent forth the warrior Ajax, and while the champions battle both massive armies sat peacefully on the battlefield to watch the competition. As wars became nationalized, single combat lost favor as the primary method of conflict resolution. The nationalization of warfare, signified by the Greek development of the Hoplite Phalanx, began the era of modern warfare. For the first time in history infantry, artillery and mobile forces were combined under a central authority. Strategy played an increasingly important role in combat. Early strategists saw the importance of placing archers on high ground to improve the range and visibility. The Hoplite Phalanx, a closely packed infantry unit armed with long spears and heavy shields, provided the backbone of the army. It was used to block passages and created a “wall of spears”. The Hoplite Phalanx could charge the enemy, causing deaths or a routing. Horsemen armed with swords were used to harass the archer and Phalanx. The horsemen would attempt to circle around the main body and attack from the rear. They also collected intelligence and acted as the “eyes of the generals”. The Greeks combined infantry, artillery and cavalry to create the modern theory of conventional warfare.

For over three thousand years, warfare followed the pattern set forth by the Greeks. It survived the creation of gunpowder, explosives, the telegraph, the atomic bomb and lasers. The theory of conventional warfare dictates that the nation with the largest, strongest, and most modern army will win the war. The conflict in Vietnam provided a shocking antithesis to over one hundred generations of combat experience.

The Vietnam conflict was America’s first attempt to fight an unconventional war. America provided its troops with the most modern weapons, rapid transportation, strong artillery support, and up to the minute intelligence reports with uncanny accuracy. Using history as a crystal ball one could predict an almost immediate American victory. Yet history was deceiving, and America failed to realize that the war in Vietnam would not follow the traditional pattern, and would prove to become the first major unconventional war in the history of humanity.

While the tactics of conventional warfare are familiar to most Americans, few Americans understand unconventional warfare. Western minds have blended the term “guerrilla fighters” with criminal terms such as murderers, assassins and terrorists. Few westerners would recognize guerrilla fighters to be members of the esteemed class of warriors. Guerrillas have played vital roles in western civilization, contributing to the American revolution and the fight for freedom in numerous third world nations. The term “low intensity conflict” did not develop until the advent of the atomic weapon. In the atomic era, three levels of warfare have been defined. A high intensity conflict consists of a world war or a war fought using weapons of mass destruction. A middle intensity war refers to a regional war fought with modern weapons. A low intensity conflict involved guerrilla and other irregular forces and is fought on a limited scale.

Within the low intensity spectrum there are two distinct methods of fighting a war, counterinsurgency and proinsurgency. Proinsurgency involves supporting guerrillas in their fight against an enemy government. Counterinsurgency, the protection of an established government against guerrillas, was Americas reason for involvement in the Vietnam conflict. America entered the conflict primarily for moral reasons. Americans veiwed communism as a moral evil. America demonstrated their moral outrage against communism in the Truman Doctrine, which promised American aid to nations fighting off communist insurrectionists. America was fulfilling its promises set forth by this doctrine by entering the Vietnam Conflict.

Once American troops were in Vietnam they faced for the first time a completely unconventional war. They were fighting an enemy who had no central leadership. The Vietcong was the guerrilla organization the communists operated in south Vietnam. The Vietcong used ambushes and hit and run tactic to demoralize the Americans. The Vietcong often had support of the locals, making it difficult if not impossible to differentiate enemy fighters and civilians. The theory behind conventional warfare calls for the pacification of the people in a conquered area. America attempted to follow this doctrine, yet failed due to the close ties of the guerrillas and the civilians.America attempted to destroy the northern industry and supply routes with massive B-52 bomber raids. In the wars of the past such raids had destroyed the enemy’s ability to wage war, yet the northern Vietnamese industry was not concentrated in one area, and bomber raids were ineffective. When the Americans bombed supply routes in North Vietnam, the Vietcong reacted by shifting the supply routes so they traveled through the neutral nation of Cambodia, where they were safe from American bombers.

The Vietnamese environment was also against the American troops. Much of the land was dense jungle and swamps. The rainy season could last up to eight months and the air was dense and humid. Disease was also common. American soldiers were issued “shot cards” which listed their immunization records. The American troops were given a regiment of nearly 20 shots to preserve their health while they lived in the jungles of Vietnam.

America was fighting a war for which it was not ready, and American troops were forced to adjust their conventional tactics to fit the unconventional circumstances. America dealt with these problems in two ways; by changing conventional methods and by creating a completely new unconventional style of war.

The conventional tactics, while maintaining their basis in strength, speed, and range, rapidly changed to meet the situation in Vietnam. Traditional warfare is based on territorial conquest and the pacification of the enemy, neither of which was possible during the Vietnam conflict. To protect America troops from enemies who recognized no boundaries, America developed the concept of forward operating bases. A large plain would be cleared and flattened. A stockade fence and barbed wire wound be set as a perimeter, and heavily armed gate houses were at every entrance. Outside the perimeter was a field of land mines, and a large defoliated area to prevent the enemy from making a surprise attack. Inside the perimeter was a traditional campsite for the troops and a medical and command center. The forward operating base acted as a home for the patrols, and allowed America to protect its soldiers in a cost effective manner. They also played the role of a supply depot and a defensive “castle” in the event of a prolonged enemy attack.

The patrols that operated out of these bases were also a new innovation. Small groups of heavily armed soldiers would patrol roadways, search for the enemy, and help direct artillery and aerial attacks on enemy strongholds. The major weapon of the patrols was the m-16, a 7.6 LB .223 caliber automatic capable of firing 800 round per minute accurately to 450 yards. The machine gun used on patrols was the m-60, a 23 LB .30 caliber automatic capable of firing at a sustained rate of 550 rounds per minute at 1100 yards. Both weapons could use uranium tipped antipersonnel bullets, and the m-60 was capable of firing armor piercing bullets and incendiaries.

The patrols also used anti tank rockets known as laaw (light anti-tank weapon) which was capable of piecing 11 inches of armor and neutralizing most North Vietnamese tanks. All American troops were equipped with m-26 fragmentation hand grenades, capable of causing casualties at 30 feet. Also used were the m-14 thermite grenade, capable of burning at 4330 degrees Fahrenheit and able to burn through the engine block of abandoned enemy vehicle. Thermite was also used to set fire to dry fields and to provide an extremely bright signal at night. During the day the white or red smoke grenade was used to screen troop movement or to signal helicopters to a pickup sight. A grenade which first appeared in Vietnam was the cn-dm irritant gas hand grenade. It was filled with the cn tear gas and adamsite, non-toxic chemicals which cause temporary choking, tears, and nausea. It was used in the Vietnam war as a method of crowd control. Tear gas was also used to clear out Vietcong infested tunnel and sewer systems. The American solider in Vietnam was one of the best equipped warriors in the history of combat.

The method of fighting also gave these patrols an advantage. Small patrol tactics had been developed. The father of modern patrol tactics was Major Robert Rogers, a hero of the revolutionary war. His men were train frontiersmen, and his method involved a woodsman’s common sense. He developed a policy, know as “The Standing Orders of Rogers Rangers”, in which he outline modern patrol tactic. The basic idea behind patrols is to act as an intelligence gathering unit, with an emphasis on rapid surprise attacks and quick retreats. Rogers orders took advantage of traditional fighting techniques. His men could not sleep past dawn, use regular paths, or eat without having sentries. Roger’s understood the way the enemy would attack, and was able to take advantage of the situation. Similar concepts were applied in Vietnam. The Vietcong established many patterns, such as using women and children to transport bombs or using established trails to move personnel. America was able to prevent surprise attacks by not creating patterns while taking advantage of the patterns set by the Vietcong.

The missions assigned to these patrols was also unique to Vietnam. The war in Vietnam was a war of attrition, in which America’s only method of winning was to decimate the number of active North Vietnamese army regiments. The “search and destroy” tactic was used, designed to inflict such high casualties the North Vietnamese Army would be forced to withdraw from the war. Once the northern army was out of the war, the south Vietnamese government could deal with the Vietcong. American patrols searched for enemy bases and personnel, and ordered air and artillery strikes to decimate the enemy forces. This plan faced a major difficulty in that 200,000 North Vietnamese men reached the age of the draft each year, allowing the communist to easily replenish the army. While on a tactical level this policy was effective, but on the large scale political level it failed because Americans were unwilling to accept large losses, while the North Vietnamese were forced to.

The air force also used small unit patrol tactics. The major use of patrol methodology came during the rescue of downed airmen. Search and rescue operations recovered several thousand downed airmen during the war. The third detachment, consisting of three men and three officers, was assigned to Tan Son Nhut air base, near Saigon, and was responsible for organizing a network of rescue operation in Vietnam. A lack of manpower and aircraft caused difficulty, forcing them to rely on the army and marines for support. The army and marines were not equipped for rescue operations and often had other priorities. Soon the air force placed more emphasis on the rescue operations, leading to an increase in personnel and the acquisition of combat equipped rescue helicopters. During the war 3,883 men were rescued at a cost of 71 search and rescue men and 45 lost aircraft.

Another group to use small patrol tactics was the Pathfinders, a group of highly trained combat air traffic controllers. The army and air force inserted pathfinders into hostile territory direct air traffic in the area. They often used helicopter or parachutes to rapidly insert and served to direct air traffic during major air movements. They also specialized in establishing landing zones and identifying drop zones for airborne operations. The pathfinders were especially useful in airmobile assaults, were a large number of troops would insert by helicopter. In such large operations the skies were crowded and the pathfinders were needed to avoid incidents.

While patrol methods witnessed rapid change, Americas logistical support network was growing and changing to suit the new battlefield conditions. In order to support a large force overseas it was necessary to develop a system of domicile bases , a method of supplying troops, and a medical system. A strong communication system and a central command was also necessary to win the war. The support system was very important in this war; nearly 45% of the troops were support troops and over 5 million tons of goods were imported to support the war.

The major groups involved in the building of American’s support system were the army’s corps of engineers and the navy’s Seabees. They actively built airstrips, dams, bridges, roads, military camps and a refugee camp. To build their massive land camps they used the roman plow, a large tractor equipped with blades and shredders that was able to remove trees with 36 inch diameters. Much or the rural development in Vietnam was organized by the corps of engineers. They were responsible for building the support system which kept our soldiers in the field.

The Seabees focused on constructing waterfront facilities. American merchant ships averaged 21 days in port waiting to unload goods. The Seabees four major deep sea ports, including the largest at Newport, were capable of handling 150,000 tons of supplies each month. Over 10,000 men took part in the Seabees, and many more operated in the army’s corps of engineers.

The United States Navy was responsible for supplying the nation with most of its war materials. Under the military sealift command the navy shipped fuel, clothing, weapons, and food to Vietnam. More than 500 ships helped the operation. The military sealift command also operated a humanitarian mission, evacuating 40,000 refugees from southern Vietnam at the end of the war.

The naval supply operations were not completely flawless. Vietcong sappers often harassed ships by placing mines in deep ship lanes. It became necessary to have a rapid, safe method of transporting goods and personnel to Vietnam. The use of strategic airlifts became common during the war. The air force was primarily responsible for the transportation of goods and high ranking officers, while normal soldiers would be issued tickets on commercial airliners. It was also necessary to create a system of shipping prioritized parts quickly. The symbol “999” was painted on the crates containing objects of the highest priorities. Spare parts for equipment that was broken was high priority item, and became nicknamed a “red ball” package. A “red ball” package was sent within 24 hours of the request being issued. It was also necessary to move large numbers of troops rapidly to an area of communist buildup. In under a month the air force was able to move over 3,000 troops from Hawaii to the sight of a communist buildup, using transport planes and helochopters.

The medical system developed in Vietnam was one of the most impressive ever established. While in the second world war nearly 30% of the wounded died from their wounds, only 19% of the wounded in Vietnam died. This was partly due to improvement in medical technology, yet also caused by the ability of the medics to evacuate the wounded quickly. The use of helicopter evacuations became widespread in the Vietnam war. The helicopter was very successful in evacuating the wounded quickly; nearly 98% of the wounded were evacuated from the battlefield alive. Once off the battlefield, the wounded were treated by MASH units, medical teams that were deployed in helicopters and used the helicopters as an aerial ambulance. The field hospital was the next step, where the wounded were stabilized. Once stable, they would be shipped to hospital ships surgury, and eventually hospitals in the united states for the recovery.

The leadership of the American troops in Vietnam was highly centralized. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was the central leadership organization in Vietnam. The MACV was responsible directly to the commander and chief of the pacific. The American leadership separated the nation into four tactical geographic zones. On the tactical level, smaller units made the decisions, while MACV was responsible for the nation was a whole. MACV was developed to encourage counterinsurgency operations, and to do so established a mobile strike force command in each tactical zone. Each force consisted of a 12 man special forces team, a Cambodian airborne company, a reconnaissance company and several civilian defense group battalions. The American leadership thus recognized the importance of unconventional warfare while maintaining the nation wide strategic goals.

Americas central leadership allowed troops to focus on national, rather than local goals. Americas goal was to encouraged democracy in Vietnam by eliminating communist insurrectionist through a program of attrition. Americas central leadership used many techniques to reach this ultimate goal of pacification. One failed idea was Project Practice Nine, a department of the defense plan to create an electronic infiltration barrier just south of the demilitarized zone. Although test stages of the barrier where designed, the vast scale of the project prevented its implementation.

More successful ideas were also implemented. The American central command felt that the rural communities allowed the Vietcong to replenish their forces easily, and that pacification could best be achieved by relocating the population to the cities. The policy of rural reconstruction was developed by Colonel Nguyen Be. The basis of the policy was placing a government representative in a village to hear the peoples complaints, to gain the villagers trust, and to root out the enemies among the people. Rural reconstruction worked to some degree, yet improper training, bribery, and an unwillingness of the people to follow the Americans advice led to its overall failure.

Personnel problems also plagued the program; over one quarter of the Vietnamese officials deserted within one year of enlisting in the program. Those areas in which the program succeeded managed to remove almost the entire civilian population from the rural regions into fortified hamlet’s. Over 3,500 hamlets were established, yet most suffered from corruption or Vietcong infiltration. The program ended after the death of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

Depopulating the rural region was a major goal of the central command. Displacing the population, chemical warfare, the destruction of Vietcong villages and the war in general led to a depopulation of the countryside. During the war, up to 35 % of the people were relocated to the sites. It was the belief of the American leadership that the “peoples war” of the communist could not work in an urban society. The “people war” was also unable to be fought effectively in “free fire zones”, areas established by the Americans that would be free of any friendly forces and the subject to massive aerial and artillery strikes. This was an attempt to return to the days of conventional warfare; battle with set lines. The free fire zone became a dangerous symbol in America, where they came to exemplify to indiscriminate use of force by America.

While the majority of American actions were small scale tactical ground missions, central command did operate some large scale aerial assaults on the north. Operation Rolling Thunder was America’s attempt to neutralize north Vietnamese military, industrial, and strategic sights. Attempts were made to eliminate the Vietcong sanctuaries in Cambodia with operation menu, a series of secret, illegal bombings. Operation Bolo was an air force attempt to eliminate the mig-21 strength of the north by luring the planes into aerial dogfights. Yet the most remembered aerial program was Operation Ranch Hand.

Operation Ranch Hand was the air force mission to spread herbicides in Vietnam. Operations began in 1961 and led to the moral question of using defoliation to expose enemy bases. 19.22 million gallons of herbicides were disseminates, covering 5.96 million acres in Vietnam and costing over 100 million dollars. Three types of herbicides were used, agent orange, agent white and agent blue. Agent orange and white produced long term defoliation in woodland plants, while agent blue caused short tern defoliation in agricultural products. The use of these herbicides is still remembers, because of a chemical called dioxin, which caused cancers to appear in war veterans exposed to the toxic herbicides.

Although agent orange is best remembered because of its carcinogenic affects, three other developments occurred in the aerial warfare; the use of napalm, and the development of smart bombs and cluster bombs. Napalm is a combination of napthenic and palmitic acids. It is a jellied gasoline that burns rapidly at a high temperature, rapidly absorbing oxygen and sticking to anything it touches. The widespread use of napalm by dropping barrels out of plains and then setting the whole forest on fire, caused massive outcries in America. Napalm caused severe third degree burns, and because of the inaccuracy of the drops it was very possible to burn ally ground troops.

The development of the smart bomb and cluster bombs were also major innovations. The smart bomb was controlled by video cameras and was able to be guided to its target. This greatly increased the accuracy of bombings, allowing the accurate targeting of bridges, roads, and small strategic installations. The smart bomb eliminated the need for blanket bombings common during world war two. The cluster bomb was the first antipersonnel bomb. The bomb 180,000 small steel pellets designed to disseminate over an area and kill or maim the enemy. Cluster bombs were feared because often they would only wound, rather than kill, the victim.

Another major innovation was the use of the helicopters. The helicopter developed into an armed escort, called a gunship , during the Vietnam war. Armed with rocket lauchers, .50 caliber machine guns and m-75 grenade lauchers, the gunship was able to provide support to ground troops. Eventually a 20 millimeter cannon was added, allowing the gunship to deliver 2,000 rounds per minute while out of the rang of ground weapons.

Helicopters were also used for airmobile assaults, in which they transported ground troops to the sight of the battles. Over 3,600 helicopters were in Vietnam, making it one of the most recognized symbol of the war. In the spring of 1972 America was preparing to withdraw when gunships armed with anti tank missiles fought off a north Vietnamese attack which was supported by numerous heavy tank units. Overall the helicopter proved to be the most successful innovations of the Americans in Vietnam. America became familiar with the common imagery of Vietnam; the napalm, the gunships, and the dreaded agent orange. Vietnam also had a secret side, a dirty little war, played almost like a game. Only now is the American public becoming familiar with such men as the snipers, the SEALS, and those who worked in the hidden realm of the Phoenix Program.

The sniper program was a program operated under the theories developed by Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock. Hathcock was an expert sniper, earning 93 confirmed kills and 300-400 probable kills. He developed a unique method of long range assassination based on the motto “one shot, one kill”

The standard weapon of an American sniper was the modle 70 Winchester .30-06 with a 10 power Unertl scope. The weapon was capable of accurately hitting the target at 1,125 yards. The weapon was also portable and accurate in the field. Snipers were also used to provide protection to forward operating bases. They would set a permanent nest atop a hill with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted with a 10 power Unertl scope and customized for single shot fire. The effective range was 2,000 yard, however confirmed kills have been made with the weapon at 3,000 yards.

Snipers often worked in the field, either alone or with a spotter. The team would be issued a specific target, often a high ranking official, or would operate on a search and destroy pattern. One the team found an area of likely enemy activity, they would build a natural blind to hide in. The snipers were best known for their guillie suits, a poncho camouflaged with various strips of dark colors of burlap cloth. Sniping were able to spend up to two weeks in the field, hunting for enemies. Because they could choose their target, they were one of the most effective type of warrior used in this conflict.

Another elite group used during the Vietnam conflict was the navy SEALS. The SEALS were a commando group specializing in the use of ravine warfare. They were specialist in parachuting, scuba diving, the use of river boats, and the use of commando tactics. They operated in groups of 14 while in the jungle. First commissioned in 1962, the SEALS never grew to more than 200 warriors in Vietnam at one time. Although they were relatively few, they achieved the title of “the most feared animal in the jungle.” The seals used the most advanced and practical strategy of the time. The primary purpose of a seal team was the gathering of intelligence. Under the “chieu hoi” (open arms) program, amnesty was given to former Vietcong fighters in exchange for intelligence and weapons. The navy SEALS used this program to obtain what were known as Kit Carson scouts. These former enemies accepted amnesty and agreed to help lead SEAL groups and patrols into combat.

The SEALS focus was on intelligence, and because of their strong intelligence sources they were able to plan the missions extremely well. Once intelligence had been gathered, the SEALS mission were designed to make quick, strong attacks to the enemies weak spot and escape without taking any casualties. This hit and run tactic allowed the SEAL teams to average over 200 enemy kills for every SEAL fatality.

Seal teams also were involved in training mission and across the border raids. There were 1,835 operations across the border into Cambodia. Under the code name “Daniel Boone” these operations would go as deep as 20 miles illegally into Cambodia to attack the Vietcong sanctuaries.20 The Ho Chi Min trail in Cambodia was another target of the SEALS, who tried to severer enemy supply lines. The SEALS also trained civilian irregular defense groups, village militias fighting for democracy, and the Montagnards, a mountain people from the central highlands who fought against the Vietcong. While the SEALS teams primary missions involved ambushes, training, or intelligence, SEALS also operated in the phoenix program.

The Phoenix Program was the major counterinsurgency operation of the central intelligence agency. The CIA had three major operations in Vietnam. The first operation involved the recruiting and training of 10,000 Hmong tribesmen to attack the ho chi min trail in Laos and Cambodia. The CIA was also involved in the psychological war. Under the auspices of the United Sates Information Agency, over 50 billion leaflets were distributed in Vietnam. They also published billboards, magazines, and had radio stations dedicated to the program. This propaganda campaign was successful in instilling an anti communist feeling in much of Vietnam.

The most cynical CIA sponsored activity was the Phoenix program developed to identify and neutralize the Vietcong infrastructure. The program was very successful, with 67,282 enemies neutralized in three years. Of those neutralized, 31% were assassinated, while the remainder were sentenced to jail. In some regions of the south, the program eliminated up to 95% of the Vietcong leadership. the program was the most effective element of unconventional warfare used in they war, yet it was expensive, costing nearly 1.7 billion.21

The Vietnam war was one of the primary testing grounds for America’s new style of combat. The situation in Vietnam enabled America to prepare itself for future low intensity wars. While America lost the war, the lessons learned have more than compensated the losses. A lesson that was taught by both world wars and Vietnam was that once a new method of warfare develops, the first belligerent to master the new art will be the winner. American leadership was slow to accept the existence of unconventional warfare in Vietnam. It wasn’t until after Americas defeat in Vietnam that the nation accepted unconventional warfare, recently using it to win conflict in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. These recent low intensity conflicts have witnessed the use of snipers, SEALS, and propagandist, along with modern versions of the weapons first used in Vietnam. As new technologies rocket us into the next millennium, we can only hope that our nation will be ready to accept the changes that must come.


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