One should start by saying that the Vietnam War was the US longest and bloodiest war that was fought between 1957 and 1975. The allied “good guys” were the United States, South Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, new Zealand and the Philippines. The “bad guys” were represented by North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front (NLF) Viet Cong. The Soviet Union and China would provide the military equipment to NLF. Speaking about the number of the US armed forces that fought in Vietnams from 1963 till 1973, I would like to note that it was about 2.6 million people, while overall over the same time period about 9 million people were in the military service of the USA. It should be added here that the US soldiers who served in the US army during the Vietnam war yet did not serve in Vietnam, are still called the Vietnam Era veterans (Karnow 35).
Speaking about the US war for independence from the Great Britain one needs to remember that one engaged in the asymmetric warfare to assure long-term victory over the British Troops. The Great Britain at the time of the US war for independence was one of the few strongest nations on earth and had enough resources to defeat any army let alone American insurgents in an open fight.
The tactics the US rebels employed were based on the hit-and-run concept. The US guerillas would attack the British haphazardly and immediately hide in the woods (O’Brien, 150). The US solders understood that they would never defeat the whole British Army in one coup, so they attacked it at the time it was not ready for a fight. The key to success was to keep the British Army always ready for a fight at the time when no one would attack them, and attack them when they strived to relax. After each attack, regardless of how successful it was, the US guerillas would run and hide, leaving the British Army in wonder and awe.
Ultimately, the economics did what US guerillas strived to achieve. Since Great Britain was a well developed and rich nation, it cost a fortune to maintain large troops abroad especially when they faced no real enemy. Still, reducing the number of troops in the USA meant that the British soldiers would be killed one by one by guerillas. Maintaining large troops in the country which did not bring the Great Britain much revenue proved prohibitively expensive, especially taking into account the wars in Europe, that again demanded British Troops. Once it proved to be cheaper to give up America to Americans than to maintain troops there, the British Crown agreed to grant America its independence.
Vietnamese soldiers attempted to use classic Maoist insurgency tactics as depicted below:
When the enemy advances, we withdraw. So Vietnamese avoided direct confrontations with the Americans at all costs hiding and mingling with the native population.
When the enemy rests, we harass. Whenever the US sets up a camp, one would typically have several Vietcong soldiers in the neighborhood with sniper rifles trying to shoot US officers or regular soldiers (Arregumn-Toft, 32).
When the enemy tires, we attack. Ultimately, when the US seems to not to be expecting the fight, they attack. Typically they use counterattacks, assuming that the US forces get tired.
When the enemy withdraws, we pursue. By the same token, whenever Americans flee the war scene, the Vietnamese would pursue them and shot bloody Americans GIs in the back.
The reason why the Vietnam communist and guerilla movements was based on rural areas is because these are the areas that could have been controlled the least by the government. While the major populated cities could be secured with the military to protect the infrastructure, it was not economically justifiable to send the military to secure the villages that produced nothing but some rice and cattle. Still, these villages oftentimes also produced the Vietcong guerilla fighters and served as harbors for insurgents. The guerillas had the following strengths and weaknesses:
Insurgents were brave and were not afraid to fight a well-prepared and well sponsored enemy with assault rifles and guerilla tactics. The government forces possessed all modern technology, yet did not truly make large advances into the North Vietnamese territory.
Insurgents were quick to strike and hide. The government was not quick enough to detect them and punish them. The only thing it could do was to bomb civilian settlements or organized military formations of insurgents (Bellany 80).
Insurgents were patient to spy on the enemy forces and then strike them when they would expect the strike the least. The government did not have a clear vision of who to kill, and what to do after killing the insurgents.
Insurgents used propaganda well to stir up masses against the Americans. The government did not use the propaganda properly to overcome the insurgents (Wiest, 287).
insurgents did not have enough military equipment to drastically challenge the US air forces until the end of the Vietnam war. They could have ended the war much sooner. The government was well prepared militarily, it could resist any attack from the insurgents at any time.
Insurgents were outnumbered by the US and government troops so were unable to make large scale massive attacks required for capturing cities. The government and Americans had enough troops to capture numerous cities, yet did not want to risk the lives of the soldiers in vain (Karnow, 90).
The objectives of the Vietnam communist insurgency were to destabilize the government and the US forces, stir up the population to oppose Americans and support the communists with arms as well as to kick Americans out of Vietnam by making them incur numerous casualties (McNab, 107).
The US government would initially try to adapt to this kind of asymmetric warfare by employing highly mobile troops of US rangers, special forces and marines, which were very effective in small groups. Still, the fact that the Viet Kong soldiers were adapted to the climate better and new the territory well they would overpower these US attempts to resist the insurgents (O’Brien, 145).
The next thing the US government decided to do was to bomb civilian houses, towns and villages. Americans would use napalm heavily to burn the jungle and civilians who were actually the Viet Kong insurgents. Such tactics were rather successful in terms of fighting the insurgents, yet also caused numerous civilian deaths. The US would stop destroying civilian settlements from Air after the Soviet Union would send mobile anti-aircraft missile launchers to Vietnam to effectively resist the US advances on air.
The modern day terrorists utilize exactly the same tactics as the Vietnamese insurgents and have to be fought in the very same manner, i.e. through mobile groups of rangers. Yet, as it had been in Vietnam, these insurgents are likely to drastically harm the US troops on the territories that they know well.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the communist insurgency in Vietnam was had proved that asymmetric warfare can be extremely important and effective against a more powerful and well-equipped enemy. Irregular, rapid, low-intensity strikes, the use of propaganda, and intimidation would bear fruit causing numerous casualties among Americans and South Vietnamese. Ultimately, the North Vietnamese achieved what they needed, kicked out Americans and captured South Vietnam. The modern day terrorists do not differ much in their tactics and strategies from the Vietnamese insurgents and are expected to cause much damage to the US troops on the territories they know well. It thus, proves that diplomatic rounds of negotiations despite certain disadvantages will prove to be most effective in communication with these insurgents.
Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History, NY Random House, 2000.
Wiest, Andrew, The Vietnam War 1956-1975, Wiley and sons press, 2001.
McNab, Chris, The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War, Penguin books, 2001.
Frankum, Ronald, The Vietnam War for Dummies, Barrons books, 2002.
Young, Marilyn, Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, NY Random House, 1999.
O’Brien, Mike, Morality in asymmetric war and intervention operations: Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies, RUSI Journal, vol. 89, 2001, pp. 143-149.
Bellany, Ian, Fighting asymmetric wars: An application of Lanchester’s square-law to modern warfare: Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies: An article from: RUSI Journal, vol. 12-18. 2003, pp. 78-92.
Arregumn-Toft, Ivan, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict (Cambridge Studies in International Relations), Barrons books, 2000.
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