Bitter dilemmas and a new US strategy
By any law of military probability, the Vietcong action against Ky Hoa should have been suicidal. Several hundred guerrillas approached the island in a flotilla of junks and then overran it, practically under the gunsights of a battalion of US Marines on the nearby mainland.
The Marines, with their amphibian tractors, eight-inch guns and armed helicopters, were spoiling to close the jaws on what should have been a classic trap. But when they finally did, all they caught was a handful of guerrillas. Most of the raiders had escaped in broad daylight, in the junks they came in.
As battles in Vietnam go, this one was only a minor skirmish. But it made clear the frustrating array of problems facing U.S. troops as they move into a more active combat role as the buildup goes on.
Once again, the retaliatory response to a V.C. initiative had been slow-moving and late, held up by hours of discussion through channels about committing the Marines.
Complicating the decision was the difficulty of knowing who on the island were actually V.C. and who just plain fishermen. In typical fashion, the guerrillas, wearing peasant clothing, had simply moved in among the 1,500 villagers.
Major General Lewis Walt, in charge of the Marine amphibious force, was caught in the bitter moral dilemma of counterinsurgency warfare: whether to kill presumably innocent peasants in order to reach an enemy who have taken on protective coloration among them.
In this instance, the Marines eventually did shell two hamlets on the island, killing an estimated 50 to 100 of the inhabitants.
Soon many more U.S. commanders will be facing the same problems as General Walt. For if, as seems likely, President Johnson makes the “new and serious decisions” being urged upon him now by his highest counselors, 200,000 American fighting men will be deployed in South Vietnam by the end of the year — and in the event of large-scale intervention by regular troops from North Vietnam, that total could easily be doubled.
The reason is simple: the war is going very badly, and U.S. policymakers no longer feel that the South Vietnamese army alone can fight off the Vietcong.
V.C. battalions, aided by at least nine battalions of regular North Vietnamese troops that have infiltrated the south, now outnumber those of the Saigon government.
The heavy casualty rate South Vietnamese units are suffering, plus a desertion rate which runs as high as 60% in some units, is not being compensated for by new recruits. Instead of the increase of 10,000 men per month in the South Vietnamese forces that the U.S. had hoped for, the rate is closer to 2,000 a month.
MORE: Vietnam War map: Corps to corps (1968)
One problem growing out of the expanding role of U.S. troops is how to mesh their combat operations more efficiently with those of the Vietnamese military forces.
At this stage, no official, either U.S. or Vietnamese, is seriously considering a combined American-Vietnamese command with an integrated general staff and a single commanding officer. Indeed, the U.S. is aware that any move toward a joint command is almost certain to meet with General Ky’s firm resistance.
The rapid buildup of U.S. troops is already having abrasive effects upon the South Vietnamese. “The growing US military presence here,” reports TIME-LIFE Bureau Chief Frank McCulloch from Saigon, “offends the nationalistic spirit of the Vietnamese, who are a proud, sensitive people.
“General Ky is known to nurse a deep and somewhat paradoxical resentment. As a military man, he is completely aware of the reasons and the necessity for the American presence. But as a Vietnamese nationalist, he resents it.”
Along with the increase in U.S. troops a new strategy has evolved to meet the objectives set by President Johnson. It is a system of enclaves (known as the “offensive enclave concept”) carved at strategic spots along the eastern coast of the country.
In accordance with the principles of amphibious warfare, these enclaves, most of them in populated areas near the sea (see map), are “expanding beachheads,” supported and defended by the might of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. From them, U.S. forces will be able to move out, launch attacks against the V.C. and eventually link up with other enclaves.
Psychologically, these enclaves are also useful in soothing the sensitivities of the South Vietnamese over command responsibility. The Vietnamese assign these areas to U.S. commanders who will then assume command themselves.
Meanwhile, U.S. combat units are finding that they still have a lot to learn about guerrilla warfare. In their clashes with the Vietcong they are making many of the same mistakes for which, as advisers, they used to berate Vietnamese units — a principal one being an overdependence on air and artillery support that occasionally bogs them down in sheer logistics.
Said one former US adviser, commenting on the recent highly publicized but relatively ineffective sweep by the 173rd Airborne Brigade through the Vietcong jungle stronghold known as Zone D: “I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t look as though they’d taken every critical report I ever submitted about my old Vietnamese outfit and followed their mistakes to the letter.”
In the morose but knowledgeable words of one senior American officer: “There is, unfortunately, no way for a combat unit to be blooded except to bleed.”
Beyond that, the U.S. may have to decide that complete ruthlessness is the only answer to the moral dilemma the Marines faced at Ky Hoa.
Map of South Vietnam: Beachheads for counteroffensive
The map above shows the enclaves (in red) the US is building up to bolster South Vietnam against the Vietcong attacks and to serve as springboards to launch future offensives.
Except for the airbase at Bien Hoa, the enclaves are all coastal “expanding beachheads” that can be supplied and defended from the sea with the help of the Seventh Fleet. The bases are rapidly being readied for handling the large influx of US troops.