Why Was Military Victory In Vietnam Difficult to Achieve? Analyzing Slides. Battle for the Ia Drang Valley, 1965. Background Information:
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In November of 1965 three battalions of American infantry were airlifted by helicopters into the remote Ia Drang Valley. They engaged large units of the Army of North Vietnam [NVA] as they landed. This was the first significant engagement between the ground forces of the American military and communist forces. After days of intensive combat Americans suffered 234 dead and inflicted as many as ten times that on the North Vietnamese forces.
The battle established many patterns that would characterize the war in Vietnam. Americans would use the helicopter to overcome the obstacles of triple canopy rain forest, rice paddy’s, and monotonous terrain to deploy their forces in the countryside where enemy forces were. Americans would use immense sophisticated firepower to inflict greater casualties on the enemy: overlapping artillery fire support basses, close air support, bombing with heavy bombers.
The Vietnamese would attempt to engage American forces only when they had an advantage: ambush, mines and booby traps were the preferred way to engage Americans. When fighting did occur Vietcong and NVA forces would engage at as close range as possible so as to limit the ability of the Americans to use their superior fire power. The saying was: “fight between the American and their belt.”
Prompts for discussing slide:
What is happening in this slide?
What would this scene sound like if you were there? If you were 10 miles away?
What kinds of things do you know about how the Vietnam War Was fought?
What military advantages does this slide suggest the American’s have in this war?
Are there American disadvantages evident?
What do you think the outcome of this battle will be?Notes for Battle of Ia Drang Valley
In 1965, General William Westmoreland decided on a strategy of attrition to win the war against Communism in South Vietnam. Americans would use their superior technology, firepower, and training to kill more communists than than they could replace. The “kill ratio” and “body count” thus became heavily reported indexes of military progress. In order to bring the fight to an elusive enemy, American’s engaged in “Search and Destroy Missions” whereby platoons (groups of 30-40 men) would walk through the countryside seeking out contact with the enemy. When they found the enemy or were attacked the American foot soldiers would call in artillery or air support to destroy the enemy force. In essence the American foot soldier was used as bait.
200,000 young men came of draft age every year in North Vietnam. American’s never came close to killing that number. Moreover, the American public could never sustain large losses over a long period of time. Ho Chi Minh famously explained that he could lose 10 soldiers for every American killed (and he did) and still with the war (and he did).
Questions for Image I
What are the men doing? Where are they going? Where will they be in a week?
What dangers will they face?
Questions for Image II
What is happening in this slide?
Why might the American soldiers have burned this village?
What would the strategic consequences of this scene be?
What military advantages do the Americans have? The Vietnamese Communists?Notes for: Search And Destroy, pt. I & II
The defoliant known as agent orange (so called because of the orange barrels it was shipped in) was used in South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. The idea was to deny Vietcong and NVA forces the cover provided by dense jungle terrain, particularly along the so called “Ho Chi Minh Trail” over which supplies and munitions were brought into the South. Agent orange is responsible for cancers and other health problems for the American servicemen exposed to it and greeted a lasting ecological catastrophe over large areas of South Vietnam.
B-52’s were used in so called “Arc Light” missions to indiscriminately bomb “free fire zones” of South Vietnam. These were areas were any person was presumed to be VC.
After the war, General Westmoreland and other would complain that politicians insistence on limiting the war to South Vietnam made victory impossible. Westmoreland wanted to invade and destroy the government in the North as well. Policy makers feared a broader war with China and the USSR as had happened in Korea when American forces pressed North.
Though limited in the sense that the ground war was not extended to the North, more bombs were dropped on the North and South than were dropped by all sides during WWII. Is the levels of firepower unleashed on the Vietnamese best described by the phrase limited war?
Questions for Agent Orange Slide
What does the series of slides show? What is are the planes spraying?
Why are the Americans doing this?
Robert Kennedy speaking of the Wars excesses in his 1968 Presidential campaign quoted the Roman General Tacit us saying: “Rome came, made a desert, and called it peace.” Does that quote apply to these pictures?
What would the long term consequences of this be?
Questions for Arc Light Slide
What was this plane designed to do?
Is this an effective weapon for this War?
Why would Americans use B-52’s to fight a counterinsurgency guerilla war?
Was this a “limited War”?Notes for: Agent Orange & Arc Light
What is happening in this slide?
What is going to happen to the people?
Was this a successful attack by the American’s?
What are the consequences of this kind of attack be in South Vietnam?
If you were watching this at home on TV in 1971 (you can see video of this seen on You Tube by searching “Napalm” in google video or on the You Tube site) what would you feel about the war? About your country?
In a speech against the Vietnam War in April 1967, MLK said: “This business of burning human beings with napalm..cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” Do you agree with Dr. King?
Nick Ut won a Pulitzer prize in 1972 picture of burned 9 year old Kim Phuc fleeing her village. This has subsequently become an iconic image for the war. Ms. Phuc after a lengthy recovery supported by the photographer has subsequently become a peace activist.
As Americans engaged on a battle of attrition and search and destroy on one hand they had to fight a battle for the loyalty of the Southern populace on the other. The latter battle was often referred to as the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. The tension between the two is well illustrated here. An American Officer commenting on the destruction of the village of Ben Tre memorably captured America’s problem by saying: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Napalm was a signature weapon of the Vietnam war. It is essentially gasoline made into a sticky gel by adding plastic. Napalm became a kind of brand name for immoral warfare. Student protestors at the University of Wisconsin refused to let Dow Chemical recruit on campus as a statement of moral revulsion over the use of napalm against villagers in Vietnam.
More broadly, as the American public viewed the consequences of the war and civilian casualties like the one pictured or most famously the massacre at Mai Lai, there support for the war vanished. It seemed to many that America did not hold the moral high ground.Notes for: Pacification
After Nixon took office in 1969 and the United States began a new strategy called Vietnamization whereby American troops would withdrawal and turn the war over to their South Vietnamese allies. By 1971 fewer than 200,000 soldiers were on the ground in Vietnam and that was reduced by another 45,000 in that year.
As it became clear to everyone in the nation that our leaders were looking for a way out of Vietnam, discipline in the ranks deteriorated. Incidents of “fragging” or killing officers with fragmentation grenades because they were too gung ho and were endangering soldiers lives in a lost cause became legendary. Some 230 officers were killed by their own men in Vietnam and 1400 died under mysterious circumstances.
Drugs, especially opium, heroin, and cannabis were easily and cheaply available to American troops on the streets of Saigon. In the later years of the war military hospitals treated more soldiers for drug abuse casualties than battle casualties.
The decline in discipline, particularly among reluctant draftees in the later years of the war were a lasting cost of the war. It would take the military a generation to rebuild its professionalism after this blow. The problems with drugs and decline of military discipline also reflect the profound divisions that the Vietnam War created in American Society at large
Questions For Images:
What do you notice about the soldier in the tank?
What is a hippie? What era do you associate hippies with?
Why might this soldier want to declare himself to be a “hippie”?
What is the soldier smoking?
Why might drug abuse be a particular hazard to American soldiers in Vietnam?
What era do you associate with drugs and drug culture?
If you were the man’s officer and you knew he was smoking pot, what would you have done?
What does the decline of discipline in the military these photos show say about the costs of the Vietnam War?Notes for: Military Discipline