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October 02, 2004

The Attrition Strategy in Vietnam: Intended as WW III Prep?

All the fuss about Kerry's Vietnam service has made me read about the Vietnam War. One of the striking feature of the war is the incompetence of American strategy under President Johnson and General Westmoreland. The "big units" war, with its "attrition strategy" seems to have involved sending over huge numbers of American draftees for short terms in Vietnam, led by officers who were also rotated rapidly in and out. While there, the troops were sent on patrols, often in jungles of no strategic value, so as to attract enemy fire and allow the Americans to respond with superior ground and air firepower. The stated reason for this was that we would end up killing more Communists than they would kill of our troops. ...

... Then, after 1969, the number of American troops dropped drastically and the strategy changed to using South Vietnamese troops, to killing off Viet Cong village leadership (the Phoenix program), to hitting the enemy in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, and, generally, to fighting sensibly. Results were far better, with far fewer U.S. troops, and by 1972 the South Vietnamese could resist a major North Vietnamese offensive with hardly any involvement of US ground troops, though with heavy US aid and air support.

So why did we have such a dumb strategy before 1969?

(Incidentally: the period of dumb strategy largely corresponds to the period of popularity for the war too-- partly because it was the Democrats who were responsible for it, partly because its folly and ailure took a while to sink in.)

I have a novel possibility. Was it that the generals thought the Vietnam War was a stupid idea, and were trying to get at least some good out of it as practice for World War III? Remember, the military focus in the Cold War was on tank warfare in Germany. That mattered a lot more than some little country in Asia. When ordered to Vietnam, the generals may have thought to themselves that this was a foolish mission-- that there wasn't much they could do, and it wasn't worthy trying. What use, then, might be made of the situation? Well, it was a chance to give the junior officers some practice under real fire. If they were rotated in and out quickly (necessary since this would probably be a short war), they could all get a chance at some practice. Moreover, we could train our reserves that way too. These draftees would get some practice under fire, and could be returned to service if another World War broke out. The best tactics for this purpose would be to send the troops out on meaningless patrols, so they would get shot at and learn how to keep their heads down. Something like invading North Vietnam, on the other hand, was to be avoided at all costs, because that would result in a genuine war, like the Korean War, that would be a distraction from Europe and might end the careers of the generals in charge if things turned out badly.

Far-fetched? Maybe. I could probably be disproven by someone who knew the historical record. But this theory makes some sense out of our strategy in the first half of the Vietnam War.

Posted by erasmuse at October 2, 2004 05:32 PM

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