The USA employed planes such as B52 bombers to bombard the Ho Chi Minh trail in an attempt to obliterate all industrial and major transportation targets as fast as possible, with the hope that this would sink the morale of the Viet Cong and make the people afraid of the Americans; in turn disheartening them. However, although it managed to disrupt the flow of supplies, extensive aerial bombing did not prevent the North Vietnamese from moving hundreds of tons of war supplies per day down the Ho Chi Minh Trail – which ran from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia – into South Vietnam. The Viet Cong continually built the route into an extensive network of trails and support systems; the bombing was futile as when a section was discovered and destroyed by American planes, the trail was simply redirected through the dense jungle which concealed it from the opposition. When the most visible, truck-navigated sections of the trail were targeted, supplies were loaded onto bicycles that could no longer be detected from the air, hidden by the impenetrable foliage.
In fact, despite intense U.S. bombing throughout 1965, the trail never closed once and it has been estimated that up to 40,000 people were used to keep the route open; their morale and determination were untainted. Due to the ineffectiveness of their initial bombing, the Americans were forced to use their aircraft to drop defoliants onto the jungles to kill the vegetation as they believed that this would uncover Viet Cong soldiers who had been shielded by the forest. It is estimated that 17 million litres of Agent Orange, a common defoliant, were sprayed over Vietnam by the U.S.; although they succeeded in clearing vast areas of woodland, this did little to aid the Americans in their struggle to spot their enemy. The National Liberation Front had built a system of underground tunnels that made it impossible for them to be seen from the sky, which, at its peak, linked VC support bases over a distance of some 250 kilometres.
In heavily bombed areas, Vietnamese troops spent much of their life underground, and the tunnels grew to house entire underground villages, invisible to the U.S. soldiers. Therefore, the use of herbicides was a failure as it didn’t help the American’s to expose the Viet Cong as they had begun hiding below ground. The Vietnamese tunnels resulted in the idea that the USA had an ‘unseen enemy’ that could not be confronted. The Americans response to this was the tactic of Search and Destroy which involved inserting ground forces into hostile territory, searching and destroying the enemy, then withdrawing immediately. This was never so simple as when navigating through unknown terrain, the US had to avoid booby traps (which accounted for 60% of US casualties), such as sharpened stakes coated in excrement placed in covered pits, that were used to delay and disrupt their operations.
Then, in the case of confrontations which usually occurred by ambush, the NLF fought so close to the Americans that it wasn’t possible for them to use air or artillery backup without injuring their own men – this was known as ‘hanging onto the belts’. As VC soldiers didn’t wear uniforms, in populated areas the Americans had no choice but to kill the innocent villagers who couldn’t be distinguished from the NLF. Search and destroy was ineffective as the US were never prepared for ambushes and the long-lasting psychological impact of murdering civilians at random as well as the severe mental fatigue created by the fear of booby traps meant their efforts were significantly hindered.
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