The tactics used by the Vietcong and US military forces were very different and changed during the course of the war. At the beginning of the war the Vietcong (NLF) army was aggressive whilst the US army was defensive. The Gulf of Tonkin incident became America’s excuse to become aggressive towards the Vietcong.
In 1965 General W. Westmoreland developed the strategy of “search and destroy”. Its objective was to find and kill any members of the NLF. US soldiers found this difficult however as the Vietcong always dressed in civilian clothing, and killing peasants by mistake was not uncommon; “if he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s a V.C.” was the view of the troops carrying out the search and destroy missions.
It was clear from the outset of war that the US had far more technologically advanced weapons than the Vietcong, which they used throughout the conflict. B-52 bombers altogether dropped 8,000,000 tons of bombs between 1965 and 1973which equated to 300 tons of bombs per person living in Vietnam. This was over three times the amount dropped during the whole of World War Two. Aside from bombs the US also dropped a considerable amount of napalm, a mixture of petrol, phosphorous and a chemical thickener which attaches itself to the skin causing horrific “fifth-degree” burns to the victim, which could quite often be an unlucky US soldier. Agent Orange, a complex biological weapon was dropped over a lot of the thick vegetation of Vietnam, causing all plant life to die, potentially to expose any hiding Vietcong.
The US pioneered the development of anti-personnel bombs, smaller than those dropped from the B-52s, such as the “pineapple”, which shot shards and needles of metal in all directions. With the many different developments of anti-personnel bombs it was the US’s aim not to kill the North Vietnamese but to injure them badly. It cost the Vietcong worse in time and resources to help the injured, whilst dead simply needed burying. Ironically, the Vietcong’s supply of explosives for mines and suchlike mostly came from the 800 tons of US bombs that were dropped every month which failed to explode.
In order to counter the powerful and technologically-advanced US army, the Vietcong employed “guerrilla” tactics which had been used to great effect in Mao Zedong’s victory in winning China for communism. The Vietcong were split into small groups of between three and ten soldiers, known as a cell. Cells worked together but knowledge between them was kept to a minimum so that if the cell or part of it was captured and tortured, any confessions made would not damage the Vietcong side very much.
The cells, who dressed in civilian clothing, would move between South Vietnamese villages winning the support of the NLF from the villagers. They would help the peasants, not do anything against their wishes and educate them on poverty and other issues, in exchange for food, political and sometimes even military support.
To defeat the more powerful enemy, a guerrilla has to dictate the terms of warfare to it’s advantage. The Vietcong chose the setting of the borders of the thick dense forests of South Vietnam as ambush was very easy. Another of the technical advances on America’s side was the realisation that the helicopter could directly bring the troops straight into the heart of the battle and get them out again quickly. However there was a massive risk related to this.
Once the US had decided on a landing area for the helicopter it was not difficult for it to be shot and destroyed by the Vietcong even in the few seconds it was touching the ground.
After the troops had been dispatched they would be surrounded on most sides by an invisible enemy hidden in the forest, making the US’s task a nightmare.
It was not that the Vietcong and NLF leaders did not care that thousands of their soldiers were being sent into battle and being killed. It is that they had the will to continue doing so until the US gave up. Physical losses to the US were not as great as those losses from the American person’s view of the war. This I will explain in the next and final question; “Why was there such different reactions in the USA to the country’s involvement in the conflict in Vietnam in the 1960’s.”