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To what extent can it be argued that the use of guerilla warfare tactics by the Vietcong against the US military was the key factor in explaining the American lack of success in the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War has been regarded with much controversy – both during the War, and after its conclusion in 1973. This was not only due to the humiliating defeat that America suffered but also because of the contentious hidden reasons for America’s presence there. America came under heavy criticism because it seemed to the world that their presence in Vietnam was purely strategic and economical rather than for the protection of Vietnam’s people as America had first claimed. From the wars outset there was worldwide outrage caused by this controversy, this outrage grew and grew as the war progressed leading to an absolute worldwide lack of support for America’s seemingly selfish war effort. This worldwide lack of support included many protestors at home in America.
This was devastating for the morale of the hundreds of thousands of young ‘grunts’, most of whom had never experienced the true horror of the battlefield. Throughout the war American losses, both financial and military were astounding. Never before had a country with America’s degree of power and worldwide influence been so unsuccessful when combating an economically underdeveloped country such as Vietnam. Admittedly North Vietnam did receive aid from both the Soviet Union and China but despite this, Vietnam has to be seen as a Third World country defending their homeland from the world’s biggest super power.
The aim of this essay is to investigate the main reason for America’s defeat. Possible reasons for failure apart from the effectiveness of the Vietcong guerrilla tactics would include: lack of morale of US troops, inappropriate US military tactics, the shocking images shown in the media coverage, US motives for engaging in this war, their lack of consideration for and understanding of the Vietnamese people, worldwide lack of support for the US war effort, the collapse of support on the home front. All these factors will be considered and compared to the guerilla tactics in order to arrive at a conclusion as to whether guerilla tactics really was the major cause of America’s humiliating retreat.
To fully understand why America was so unsuccessful it is necessary to understand why they involved themselves in a conflict on the other side of the globe in first place. Ever since the war began the true reason or reasons for American involvement has been heatedly debated. The American government and their ‘spin-doctors’1 justified themselves by claiming that they were there to free the people from the oppressing evil communist from the north – Ho Chi Minh. Ho, a national hero to many in Vietnam was a “patriotic fighter”2 for Vietnam’s independence. Ho spent much of his young life travelling in places where communism was actively working, places that had inspired him into his communist beliefs, beliefs that would later propel America into a full war with his people, places such as Russia and China.
At first America had supported Minh and admired his courageous Vietminh troops. When Minh made a speech declaring Vietnam independence, he began by quoting from the American Declaration of Independence. He once said of revolting against their French oppressors – “It was patriotism and not communism that originally inspired me”3. It was not Minh’s patriotism that brought America’s hate for him but rather the way in which he supported Communism so whole-heartedly and the fear that it would spread. The fear of Communism spreading was a great one indeed for America. There is a theory called the ‘domino theory’, which has often been regarded as one of the most prominent reasons for America’s involvement.
The basic idea of the domino theory is that if one country in a close grouping like South Asia ‘fell’ to communism then the surrounding countries would follow suit. America feared that spreading communism threatened the free trade and democratic ideals, which were so important to American well-being and security. America could not afford to lose these things that were such a way of the American lifestyle. The American government was prepared to go to war to protect these ideals, on occasions this represented an idealism on their part – but on others represented a determination to import their capitalist system regardless of the needs of the country concerned.
It is therefore clear as a country should not go to war on their own, unsupported, concerning Vietnam in can be argued that American motives can be seen as unjustified as they were clearly trying to suppress others rights to govern themselves. This fact is supported by the poor state that the Southern government run by Diem and propped up by the Americans was in. Diem held very prejudice religious beliefs in a country made up mainly of Buddhist and was very unpopular for this and other reasons4. This totally goes against the democratic ideals that America holds so dear. With this evidence America appears to have been acting utterly hypocritically and for their own personal gain.
The factor that can be regarded as the most important in America’s defeat was the Vietcong and their use of guerrilla warfare tactics. Guerilla warfare tactics are very effective in certain situations and when used against the American forces they seemed unstoppable. The guerilla tactics that the VC used were based on those of the Chinese guerrillas who fought in the Chinese Communist takeover5. The main idea of guerilla warfare tactics is that of ‘hit and run’; this method proved most effective when fighting the US troops. Many of the VC’s orders came from the vast underground network of tunnels such as those of Cu Chi. Underground facilities such as this one provided the VC with an almost impenetrable fortress. These cities could house thousands of VC troops and their families as well as conference rooms, training areas and in some cases arms factories and hospitals.
Through the use of tunnels the VC had the ability to dig right under US troop’s noses and spring surprise attacks and then disappear back down the tunnels as quickly as they had emerged. Another advantage that the Vietcong had over the Americans was the support of the people. This invaluable commodity gave the VC the ability to move across large areas of lands undetected, as they were able to hide in villages. The VC was also famous for the excruciating booby traps, specially designed so that they could not be removed without tearing even more flesh from the victim. The constant threat of the VC was extremely disheartening for the troops that lived in continuous fear of a VC raid.
The skilful use of guerrilla tactics by the VC completely prevented the US from using their technical superiority effectively. The VC would always try and avoid conventional battles with US troops; rather they favoured picking off stragglers or as mentioned before springing surprise attacks and then disappearing. The troops could not see their enemy and could therefore not use their weapons to destroy them. It is these factors that lead me to believe that Guerilla tactics played such a big role in the US defeat. It appears that many of the other reasons for US defeat were caused, partly of wholly by the relentless use of guerilla tactics. I have already mentioned the way the troops felt battling an unseen enemy, but the importance of American morale or lack thereof cannot be overlooked as a reason for the US defeat.
It is hard for one who has not experienced war to understand life in a soldiers boots, especially that of a grunt in Vietnam. Never before had American troops had to endure as harsh conditions as those experienced on the battlefields of Vietnam. These unbelievably harsh conditions led to low morale in all of the troops. Many things led to this crushing lack of morale; guerilla tactics, inexperienced and young troops (the average age of a soldier in Vietnam was just 19), inability to communicate with or understand the people they were trying to defend and the looks of hatred in the very same people’s eyes. The troops were used to easy living at first with long R&R breaks and short tours, involved more as a precautionary measure rather than to actually enter battle but because the superior firepower was totally ineffective in Vietnam, the troops were put onto the front line. Lack of morale in troops is always devastating to a countries war effort.
A major problem that the US military faced apart from unwilling soldiers was a rife drug problem. Marijuana was readily available in Vietnam and the majority of the grunts were users. This drug did nothing to help the morale level of troops on anything more than a temporary basis. The grunts would often go into battle ‘high’ and this made combating the Vietcong even more difficult and the Vietcong used the US troops use of the drug to their full advantage. Troops quickly found out that most of the battles were hopeless and a bad attitude developed. You cannot win a war when your troops are not willing to fight and the US soldiers were very unwilling to fight. It is for this reason that one could say without a shadow of a doubt that lack of morale was the main reason for US defeat but in my judgement the main cause for the lack of morale was the use of guerilla tactics.
Another of America’s major hurdles in their attempts to uphold a pro-Western government in S. Vietnam was their complete and utter lack of understanding of and consideration for the Vietnamese people. America was unable to combat their communist enemies because they were “unable to win the hearts and minds of the people”6. Many American civilian experts were in place in Vietnam trying to win the hearts of the people by teaching them valuable skills and setting up hospitals and schools.
Civilian and military experts frequently clashed because the civilian experts did not think enough was being done to win the hearts and minds of the people, the military men believed that force was the answer, they would repeatedly be proved very wrong. The already disheartened American soldiers, or ‘grunts’ as they were known found it extremely hard to fight in the conditions they were in. Very few of them knew much of the Vietnamese culture and even fewer understood any of the language. This made dealing with the people they were there to protect, let alone the people they were fighting, very difficult.
On top of the festering heat, ravenous insects and hidden enemies, the inability to communicate effectively with the people frustrated the troops terribly. Eventually the young soldiers came to dislike all of the people of Vietnam, both allies and enemies, making it essentially impossible to win the war. Many of the troops saw the peasants (most of the Vietnamese population) as sub-human. As it became clear that initial American methods were ineffective for the people and their surroundings, more brutal and vicious methods of extracting information were devised, Search-and-destroy tactics resulted in many innocent civilian fatalities. Search and destroy tactics were a result of the frustration at the damage to US troops caused by guerrilla tactics used by the VC but such US tactics in turn reinforced Vietnamese support for the guerrillas.
In 1968 the CIA introduced a system code-named ‘Operation Phoenix’7 whereby tens of thousands of expected VC were sought out and interrogated few of which were said to come out alive. Methods of torture included the insertion of a six-inch length of dowel into a detainee’s ear and then tapping it into the brain until subsequent death, also starvation and electric shock treatment to the genitals of both males and females was the norm. Another famous event that made American brutality evident was the massacre at My Lai on 16th March 1968.
347 unarmed civilians were beaten and killed because they were apparently pro-Communist and harboured VC or were VC themselves. Victims included the elderly, women, children and even babies, who were all beaten with rifle butts, shot and in some cases raped. As the success of this war could not be measured by territorial gain, it became the body count that showed success8. It became clear to all that this was going on through the ever-present media and this did nothing to help America’s popularity or support for their war effort around the world.
The Vietnam War is also infamous for the massive bombing campaigns that America ran. America believed that the war could be one purely through technological superiority. In battles such as the Battle for Khe Sanh, America’s use of superior firepower played a pinnacle role. Unfortunately for the Americans, their superior firepower was useless in the conditions that Vietnam produced and this also frustrated the troops. The bombing runs were ruthless and inaccurate. Many of the most famous images to come out of the Vietnam War were ones portraying the horror of napalm attacks. One such image is the world famous photo of the young girl, Him Phuc, running down the street, skin burned by an American napalm attack.
These images were a product of the massive media presence that existed in Vietnam during the war. This media presence played a big part in the way the world saw America during the war and therefore also their defeat. Photographers and journalists from around the world were sent to Vietnam to document both sides of the war. Many of the ensuing images were used for propaganda for both America and Northern forces. Some believe that the American and North Vietnamese governments put many of the photographers there for propagandistic purposes9, trying to capture images that best portrayed the brutality of the opposing force. Unluckily for the Americans more photos were taken explicitly portraying the American cruelty that that of the VC or NVA. As mentioned above the image of Kim Phuc was seen world wide and devastated Americas already precarious position in many of the world’s people’s eyes.
At the time of the Vietnam war, the world was at a stage where a photographer could take a photo and it would end up on the front page of newspapers around the globe only a day or two later10. This led to even more outrage throughout the world at America, as their actions never seemed to be justified in the first place. Much of the world believed that America had lied about their intentions when they first entered Vietnam and the images seen made these beliefs seem justified. The use of guerrilla tactics once again proves it worth as they prevented a speedy US victory which allowed the worldwide anti-war media campaign to build, and in turn further destroying troop morale. Eventually the support on the home front collapsed and the American people joined in protesting their own involvement in the war. This was another factor that led to the crushingly low levels of morale in the troops.
In conclusion after considering other possible causes for the US defeat, the evidence suggests that the Vietcong the use of guerilla warfare tactics was the main cause for the US lack of success in the Vietnam War. Whilst there were clearly many other contributing factors, I have found that the use of guerilla tactics played a major role in a battle that was fought on the ground, pinning down huge numbers of US troops in Vietnam. Enough damage was inflicted on the troops that eventually sufficient pressure was bought on the US government to pull their troops out.
This was when the war ended, when the US government realised they couldn’t win, this was because of guerrilla tactics. I considered what the outcome of the war would have been had it been fought in a different way and believe this would have made a huge difference to the outcome of the war. The fact that America was in Vietnam for their own strategic interests rather than for the Vietnamese people was a close second in the ordering of reasons. Finally the lack of morale was the third major contributing factor but I found that this was mostly caused by the fear of the unseen enemy that the troops faced caused by guerrilla tactics.