Vietnamese Tactics & Traditional American Military Strategy Failures
The military tactics employed by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War significantly altered the scope of American military operations, especially Special Forces, because of the failure of traditional American military strategies to combat the guerrilla fighters in Southeast Asia. In December 1965, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), ordered NVA forces to avoid traditional war tactics against American troops entirely, switching exclusively to guerrilla warfare to exploit the weaknesses in their enemy and allowing the Viet Cong to dictate fighting in South Vietnam for the nineteen year conflict (Brigham and Hoffman).
One key to their guerrilla warfare success was utilizing armed Vietnamese civilians. These Vietcong-allied civilians were most effective in the countryside, posing as farmers who worked the fields during the day; however, by nightfall, these apparent farmers planted land mines and booby traps where they knew American personnel would travel, often taking out multiple soldiers at a time (Brigham and Hoffman). Vietcong insurgents posing as civilians were also crucial to the success of ambushes on American patrols and campsites. American forces had extreme difficulty in deciphering who was fighting for the Vietcong and who was simply a civilian. These farmers-turned-soldiers knew the nuances of the geography and topography of Vietnam significantly better than the Americans, which they used to confuse and frustrate American regiments.
Exponentially increasing the problem of Vietcong posing as civilians was the ability of the Vietcong to infiltrate the South Vietnamese army. American troops often sought the help of their allies the South Vietnamese, and would work with and train both the South Vietnamese troops and civilians to fight beside them (Kelly). However, the Vietcong loyalists within the South Vietnamese army created a massive problem for American military strategists, especially where fighting zones were concerned because the Vietcong moles within the South Vietnamese forces were able to discover attack locations and plans and relay this information to the North Vietnamese Army (Kelly).
This picture is an example of one of the types of traps set by the Vietcong. Traps set by North Vietnamese Army soldiers were brutal. They dug holes deep into the ground and covered the bottom with extremely sharp metal spikes. Often the spikes were covered in the fecal matter, ensuring infection for anyone impaled by the spikes. The traps were covered by grass and leaves to camouflage into the surrounding terrain. Unsuspecting Americans who stepped on the false ground were sent plunging into the traps, impaling their feet and legs on the spikes. Often, four or five other soldiers were needed to help remove the wounded soldier from the trap.
A major component of the Vietcong’s guerrilla tactics was the construction of complex tunnel systems under villages that allowed supplies and troops to move freely underneath the ground. The underground tunnel labyrinths allowed NVA fighters to bewilder and terrify American soldiers because the Vietcong were able to surface from the ground in random locations. Entrances to the tunnels were camouflaged with the rest of the ground, and groups of NVA fighters would shoot at Americans from one spot until forced to retreat back into the tunnels, at which point another group of Vietcong would fire upon the same American soldiers from a different spot. When airstrikes and artillery were used to combat the guerrillas, the Vietcong were well-protected in their subsurface systems. Even if an NVA village had been completely seized by their counterparts, the Vietcong continued guerrilla operations from underground. Americans and South Vietnamese forces were disoriented by the web of tunnels weaving beneath their feet.
This diagram maps out one of the Vietcong tunnel systems, located in Cu Chi. The tunnels expanded over 200 miles. The upper levels of the system have fighting bunkers spread out so the Vietcong can attack American soldiers from all angles. Dispersed among the bunkers are various traps in case an entrance to the tunnels is discovered. The second level of the tunnel system hosts the kitchen, with specially designed vents to release any smoke or steam by-products from cooking in a fashion that is unnoticeable to anyone who passes by, as well as the dormitory, where soldiers slept, and supply rooms. The third level includes hospitals and first-aid medical centers for wounded soldiers (Brigham and Hoffman). Complete with food, lodging, supplies, and medical aid, these underground tunnels proved to be a significant boon to Vietcong insurgents when fighting unsuspecting American forces.
By using tunnel systems and armed civilians as part of guerrilla tactics, the North Vietnamese Army constantly remained close to American forces (Bright). The close proximity to enemy forces negated traditional American military reliance on air support and artillery strikes, as the risk of hurting their own personnel was too great. Mortar fire and support was ineffective against the guerrilla tactics employed by the North Vietnamese Army. Using mortar and artillery more often injured Americans than they injured Vietcong.
The Vietcong also used their superior knowledge of the surrounding geography in order to covertly move troops and supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. The establishment of the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through the jungles of Cambodia and Laos, served as a conundrum for top American military leaders. Americans needed to stop these massive movements along the trail; however, bombing and fighting in neighboring countries that were not Vietnam would only serve to severely escalate the war.
The Ho Chi Minh trail was essential to the Vietcong’s success. By running through neighboring jungles of Cambodia and Laos, as well as changing the route frequently, the Vietcong were able to escape American detection of the trail. This untraceable path allowed for the easy movement of people, weapons, and supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, a major key for the North Vietnamese Army.
America prepared to fight a war with its advanced technology, using high-powered guns and specially developed helicopters and airplanes to defeat the enemy. The Americans believed they could combine traditional military strategy with their latest weapons and equipment developments to destroy a seemingly inferior opposing force. Instead, the Vietcong showed that traditional military strategy and strength - even with superior technology - was extremely ineffective against guerrilla tactics. Helicopters like the ones shown above were loud, cumbersome and easily tracked. While they did prove quite useful both offensively and for transporting troops and supplies, the helicopters were easily seen and tracked from a distance. Often upon seeing a helo approaching, Vietcong insurgents would hide in tree cover, underground, or hide their weapons and perfectly disguise themselves as civilians before the pilot even had time to make a landing. The success of the guerrillas caused widespread low morale among United States military personnel.
Here is a copy of a draft letter issued throughout the United States. Those individuals eligible to be drafted were males between the ages of 18 and 25. A majority of those soldiers who were selected for service came segments of the American population with the least amount of political power, pulling large numbers of men from poor and working-class families. Young, inexperienced, and unprepared for carnage and brutality that came with fighting the guerrilla war, soldiers chosen by the Selective Service System were thrust to the frontlines, much to their chagrin.