Search and Destroy

The American strategy for Vietnam as outlined in a previous essay was to essentially return a Communist-infiltrated countryside to the effective control of the Saigon government. Westmoreland’s strategy to accomplish this end was based around a three stage strategy: (1) Slowing down and containing the VC offensive (Operation Rolling Thunder), (2) resuming the offensive and engaging VC forces (Search and Secure and Search and Destroy), (3) returning Republic of Vietnam government control. It was the second phase of Westmoreland’s strategy, known also as “pacification,” in which combat patrols were dispatched deep into the countryside to ambush VC movement (Search and Destroy or S&D) and to search suspected VC bases of support in local villages and hamlets (Search and Secure or S&S), which has perhaps become iconic in the minds of Americans in representing the failure and barbarity of the war. Discussing the Vietnam War tends to immediately conjure images of villages being torn apart and burned by ruthless and seemingly unsupervised Marines, indiscriminate fire missions which always seemed to cause mayhem to the innocent and crying Vietnamese women holding their dead sons on the side of some muddy road. As historically minded individuals we might be too prone to discard these images as being simply sensational when in truth they reveal the quintessence of US strategy on the ground by the end of the war. Pacification operations, much like the ill-fated interdictions sorties waged during Operation Rolling Thunder, failed, as they do in contemporary conflicts, by utilizing improper tools to the task at hand. Namely in dealing with the rural peoples of Vietnam, US forces utilized a mighty stick rather than an olive branch, and by the end of the war had abandoned all pretensions of S&S, instead relying on more aggressive and ultimately counterproductive S&D missions.

Search and Secure missions were initially designated to garner popular support in the local rural populations while also inhibiting the spread of VC influence. Opening operations tended to adhere faithfully to the doctrine of military reconnaissance in locating VC bases of support, which tended to operate from infiltrated rural hamlets and villages adjacent to Communist supply trails, followed by company-level search and securing of said bases. VC supplies, materiel and weapons caches were destroyed after a thorough search of infiltrated villages, the VC presence was eliminated or repelled and the area marked secure.

US planners became disillusioned with this less-aggressive tactic when it was found that VC forces would often re-infiltrate areas marked secure. However, it was perhaps not the strategy of S&S itself which was incapable of permanently securing areas from VC presence but rather the failings of Operation Rolling Thunder. As Rolling Thunder was ineffective in significantly reducing flow of supplies, men and materiel from the North to the South, VC units which had been reduced by search missions could be reinforced and resupplied via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, enabling them to operate once more in re-infiltrating villages which had previously been marked secure. Had the flow of supplies been deprived to the region the VC forces would have been unable to reinforce their losses and would have, as Westmoreland hoped, starved to death or been eliminated as isolated and cut off pockets of resistance by fresh and logistically supported US forces.

Instead of approaching the problem of uninterrupted supply from another angle, US forces opted to intensify their search and destroy operations in the vain hope that such missions would be effective in fatiguing the enemy into capitulation, blurring the line between “secure” and “destroy.” Missions which were originally intended to increase confidence and support in American forces by repelling coercive influences in Vietnamese communities turned into operations in which American soldiers destroyed villages with abandon and increasingly made use of dizzying displays of firepower called in from fortified firebases or through air support. Livestock and grain stores were destroyed, leading to widespread artificial famine throughout the countryside, and massacres were increasingly common. This radical new tactic to diminish VC presence in the countryside, as Rolling Thunder, failed to achieve any of its objectives, ultimately was not successful in containing Communist infiltration and was one of the most critical factors in undermining the entirety of the American war effort.

The Vietnamese people, already weary of foreign aggression and influence, with an ancient history of stubbornly resisting conquering powers, aggravated with a closed and privileged society, and with little confidence in the corrupt Saigon government, by virtue of American barbarism and indecency, became Communists. The situation in 1963, which appeared dire to the US high command but through careful and serious labor could have been stabilized, was instead exacerbated by blind and ill-tempered use of destruction and technology. Rather than laboring with blood and a steady hand to secure the countryside and offer aid to the rural population, the American forces instead dropped force indiscriminately in the hope that the VC were nothing but a unorganized rabble of bandits and guerillas who would immediately capitulate in the face of such awesome power. This lazy assumption about the Vietnamese resolve, perhaps a product of orientalism, continued to be exercised in the late years of the war, as the US commanders simply accelerated and intensified their brutality, rather than realize their fundamental misjudgment and change tactics completely.

The three phase strategy of General Westmoreland was not perhaps flawed so severely but was executed ineffectively. If supply was cut off to the south of the region, the VC agents there would have surely been in dire straits, unable to reinforce losses or to effectively wage war, short on ammunition and materiel. The Search and Secure missions, operated while the region was deprived of Communist supplies, might have eventually reduced VC presence to what the US initially recognized them as being: unorganized groups of bandits and criminals, to be “mopped up” by superior mobile forces. While Rolling Thunder was a failure, it was not the only way to cut off the supply train. Take the Burmese theatre during World War II for example, a region selected due to its similar terrain: a densely forested jungle landscape divided by highlands and mountains. The Americans had hoped to keep the KMT capable of defending against Japanese aggression by regularly supplying them with lend-lease packages of materiel and vehicles. When Japanese forces moved into and occupied Burma the Chinese were effectively landlocked: there were then no land or sea routes available, the Japanese lines completely encircled the mass of Western China and the KMT army began to starve en masse, soon unfit for combat. The American advisors sent to the region, namely Generals Joseph Stilwell and Chennault found themselves cut off from supply by occupying Japanese forces and through serious attempts at reorganizing Allied forces in the theatre succeeded in both establishing an air supply route into South Western China from India as well as recapturing Myitkyina near the Himalayan “hump” to provide for land-based supply along the Ledo road. Ultimately, the KMT was resupplied and was capable of resisting Japanese aggression long enough for Allied forces to counterattack.

If we extrapolate this scenario to Vietnam we might discover an effective strategy in defeating the VC. The VC, as the Chinese, would have been cut off from all supply if the American forces moved into North Vietnam and physically blocked all access to the South. Air resupply to cut off Communist units would have been impossible, as the Americans exercised complete, overwhelming air superiority. This is what I mean when I infer that the Americans did not seriously labor and instead relied lazily on massive firepower to awe the enemy into defeat. World War II generals realized that only carefully planned offensives to cut off supplies were effective, and in order to reestablish supply lines, they had to recapture enemy roads. The VC and NVA, technologically outmatched, would have never had the force to directly challenge American forces massed against them, and thus, would have been unable to reestablish direct supply chains to the South. If US planners had massed forces along the border leading to South Vietnam while also concerting interdiction sorties against North Vietnamese forces, the South VC would have actually been deprived of their precious lifeline, and would have slowly been reduced by tempered Search and Secure missions. The US status quo strategy, Operation Rolling Thunder, combined with indiscriminate Search and Destroy missions, did not force the enemy to confront them, while massing forces along the border would have: a conflict the Communists were surely incapable of coming out victorious from. While the VC forces tended to shrink away from confrontations they could not succeed in, leaving undefended villages filled with innocent peasants in their wake, victimized by approaching US patrols, survivors enraged and disgusted with US presence in the region, a systematic containment of the physical area of the South would have proved more humane and effective.