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Soldier of a VC Main Force Unit. They shared common arms, procedures, tactics, organization and personnel with the NVA- North Vietnamese Army.
Ho Chi Minh

During the Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War, a distinctive land warfare strategy and organization was used by the Main Force of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (better known as the Viet Cong or VC in the West) and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army/People's Army-Vietnam) to defeat their American and South Vietnamese (GVN/ARVN) opponents. These methods involved closely integrated political and military strategy what was called dau tranh. Dau tranh is examined and compared to the counter-strategies of opponents like the US and ARVN, then discusses NLF and PAVN structure and organization.

The National Liberation Front, (NLF) identifies an umbrella of front groups, sympathizers and allies set up by the rulers of North Vietnam to conduct the insurgency in South Vietnam. The NLF also included fully armed formations- regional and local guerrillas, and the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). The PLAF was the "Main Force" - the Chu Luc or full-time soldiers of the NLF's military wing. Many histories lump both the NLF and the armed formations under the term "Viet Cong" or "VC" in common usage. Both were tightly interwoven and were in turn controlled by the North.[1] Others consider the Viet Cong or "VC" to primarily refer to the armed elements.[2] The term PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam), identifies regular troops of the North Vietnamese Army or NVA as they were commonly known by their Western opponents. Collectively, both forces- the southern armed wing and the regulars from the north were part of PAVN,[3] and are treated as such in official communist histories of the war.[4]

Certain terms such as "NLF" and "VC" or "NVA" and PAVN" are used interchangeably, and they, along with others used herein such as "Chicom", "Liberation Army", "regime", etc. have no pejorative or partisan intent or meaning. They are incorporated here due to their widespread popular usage by both South Vietnamese and American military personnel and civilians, and common usage in standard histories of the Vietnam War.



Master politician and revolutionary symbol: Ho Chi Minh

During the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War), it is clear that the Main Force VC and NVA were closely linked, sharing a common command, logistical pipeline, and interchange of personnel.[5] Historians like Douglas Pike considered the VC Main Force a branch of North Vietnam's PAVN forces (regular and militia units), using the same methods and organizational structure.[6] Official communist histories echo this view, casting the VC in a more adjunct role and stressing the overall PAVN contribution.[7] While both the VC and NVA had distinctive aspects as separate organizations, in terms of their ultimate mission, leadership and military operations, they were both controlled from the North, ultimately answering to the Lao Dong (communist) Party.[8]The Vietnam War was not a small-scale guerrilla conflict, but a massive struggle, with hundreds of thousands of Communist troops maneuvering, resupplying, fighting and dying over a vast geographic space, from the borders of China to the Gulf of Siam. Guerrilla tactics formed one of several key parts of this equation.[9]

Historical development of the VC/NVA[edit]

Formation of the VC[edit]

The formation of the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) lies in the communist dominated resistance to the French - the Viet Minh.[10] The expulsion of the French had still left a clandestine organization behind in the South, reinforced by thousands of Southerners that had gone North after the communist victory ("regroupees"). This clandestine organization initially focused on political organization and propaganda, and came under heavy pressure by the Diem regime. Diem was an implacable enemy of the Communists and his nationalist credentials were comparatively clean, but he had inherited a very fragile situation. From the beginning he faced the threat of military coups, thrusting criminal gangs, a weak bureaucracy and army, and fierce factional fighting within South Vietnam between not only political factions, but religious groups (Buddhists and Catholics) as well.[11]

South Vietnamese "fortified hamlet." Early in the war, the VC actually controlled numerous such villages, using them for rest, recruitment and resupply.

Nevertheless Diem caused substantial early damage to the Communist apparatus. Some of his authoritarian methods and nepotism however alienated a variety of groups in South Vietnamese society. Diem's "Denounce Communism" campaign for example, indiscriminately persecuted and alienated numerous civilians (including people who helped the anti-French resistance) who may not have had strong links or sympathies with Communism. Diem's coldness towards Buddhist sensibilities in some areas also aggravated an already shaky situation.[12]

Diem's successful campaign provoked increasing assistance from the Communist North to the clandestine southern formations. As early as 1959, the Central Committee of the Party had issued a resolution to pursue armed struggle. Thousands of regroupees were reinfiltrated south, and a special unit was also set up, the 559th Transport Group, to establish way-stations, trails, and supply caches for the movement of fighting men and material into the zone of conflict.[13] In 1960 the Central Committee formed the National Liberation Front (NLF). Its military wing was officially called the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) but became more popularly known as the Viet Cong (VC). The NLF/VC took in not just armed guerrillas but served as a broad front for a variety of groups opposed to Diem.

Northern build-up of early southern insurgent forces[edit]

The North stiffened the early NLF effort in four ways:[14]

  1. Sending thousands of northern cadres into the south as leaders and trainers, sometimes aggravating a regional culture clash within revolutionary ranks.
  2. Standardizing the polyglot VC inventory of fighting arms, including rifles (the AK-47) and machine guns using a common caliber round. Other excellent arms included the RPG-2 and various recoilless rifles.
  3. Organization of VC units into larger formations, from battalions to regiments, to the first VC division, the famous 9th VC.
  4. Deployment of NVA regulars to build up logistical networks for later infiltration, (the 559th Transport Group) and insertion of complete regular units such as the 325th Division in remote border areas. [15]

Early effectiveness of the VC[edit]

By 1964, the VC were attacking in regimental strength with growing success. A VC demolition team even sunk a US ship, the USS Card.[16]

By 1964 the VC, supported by smaller numbers of NVA, were increasingly effective, conducting attacks in regimental strength. The Battle of Binh Gia where the victorious VC held the battlefield for 4 days rather than simply melt away as in earlier times is a vivid example of their confidence and effectiveness. Their operations regularly drubbed Diem's troops, and although Diem's forces controlled a number of urban areas and scattered garrisons, the security situation had become critical.

VC confidence also showed in a number of attacks against American installations and troops, from assaults against places where US soldiers and advisers gathered, to sinking of an American aviation transport ship, the USS Card at a Saigon berth in 1964.[17] Viet Cong forces also struck hard at American air assets, destroying or damaging large numbers of US aircraft during daring raids at the Bien Hoa in 1964, and Pleiku in 1965.[18] Total VC/NVA fighting strength is controversially estimated by the American Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MACV) at around 180,000 men in 1964. Opposing them during the war's early phases were (on paper by various estimates) over 300,000 ARVN troops and a US troop level that stood at around 16,000 in 1964, This was to increase rapidly in later years.[19]

NLF and PAVN strategy[edit]


The Protracted War conflict model[edit]

Prosecution of the war followed the Maoist model, closely integrating political and military efforts into the concept of one struggle, or dau tranh.[20] Dau Tranh was and remains the stated basis of PAVN operations, and was held to spring from the history of Vietnamese resistance and patriotism, the superiority of Marxism-Lennism and the Party, the overwhelming justice of Vietnam's cause, and the support of the world's socialist and progressive forces. War was to be waged on all fronts: diplomatic, ideological, organizational, economic and military. Dau Tranh was divided into military and political spheres:

Political dau tranh: 3 elements[edit]

  • Dan Van- Action among your people: Total mobilization of propaganda, motivational & organizational measures to manipulate internal masses and fighting units. Example: Intensive indoctrination and total mobilization of all civilian and military personnel in North Vietnam.
  • Binh Van- Action among enemy military: Subversion, proselytizing, and propaganda to encourage desertion, defection and lowered morale among enemy troops. Example: contribution to large number of South Vietnamese Army deserters and draft evaders in early years.
  • Dich Van- Action among enemy’s people: Total propaganda effort to sow discontent, defeatism, dissent and disloyalty among enemy’s population. Involves creation and/or manipulation of front groups and sympathizers. Example: work among South Vietnamese and US media, activist and academic circles.

Military dau tranh: the 3-phases[edit]

The strategy of the communist forces generally followed the protracted Revolutionary Warfare model of Mao in China, as diagrammed above. These phases were not static, and elements from one appear in others.[21] Guerrilla warfare for example co-existed alongside conventional operations, and propaganda and terrorism would always be deployed throughout the conflict.

  1. Preparation, organization and propaganda phase
  2. Guerrilla warfare, terrorism phase
  3. General offensive - conventional war phase including big unit and mobile warfare

As part of the final stage, emphasis was placed on the Khoi Nghia, or "General Uprising" of the masses, in conjunction with the liberation forces. This spontaneous uprising of the masses would sweep away the imperialists and their puppets who would already be sorely weakened by earlier guerrilla and mobile warfare. The Communist leadership thus had a clear vision, strategy and method to guide their operations.[22]

Translation of Dau Tranh doctrine into military action[edit]

Militarily this strategy translated into a flexible mix of approaches on the ground:

  • Continued efforts to build the revolutionary VC infrastructure and weaken GVN forces via propaganda and organization.
  • Broad use of terrorism and low intensity guerrilla warfare
  • Widening the field of conflict logistically by expanding bases and troop movement in Laos and Cambodia
  • Small-unit mobile warfare using VC Main Forces and NVA regulars over the expanded space- especially during seasonal offensive thrusts
  • Limited conventional operations where overwhelming numerical superiority could be concentrated to liquidate the maximum number of enemy effectives or control strategic blocks of territory
  • A General Uprising by the aggrieved masses as the enemy weakened
  • Full scale offensives by conventional forces

Overall, this approach was successful. It did not occur in a vacuum however. It both shaped and reacted to events in the arena of struggle. To fully grasp NLF/PAVN strategy, it is necessary to examine the counter-strategies used by the opponents of the NLF and PAVN: the South Vietnamese and the United states.

South Vietnamese counter-strategy[edit]

South Vietnamese forces capture a VC fighter circa 1964

Struggles of GVN forces under Communist pressure. While segments of the government of South Vietnam suffered severe problems in leadership, motivation and administration, it is clear that millions of ordinary South Vietnamese opposed the takeover of their society by a totalitarian Communist dictatorship. These included some 900,000 refugees who voted with their feet to move South when Vietnam was partitioned in 1954.[23]. Faced with a well-organized, ruthless foe, South Vietnamese (GVN- Government of South Vietnam) counter-strategy was heavily dependent on American aid and personnel. Coordination between the two allies was poor, and both seemed to fight separate wars for much of the conflict.[24]

Much emphasis was placed on pacification, and rhetorical claims of "revolutionary" rural development paralleled Communist propaganda. However needed reforms in cleaning up government corruption, land redistribution, attacking the VC infrastructure, and improving the ARVN armies were uneven, or poorly implemented. Unlike Communist forces, the GVN also failed to effectively mobilize a critical mass of its populace behind a nationalist or even an anti-communist narrative on a sustained, large scale basis, although several initiatives were started.[25] The GVN's "Strategic Hamlet" program for example boasted much progress, but this was primarily on paper, and ineffective in halting VC infiltration, terror, and organizing efforts.[26]

ARVN units were often moulded in the American image and style, but without the training or technical knowledge to execute effectively. This style involved heavy logistical tails, ponderous organizational structures, dependence on firepower, and frequent roving "sweep" tactics that shortchanged the vital conterinsurgency war for the population base.[27]

Improvement of conventional warfare capabilities was also uneven, although elite ARVN units often performed well. A primary GVN weakness was motivation and morale of its general issue forces. ARVN desertion rates in 1966 for example had reached epidemic proportions, and draft dodging was also serious, with some 232,000 evaders failing to report for duty. In 1966, US General Westmoreland forbade the creation of any more ARVN units until the existing ones were brought up to some minimum level of strength. Politicization of the officers corps was also rife, hindering combat training and operations. Relations with the civilian population remained hostile, playing into VC hands. [28]

Improvements in ARVN performance. The Tet Offensive saw some steady ARVN performances and military defeat of the VC during Tet allowed the ARVN to consolidate its gains. The GVN made measurable progress in securing its population base -- retaking areas once dominated by the VC and rooting out their clandestine infrastructure.[29] While old problems like corruption, leadership and political interference continued to dog them,[30] some historians argue that with continued US material aid, the improved South Vietnamese forces, might have contained and overcome a moderate guerrilla-level war.[31] By 1972, the guerrilla threat had essentially been reduced to low-level proportions and the Southern regime's hand was strengthened. The war however had ceased being primarily a guerrilla conflict and had become conventional, with Hanoi openly bidding for victory during the 1972 Easter attack. ARVN troops simply could not cope in the long term without US assistance and firepower against a ruthless, well organized, and well supplied conventional Northern foe.

Often overlooked, and continually shortchanged in resources, South Vietnamese militia units suffered higher casualty rates than the regular ARVN yet accounted for up to 30% of VC/NVA combat deaths inflicted by SVN forces.

With hundreds of thousands dead, and many localized examples of excellent combat performance, important segments of South Vietnamese society put up a strong fight against Northern hegemony. During the 1972 Easter Offensive for example, such resistance highlighted credible performances, not only by elite units like Rangers, Marines or Paratroops, but among elements of regular divisions as well. Strong leadership in the form of commanders like Maj. General Ngo Quang Truong also galvanized and inspired the ARVN effort at places like Hue and An Loc.[32]

Credible performance of many local and regional militia forces: Of special note are the paramilitary units- the Popular Forces and Regional Forces (RF/PF - aka "Ruff-Puffs").[33] These militia troops were locally or regionally based, and continually shortchanged in terms of equipment, weaponry, pay, leadership, supplies and combat support like air, artillery or gunship strikes. Knowing their local areas in detail they had significant potential for local population security and represented a constant threat to the Viet Cong Infrastructure and communist troop movements. As such they came under special attack, suffering a higher casualty rate than ARVN regulars. Overlooked by both the US Army and their ARVN leaders, they made a credible impact- using less than 20% of the ARVN military budget and just 2-5% of overall war expenditure, the despised militia men accounted for some 30 percent of VC/NVA combat deaths inflicted by the South Vietnamese combat effort, despite lacking the heavy weaponry and resources of the regular army. Serious efforts to arm and train them properly however came comparatively late in the conflict (after the Tet Offensive) and their efforts however were often sidetracked by the American and ARVN preference for big-unit sweeps. They were never really integrated into the total war effort.[34]

Demise of ARVN. Old difficulties however continued into the "Vietnamization" era and are well illustrated in the 1971 Laotian Lam Son 719 incursion, [35] and these were magnified by the 1972 Offensive. By 1973, the Nixon regime faced growing public dissatisfaction, and unremitting pressure by the US Congress, anti-war protesters and segments of the US media, to quickly exit Vietnam, despite promises made of continued aid. The American pull-out left over 150,000 NVA troops in strong tactical positions inside South Vietnam. While aid from the Soviet bloc and China to the North continued unabated, American congressional action cut off the use of US military assets and sharply reduced promised aid to the South. By 1975, when the final conquest by the NVA/PAVN began, the South Vietnamese were on their own.[36]

American counter-strategy[edit]

The gradualist US bombing campaign against the North in the early phases of the war had limited effect on the ground. Numerous targets were off-limits including some shipment points where war material was imported from the Soviet Union and China.

Debates over the gradualist approach and bolder plans[edit]

The US counter-strategy was ineffective in a number of ways against Communist forces. This ineffectiveness was predicted by Hanoi's analyses of weaknesses and contradictions in their enemy's camp (Vo Nguyen Giap, Big Victory, Great Task)[37] An initial policy of gradualism against North Vietnam for example, saw the American President and his Secretary of Defence huddled over maps and charts, planning piecemeal airstrikes on limited targets. These inflicted some localized pain, but had little significant effect on the overall VC/NVA buildup in the south.[38]

Fear of adverse Chinese, Soviet and public reaction also caused US policymakers to put numerous restrictions on American forces until comparatively late in the war. Plans drawn up by the military Joint Chief of Staff, US MACV commander General Westmoreland, and naval chief Admiral Sharp drew up a number of proposals for bolder strategic action.[39] This included airborne-amphibious landings north of the DMZ, corps-sized thrusts to liquidate enemy sanctuaries in the DMZ, Laos and Cambodia, a shutdown of incoming war material by mining the vital Haiphong harbor and more bombing of key targets in the Hanoi/Haiphong zone. All of these were rejected by civilian policymakers, with one or two implemented very late in the American War. By that time, the focus was on withdrawal of US forces.[40] Some critics have argued that the Joint Chiefs in particular should have been more forceful in standing up to civilian leadership about their misgivings, but whether this would have made any difference is unknown.[41] Others argue that a fundamental flaw in the American ground strategy was a focus on attrition rather than counterinsurgency to secure the population.[42]

All of the more ambitious plans above had their own technical and political difficulties, some historians argue - including the threat of Chinese intervention, a repeat of the guerrilla warfare in the North as the Viet Minh did with the French, or other countermeasures by the North Vietnamese, who, in conjunction with allies such as the Pathet Lao, could have simply widened the war in Cambodia, Laos and even into Thailand as a reaction to American moves elsewhere.[43]

Heavy footprint of US operations on South Vietnam[edit]

US Marines guard VC captives near Cu Chi 1965.

US forces relied heavily on firepower in their attempt to counter Communist advantages in local concentration, organization, knowledge of the terrain, and the element of surprise in where and when to strike. The VC/NVA had no qualms about provoking US attacks and deliberately using civilians as human shields, sometimes preventing them from leaving an area under attack. [44]. Such methods yielded both practical benefits and cynical propaganda opportunities. Some American tactics however caused extensive destruction to the countryside and its inhabitants, including harassment and interdiction fires (H&I), deployment of heavy artillery and bombs in populated areas, defoilation, the creation of "free-fire" zones, and the generation of refugees.

This approach not only failed to consistently bring big enemy units to battle, but failed to win the "hearts and minds" of the populace.[45] By 1969, for example, some 20% of the country's population had been refugees at one time or another - an outcome caused by massive RNVAF and particularly US bombing and artillery.[46] Widespread destruction among the civilian population is typical of many guerrilla conflicts- from the ancient Romans in Spain to the colonial wars of Africa[47] -nevertheless such methods led many opponents of the US war to question both their legality and morality, and intensified political and diplomatic pressure against American involvement in the conflict.[48]

Some US military sources also questioned their value. A Pentagon Systems Analysis study during the war for example concluded that H&I fires were ineffective and created a negative impression of indiscriminate force by US troops.[49] There were also differences within the US command as well. Leaders such as Marine General V. Krulak favored a more restrained pacification-oriented approach, and his "Spreading Inkblot Theory" questioned the heavy 'search and destroy' philosophy of General W. Westmoreland as not only sometimes counter-productive, but neglectful of controlling key population bases, and developing more effective ARVN forces.[50]

Flawed use of US troops[edit]

Some Western historians of the Vietnam War assert that US troops were often used inefficiently. For example, the force structure came with a massive logistical burden, placing most of the manpower in support formations. The result was under-strength units up front, and huge wastage and theft of weapons, equipment and supplies in the rear.[51] The US emphasis on "kill ratios" was logical in view of an attrition strategy, but such measures of success were often exagerrated and inflated. One study of captured enemy documents for example, found that actually enemy losses were 30 to 50 percent less that what MACV claimed in offical reports.[52] The attrition focus meant US troops could not stay to prevent the return of VC/PAVN troops but had to keep roving from area to area to flush out opponents. This constant movement generated problems of its own. Not only was the enemy elusive, but some American units developed "firebase psychosis" - a reluctance to move and fight too far away from the supporting fires of fixed bases.[53]

Combat units also lacked cohesion, due to the reluctance of the Johnson administration to call up the reserves, and a rotation policy that did not secure the best trained personnel on a consistent, long-term basis for Vietnam. The result in many US units was an endless supply of less seasoned "green" draftees or short-training officers, "rotated" in the theater for one year. Such policies were a drag on overall stability and cohesion, and caused the loss of hard-won combat knowledge in-country.[54] Troop rotation policies also hindered continuity in pacification. Adviser postings to the ARVN's regular or local forces for example, were not considered to be a desirable career tracks, and a one-year or six-month tour of duty left scant time to build the intimate knowledge of an area, its politics, and its people necessary to counter the clandestine Communist infrastructure. American advisers might just begin to see results on the ground when they were rotated out.[55]

Pacification versus 'Search and Destroy' against the VC/NVA[edit]

Lively debate still surrounds the "search and destroy" attrition strategy of US General William Westmoreland in the early years of American involvement.[56]

The pacification-first approach. Supporters of the "pacification-first" approach argue that more focus on uprooting the local Communist infrastructure, and cleaning up internal problems would have denied the enemy their key population base, reduced the destructiveness of US operations, strengthened the Southern regime, and yielded better overall results. Since 90% of the population resided on the coastal plain and in the Delta, massive sweeps into thinly populated areas like the Highlands, or remote border jungle, were deemed counterproductive. Resources were better spent securing key rice-producing villages under pressure by VC operatives, or training ARVN forces to be more effective.[57] Such critics point to the success sometimes achieved by the US Marines in their I Corps zone of operations,[58] and the US Special Forces in organizing large areas of tribal peoples before the 1965 intervention.[59] Both these alternative approaches however were marginalized or sidetracked by the main-unit war.

Troops of the 18th ARVN Division at Xuan Loc- 1975. Although outnumbered, they fought fiercely, holding 3 NVA divisions at bay for 12 days.

The search and destroy approach. Defenders of "search and destroy" maintain that the Communist shift to Phase 3 warfare required "big battalion" activity to remove the most pressing conventional threats to the Saigon regime. They maintain that since Westmoreland was forbidden from striking with ground forces at Communist concentrations and supply routes in the three countries surrounding the battle zone (Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam), his attritional strategy within the confines of South Vietnam was the only realistic option against an enemy that had the weak Saigon government on the ropes by 1964.[60] Other analysts however, such as Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., (The Army and Vietnam), maintain that there were equal or better alternatives available at the time besides large-scale attrition operations.[61]In between are any number of variants on these themes.[62]

Uneven progress of US pacification effort. The American pacification effort was also ineffective over several critical years, hampered by bureaucratic rivalries between competing agencies, a focus on big-unit operations, and lack of coordination between South Vietnamese civil agencies concerned with pacification, and the US military.[63] The success of pacification efforts were closely linked to security and security and ARVN performance improved in the Creighton Abrams era after 1968's Tet battles.[64] Some resources were shifted away from attrition towards counterinsurgency/pacification, and progress was made on the population base issue. However these reforms were haltingly implemented, and US forces largely continued to operate in the same way - seeking body counts and other attritional indicators, against an enemy that could always up the ante indefinitely by introducing more troops.[65]

Phases of the war and the conflicting US approaches. Some writers have attempted to reconcile the different schools of thought by linking activity to a particular phase of the conflict. [66] Thus Phase 2 guerrilla assaults might well be met by a pacification focus, while Phase 3 conventional attacks required major counter-force, not police squad or small-patrol activity. The early 1965 stabilization battles such as the Ia Drang, the 1967 border battles, and the 1968 Tet Offensive, are examples of the efficacy of big-unit warfare.[67] Nevertheless weaknesses were manifest in both areas. Some writers have questioned whether either pacification or "search and destroy" would have made any difference given dwindling American resolve, the big unit focus, other American and South Vietnamese weaknesses noted above, and the Communist strategy of attritional, protracted war.[68]

Strategy disputes and shifts in the Communist high command[edit]

"Southern-firsters" versus "Northern-firsters"[edit]

Southerners were prominent among Hanoi's war directors, and included such men as Le Duan, who argued forcefully for more confrontation and the massive introduction of northern men and material into the conflict. The role of southerners was to diminish as the war ended, not only in the northern politburo but against VC remnants in the south as well. [69]

The strategy to govern the war was often a matter of debate within Hanoi's upper echelons.[70] The "northern-firsters" led by Vo Nguyen Giap and Truong Chinh, argued for a more conservative, protracted approach, which allowed the North to consolidate socialism and build its armed forces while the southern revolutionaries assumed primary responsibility for their liberation. Prominent "southern-firsters" led by Le Duan and Nguyen Chi Thanh maintained that the Diem regime was tottering on the ropes and quick victory could be assured by an aggressive push that required Main Force confrontations with both the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Debate still continues among some Western historians as to the exact line-up of Politiburo personalities and issues, particularly that of Giap.[71]

Phases of Northern strategy[edit]

Historian Douglas Pike asserts that there were 5 phases of Northern strategy.[72]

Early 1958-late 1960: Revolutionary War Preparation

1961-late 1964: Revolutionary Guerrilla War

Early 1965-mid-1968: Regular Force Strategy

Late 1968-Easter 1972: Neo-Revolutionary Guerrilla War

Summer 1972-end of war: High-Technology Regular Force Strategy

  1. 1958- late 1960: Preparation for war including organizing, training and sending of thousands of regroupees back to the south, and formation of the 559th Transport Group to develop the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  2. 1962-64: South Vietnam was on the ropes under a Revolutionary Guerrilla War approach combining strong organization building, terrorism and guerrilla strikes.
  3. 1965-68: The introduction of American airpower and troops presented a massive challenge that directors of the communist effort attempted to meet with a Regular Force Strategy. This includes the brutal border battles of 1967, and the Tet Offensive in 1968. Both approaches saw massive losses to US firepower, and decimated VC units were increasingly filled and dominated by northern soldiers.
  4. Late 1968- Easter 72: After Tet, the North relied particularly on sapper attacks by small units of well trained commandos on US and ARVN bases and installations. Minor guerrilla action remained in the picture, as did stand-off attacks by fire (mortars, rockets etc).
  5. 1972-1975: Conventional warfare period using the full panoply of modern weapons. The 1972 Offensive was crushed by a combination of US Airpower and steadfast ARVN fighting, but Hanoi rebuilt after the American pullout to achieve a quick conventional victory in 1975.

The Tet Offensive and the Viet Cong[edit]

Captured Main Force Viet Cong during Tet. The Offensive struck hard at GVN population control efforts while still luring US forces out to the periphery in such places as Khe Sanh. Despite heavy military losses, Tet was later hailed as an overall dich van political and psychological triumph.
Tet as a VC defeat[edit]

As the border battles of 1967 wound down, Hanoi's war directors prepared for a savage blow- the Tong Cong kich, Tong Khai Nghia or "General Uprising" among the Southern masses, known more popularly to Westerners as the Tet Offensive. The major phase of the Tet Offensive would consist of three parts: (a) a series of border assaults and battles to draw US forces out to the margins of South Vietnam, (b) attacks within South Vietnam’s cities by VC forces These infiltrating attacks would bring about a rallying of the masses to the communist cause, and wholesale crumbling and defection of the ARVN forces and Saigon government under the combined pressure of military defeat and propaganda, and (c) large scale set-piece battles to drive the demoralized US imperialists back into coastal enclaves as their South Vietnamese allies wilted. Follow-on attacks in later months would attempt to improve tactical or negotiating positions after the main assault, which was set to begin in January 1968 and end with Phase 3, some 9 months later.[73]

Tet was a definite change in strategy for the VC which largely had fought smaller-scale mobile and guerrilla warfare since the US arrival. During Tet they would stand and slug it out against the ARVN and Americans while enjoying the assistance of the aroused masses. The result was a military disaster, not only decimating the VC as an effective fighting force, but exposing much of their clandestine infrastructure. The Khe Sanh battle, while it did succeed in drawing a portion of American strength, was not sufficient to prevent or divert a strong US/ARVN response in the cities against the assaulting VC. The severe losses are noted even in official Communist sources.[74]

It is significant that the main target of Tet was the GVN, the party tasked with pacification, the weak link in the defense of South Vietnam. Contrary to NLF dogma and expectations, the hoped for uprising of the masses never occurred. The South Vietnamese did not embrace the cause, and many ARVN units stood firm and fought back. Nevertheless Tet demonstrates how Communist strategy was focused on the key element in a People's War- the population - whether to control it or demoralize it, while American strategy focused on kill ratios and attrition.[75]

Tet as a strategic VC political and psychological victory[edit]

Little documentation from the Communist side shows influencing American public opinion as a primary or even secondary objective of the Tet Offensive.[76] According to North Vietnamese General Tran Do in the aftermath:

"In all honesty, we didn't achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the south. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention - but it turned out to be a fortunate result."[77]

Attacks on U.S. forces or influencing US elections were not of major importance during Tet. The main thrust was to destroy the GVN regime through demoralizing its armed forces and sparking the hoped for "General Uprising."[78]

Some writers such as Stanley Karnow question whether there was an immediate American perception of Tet as a defeat however, given the drop in public support for the war prior to Tet, and polls taken during the initial Tet fighting showing a majority of the US public wanted stronger action against Communist forces.[79] Nevertheless, according to Karnow, the Tet fighting seems to have shaken the determination of American political leaders, like US President L. Johnson.[80]

Other writers such as US General Westmoreland, and journalist Peter Braestrup[81] argue that negative press reports contributed to an attitude of defeatism and despair at the very moment American troops were winning against the VC. As such they claim, Tet was a major strategic political and psychological triumph for Communist forces in the conflict.[82]

Whatever the merits of these debates or claims, it is clear that the Communist strategy of attritional conflict engendered an increasing war-weariness among their American opponents, whether the pressure was applied over time or more acutely during Tet, or whether guerrilla or conventional warfare was prominent at a particular time. After 1968, the US increasingly sought to withdraw from the conflict, and the future freedom of action by US leaders such as Richard Nixon was hindered by domestic anti-war opposition. [83]

Tet not only exposed political weakness, but failures in America's military strategy as well - securing neither attrition or pacification after 3 years of war - an outcome predicted and achieved by the protracted strategy of the VC/PAVN. In the words of one US Departmentof Defence assessment called "Alternate Strategies" in March 1968, after the first phase or Tet:

"We know that despite a massive influx of 500,000 US troops, 1.2 million tons of bombs a year, 400,000 attack sorties per year, 200,000 enemy KIA in three years, 20,000 US KIA, etc., our control of the countryside and the defence of the urban areas is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels. We have achieved a stalemate at a high commitment."[84]

The "other war:" the population base, tempo and strategy[edit]

People's War strategy drew the Americans into remote areas, facilitating control of the real prize- the population base.
Drawing US forces to the periphery while shifting between phases[edit]

The flexible shifting of NLF/PAVN forces was sufficient against both their most potent enemy- the United States, and the GVN. Prior to 1965, the GVN faced near defeat with a mix of guerrilla and regular warfare. The introduction of the US saw a similar mix. Prior to 1972, VC and PAVN forces on the balance, refused to play the American game of big-unit confrontation. Instead, they shifted down to Phase 2 guerrilla and small unit mobile warfare to bleed their opponents, interspersed with occasional large-scale attacks when conditions and numbers were favorable.[85] This strategy drew the Americans away from the key population concentrations on the coast and in the Delta, and into remote or sparsely populated areas, close to border sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia where resupply and escape was facilitated. It also widened the battlespace across a broad area, enhancing maneuvering room and survivability.

Even the costly urban center attacks of the Tet Offensive aided this pattern by (a) undermining pacification efforts as GVN troops from rural areas were diverted to defend the cities, and (b) luring significant US forces out to the periphery where they could be bled. This was so most notably at Khe Sanh, which drew 5% of MACV's operational strength, and tied down 15-20% of MACV's maneuver battalions- kept in reserve for relief of the base.[86] Some American policymakers recognized this "peripheral draw" method but could do little significant about it. In the words of Henry Kissinger who helped negotiate the final US exit from Vietnam:

"We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponent aimed for psychological exhaustion.. The North Vietnamese used their main forces the way a bullfighter uses his cape- to keep us lunging into areas of marginal political importance."[87]
Successful control of the population[edit]

Failure to secure the population meant that the VC were able to tighten their grip- drawing a continual supply of recruits, food, intelligence, shelter and other resources to maintain their insurgency. The American concept of leaving the relatively ineffective ARVN to cope with this key other war, a task they had often failed at in several years prior to US intervention, played into communist hands.[88] In many cases where the population was separated from the insurgents via forced relocations, destruction of villages or generation of refugees, conditions still remained insecure, undermining GVN/US attempts at both pacification and attrition. Impressive as they seemed, big American or GVN sweeps inevitably moved on, failing to 'hold' an area and its population. Once their opponents had gone, the VC and NVA were able to return and resume business. [89] This pattern is reflected even in the aftermath of the Tet attacks. They hurt the Viet Cong badly in military terms, and northern-born personnel were to increasingly dominate the Main-Force VC formations. However the critical population control and infrastructure effort continued, and the VC were still able to muster about 85,000 fresh recruits annually.[90]

Mastery of the war's tempo[edit]

The VC/PAVN strategy also involved controlling the initiative of the struggle, when and where they would fight, and thus how many casualties they would take at various times and places. Initiative also meant controlling the size and composition of forces introduced to the battfield, and thus the quantities of supplies needed. Material requirements were comparatively light, and much was procured inside South Vietnam itself. Additional PAVN troops could be introduced at will, more than matching American or GVN increases. The initiative factor, made the American attrition approach, and its elusive search for a "crossover" point (where communist losses would be more than available replacements) unworkable. Massive US troop sweeps and interdiction efforts while causing substantial pain to communist forces at different times and places, foundered on these realities.[91]

The flexible shifting of tempo and styles however was not without cost. Tens of thousands of VC and PAVN regulars were required and on several occasions when attempts were made at confrontation in remote areas, such as at the Ia Drang in 1965 and in the 1967 border battles, heavy losses were suffered from US firepower.

Mao's Protracted War model[92] was modified by Hanoi's war directors, to incorporate more flexible shifting and the notion of a "General Uprising."[93]

Effectiveness of overall Northern strategy[edit]

While numerous other aspects of the Tet Offensive and the complex strategies of the Vietnam War exist, Hanoi's ability to divide the strength of their opponents and maintain its grip on the population was a key part of its protracted war strategy. By 1972, the war was increasinglyconventionalized, and population control became less critical as PAVN regulars took over most of the fighting. This final phase- victory by conventional forces was also part and parcel of the "people's war" approach.

A 1968 review of American strategy under US Commander C. Abrams, by the MACV "Long Range Planning Group" testifies to the efficacy of the PAVN/NLF strategy:[94]

"All of our US combat accomplishments have made no significant, positive difference to the rural Vietnamese—for there is still no real security in the countryside. Our large-scale operations have attempted to enable the development of a protective shield, by driving the NVA and the Viet Cong main force units out of South Vietnam—or at least into the remote mountain and jungle areas where they would not pose a threat to the population. In pressing this objective, however, we have tended to lose sight of why we were driving the enemy back and destroying his combat capability.
Destruction of NVA and VC units and individuals—that is, the "kill vc" syndrome—has become an end in itself—an end that at times has become self-defeating. To accomplish the most difficult task of the war—and, really the functional reason for the US to be here—that of providing security to the Vietnamese people—we have relied on the numerous, but only marginally effective, ill-equipped and indifferently led Vietnamese paramilitary and police units. The Viet Cong thrive in an environment of insecurity. It is essential for them to demonstrate that the GVN is not capable of providing security to its citizens. And, they have succeeded.."

NVA Recruitment and Training[edit]

NVA gunners, 1972

Initial recruitment and training. Based on a wide variety of accounts, the performance of some NVA units was excellent, and at times they garnered a grudging respect among those they fought for their discipline, morale and skill. Recruitment was primarily based on the military draft of North Vietnam, and most NVA soldiers served for the duration of the conflict. There were no "rotations" back to the homeland. The typical recruit was a rural youth in his early 20s, with three years of prior compulsory training and indoctrination in various militia and construction units. Draftees were mustered at indoctrination centers like Xuan Mia, southwest of Hanoi some months before their actual movement south.

A typical training cycle took 90 to 120 days for the recruit, with instruction on conventional military skills and procedure. Special emphasis was placed on physical conditioning. Heavy political indoctrination was part of the package throughout the cycle, most acutely during a special two-week "study" phase. Organization into three-man cells and kiem thao "criticism and self-criticism" sessions were part of the tight training regimen.[95]

Men selected for infiltration to the South received more intense training - with more political indoctrination, weapons handling, and special emphasis on physical conditioning, particularly marching with heavy packs. Specialized training (heavy weapons, signals, medical, explosives) was given to selected individuals in courses that might last up to a year. Pay and rations for designated infiltrators was more than that given to other troops.

Assessment of the NVA/PAVN fighter. Compared to their VC counterparts most NVA had a higher standard of literacy. While his preparation was not especially impressive by Western standards, the typical NVA soldier proved more than adequate for the task at hand. NVA training was surprisingly conventional, with little special emphasis on jungle warfare. Most of the troops' learning occurred on the job. Service and indoctrination under the communist system prior to army recruitment made the typical NVA fighter a bit older and more seasoned than his American or ARVN opponent. Throughout the conflict, NVA defections and surrenders were extremely low, especially compared to that of the VC, a testimony to their motivation and organization.[96]

VC recruitment and training[edit]

As in any guerrilla warfare, control of the populace is the key to the guerrilla's prosperity and survival. To this end, Communist forces deployed an elaborate and sophisticated political and propaganda effort.

The villages: battleground for hearts and minds

Importance of the party cadres. Recruitment of VC fighters followed patterns similar to those in Mao's Revolutionary China.[97] Party operatives dominated or influenced most significant activities, and so the initial agents of recruitment were the party cadres, tightly organized into small cells. The cadre, or team of cadres, typically were southern regroupees returning to help the insurgency. Since such persons would have some knowledge of the local area, theirs would not be a "cold call". They would enter a village, and make a careful study of its social, political and economic structure. Cadres usually downplayed communism, stressing local grievances and resentments, and national independence. All was not serious discussion. Musical groups, theater troupes and other forms of entertainment were frequently employed. The personal behavior of cadres was also vital. They were expected to lead austere, dedicated lives, beyond reproach. This would enable villagers to contrast their relatively restrained, non-pecuniary way of life, with the corruption of government representatives or targeted enemies. Female cadres sometimes made effective recruiters, being able to shame and goad young males into committing for the Revolution.[98]

Use of local grievances and individuals. Local grievances and resentments were carefully catalogued by cadres, and detailed information was harvested on each potential supporter or recruit for later use. The cadres would then hit their targets with a variety of methods - friendship, casual political discussions, membership in some community organization, sponsorship of some village festival or event, or activism related to some local grievance or issue. As targets were softened up, the pressure increased. A small nucleus of followers was usually gathered, and these were used to further expand recruitment. The cadres exploited the incompetence, corruption or heavy-handedness of local government officials to stoke the fires. They also seized on perceived injustices by private parties - such as landlords. One vital part of the political effort was to encourage ARVN desertion, draft evasion, lowered morale, and if possible active or tacit support of the Front (NLF/VC). Friends and relatives of soldiers could make effective persuasive appeals while VC operatives who directed the prostelyzing remained hidden in the background.[99]

Creation and manipulation of front groups or infiltration of existing organizations. While the Communist presence in the "united Front" against the US/GVN was no secret, VC operatives took pains to screen the full extent of their influence, and stressed patriotism, anti-foreign sentiment, local grievances and other issues that could mobilize support. Integral to this process was the creation of "front" groups to mask the true VC agenda.[100] Such groups lent an aura of populist spontaneity and voluntarism while the VC worked them behind the scenes. Such entities could be seemingly innocuous farming cooperatives, or cultural groups, or anything in between. Party members either manipulated these new groups behind the scenes or infiltrated existing ones and gradually took over or influenced them towards the VC line. The goal was to enmesh as many people as possible in some group which could then be manipulated. Thus for example a traditional, apolitical rice harvest festival would be eventually twisted into mobilizing demonstrations against a government official or policy. Members of a farming cooperative might be persuaded into signing a petition against construction of an airfield. Whatever the exact front, issue, or cover used, the goal was control and manipulation of the target population.[101]

South Vietnamese propaganda poster urging Viet Cong fighters to surrender

The "parallel government" - strengthening the VC grip on the masses. As their web expanded, VC methods became more bold. Hit squads attacked and eliminated selected enemies. Ironically, officials who were TOO efficient or honest might also be liquidated since their conduct might mitigate the grievances and resentments the cadres sought to stoke. Farmers who owned "too much" land might also be fingered. Government facilities, or the private property of those on the target list might also be damaged and sabotaged. Such terror attacks not only eliminated rivals, they served as salutary examples to the villagers as to what could potentially befall them if they opposed the Revolution.[102]

If fully successful, the once sleepy village might be turned into a functioning VC support base. In the early stages of the Vietnam War, American officials "discovered that several thousand supposedly government-controlled 'fortified hamlets' were in fact controlled by Viet Cong guerrillas, who 'often used them for supply and rest havens'."[103] The VC intent was to set up a "parallel" administration, operating clandestinely. Such "revolutionary government" would set and collect taxes, draft soldiers to fight, impress laborers for construction tasks, administer justice, redistribute land, and coordinate local community events and civic improvements. All this activity had one aim - to further the VC/NLF cause, and tighten the Party's grip over the masses.[104]

Intimidation. While a wide variety of front groups and propaganda campaigns were deployed and manipulated by VC political operatives, the VC also tapped effectively into local grievances and nationalist sentiment to attain a measure of genuine popular support in many areas. Parallel with this however, was an unmistakable track of coercion and intimidation.[105] Villagers in a "liberated area" had little choice but to shelter, feed and finance the Revolutionary Forces, and were forced to expand the liberated zone by supplying manpower for constructing and maintaining supply dumps, fortifications, tunnels, and manufacturing facilities.

VC "Armed Propaganda" squads conducted a systematic campaign of assassination and kidnapping to eliminate competitors, intimidate the populace and disrupt or destroy normal social, political and economic life. These two tracks: popular support, and coercion/intimidation, were to run on together for a good part of the War.[106]

Training of Main Force fighters. Recruits falling into the net were usually taken from the village to another location for political indoctrination and training, sometimes contradicting VC assurances that they would be able to serve near their home areas. Those showing promise were assigned to the Main Force Battalions, which were permanently organized military formations. Other recruits were expected to serve as part-time village helpers or guerrillas. Military training, like that of the NVA was essentially conventional - marching, small unit tactics, basic weapons handling, etc. Illiteracy and lack of education was often a problem in VC ranks, and steps were made to correct this, with focus on the political task at hand. Specialized and advanced training, as in the NVA was given to smaller groups of men. Political indoctrination continued throughout the VC Main Force fighter's training, with nightly "criticism and self-criticism" sessions to eliminate error, and purge incorrect thought.

Assessment of the VC fighter. The quality of VC training and recruitment was more uneven than that of the NVA, and varied based on the war situation. Literacy was lower and defections were several times that of their Northern counterparts. In the context of the protracted insurgency however, and the communist willingness to expend lives, the VC fighting man was more than adequate to fulfill the goals determined by Communist leadership.[107]

Organization of the VC/NVA[edit]

Dominant role of Northern based Lao Dong (communist) party[edit]

The elaborate Communist command structure was supervised by multiple directorates and divided South Vietnam into operational zones.

Given the Communist Party's dominance over all spheres of Northern Vietnamese society, including the military struggle, it is impossible to understand VC/NVA organization, strategy and tactics without detailing party involvement. The bulk of the VC/NLF were initially southerners, with some distinctive southern issues and sensibilities. Nevertheless, the VC/NLF was clearly a creature of the Northern Lao Dong Party which manipulated and controlled it -furnishing it with supplies, weaponry and trained cadres, including regular PAVN troops posing as "local" fighters.[108]

Hanoi also organized the Southern Communist party, the Peoples Revolutionary Party (PRP) in 1962, to mobilize communist party membership among southerners, and COSVN, Central Office for Southern Vietnam, which controlled a substantial range of military activity. While a measure of decentralization was necessary to pursue the conflict locally, the PRP, and COVSN, answered ultimately to their Northern handlers.[109] The NVA likewise was controlled by the PAVN High Command, which answered to the Lao Dong, with party committees and representatives supervising and monitoring all echelons. As the war progressed, southern influence weakened, and the northern grip, both military and politically via the Lao Dong Party, was strengthened, a development lamented by some former VC personnel who were forced off the stage by the northerners.[110]

Operating through the PRP personnel, northern cadres and COSVN, and manipulating a variety of front groups, the communist leadership in the North forged a formidable weapon in both the military and propaganda spheres, garnering both internal support in the South, and international support from sympathetic Westerners. Heavily reliant on Chinese and Soviet sponsors for much of their manufactured weapons, the Northern regime, played both these communist giants against each other in the service of its own ends. This ruthless, skillful and tenacious leadership was to achieve final triumph after almost two decades of war.[111]

Complex command structure and geographic commands[edit]

The Communist command structure was complex, [112]with a series of interlocking committees and directorates, all controlled by the Central Committee of Hanoi's Lao Dong (Communist) Party.

Military regions, 1970

The PAVN High Command supervised all regular NVA forces, but also some Main Force VC formations in the two northernmost Military Regions, and the B-3 Front (Western Highlands). Military Affairs Committees were coordinating groups that liaisoned and coordinated activity with the Central Reunification Department, another coordination body for the complex effort. Each front was a military command but was supervised also by regional Party committees set up by Hanoi's Politburo. The deeper PAVN formations moved into South Vietnam, the more coordination was needed with NLF/VC and regional forces. Hence COVSN was prominent in the southernmost areas, closest to the Cambodian border, where it had its headquarters. COVSN supervised VC forces (Main Force, Regional and Village Guerrilla) in this zone.[113]

There were five geographic/area commands covering South Vietnam in terms of military operations. These zones evolved from a simpler two-front division during the early phases of the conflict. The names given below are approximate. More detailed subdivisions existed.[114]

  • B-5 "Quang Tri" Front
  • B-4 "Tri Thien" Front
  • B-3 "Western Highlands" Front
  • B-1 Military Region Five Front
  • B-2 "Nam-bo" Front

VC structure and Organization[edit]

Simplified view of the VC organization. Functions such as security or propaganda were duplicated at each admin. level.

A creature of the Northern regime, the overall Viet Cong structure was made up of three parts:[115]

  1. The Southern Communist Party- the PRP, controlled the VC effort on behalf of Hanoi's Lao Dong party. Hanoi coordinated its direction through the COSVN, Central Office for South Vietnam.
  2. The NLF- National Liberation Front, a collection of groups, and sympathizers opposed to the Diem government and its successors or sympathizing with the communist cause. Some groups were deliberately created fronts of the PRP,or were taken over and manipulated. Others were loosely affiliated supporters or well-wishers.
  3. The Liberation Armed Forces- the armed, military wing of the Viet Cong which carried out military operations

The 5-level administrative structure.[116] Publicly, the NLF was part of a spontaneous peoples movement for liberation. In reality it was controlled by COSVN, which in turn was controlled by the Lao Dong party. Some writers suggest that COVSN was an executive committee of the PRP, the Southern Communist Party, with associated staff for coordinating the war effort, but the exact structural arrangements remain ambiguous.[117] The NLF was organized into 3 Interzone headquarters, that were subdivided into 7 smaller headquarters Zones. The Zones were split into Provinces and further subdivided into Districts. These likewise controlled Village and Hamlet elements. Each level was run by a committee, dominated as always by Communist Party operatives.

Military structure of the PLAF. The People's Liberation Armed Forces (aka "VC" in common usage) was the actual military muscle of the insurgency. The PLAF was also controlled by COVSN, which took its orders from the North. For military purposes South Vietnam was divided into 6 military regions, in turn broken down by province, district, village and hamlet. A military structure thus stood parallel with, and operated with the NLF "front" structure as cover, lending a popular gloss to the insurgency. Each level in theory was subject to the dictates of the next highest one.[118] Interlocking party memberships, committees, and groupings like COSVN assured coordination between the NLF, the PLAF, the PRP (southern communist party), and Hanoi's war directors. Indeed, party membership was required to hold most significant command positions within the PLAF, and party operatives supervised activity all the way down to the hamlet level.[119]

Three tier VC military formation: The VC/PLAF military formations were generally grouped into 3 echelons.[120]

  • VC Main-Force Units. The elite of the VC were the chu luc or Main Force Units, made up of full-time fighters. These units generally reported to one of the Interzone headquarters or were controlled directly by COSVN. Many of the soldiers were southern-born and had been trained in the north before re-infiltrating back to serve the Revolution. A majority of main-force fighters were party members, wore the pith helmet common to the NVA, carried the same weapons, and could operate in battalion or even regimental size strengths. A typical battalion was similar to a NVA one, with 400-600 men organized into 3 infantry companies backed by a fire support company. Recon, signals, sapper and logistics units rounded out the formation.[121]
  • The Regional Forces. Regional or territorial units were also full-time soldiers but they generally served within or close to their home provinces. They did not have the degree of literacy of the main-force personnel, and did not have the percentage of Party members present in their ranks. They were not as well armed as the chu luc and usually operated in units that seldom exceeded company strength.
  • Village guerrillas. Village, hamlet or local guerrillas were part-time fighters and helpers, carrying out minor harassment operations like sniping or mine/booby trap laying, building local fortifications or supply caches, and transporting supplies and equipment. Mostly peasant farmers, these militia style units were under the control of low level NLF or Front leadership.
  • Transitions. Although manpower shortages sometimes intervened, a hierarchical promotion system was generally followed between the 3- levels. Promising guerrilla level operatives were moved up to the Regional Forces, and promising Regional Force fighters were promoted to the full-time Main Force units. This ensured that the Main Forces received the best personnel, with some seasoning under their belts.[122]

NVA structure and organization[edit]

The PAVN High Command retained control of NVA regular formations. Individual NVA might be used as replacement fillers for VC Main Force units

Organization of VC/NVA units in the field[edit]

The typical NVA division had a strength of approximately 10,000 men grouped into three infantry regiments, with a supporting artillery regiment or battalion, and signals, engineers, medical and logistic formations. The artillery units were generally armed with mortars although they might use heavier weapons in an extended set-piece operation. The regiments were generally broken down into 3 foot-soldier battalions of 500-600 men each, along with the supporting units. Each battalion in turn was subdivided into companies and platoons, with heavy weapons units augmenting the small arms of the line troops.[123]

Both the VC and NVA formations operated under a "system of three" - three cells to a squad, three squads to a platoon, 3 companies to a battalion etc. This could vary depending on operational circumstances. Small-arms dominated the armament of typical infantry battalions, which deployed the standard infantry companies, logistical support, and heavy weapons sub-units of modern formations. Heavier weapons like 81mm mortars or recoilless rifles and machines guns were at the battalions combat support company. Members of the combat support unit were also responsible for placing mines and booby traps. Special detachments or platoons included sappers, recon, signals, etc. and were directly responsible to the battalion commander.[124]

General command and control[edit]

Command and control was exercised via standard headquarters companies, always supervised by political cadres. While NVA formations retained their insignia, signals and logistic lines, supervision followed the same pattern, with Party monitors at every level- from squad to division. Recruitment and training as discussed above was conducted in the North, and replacements were funneled from the North, down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to designated formations. Individual NVA soldiers might be sometimes be assigned as replacement fillers for VC Main Force Battalions.

Where distinct NVA formations were kept intact, they remained under the control of the NVA High command, although this was, like other military echelons, controlled in turn by the Northern Lao Dong Party. The NLF "front" framework, gave political cover to these military efforts. Since Party operatives were in place at all levels throughout the entire structure, coordination and control of the vast politico-military effort was enhanced.[125]

Morale and discipline: the 3-man cell and "self-criticism"[edit]

NLF propaganda stamp- battle of Ap Bac 1963
  • 3-man cells. All soldiers were grouped into 3-man cells. These had practical advantages in mutual support and assistance among soldiers, but when combined with the constant monitoring of the political cadres, they had the benefit of discouraging individual privacy, and potential thoughts of defection. Monitoring by other cell members was inherent in the system. By most accounts given by VC/NVA prisoners or defectors, the cell system served as a powerful instrument of cohesion.[126]
  • Criticism and self-criticism. Typical of most Maoist communist organizations, "criticism and self-criticism" sessions were frequently conducted to improve discipline, control and cohesion. Such sessions were conducted on a daily basis and after operations. Of key importance was individual confession of faults or errors, and the detection and purging of incorrect thoughts as a basis for behavioral changes. Leaders first critiqued individual soldiers, who in turn were critiqued by their comrades. Admission of faults and weaknesses was then expected from individuals. Lower ranks were not allowed to comment on the actions of higher ranks. Most communist troops seemed to accept the system, especially when it was conducted in a way that suggested Confucian ideals- that of an elder father or brother correcting wayward youth or siblings.[127]

Role of the Party cadres and officers[edit]

At all levels of the structure, the control of the Communist party was constant. Party operatives manipulated civilian front groups and sympathizers, as well as military units. Cadres were assigned to each level of the structure, a "parallel" administration that constantly supervised and watched those tasked with the activities of the Revolution. Commanders of some military units, or leaders of various propaganda and civic fronts might also be Party members, operating openly or undercover.

Cadres were expected to be of exemplary proletarian, moral and political character, faithfully implementing the most recent party line, and monitoring assigned areas for erroneous thought. Class background was important with those from the middle and upper-classes receiving less favorable treatment. Of special importance was the activities of cadres in morale building and in organizing the ubiquitous "criticism and self-criticism" sessions.

The cadre system was a constant in both the VC Main Force and NVA formations down to the company level. Cadres had their own chain of command, parallel with that of the military structure. In any disputes between military officers and the political operatives, the political officers generally had the last word.[128]

VC/NVA use of terror[edit]

Scene of Viet Cong bombing in Saigon, 1965

Widespread use of terror. Murder, kidnapping, torture and general intimidation were a routine part of VC/NVA operations and were calculated to cow the populace, liquidate opponents, erode the morale of GVN government employees, and boost tax collection and propaganda efforts.[129] This extensive use of terror on a daily basis received comparatively little attention from Western journalists occupied with covering the big unit war.[130] Terror was meant to demonstrate that both the rural and urban dweller were powerless against the Viet Cong and that the government could not protect them. Terror extended beyond targeted murders and kidnappings, and included the frequent mortaring of civilians in refugee camps, and the placing of mines on highways frequented by villagers taking their goods to urban markets. Some mines were set only to go off after heavy vehicle passage, causing extensive slaughter aboard packed civilian buses.[131]

Another terror method involved deliberate random shelling of populated areas with 122-mm rockets. Areas victimized included Saigon, Danang and other major cities. [132] At other times the Viet Cong eschewed the use of stand-off weapons and directly attacked villages and hamlets with the express intention of killing men, women and children to sow havoc, panic and insecurity. A 1968 attack on the hamlet of Son Tra in Quang Ngai province for example, used flamethrowers to incinerate 78 civilians, wounded many more, and destroyed most of the hamlet.[133]

Terror via provoking attacks from US/ARVN forces. Terror results could also be achieved by provoking hasty reaction or retaliation attacks by ARVN or American forces on villagers through sniping, raids, or placing of mines and booby traps in and near villages or hamlets. Such reactions had the benefit of sparking potential atrocities that could be used later in propaganda to help mobilize or radicalize elements of the populace.[134] A 1965 Christian Science Monitor article by Japanese journalist Takashi Oka reported on what seemed to be use of the method. The VC entered a village and harangued the local populace about supporting the Revolution before digging in, and passing word to the district capital that they were active in the community. One day later, US planes bombed the village and its Catholic Church. VC operatives emerged after the destruction to tell survivors about the perfidy of the US imperialists.[135] Such methods could sometimes backfire however, with villagers blaming Front forces for the destruction and death brought to their communities.[136]

Atrocities. Several spectacular incidents of terror stand out in VC/NVA operations, although these were not publicized in the Western media to the extent of the American My Lai massacre.[137]

Hue: During Tet for example, Communist forces seemed to have carefully planned for mass killings, with prepared hitlists carried both by the invading VC units and local infrastructure operatives. One of the sites of the worse atrocity was the city of Hue.
Civil servants, officers, teachers and religious figures were rounded up first and executed after quick "revolutionary" trials. A second roundup fingered leaders of civic organizations, intellectuals, professionals and individual civilians and their families who had worked for the Americans. A barber for example who had cut the hair of Americans had both his hands cut off before being liquidated.[138]
The greatest number of people eliminated however appeared to be during the Viet Cong retreat from the city. They were usually shot and buried in well-concealed mass graves that were eventually to yield some 2,800 corpses. Lack of visible wounds on some bodies, including 2 Catholic priests, indicated that they had been buried alive.[139] The 2,800 bodies in Hue were part of a larger group of some 5,800 civilians in the city targeted in Viet Cong attacks for liquidation or abduction. Most of the remaining victims have never been found.[140]
Dak Son: 1967 the VC used flamethrowers to incinerate 252 civilians, mostly women and children at the village of Dak Son, in Phuc Long Province.[141]
Phu Tan: In 1970, at the village of Phu Tan, near Da Nang, the NVA killed an estimated 100 civilians as they huddled in bunkers for shelter, by tossing in grenades and satchel charges.[142]

Hit squads and assassinations. During the early years of the war, assassinations and other similar activity was organized via "special activity cells" of the VC. As the conflict extended, efforts were centralized under the VC Security Service estimated to number 25,000 men by 1970.[143] By 1969, nearly 250 civilians were being murdered or kidnapped each week. The total Vietnam War tally of the VC/NVA terror squads stands at over 36,000 murders and almost 58,000 kidnappings according to one US Department of Defense estimate, circa 1973.[144] Statistics for 1968-72 suggest that "about 80 percent of the terrorist victims were ordinary civilians and only about 20 percent were government officals, policemen, members of the self-defence forces or pacification cadres."[145]

Official line on terror. Communist forces and spokesmen consistently denied using any terror, and attributed the mass graves at Hue to spontaneous action by various aggrieved peoples of the city.[146] The use of terror however is encouraged in official NLF documents, such as COSVN Resolution Number 9, published in July 1969, which noted:

"Integral to the political struggle would be the liberal use of terrorism to weaken and destroy local government, strengthen the party apparatus, proselyte among the populace, erode the control and influence of the Government of Vietnam, and weaken the RVNAF."[147]


Massive US and ARVN sweeps often failed to bring the VC to battle in significant numbers, and left the population vulnerable to organization and intimidation efforts.

Communist forces deployed an extensive and sophisticated intelligence apparatus within South Vietnam, extending from the top echelons of the Southern regime, to village level guerrilla helpers informing on ARVN troop movements. Such was the penetration of the GVN that after the war the Communist government presented a medal to one of the top aides to South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky.[148] Substantial assistance to the southern insurgency was rendered by the North via its Central Research Agency(CRA). This fifth-column built on the anti-French resistance of the Vietminh. The American CIA claimed that by the late 1960s, more than 30,000 enemy agents had infiltrated the GVN's "administrative, police, armed forces and intelligence" operations.[149]

In the South, the NLF's COVSN organization supervised intelligence efforts, deploying a secret police in communist controlled areas, a bodyguard service for VIPs and most importantly, a "People's Intelligence System." Networks of informers were numerous and the system used blackmail, threats and propaganda to secure the cooperation of GVN functionaries, often working through their relatives. One South Vietnamese study of the communist apparatus cited several examples of intelligence gathering for the Front (VC/NVA) forces:[150]

  • A bicycle repairman on the road that reported on military traffic
  • A farmer counting the number and type of aircraft that landed and took off on the airstrip near his fields
  • A peasant woman outside her hut reporting on the size and composition of enemy troops by pre-arranged signal, when they approached.

Effectiveness of VC and NVA organization[edit]

The Communist command structure was complex, [151]with a series of interlocking committees and directorates, all controlled by the Central Committee of Hanoi's Lao Dong (Communist) Party. This same pattern of interlocking groups was repeated further down the chain to the lowliest hamlet- all controlled by party operatives.

This elaborate structure often appears ponderous to Western eyes, but it was extremely well adapted to the demands of the war effort, and its built in overlapping, duplication and redundancy made it resilient and able to adjust to defections, captures or deaths among its members. One American Vietnam War historian calls the Viet Cong "more disciplined and organized than nearly any insurgents in history."[152]

VC/NVA equipment and weapons[edit]

Communist forces were equipped with excellent small arms, such as the AK-47. Ammunition compatibility with heavier weapons like machine guns was a major consideration.

Overall, the supplies and equipment of communist units were adequate, and their infantry small-arms were more than a match for those of their opponents.[153] Contrary to some popular impressions of simple peasant farmers armed with pitchfork and machetes, the VC/NVA main units (as well as the local forces in the the latter years) were well equipped with excellent modern arms either from Soviet bloc or Chinese sources. In the early years of the insurgency in the South a larger variety of weapons were used, ranging from old WWI bolt-action rifles to Nazi-era weapons, with procurement via a wide range of methods. Such variation and diversity continued throughout the conflict. By 1970 however, the communist inventory was increasingly standardized, even at the village guerrilla level. The following outline shows major weapons categories:[154]

  • Small arms- rifles - The standard infantry weapon of the VC/NVA was the Soviet 7.62mm AK47 assault rifle, or its Chicom copy, the Type 56 assault rifle. The Soviet SKS carbine/semi-automatic rifle or its Chicom version (Type 56 Carbine) was also widely used. Compared to the early American M-16 the rugged AK-47 in particular was more reliable and easier to maintain.
  • Machine guns, mortars and interchangeable ammo. Also of key importance to communist units was the interchangeability of the 7.62mm ammunition between the AK-47 and other types of weapons. The 7.62mm round not only worked well in the SKS carbine but also could be used in the Soviet RPD (weapon) light machine gun, another standard infantry weapon of the VC/NVA, capable of 650 rounds per minute. Heavier machine guns were sometimes used but often in set piece assaults, or in fixed mode- such as anti-aircraft weapons, due to their weight. Communist units also employed mortars frequently, with the Soviet 82mm and its Chinese variants being the most common. French 60mm mortars also saw some use.
  • Rockets and RPGs. The VC/NVA also made extensive use of the excellent Soviet designed anti-tank grenade launcher, the RPG. Originally designed to fight against armor, it was adapted for anti-personnel use to good effect. They also made use of the Soviet/Chinese 122mm rocket which was used effectively against populated areas and large installations such as airfields. While inaccurate compared to more sophisticated weapons, the 122mm rocket made an effective terror weapon when deployed against civilian targets. Other rocket types included tube-launched Chicom 107mm and Soviet 140mm variants.
  • Anti-aircraft missiles and batteries. The VC/NVA relied heavily on heavy machine guns and standard Soviet designed anti-aircraft batteries for air defense functions. In the latter year of the conflict, field units of the VC/NVA deployed hand-held Soviet designed anti-aircraft missile that presented a significant challenge to US air dominance, particularly helicopters. For strategic aerial defense, the North deployed one of the densest and most sophisticated air-defense systems in the world based on Soviet SAM missiles and radar batteries.
  • Grenades, booby traps and mines. The VC/NVA used a wide variety of grenades from explosives inserted into discarded American C-ration cans to modern Chicom types. Booby traps were the province of guerrilla level forces more so than the VC/NVA regulars. The infamous punji sticks soaked in excrement and urine received much press, but they were of negligible effect compared to the massive quantity of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines deployed by main communist units. These quantities increased vastly as the North stepped up infiltration into the South. Mines and booby traps applied significant psychological pressure on US/ARVN forces and slowed and disrupted both military operations and civilian life.
  • Tanks and artillery. Fighting a mobile guerrilla war much of the time, the VC/NVA could not deploy large quantities of heavy artillery or tanks. Exceptions were the set piece siege battles such as at Khe Sanh or heavy artillery duels against US batteries across the DMZ. It was only after the shift to conventional warfare in the 1972 Easter Offensive, and the final conventional campaign in 1975 (when US airpower had vacated the field) that tanks and heavy batteries were openly used in significant numbers. When using heavy artillery, the VC/NVA relied on high quality Soviet-supplied heavy 120mm and 130mm guns that outranged American and ARVN opposition.

VC/NVA Logistics[edit]

NVA troops - Laos 1967

Austerity of Communist force requirements[edit]

VC/NVA logistics were marked by austerity, but sufficient supplies, equipment and material were on hand to furnish final victory. Consumption levels were much less that those of their American/ARVN opponents. It is estimated that a VC/NVA division in the south typically required only 3 tons of supplies per day.[155] Total requirements to run North Vietnam's overall war machine were comparatively small, an estimated 6,000 tons annually in 1967, well below port and rail capacity. US Intelligence estimates of all Communist non-food requirements in the South averaged about 15 tons per day (or 1.5 to 3 ounces per man) in low intensity periods.[156]

In 1968 with the Tet Offensive and other major operations, these numbers surged but still weighed in at a modest daily 120 tons. By contrast a single US heavy combat division required about 5 times this amount.[157] The problem was not the total incoming quantity but moving material up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other transmission paths, to the point of battle operations. Soviet bloc and Chinese shipments easily met ordinary communist force requirements. Internal supply from within South Vietnam was also crucial particularly food supplies. Overall, communist logistical operations were successful.

Support by the Soviet bloc and China[edit]

Communist bloc support was vital for prosecution of the war in the South. North Vietnam had relatively little industrial base. The gap was filled primarily by China and Russia. The Soviet Union was the largest supplier of war aid, furnishing most fuel, munitions, and heavy equipment, including advanced air defense systems. China made significant contributions in medicines, hospital care, training facilities, foodstuffs, and infantry weapons.

Since China bordered Vietnam, it was an immensely important conduit of material on land, although the Soviets also delivered some of its aid by sea. Soviet aid outstripped that of China, averaging over half a billion dollars per year in the later stages of the war, with some $700 million in 1967 alone.[158] China provided an estimated 150 million to 200 million annually, along with such in-kind aid as the deployment of thousands of troops in road and railway construction in the border provinces.[159] China also provided radar stations and airfields where North Vietnamese aircraft could marshall for attack, or flee to when in trouble against American air forces. These airbases were off-limits to American retaliation.[160]

The railway network in the Chinese provinces bordering North Vietnam was of vital importance in importing war material. American Rules of Engagement forbid strikes against this network for fear of provoking Chinese intervention. Thousands of Chinese troops (the PLA's 1st and 2nd Divisions) made important contributions to Hanoi's war effort- building or repairing hundreds of miles of track and numerous other facilities such as bridges, tunnels, stations and marshalling yards. Chinese troops also built bunkers and other fortifications, and manned dozens of anti-aircraft batteries. In all, some 320,000 Chinese soldiers served in Vietnam during the war.[161]

The Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails[edit]

(see Wiki article Ho Chi Minh Trail for more details)

A binh tram in operation on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Construction of what was to become the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail extended over decades, with elements put in place during the anti-French struggle of the Viet Minh. Known to the North Vietnamese as the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party ordered construction of routes for infiltration as early as 1959, under the 559 Transport Group. [162] The Trail was a complex web of roads, tracks, bypasses, waterways, depots, and marshaling areas, some 12,000 miles in total. It snaked through parts of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. US policymakers made ground attack against Trail networks in these countries off limits, (until limited operations were permitted late in the War) and communist forces took full advantage of this to move massive quantities of men and material into South Vietnam to attack US and ARVN troops. As the war progressed, communist forces expanded and improved the Trail, moving material by truck, installing missile batteries for air defense and laying fuel pipelines. Air interdiction of the Trail hurt communist efforts but failed to stop the logistical buildup on a sustained basis.[163]

Trail installations and movement[edit]

Installations on the trail. The Trail had over 20 major way-stations operated by dedicated logistics units or Binh Trams, responsible for air and land defence, and delivery of supplies and replacements to fighting points in the South. Commo-Liaison units also operated along other trail segments and were tasked with providing food, shelter, medical support and guides to infiltrating troops between Trail segments. The Binh Trams were responsible for numerous functions in the sector of the Trail it controlled- including subordinate camps and way-stations, the care and feeding of troops, road repair, anti-aircraft defenses, vehicle repair and maintenance, and medical care. Each binh tram had its own force of porters, guides, engineers, specialists, transportation units and infantry.[164] Some binh trams had extensive anti-aircraft defenses. The Mu Gia binh tram area for example, was estimated to have no fewer than 302 anti-aircraft positions as early as 1966, a deadly flak trap for US aircraft. By 1973, gun batteries had been supplemented with Soviet-supplied SAMs on various parts of the Trail.[165]

Trail movement. Most material movement in bulk was not by gangs of sweating coolies, but modern Soviet-supplied trucks. These vehicles rolled on a "relay" basis, moving mostly at night to avoid American air power, and the trail was plentifully supplied by jungle-like camouflage at all times. Way stations were generally within one day's travel from each other. Trucks arriving at a station were unloaded, and the cargo shifted to new trucks, which carried out the next segment of the journey. Having plenty of both time and manpower, this "relay" method economized on wear and tear upon the valuable trucks, and maximized hiding opportunities from prowling US aircraft. The method also spread out available cargoes over time and space, enabling the entire network to better bear losses from such deadly enemies as the American C-130 Gunship, and such technologies as movement sensors.[166]

Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia[edit]

The Sihanouk Trail was the American name for the network of roads, waterways and paths cutting through Cambodia that supplied communist forces. This network was considered an integral part of the overall supply system incorporating Laos and North Vietnam and centered around the Cambodian port of Kompong Somor Sihanoukville. The unit tasked by Hanoi with organizing movement was the 470th Transport Group, which established a similar network on binh trams' and way-stations.[167]

"".. military supplies were sailed directly from North Vietnam on communist-flagged (especially of the Eastern bloc) ships to the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville, where that nation's neutrality guaranteed their delivery. The supplies were unloaded and then transferred to trucks which transported them to the frontier zones that served as PAVN/NLF Base Areas.[8] These Base Areas also served as sanctuaries for PAVN/NLF troops, who simply crossed the border from South Vietnam, rested, reinforced, and refitted for their next campaign in safety." See Wiki article Sihanouk Trail for more detail.

Of the Sihanouk Trail and Cambodia, one American military history says:[168]

"The continuity in the infiltration corridor through Cambodia and Laos mitigated against the forces being stopped. Unlike Greece, fifteen years earlier, which had been able to seal its borders with the help of neighbors, South Vietnam could not count on such aid. Cambodia's port of Sihanoukville made possible the flooding of the South Vietnam battlefield with a family of Sino-Soviet equipment that was completely compatible with that used by VC/NVA forces in the rest of Vietnam. The overthrow of Sihanouk and the closing of the Sihanoukville port in early 1970 were too little too late. Laos was still a wide-open corridor, and U.S. forces were withdrawing. It was never a question of victory for the North, it was only a matter of time."

Effectiveness of the Trail despite interdiction efforts[edit]

NVA transportation unit, circa 1971

By 1969 the Trail was a sophisticated logistical web with paved roads, truck parks, maintenance and supply depots, and well organized and defended terminuses and bases, moving thousands of men per month into the battle zone. A fuel pipeline was even in place by 1969, and this was to multiply, together with other installations such as missile batteries, as the conflict extended.[169] The need for massive amounts of construction hand-labor actually decreased on the Trail as heavy quipment like bulldozers and rush crushers were deployed, and both miles of road built and truck traffic expanded. By war's end almost a million soldiers had made the trip down the Trail, and tens of thousands of tons were being transported annually.[170]

Massive American efforts in the air failed to stop the men and material pushed forward by Hanoi. Bomb tonnages dropped on the Trail in Laos offer some indication of the scale of the American campaign: 1969- 433,000 tons, 1970- 394,000 tons (74,147 sorties), 1971- 402,000 tons (69,000 sorties).[171] However with only 15 non-food tons a day needed for low-intensity operations in the South, PAVN could keep its war-fighters in business indefinitely by moving about 6,000 tons annually.[172] Amounts ten times or more this size however, were entering the top of the logistical pipeline before trickling down into South Vietnam, Laos and adjoining border regions.[173]

A post-war analysis by the BDM Corporation, a think-tank contractor in Vietnam, summarized the efficiency and effectiveness of VC/NVA logistics as follows:

Subsequently the Communist Vietnamese leadership outlasted America's eight-year combat effort in Southeast Asia, and finally reunited Vietnam by force of arms. A major factor contributing to their success was the remarkable logistical support they created in an integrated network of bases, sanctuaries and lines of communication. Indeed the sanctuaries gave them the trump card that enabled them to fight a protracted war and outlast the United States commitment to the Republic of Vietnam.[174]

Logistical organization and facilities[edit]

Supply from inside South Vietnam[edit]

Simplified overview of communist logistics, including Soviet and Chinese aid, internal VC logistical organization inside the South, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

While outside material was vital to the war effort, much of the resources needed were obtainedinside South Vietnam. Tonnages needed for communist forces were modest for the low-intensity protracted war style. One CIA study in 1966 found that the bulk of supplies needed were generated within South Vietnam.[175] Food was always had locally, taxed away from peasants, purchaseds or even grown by Liberation Army units. Captured stocks were also exploited. American logistical largesse also provided a bonanza as fraud and corruption siphoned off resources. Both weapons and food for example were readily available on the black markets of South Vietnam.

This capability of generating resources internally contributed to the mixed results obtained by massive US interdiction efforts- such as the bombing campaign in Laos. Big search and destroy operations seized hundreds of tons of rice and other material in remoter base areas, but these could be generated and restocked again when roving US troops invariably moved on to their next sweep. The Ho Chi Minh Trail consumed massive amounts of attention, but the internal pipelines were also crucial, and these were not closed off because the US and particularly the GVN failed to control the major population concentrations effectively. [176]

North-South organization[edit]

NVA headquarters in Hanoi was responsible for the coordinating the North to South logistical effort. To this end, it deployed 3 special formations.

  • The 603rd Transport Battalion handled sea infiltration and supply movement.
  • The 500th Transport Group handled movement of troops and supplies in the North in preparation for the journey south
  • The 559th Transport Group was the biggest of the three, numbering an estimated 50,000 troops with 100,000 civilian porters in support. It handled all storage, movement, anti-aircraft defense and fortification on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which snaked through parts of Laos and Cambodia.
  • The 470th Transport group was established to move material from Cambodia

Logistical organization inside South Vietnam[edit]

Ingenious VC/NVA tunnel complex, used for storage, shelter, withdrawal and defence

Within SVN, the NLF military HQ, COVSN, had responsibility for overall logistical coordination. This changed as the war went on, and the NVA took over more responsibility in-country after the 1968 Tet offensive. This takeover involved setting up new headquarters and replacing fallen VC with NVA regulars. Within the southern logistical organization, 3 agencies were responsible. Sub-sections of these operated at different levels, from Interzone to village.

  • The Finance and Economic grouping was the chief fund raiser, banker and purchasing agent.
  • The Rear Services grouping provided logistical support for military operations, such as digging bunkers or hauling supplies.
  • The Forward Supply Council marshaled the money and resources raised by the Finance section, and the services of the rear Group. It controlled civilian labor recruitment, and military recruitment including drafting men into the VC, among other things. Party membership was strongest in the Forward Supply Council.

Overlap and duplication[edit]

There was a significant overlap of logistical functions in the communist organization, as the NVA and the VC/NLF civilian agencies worked an area. However overall control was always in the hands of party cadres at all levels, from province down to village. Duplication also produced a wider range of alternative sources for supplies, and made the whole structure more resilient. An American or ARVN sweep for example that wiped out several supply caches did not shut down the whole district. Supply routes using multiple sources, (waterways, black-market transactions, cross-border sanctuaries, etc.) could be reopened, and laborers from other regions could be shifted into reconstruction work once the Americans or ARVN left (as they usually did).[177]

Civilian porters[edit]

Thousands of porters provided slow but effective logistical support for VC/NVA operations. Note use of bicycles which allowed up to 400 lbs to be hauled per bike.

Civilians labor was crucial to VC/NVA success, and was deployed in building fortifications, transporting supplies and equipment, prepositioning material in readiness for an operation, and general construction such as road repair. Labor was recruited primarily by impressment/draft, or as a way to pay off VC taxes, although volunteers motivated by ideology also took part. Twelve to sixteen hours of work per day were expected of laborers. Civilians undertook various pledges as directed by the regime (the "three readies", the "three responsibilities" among others,) as part of a high mobilization of the population for total war in the North and areas controlled by the VC/NVA in the South.[178]

Load bearing by porters was greatly enhanced by the use of ingenious "steel horses" - bicycles specially modified by widening the handlebars, strengthening the suspensions and adding cargo pallets. Guided by two men, the specially modified bikes could move 300-400 pounds, several times that of a single porter.[179] Older men made up many of the long-term laborers as those younger were drawn off into combat and female labor was used extensively in a wide range of logistics tasks.[180]

Port and water transport facilities[edit]

Communist forces also made extensive use of Vietnam's large network of rivers and waterways, drawing heavily on the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville, which was also off-limits to American attack. Some 80% of the non-food supplies used by the VC/NVA in the southern half of South Vietnam moved through Sihanoukville. [181]

Some port areas of North Vietnam were also vital to the logistical effort, as were ships by socialist nations that fed the continual stream of war material. Attacks on these were also forbidden by American policymakers. Until late in the War, American pilots, hindered by their government's Rules of Engagement, could only watch helplessly as munitions, heavy weapons and advanced components like SAM missile batteries were unloaded at such harbors as Haiphong. [182] By 1966, some 130 SAM batteries were in North Vietnam by US estimates, manned primarily by Russian crews.[183]

Weapons resupply and communications[edit]

US soldier with captured arms- Cambodia 1970. Such efforts slowed but could not stop the flow of material from outside sources, nor the crucial supplies generated within SVN by Communist forces

VC/NVA weapons had to be moved from shipment points in the North, Cambodia or down the Ho CHi Minh Trail. Small, jungle workshops made simpler types of ordnance such as reloading rifle cartridges or grenades. A large amount of small supply depots, widely dispersed to guard against attack, furnished units on the move. Impressed labor groups of civilians also hauled ammo and supplies for the Front. ARVN and US sources were also significant localized conduits of arms. VC fighters in some areas ironically treasured the American M-16 rifle despite its sometimes quirky performance, for the wide availability of both the weapon and its ammunition on the black market or through purchase from corrupt ARVN soldiers, or through the careless handling and loss of magazines by US troops.[184]

VC/NVA formations suffered a shortage of modern radios. Although wire was sometimes run for field telephones in selected operations, they relied heavily on couriers for transmission of messages on the battlefield. A "drop box" system for couriers was also extensively used for intelligence communications. The whole network was segmented, so that one part did not know the other branches. A courier might leave a message at a specific drop location for another courier (a stranger to him or her). This segmentation helped protect against compromising the network when couriers were captured or killed. Segmentation enhanced security and was also sometimes used in moving troops - with guide units only knowing their section of the trail or transport network.[185]

Food and medical care[edit]

Food. The bulk of VC/NVA foodstuffs was procured within South Vietnam via purchase, taxation on peasants in controlled areas, and personal farming by troops in remote areas. Households in areas under VC control were required to keep a certain minimum supply of rice on hand, and a large number of secret caches and supply dumps honeycombed the countryside. Food, along with almost any other item, was also obtained on Saigon's thriving black market. This included large quantities of American food aid to South Vietnam, a phenomenon sometimes observed by US troops that found enemy supply caches.[186] Ironically, even the remnants of American airstrikes were pressed into food production. US patrols encountered numerous B-52 bomb craters used as fish and duckponds by Communist troops.[187]

Medical care. Medical supplies used on the battlefield came from several sources, including Soviet bloc and Chinese shipments and "humanitarian" donations earmarked for civilian use from neutral countries, including Scandinavian nations. Medical care like other aspects of the logistical system was austere, and field hospitals, whether in caves, underground bunkers or jungle huts usually suffered shortages. A one day supply of medicines was usually kept on hand, with the rest hidden off-site until needed. About 7% of a typical VC/NVA division's manpower was made up of medical personnel.[188]

Total mobilization in the North to fight US bombing[edit]

US Phantom aircraft burns after being hit by SAM missile. By 1968, the North had one of the densest air defenses in the world

Dispersal and decentralization under heavy air attack. From 1965 to 1968, North Vietnam was bombed on a scale heavier than the that of the entire Pacific theater during World War II, and absorbed about 20% of US bombing efforts in Southeast Asia.[189] Targeting however was tightly controlled and limited, and while most major industrial centers had been destroyed by 1967, imports from Soviet bloc countries and China furnished most war-making material. The country continued to function for war despite the aerial onslaught.[190] Facilities and installations were widely dispersed and concealed. Some 2,000 imported generators provided essential power, and oil and gas were shuttled ashore on small craft from Soviet ships and stored in thousands of small drums throughout the countryside. A massive number of civilians were also evacuated to the countryside from the urban areas, along with factories and machine shops.[191]

Personnel mobilization. American bombers caused substantial damage to Northern road and rail infrastructure, including bridges, culverts, depots, ports and docks. Nevertheless an enormous effort kept transportation networks open. Some 500,000 workers were mobilized to repair bomb damage as needed, with an additional 100,000 constantly at work.[192] The largest repair organization was the “Youth Shock Brigades Against the Americans for National Salvation.” Numbering some 50,000 to 70,000 laborers, the brigades were made up of recruits between 15 and 30, with heavy female representation as young men were siphoned off for combat. Joined by assorted militia and self-defense forces, these quick-reaction units were often stationed along heavily bombed routes and deployed to repair bridges, roads, tracks, tunnels and other structures. Pre-positioning of these groups allowed them to spring rapidly into action after an attack had passed.[193]

PAVN trucks ready to roll- 1972. Communist forces sometimes exploited US Rules of engagement, massing convoys in the 25 mile buffer zone near the Chinese border- off-limits of US airstrikes

Road and bridge repair methods. There were several ways to keep traffic moving amid the destruction wrought by the bombers. Simple pontoon bridges were made of lashed together bundles of bamboo, topped by heavy wooden planking. Sturdier pontoon structures were made by tying wooden canal boats together - with camouflage measures to hide them during the day from aerial observation. Bridges were also built underwater to escape detection. Supplies, equipment and material was pre-stocked along roads, and near various choke points like ferry crossings so that repairs could be made quickly. Delayed action bombs caused special problems. Designated personnel were tasked with dismantling them, or watchmen kept them under observation- signaling all within blast distance to disperse when the bombs showed signs of detonating. Repairs were often done at night when the enemy aircraft would be less active. [194]

Concealment and evasion. Camouflage was used heavily. Roads were sometimes “roofed” with a network of branches, brush and other greenery, and vehicles on the roads sported foliage to aid in concealment. Night movement was almost constant, with drivers being guided on the roads by white poles painted by the Youth Shock Brigades, or personnel dressed in white. Truck headlights were sometimes mounted under the vehicle to help escape detection from the air. [195] The North Vietnamese also took advantage of US Rules of Engagement. When a 25-mile buffer zone policy was in effect near the Chinese border, US recon planes could see hundreds of loaded trucks massed in the buffer zone during the day, waiting to roll later at night. Truck driving was a dangerous task, and drivers were expected to not only dodge aircraft but help with vehicle and road repairs. Traffic was regulated by numerous civilian helpers, often young girls. [196]

Effectiveness of mobilization. American bombing could be ineffective against both the landscape and determined repair attempts. A massive 1966 bombing mission by thirty B-52’s for example attempted to pulverize vital stretches of the strategic Mu Gia pass. Two days later however the traffic was moving again, despite huge landslides caused by the giant bombers, and the use of numerous delayed action munitions.[197] On the vital China to Hanoi corridor, most major bridges, roads and rail lines were back in operation within 5 weeks after the American bombing halt in 1968. The large number of waterways in Vietnam were also put to good use in moving material.[198] In terms of stopping Hanoi's ruthless drive for reunification, the overall US bombing campaign, with its varied stops and starts, was ultimately ineffective in the face of cascading imports from socialist allies, diplomatic, political and technical restraints on American action, and the stoic determination and endurance of the North Vietnamese.[199]

US B-52 bombers

The most dangerous period for the North appeared to be in 1972, when US aerial forces under President R. Nixon launched the brief but devastating Linebacker I and Linebacker II bombing raids. These attacks removed many of the restrictions upon previous American targeting, seeded Northern waters with mines that cut Soviet and Chinese imports to a trickle, exhausted national air-defenses and crippled whatever significant remaining industrial plant and transportation network was left in the North. However such severely damaging American efforts were not sustained. By the time of the Linebacker offensives (a few weeks each), most US forces (over 500,000 troops) were already out of the Vietnam theater. Over 150,000 Northern soldiers however remained in the South after the 1972 Offensive, expanding the conquered zone and biding their time, until the final Ho Chi Minh Campaign in 1975.[200]

The infiltration south[edit]

Infiltrators on the move in Laos down the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Trail movement and hardships[edit]

NVA units deemed ready for infiltration were transported from the training centers by train or truck to the coast, at places like Dong Hoi, where they received additional rations. From there they marched south and southwest, towards the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or Laos, using a variety of routes. Movement was at night to avoid American air attacks. Within the DMZ, there was a rest pause of several days as infiltrators staged for the crossing. Moving in company or battalion sizes, units departed at two-day intervals, with most crossing into Laos along a system of thousands of tracks, roads and paths known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[201]

NVA infiltration routes were keyed to the Military regions the infiltrators were assigned to. PAVN units headed for the Tri-Thien region closest to the northern border might infiltrate directly across the DMZ. Those headed further beyond might travel through Laos. The Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia was opened in 1966 to enable PAVN to infiltrate and resupply COVSN in the southernmost zone of South Vietnam.[202]

The Ho Chi Minh Trail covered a wide diversity of rough terrain. Steep mountain slopes had steps gouged into them for climbing. Ravines were bridged with crude bamboo suspension bridges. Ferries shuttled troops across rivers and streams, and crossings were sometimes laid underwater to avoid aerial detection. Large gangs of civilian laborers were drafted to keep the network functioning.

A daily march cycle might begin at 4:00am with a pause around noon, and continuation until dusk- 6:00pm. Generally there was ten minutes of rest per hour, with one day of rest every five. Fifteen to twenty-five kilometeres were covered daily depending on the terrain. Movement was in column, with point and rear elements. Armed liaison agents, who knew only their section of the Trail, led each infiltrating group between way-stations. Way-stations were located deep in the forest, and contained caches of supplies for use by the infiltrators. They were guarded by detachments of the force responsible for infiltration- the 559th Transport Group. Sometimes the troops camped on the Trail itself between stations.[203]

The hardships of the Trail were many. Casualties caused by American airstrikes were low, accounting for only 2% of total losses. More dangerous enemies included malaria, foot infections and a variety of other maladies. Total losses to disease are estimated at around 10 to 20%. Sick soldiers were left to recuperate at various way-stations. Transit time could take months, and sometimes entire units were disrupted and disbanded. [204]

Recruits were generally given an optimistic picture of conditions in the south, with claims that victory was close at hand and that they would be welcomed as liberators by their oppressed Southern brethren. They were often quickly disabused of such notions as they encountered sullen peasants and withering US firepower.[205]

Techniques to deceive or fight US airpower and Special Ops troops[edit]

US propaganda leaflet dropped on Trail warning of doom for NVA trucks and supplies

By 1968, business was brisk on the Trail. Ten thousand trucks could move at a time, and improvements were made continuously by the 559th Transportation Group. US air interdiction against the Trail increased as PAVN stepped up its activities. One method used to fight the effects of bombing was to separate the movement of men from the movement of material. NVA soldiers were limited to old pathways, while trucks were increasingly routed along newer, improved stretches of road. Since most of the US effort focused on trucks, the bulk of the fighting men were able to travel without the full weight of US pressure, although they sometimes came under attack.[206]

Great pains were taken to camouflage movement. Wherever possible PAVN units minimized disturbances to the jungle cover, and even transplanted foliage from elsewhere to cover and conceal signs of movement. PAVN sources claim that the 559th Transport group camouflaged some 2,000 miles out of the 12,000 miles of trail.[207] Techniques used to fool US airpower included underwater bridging and placing gasoline-soaked rags along the trail to fool pilots into thinking they had hit or ignited something of value. About 100,000 people were kept working on the Trail as porters, drivers, mechanics and anti-aircraft troops. By 1970, the entire Trail bristled with anti-aircraft batteries. [208]

PAVN troops also encountered US movement, auditory and chemical ("people sniffer") sensors on various parts of the Trail. Sound/seismic sensors were countered by destroying them, moving them to useless locations, removing their batteries, playing tape recordings of truck traffic, and running herds of cattle over them. Chemical sensors were neutralized by leaving buckets of urine hanging on trees over the transportation network. Esoteric American technology- such as the Calgon brand "mud maker" compounds deployed to slow movement on the Trail were met with typical People's Army practicality. Logs and bamboo were laid over the quickly dissolving mud and the Northern fighters moved on.[209] Special trail-watching and reaction units were also used to counter infiltration by US-MACV Special Operations teams. Local tribesmen recruited by PAVN for example would beat on pots or gongs to warn of the presence or landing of US Special Ops teams and high rewards were offered for assisting with their capture.[210]

Volume of infiltration[edit]

Infiltration routes into South Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh and Shianouk Trails

VC/NVA Troop strengths during the Vietnam War are the subject of numerous controversies and contradictory claims. Official post-war North Vietnamese sources claim over half a million troops in place by 1967. US MACV estimates posit a more modest total of around 280,000.[211] Force strengths will always be imprecise given the large number of irregular or part-time guerrilla elements.

Infiltration numbers increased yearly. In 1968 alone, some 200,000 NVA troops made the journey south according to some American estimates.[212] Official Communist sources also confirm the massive buildup, although figures differ between American and Northern sources. According to the official People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) History:

“In 1964 our army began to send to the battlefield complete units at their full authorized strength of personnel and equipment... By the end of 1965 our main force army in South Vietnam totaled almost 92,000... Our main force troops grew from 195,000 soldiers in early 1965 to 350,000 soldiers in May 1965 and finally to 400,000 by the end of 1965.. During 1966 the strength of our full-time forces in South Vietnam would be increased to between 270,000 and 300,000 soldiers... By the end of 1966 the total strength of our armed forces was 690,000 soldiers.” [213]

Throughout a large portion of the War, North Vietnam denied that any of its soldiers were even in the south, but it is clear that the Communist forces were able to place tens of thousands of troops in the southern war zone, including complete units of regular NVA, rather than simply individual fillers.

VC/NVA Tactics in battle[edit]


Initiative: metering losses and tempo[edit]

The NVA and VC conducted numerous attacks and defensive maneuvers, generally having the advantage of choosing the time and place for such operations. Such initiative was sometimes blunted by ARVN countermeasures, or the aggressive "search and destroy" tactics of US forces. Nevertheless, over the vast area that was South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Communist forces typically held the initiative in a conflict extending over a decade. One US military study for example found that 88 percent of all engagements against US forces were initiated by the enemy.[214]

There were generally two approaches to metering losses. The first was attritional- inflicting maximum losses on ARVN/US forces. This meant expending lives and resources in attacks (ambushes, raids, etc) or in defensive operations (digging in to fight, bleeding opponents and then withdrawing when enemy forces grew too strong). Attacks were scaled up or down as depending on a myriad of factors including the political situation in a particular area. [215] The second approach was avoidance of battle unless numerical superiority and chances of success were good. In the Vietnam War, most Communist units (including mobile NVA regulars using guerrilla tactics) spent only a limited number of days a year fighting. While they might be forced into an unwanted battle by an ARVN/US action, most of the time was spent in population control, training, intelligence gathering, propaganda indoctrination, or construction of fortifications, with Communist troops tyically only fighting an average of 1 day in 30.[216] In essence, the VC/NVA largely fought on the ground only when they wanted to fight.

Mastery of the initiative made the US attrition strategy of seeking big battles problematic, and also undermined GVN/ARVN attempts at pacification. Manpower losses could always be made up with more inflitration of regulars from the North and additional recruitment of VC within the South. The arrival of US forces in 1965 saw a shift back to small unit and guerrilla warfare. The average of battalion sized attacks for example dropped from 9.7 per month to 1.3, while small-scale actions climbed by 150 percent.[217] While US troops were being lured to the remoter regions in pursuit of base areas, big battles and large casualty ratios, 90% of all attacks were consisently occurring in the more heavily settled areas. For example, the 10 percent of the country that held over 80 percent of the population saw the bulk of VC/NVA actions according to one American study covering 1966 and 1967.[218] The US/GVN strategy thus not only failed to come to grips with an elusive enemy on the outer edges, but also failed to keep them away from the inner populated areas as well.[219]


Criticism and self-criticism sessions helped communist forces effectively adapt lessons learned on the battlefield

The VC/NVA battle philosophy placed great stress on learning and adaptability, and systematicaly strived to improve battle techniques at the lowest levels. Units and individuals were expected to be problem solvers, making creative use out of what might be fleeting opportunities and scarce resources. After engagements, detailed after-action reports were conducted, and detailed analyses various problems in the field were carried out. After an action, both individuals and units critiqued their performance through widespread "criticism and self-criticism" sessions, and even commanders were taken to task at the appropriate levels. The lessons learned were continually incorporated into NVA/VC operations. Experiments were also carried out by different units, and the results were disseminated via conferences, field manuals, memoranda and new procedures.[220]

This capability to adapt was crucial when facing new technology, such as US helicopters. Several studies were conducted on how to combat the menace from above, and aiming and firing procedures were worked out for a variety of weapons, such as heavy machine guns. In one report, shooting 1 1/2 lengths ahead of the aircraft was deemed satisfactory for striking vital engine parts.[221] Firing tables were also constructed and disseminated for different types of US aircraft. Countermeasures, including use of trenches and mines were also published for such armored vehicles as the M-113 personnel carrier, which was often devastating to VC formations when first introduced..[222]

"Bait" tactics and body counts[edit]

Both offensive and defensive tactics often involved luring ARVN and US troops into a maze of concealed fortifications, or into ambush positions, where they could be bled before the People's Army Forces withdrew. Initial positions were sometimes made to appear deliberately weak, including unmanned bunkers and light sniper-type resistance to bait enemy forces inside the killing zone. In the meantime, more lethal elements maneuvered and concentrated inside the fortified complex to inflict maximum damage.[223]

NVA troops- 1968

Jungle terrain offered ideal environments for such methods, but they were also used to cynical effect in civilian areas. Firing a few rounds and withdrawing could not only lure enemy troops into a trap based on civilian structures but could also induce US forces to unleash hasty artillery and tactical air strikes after relatively token provocation. This created excessive destruction in the built up areas and radicalized the populace against the attacking troops.[224]

Bait tactics exploited the US focus on body counts and its lavish use of firepower, including relatively ineffective Harassment and Interdiction (H&I)fires.[225] One related method was to occupy a hamlet or deploy near it, digging into positions at the treeline on the perimeter of the hamlet for attack or defense. ARVN or US forces would often counterattack by unleashing air and artillery strikes on the community, causing destruction to the persons and property of the civilians they were supposed to be protecting. The damage done, and protected by their dug-in positions, VC and PAVN fighters melted away at their earliest convenience, repeating the cycle elsewhere.[226]

One US Army primer (Marshall and Hackworth 1967) on fighting Commmunist forces recognized these problems and counseled against hasty reaction fires, careless advances on contact, or excessive maneuvering.[227] Pressure from higher commanders for body counts in pursuit of the US attrition strategy contributed to these outcomes, often making a bad tactical situation worse in the view of these and other authors. [228]

Mobility and movement[edit]

VC camp and movement network in one SVN district, 1966-67.

Movement and area control: The VC/NVA were constantly on the move, seldom staying more than 2-4 days in one place. Integral to mobility was elaborate camouflage and information denial procedures, such as restricting civilian movements prior to, or during an operation. Frequent rotation involved bivouacking in a series of fortified camps. These fortified sites could also be within villages or their subsidiary hamlets.[229]

Constant shuttling between camps or "nomading," allowed the VC and NVA to evade detection and defend themselves. Just as important however, it allowed them to control an area's people, food and other material.[230] While a US or ARVN sweep might force a battle, Main Force VC and NVA typically spent only a small number of days a year fighting. Most of the time was spent in area control, which provided recruits, food and other resources. Control of an area was achieved because the moving VC/NVA formations generally kept within striking distance of the civilian population and were thus in a position to harvest intelligence, liquidate opposition, intimidate the reluctant, and enforce demands for taxes, labor and other resources.

Movement procedures: Movement procedures varied with enemy locations, terrain, etc but generally recon elements from battalions or companies met with local guerrillas or operatives to gain intelligence, map out the terrain ahead, and obtain guides as needed. Security was on a tight basis with soldiers only being informed at the last minute. A movement order was accompanied by a thorough cleanup of the area to hide traces of the unit. Trenches, foxholes and other fortifications were generally camouflaged for later reuse.

Once on the move, an advanced recon team preceded the main body. Behind the advance troops, came the combat units, Headquarters, heavy weapons, combat support soldiers, and another combat element. Trailing the formation was a rearguard detachment. The distance between individual men was generally 5-10 meters- less during night movements. Complete radio silence was maintained during a movement, and strict camouflage and concealment procedures applied during day movement.

Recon elements scouted the flanks and rear extensively, especially while crossing obstacles or in enemy-held areas. Most movement was at night. Integral to any movement into a camp was the use of multiple avenues of approach, avoiding predictable patterns that could be exploited by opposing forces. When making an approach march for a planned battle, a long, roundabout route was generally taken, often criss-crossing earlier movements to fool enemy surveillance.[231]

Signalling and communications: Communications relied heavily on field telephone and runner until the latter stages of the war when mostly conventional forces took the field. A simple singalling system via a series of gunshots was also used to communicate while moving in the jungle, with the pattern and sequence of the shots conveying meaning to other People's Army troops.[232] When VC or NVA did acquire modern equipment via capture or supply, they made numerous attempts at communications deception, imitating US radio transmissions and call signs to lure US/ARVN helicopters and troops into ambushes, or redirecting artillery fire from themselves on to US/ARVN postions via bogus requests for artillery adjustment and support.[233]

Fortified camps[edit]

Camp construction[edit]

Typical VC/NVA fortified camp. Source: US Army Platoon Leaders Handbook, 1967

Constant movement often brought the Liberation fighters to vast camp networks, spread out over a wide area. Some of these movements required new construction. Others reoccupied old campsites abandoned temporarily, or prepared ahead of time as part of the movement rotation. Even brief stops. whether in the field, jungle or village required digging of combat trenches and foxholes. Campsites had several characteristics:[234]

  • Defense in depth
  • Extensive use of camouflage
  • Mutually supporting defensive networks
  • Restricted avenues of approach
  • Escape routes
  • Use of tunnels, bunkers, communication trenches and foxholes

Also important was the requirement that the chosen location be within a single night's march of another camp. Special attention was paid to avenues of approach and withdrawal. VC and NVA battalions moved independently within their own sectors and along their own routes. A typical battalion might rotate between 20-25 campsites, all within a nights march of 3-4 other camps. While a US or ARVN attack might force them to fight, the primary mission was area control.

The standard camp was roughly circular and consisted of 2-lines of fortification, incorporating individual fighting positions, bunkers and trenches. Semi-permanent or permanent base camps contained more elaborate fortification (see Defensive tactics below). A typical VC/NVA battalion generally spread out its companies at one-hour intervals across an area, balancing the need for quick dispersal with opportunity to concentrate as needed.[235]

Camps were not necessarily in remote areas. They were often situated near hamlets, or even within them- with troops taking shelter in individual houses if the village was fully dominated by the liberation forces. After digging in, telephone wire was run, units positioned, and contact made with other surrounding military formations- especially militia and guerrilla fighters. These local units were crucial in warning, diversion and delay of GVN or US forces if the Main Force element came under attack. Communist forces generally avoided villages with high canal banks, graveyards or trees because such obstacles hindered observation and gave advancing US and ARVN troops cover. Mines and booby traps were also planted along likely avenues of approach.[236]

Camp life and morale[edit]

1966 NLF Poster celebrating dead hero Nguyen Van Be for killing many Americans. Be was actually a defector to the GVN who surfaced later in the year, astonished to read of his reputed exploits and death.[237]

Life in camp followed the military routines common to all armies, including early morning reveille, weapons training, building fortifications, duty details assigned individuals and groups, and daily strength and readiness reports required of officers. Typical of all communist armies, a large bloc of time was devoted to "study sessions" where troops were indoctrinated and "criticism and self-criticism" administered. The exploits of outstanding liberation fighters against the enemy were widely publicized and men were urged to emulate them.

Food supplies were, like those of other armies, designed to keep the troops at a certain level of activity rather than be tasty. VC/NVA fighters received a daily cash allowance for food which they might sometimes use in local markets. They also foraged widely including hunting. Lacking refrigeration, most food was prepared fresh. Rice was the staple. The ingenious Hoang Cam stove was used to prepare meals without flame or smoke being detected, incorporating a long exhaust trench that allowed smoke to gradually disperse into the jungle far away from the actual stove.[238]

Recreation was provided by well organized troupes of actors and musicians when feasible, unit papers and radio broadcasts. As in all things, these were monitored by Party cadres to ensure the proper line was disseminated. Medical care was difficult and austere in wartime conditions, and medicines and facilities lacking, nevertheless the highly organized system provided a rudimentary level of care to injured fighters, with field hospitals sometimes located in underground tunnels, caves and bunkers.[239]

Defensive tactics[edit]

VC/NVA defensive doctrine generally stressed avoidance of extended battle. Unless an enemy sweep, or patrol provoked an engagement, communist forces generally lay low until they were ready to initiate their own actions. If an engagement ensued, the typical approach in terms of defense was to delay opposing forces and withdraw as soon as possible, while inflicting maximum casualties before withdrawal. Massive US "search and destroy" sweeps for example, while of unmistakeable value in area denial, dispersal of opponents, etc., yielded mixed results in the face of such avoidance tactics.

The biggest such operation, "Operation Junction City" in 1967 for example, involving some 22 US battalions and 4 ARVN counterparts, and supported by massive air and artillery firepower, only yielded an average of approximately 33 enemy dead per day, over its 2 months. Such losses were manageable by an opponent that could put tens of thousands of hardcore fighters in the field, and reinforce them with more every day. Even more telling, such massive sweeps failed to cripple their targets and deliver the big battles sought by the Americans. The option of initiating contact was still largely in the hands of Communist units, and their tactics lured powerful US forces away from populated areas, their key base until late in the war.[240]

A key part of the avoidance defensive pattern also involved the intensive use of fortifications and mines. Both served to enable Front forces to escape for another days fighting, while running up the enemy tab in blood and treasure.[241]

Defensive layouts: the two-belt system[edit]

Detailed view of tunnel complex including facilities for medical care (far left)

Defensive positions had to be prepared every time VC/NVA troops moved to a new destination, with an eye to the suitability of terrain, camouflage and withdrawal routes. Generally a two line system of fortifications was used, about 50-200 meters apart. The lines were typically shaped like an L, U or V to enhance interlocking fields of fire. Individual L- shaped fighting positions were also dug, with bunkers at right angles covered with thick logs and about 2 feet of dirt. Shallow trenches connected many individual bunkers and positions into each belt of the 2-line system. The bunkers provided cover from inevitable US artillery and air attack, and the fighting positions allowed crossfire against infantry assaults. The second line of defense was not visible from the first line of positions, and allowed the fighters to fall back, either to escape a heavy bombardment, to continue retreating, or to furnish a rallying point for counterattack.[242]

In villages the VC and NVA followed the same 2-belt approach, placing defenses so they were integrated with village homes and structures. This took advantage of some US Rules of Engagement limiting or delaying the use of heavy weapons in inhabited areas. Another benefit of embedding defenses among civilians was that atrocities could be charged if civilian structures were hit by US or ARVN fire. Numerous dummy positions were also constructed to draw ARVN and American fire. In more remote areas, defensive fortifications were more elaborate, sometimes incorporating a third belt of defenses with stronger bunkers and trench systems. US attacks against such tough positions sought to avoid casualties by relying upon firepower.[243]

In some circumstances Front fortifications did not follow the layout scheme described above. Bunkers and fighting holes were scattered more widely to delay attackers, and create the psychological impression that they were surrounded on all sides. Lookout posts were often positioned on key trails, routes and likely US helicopter landing zones. To enhance their mobility during a defensive battle, numerous air-raid shelters, bunkers and trenches were pre-built in advance around an area of operations. This involved an enormous amount of labor put proved their value in maneuvering under ARVN/US attacks.[244]

Booby traps and mines[edit]

VC 'scatter-site' mining and booby traps inflicted significant casualties. Typical marking methods for friendly forces included broken sticks, saplings or groups of pebbles[245]

Booby traps and mines caused immense psychological pressure on US and ARVN troops and also inflicted numerous casualties. By 1970 for example, some 11% of fatalities and 17% of injuries inflicted on US troops were caused by booby traps and mines. [246] Identified by a variety of markers for friendly forces, these devices slowed operations, diverted resources towards security and clearance activity, damaged equipment, and poisoned relations between soldiers and the surrounding civilian population.

Booby traps[edit]

Booby traps ranged from the simple to the complex. Non-explosive traps included the well-known sharpened punji stake coated in excrement, and mounted on sapling triggers and placed in shallow, covered pits. Stakes were deployed where infantry would walk or fling themselves to avoid attack such as roadside trenches, or behind logs. One of these devices was to injure a future Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff- Colin Powell.[247] Another type of trap was a spiked mud ball that swung down on its victim after a trip wire release, impaling him. Other impalement devices included bamboo whips and triggered sapling spikes. Bows with poisoned arrows were also used.

Explosive booby traps were also employed, some command detonated by hidden observers. They ranged from single bullets, to grenades, to dud bombs and shells. Anti-vehicle traps ranged from mines to buried artillery rounds. Helicopter traps were often deployed in trees surrounding a potential landing zone, trigged by an observer, or the rotor's wash.[248]

Mines: the VC substitute for artillery[edit]

Mines caused even more damage than booby traps. According to one US Army history:[249]

"The enemy employed "nuisance mining," that is, scattering mines throughout an area rather than in well-defined minefields, on a scale never before encountered by U.S. forces. Mines and booby traps were usually installed at night by trained personnel who had detailed knowledge of the terrain. Through ingenious techniques in mine warfare, the Viet Cong successfully substituted mines and booby traps for artillery.
Instead of conventional minefields covered by fire, the enemy hindered or prevented the use of supply roads and inhibited off-the-road operations by planting explosive devices in indiscriminate patterns. While he benefited directly by causing combat casualties, vehicle losses, and delays in tactical operations, equally important was the psychological effect. Just the knowledge that a mine or booby trap could be placed anywhere slowed combat operations and forced allied troops to clear almost the entire Vietnam road net every day."

Hugging techniques, timings, counterattacks and withdrawals[edit]

NVA troops 1967

The VC/NVA fighters sought to neutralize US and ARVN firepower by “hugging” enemy troops- fighting so close that artillery or aircraft strikes had to be restrained for fear of friendly fire casualties. Vigorous counterattacks were also made, particularly against weaker ARVN formations. Typically, VC/NVA troops in a defensive or ambush position held their fire or maneuvered until US troops were very close before opening fire. This initiated the "hug" method. Since their enemies would generally draw back upon contact and rely on supporting fires, Front troops moved with them, "hanging on the belt.".[250]

Actions against enemy forces were often initiated in the latter part of the day, with impending nightfall providing favorable conditions for withdrawal. When surrounded, the Main Force VC and especially the NVA fought tenaciously, but usually with an eye towards withdrawal. Great efforts were made in recovering bodies, a psychological warfare measure that denied opponents the satisfaction of viewing enemy dead.

Invariably, VC and NVA units sought to withdraw if conditions were unfavorable, and camps and base areas were abandoned without sentiment if they became untenable. Rearguard detachments, mined routes, and diversionary attacks formed part of the retreat. The existence of cross-border sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, where US ground troops could not follow greatly aided safe withdrawal of Communist formations.[251]

There was a withdrawal scheme for all operations whether defensive or offensive. Escape and exit routes were pre-planned and concealed in advance, with later regrouping at a planned assembly point. Common techniques for withdrawal included the following:[252]

  • Fragmenting- splitting up in small groups when under attack, especially when trying to break through an encirclement.
  • Dispersing- generally used when discovered. VC/NVA troops disperse, sometimes dropping packs to delay enemy forces who stop to inspect them.
  • Hiding- VC/NVA troops spent a massive amount of time constructing fortifications and hiding places. Withdrawal movements frequently utilized these hideouts, often deep tunnel networks.
  • Deceiving- conducting diversionary attacks to deceive and draw away enemy forces and thus facilitate the withdrawal.
  • Delaying- use of rearguard units to delay pursuing forces. Delay units were sometimes used to setup enemy forces for an ambush, where the pursued turned on their pursuers.

Offensive tactics[edit]

In offensive operations, the VC/NVA typically sought to wear their opponents down by thousands of small attacks, each one gradually reducing enemy strength. Winning and holding specific blocs of territory was not as important as wearing down the enemy in accordance with Mao's dictum: "To win territory is no cause for joy, to lose territory is no cause for sorrow."[253] Bigger set-piece assaults on installations and bases as well as ambushes were sometimes executed, but the general pattern was one of protracted, attritional warfare, conducted by relatively small formations over a wide area. This meant absorbing large numbers of casualties, but both manpower and time were plentiful.


Attack planning[edit]

Planning for attacks was a careful, deliberate process, that could take many months. Below is an outline of some considerations and actions involved.[254]

Attack criteria and approval: The political dimensions of the attack were carefully considered, such as the timing of an election in the enemy camp, or the appointment of certain government officials. Planning involved a coordinated effort by military and logistics staff and the all-important political operatives, the party cadres who had the last word. Proposals for an operation were first sent up the chain of command. Depending on the scale of the planned operation, an idea to attack a certain village post might float up from Provincial, to Zone, to Interzone levels. Great stress was placed on a successful outcome that would be beneficial in terms of actual military results or propaganda. Numerical superiority was deemed essential.

Preliminary recon: If approved for further study, reconnaissance teams would case the area, analyzing political, logistics and military issues. Information gleaned from informers and sympathizers was joined to data from direct reconnaissance via patrols, infiltration, or probing attacks. The analysis was comprehensive, and might involve size and composition of enemy forces, avenues of approach and withdrawal, civilian morale, hit lists of suspected traitors or troublesome dissenters who did not support the Revolution, available civilian labor to support logistics, detailed location of individual walls, ditches or fences, and a host of other factors, both political and military.

Rehearsals for the attack: If the objective was deemed feasible along political and military lines, detailed planning for the actual operation began, including construction of sand tables, and string and stick mock-ups of the target. Main Force or regular units tasked with the assault were selected and rehearsed. Each phase of the attack was carefully reviewed and rehearsed, including actions before opening fire, actions during fire, and actions taken upon withdrawal. Numerous postponements and changes might be undertaken until conditions and preparations were judged right to launch the assault.

Logistics and security: Logistics formations might prepare coffins, pre-position medical or porter teams, and carefully tabulate the amount of ammunition needed for the operation. Guerrilla elements and laborers began to move supplies and material forward to support the impending battle. Security surrounding the operation was usually very tight with units only being informed at the last feasible moment.

Echelons of attack: Depending on the complexity of the attack, numerous sub-divisions might be involved. Local guerrillas might conduct certain preliminary tasks, such as diversionary attacks, or clearance or denial (via mining, booby traps etc.) of certain areas for movement purposes. Sappers might be tasked with opening the assault via infiltration and demolition of key objectives. A main force might swing into action once the sappers commenced their action. A blocking force might be deployed to ambush relief troops rushing to the battle area.

Attack doctrine: "one slow, four quick"[edit]

The discussion on VC/NVA offensive methods below is adapted from Bernard B. Fall, Street without Joy; Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg, Inside the VC and the NVA; and US Army, Center for Military History: Vietnam Studies[255]

Some VC attacks were repulsed with heavy losses. A battle sketch of a 4-pronged VC attack against the US 25th Infantry Division at Soiu Cut, 1968 is shown here [256]

Attacks were invariably characterised by adherence to the principle of 'one slow, four quick' - a doctrine which prevailed in both attack and defense. In offensive operations the 'quick attack' was further broken down to incorporate 'three strongs' - strong fight, strong assault and strong pursuit. Presented in sequence the doctrine can be summarized as follows:

Slow Plan - This involved a steady but low-key logistical build up in forward supply areas, being positioned ahead of the fighting forces to make a solid base for the operation. The degree of planning and preparation necessary to undertake a large operation could take as long as 6 months and often included numerous 'rehearsals'.

  • Quick Advance - This was a rapid movement forward, generally after a circuitous approach march meant to confuse the enemy. Once all the units in the operation were on track, a quick advance was usually made in small and inconspicuous groups to a forward staging area from where the attack would be launched.
  • Quick Attack - Here the attacking forces would be concentrated at the weakest point of the target as identified by prior reconnaissance. The duration of an attack could often be measured in minutes. Surprise was essential and large volumes of fire were poured on the target. Phase 2 of the attack involved the three strongs:
  • Strong fight - an attempt to achieve and exploit the element of surprise
  • Strong Assault - against a pre-arranged position using concentration of force, effort and mass to overwhelm the defense.
  • Strong pursuit - the attacking force's reserves would be committed to exploit the breaches in the targets defenses so as to deliver a decisive blow
  • Quick Clearance - The attacking force would rapidly re-organize and police the battlefield so as to remove weapons and casualties and was pre-planned to prevent confusion on the objective
  • Quick Withdrawal - Involved a quick egress from the battle area to a pre-arranged rendezvous point where the attackers would again break down into smaller groups to continue their dispersal.

Anatomy of an attack: Lima Site 85 Radar station - Laos 1968[edit]

Tactical map of attack on Lima 85 radar site. NVA regulars, special forces and local guerrillas collaborated in the assault.

The careful methods of PAVN forces are illustrated in the successful attack against the US Air Force's TACAN radar navigation facility in Laos (Lima Site 85), in March 1968. Situated on a mountain peak that was considered too tough to assault, the facilities were manned by a small force of USAF technicians on top, and about 1,000 Hmong and Thai irregulars deployed further down the slopes. NVA commandos however successfully climbed the mountain, killing or dispersing most of the guards and US airmen at the peak, while a larger follow-on echelon of NVA and Pathet Lao assaulted the rest of the mountain slopes below. The outgunned and outnumbered Hmong and Thai irregulars were defeated, and Communist force held the site despite several days under counterattack by US aircraft.

A full after-action report by PAVN was translated in 1986 and along with other US reports, furnishes numerous details about offensive tactics. [257] These include extensive preliminary recon and rehearsals, vetting and clearance by Communist Party operatives, numerical superiority at the point of attack (3,000 versus 1,000), a secure advance to the objective (avoiding or hiding from civilian traffic), detailed sub-division of tasks for each assault element, rapid movement once the battle began, and cooperation between special forces (sappers), regulars, and local guerrillas. This operation did not involve the typical quick withdrawal however. The attackers dug in on the site and defended it against counterattack, a pattern that occurred when the VC/NVA wanted to inflict maximum casualties, or achieve some political or propaganda objective, or control a particular area.

In the case, the radar station helped guide US bombers- including the devastating B-52s, and its capture was also a strong propaganda bonus demonstrating Communist strength in Laos to the local peoples. The base was isolated and superior forces could be concentrated on it, maximizing chances for success- a key consideration in a VC/NVA offensive operation. The raid also illustrated another method of neutralizing US airpower- attack its support facilities and bases on the ground. Subsequent attempts by Royal Laotian forces to retake the area were only partially successful. The mountain peak was never recaptured.[258]

Ambush techniques[edit]

The VC/NVA prepared the battlefield carefully. Siting automatic weapons at treeptop level for example helped shoot down several US helicopters during the Battle of Dak To, 1967 [259]

Ambush criteria: The terrain for the ambush had to meet strict criteria:

  • provide concealment to prevent detection from the ground or air
  • enable ambush force to deploy, encircle and divide the enemy
  • allow for heavy weapons emplacements to provide sustained fire
  • enable the ambush force to set up observation posts for early detection of the enemy
  • permit the secret movement of troops to the ambush position and the dispersal of troops during withdrawal

One important feature of the ambush was that the target units should 'pile up' after being attacked, thus preventing them any easy means of withdrawal from the kill zone and hindering their use of heavy weapons and supporting fires. Terrain was usually selected which would facilitate this and slow down the enemy. The terrain around the ambush site which was not favorable to the ambushing force, or which offered some protection to the target, was heavily mined and booby trapped or pre-registered for mortars.

Ambush units: The NVA/VC ambush formations consisted of:

  • lead-blocking element
  • main-assault element
  • rear-blocking element
  • observation posts
  • command post

Other elements might also be included if the situation demanded, such as a sniper screen along a nearby avenue of approach to delay enemy reinforcement.

Command posts: When deploying into an ambush site, the NVA first occupied several observation posts, placed to detect the enemy as early as possible and to report on the formation it was using, its strength and firepower, as well as to provide early warning to the unit commander. Usually one main OP and several secondary OP's were established. Runners and occasionally radios were used to communicate between the OP's and the main command post. The OP's were located so that they could observe enemy movement into the ambush and often they would remain in position throughout the ambush in order to report routes of reinforcement and withdrawal by the enemy as well as his maneuver options. Frequently the OP's were reinforced to squad size and served as flank security. The command post was situated in a central location, often on terrain which afforded it a vantage point overlooking the ambush site.

Recon methods: Recon elements observing a potential ambush target on the move generally stayed 300-500 meters away. Sometimes a "leapfrogging" recon technique was used. Surveillance units were echeloned one behind the other. As the enemy drew close to the first, it fell back behind the last recon team, leaving an advance group in its place. This one in turn fell back as the enemy again closed the gap, and the cycle rotated. This method helped keep the enemy under continuous observation from a variety of vantage points, and allowed the recon groups to cover one another.[260]

Types of Ambush[edit]

Ambush considerations[edit]

Careful rehearsals marked attack preparations. Here a sand table model of an objective is studied.

The size and sophistication of an ambush varied from hasty meeting engagements, to full scale, carefully planned, regimental sized ambushes that included forces sufficient to encircle the enemy in the kill zone. In instances where smaller units didn't have enough troops to stage a complete five-element ambush they would set up one of the preferred ambush types and avoided close assaulting the enemy.

The preferred time for ambushes was just before dark. Enemy units were often deliberately delayed by the deployment of small patrols or snipers which harassed it. Roads and bridges to the rear of the enemy unit would also be sabotaged or mined to prevent withdrawal. This limited the enemy's use of air support and the deployment of reinforcements. It often also resulted in the ambushed unit being pinned in place for the night and having to set up a defensive perimeter in a hostile area.

All ambushes, in keeping with universal ambush doctrine, were intended to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy and to allow the ambushing force to withdraw before effective fire could be returned.

Ambush types[edit]

The NVA/VC favored seven types of ambushes; Mine, Bloody Nose, Flank, L-shaped, Maneuver, V-shaped, and Z-shaped. The following discussion is adapted from the MACV monograph (Counterinsurgency Lessons Learned No 60, 1966)[261] and from the US Army's Handbook: ("What A Platoon Leader Should Know about the Enemy's Jungle Tactics," 1967)[262]

Mine Ambush. This depended on the use of command-detonated mines which were triggered by hidden troops who held a detonating device connected to the demolitions by electrical wire. Mine ambush kill zones might also include punji traps or other homemade traps, land mines and natural obstacles. However, the ambush was always triggered by electrically detonating a mine, when enemy troops moved within the mines killing range.

VC/NVA operations generally aimed for heavy numerical superiority at the point of attack, whether in ambush or an assault operations

Bloody Nose Ambush. Used by small units against larger enemy forces as a means of harassment, delay and disruption. By positioning the ambush to enfilade an avenue of approach, the NVA/VC obtained more effective results. Minefields, mantraps, and booby traps were placed along both sides of the trail and perpendicular to it. As the enemy unit came under fire and attempted to maneuver right or left to close with the ambushers, the protective barriers would inflict casualties. As soon as the ambushing element realised that the enemy had advanced into, and taken casualties from, the mine/trap line, the ambushers withdrew to another pre-selected site where they might repeat the maneuver.

Flank or Linear Ambush. This was one of the simplest to set up and operate and was most commonly used by the NVA. It was also easy to get into and away from quickly. The ambush position was laid parallel to the target area. Mines or other obstacles were placed on the other side of the ambush site. Upon command, fire was brought to bear on the kill zone from multiple, overlapping firing positions. The linear ambush pumped bullets into the flank of a surprised enemy column.

The 'L' Ambush. L-shaped ambushes included the most effective aspects of both the 'Bloody Nose' and Linear ambush. The short end, or base, of the 'L' was positioned so that at least one machine gun could fire straight down the kill zone, enfilading it. Parallel to the kill zone and tied into the 'L' was a second, flanking ambush.

The 'L' shaped ambush could also provide it's own flank security. The base of the 'L' might be placed along either flank of the ambush position, not to fire into the kill zone, but to ambush enemy units that were attempting to flank the main ambush position along obvious avenues of approach.

In some situations the enemy located a reserve unit in line with the vertical bar of the 'L' forming a 'T' ambush. After the ambush was sprung, the enemy maneuvered his reserves to block the enemy line of withdrawal. The reserves either close assaulted or set up another ambush along the first linear obstacle to the immediate rear of the kill zone.

The Maneuver Ambush. This was usually directed against a road bound column of vehicles. The NVA/VC usually sprang it from high ground, near a bend in the road, which allowed cover and longer fields of fire for automatic weapons. Weapons frequently opened fire from positions within forty yards of the road, or less.

A road bend was included in the kill zone so that the end of the column was out of sight of the head of the column when the ambush was sprung. Interruption of a column's front-to-rear line of sight increased the likelihood that the head and tail of the column would split and try to fight separately.

The ambush was initiated by a small element striking the head of an enemy column and stopping it by fire. Then the main body would attack the column from the rear and/or flank, fragmenting it and rolling it up. The two strikes were timed close enough together so that the target column was engaged from both ends before it could deploy and face toward either danger.

The 'V' Ambush. Positioned with its open mouth toward the enemy advance, this was a favourite of the VC. It was used in both fairly open terrain as well as jungle. The ambushers, in good concealment along the legs of the 'V', would wait until the enemy point had passed and then creep close to the trail. The 'V' ambush was virtually undetectable by enemy point or flank security until at least a portion of the enemy force was in the kill zone. Enfilading fire was often directed down the enemy axis of advance, and interlocking fire from each leg across the 'V'. The 'V' ambush also lent itself to the use of controlled mines and booby traps.

The 'Z' Ambush. Usually laid along a road, the 'Z' ambush was both effective and confusing to the unit being ambushed. This complicated ambush was usually well planned with low bunkers lining the kill zone, often prepared months prior to the ambush. The ambush position was only occupied after word was received that an enemy battalion or larger unit would be using the road, which passed through the ambush site.

The long end of the 'Z' ambush was located on one side of a trail or road enabling the ambushers to employ both enfilading and flanking fire. It was also placed to neutralise attempts to flank the ambush from nearly every direction. Ambushing units deployed along the two short ends of the 'Z' could fire in either direction. The 'Z' ambush was dangerous to ambushers because ambush elements could easily fire into each other.

Effectiveness of ambushes[edit]

Simplified view of VC 274th Main Force ambush against US 11th Armored Cavalry.

Ambushes were an important part of VC/NVA offensive effort. Against ARVN forces they could wreak tremendous damage and close vital arteries of transport. Not all ambushes were fully successful however. While VC/NVA forces typically held the initiative as to where and when to strike, US mobility and firepower sometimes blunted or dispersed their attacks. In a war of attrition however, where the clock was running on impatient US commitments, time favored Communist forces.

The encounter between the 274th VC Main Force Regiment and the US 11th Armored Cavalry diagrammed above illustrates several facets of the contending forces. The ambush took place on Highway 1, a vital road artery close to Saigon. There seems to have been careful preparation by Communist forces, including pre-built bunkers to shelter troops from US firepower along the line of retreat. A number of vehicles were destroyed but US airpower broke up the VC concentrations. A follow-up sweep by US forces killed a small number of additional VC but the bulk of them escaped.[263]

VC formations continually refined their techniques. At the Battle of Ong Thanh in 1967 they sprung another ambush, inflicting heavy casualties on American troops. In this encounter the VC used a variety of methods to neutralize dreaded US firepower, including "hugging" or fighting close to US troops. They also moved rapidly parallel to the line of ambush, sliding along its length and thus presenting a harder target for American counter-attack. While US firepower caused significant losses for the VC throughout the conflict, these methods show a force that was learning, adapting, and growing more proficient on the battlefield. Time as always, still favored Communist forces. Sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam were always available, forbidden to US ground attack. Inevitably, the ARVN and Americans would have to move on. The VC and NVA regrouped and returned.[264] See Wikipedia article Battle of Ong Thanh.

Sapper attacks[edit]

Sapper organization[edit]

Sappers were elite assault troops used by both NVA and VC Main Force units. Their speciality was attacking fixed positions

The NVA used special assault troops or sappers for a wide range of missions, sometimes by themselves, or sometimes as spearheads for a main-force echelon. The Viet Cong also deployed sappers particularly after Tet Offensive losses had made large-scale attacks hazardous. Called dac cong by the Vietnamese, sappers were a force economy measure that could deliver a stinging blow. They were an elite, especially adept at infiltrating and attacking airfields, firebases and other fortified positions. About 50,000 men served in PAVN as sappers, organized into groups of 100-150 men, further broken down into companies of roughly 30-36 men, with sub-divisions into platoons, squads and cells. Specialist troops such as radiomen, medics, and explosives experts were also attached. Many were volunteers. Sappers were often assigned to larger units (regiments, divisions, etc)- carrying out attacks and recon duties, but could also be organized as independent formations. Sappers trained and rehearsed carefully in all aspects of their craft and made use of a variety of equipment and explosive devices, including captured or abandoned American munitions.[265] Sappers also carried out intelligence missions and could work undercover. One of the sappers in the spectacular 1968 Tet Offensive attack against the US Embassy for example, was once a driver to the US Ambassador.[266]

Sapper techniques[edit]

Assault planning. As with most VC Main Force/PAVN operations, the general doctrine of "one slow, four quick" was followed- slow recon and initial penetration, then fast approach, attack, clearance and withdrawal. A typical assault began with a detailed recon of the target- pinpointing bunkers, ammo dumps, command and communications centers, barracks, power generation facilities and other vital points. Data from many other sources (farmers, spies, informers, etc) was collected and added to this. Detailed mortar ranges to each target area were plotted. A mock-up of the target was created and detailed rehearsals took place. Assaults were usually planned after nightfall.[267] Signalling systems were sometimes devised using colored flares. A typical signal package by the assault teams might be as follows: red flare: area hard to get into; white flare: withdrawal; green flare: victory; green followed by white: reinforcements requested.[268]

Assault organization and formations. Depending on the size of the attack, sappers were usually divided into 10-20 man assault groups, which were further subvivided into 3-5 man assault teams or cells. Each was tasked with destroying or neutralizing a specific area of the enemy defense. Four echelons might be employed on a typical sapper operation. An Assault group took on the main burden of the initial penetration through the wire and other defenses. A Fire-support group might be used to lay down covering fire via RPGs, mortars or machine guns at key points such as when the penetration elements cleared the wire, or at a set time, or via a pre-arranged signal. A small Security group might be deployed to position themselves to ambush reinforcements that attempted to rush to the defense of the besieged area. A Reserve group might be held back to exploit success, mop up, or extract their fellow soldiers if the situation began to deteriorate.[269] Deployment of these elements depended on the target and available forces. In larger attacks, where the sappers were to lead the way, the fire support, exploitation or security roles might be undertaken by bigger echelons of regular follow-on forces which used breeches created by the sappers to conduct their operations.[270]

Sapper raiding formation

Initial assault movement. Movement to the target area was typically by long, roundabout routes to conceal the mission and fool enemy observation..[271] Once they had reached the target, infiltrators in the advance units spread themselves around the perimeter according to their assigned tasks. Detailed prior reconnaissance helped in this effort. They strapped weapons and explosive charges to their bodies to minimize noise as they maneuvered through the outer band of fortifications, and often covered their bodies in charcoal and grease to aid movement and make detection more difficult. Barbed wire was sometimes only cut partially, with the remaining strands broken by hand to muffle the tell-tale “snip” of wire-cutters. Trip flares were neutralized by wrapping their triggers with cloth or strips of bamboo carried in the teeth of the vanguard fighters. Claymore mines might be turned in another direction.

A point man usually preceded each team - crawling silently through defenses, probing with his fingers to detect and neutralize obstacles, while the others followed behind. Sometimes gaps in the wire were created by tying down strands to make an assault corridor. Woven mats might be thrown over barbed wire to facilitate passage. Sappers often used Bangalore torpedoes made from blocks of TNT tied to bamboo poles to blast open assault routes. Attack routes often took unexpected avenues of approach, such as through the trash pits of US Firebase Cunningham in 1969.[272]

The main attack, and withdrawal. Based on the target and relevant military situation, some attacks proceeded mainly by stealth, with little initial covering fire until the last moment. Breaches might be created in the wire at several points, then left open while the penetration teams aligned with their objectives, and hunkered down, awaiting the hour of decision. Other strikes, particularly against heavily defended US targets used a barrage of covering fires to keep defenders penned in their positions, heads down, while the assault groups moved stealthily into position. Targets were usually hit in priority order- according to the level of danger they presented to the sapper units, or based on relevant military or political objectives. Emphasing utmost ruthlessness in attack, the sub-doctrine of the "3 strongs" (surprise, concentration of force, and exploitation of success) was generally followed.[273]

If discovered, the sappers often sprang up and attacked immediately. Diversionary assaults and fires were also created to screen the main sapper effort. Once the fierce fighting of the main phase was over, the pullout began. While small rearguard type elements might be left in place for delaying or diversionary purposes, withdrawal was generally a quick affair. Valuable enemy weapons and other equipment were rounded up, and the bodies of the dead and wounded were removed. Detailed after-action reports and critiques were conducted by VC/PAVN forces, absorbing lessons learned and sharpening their skills for the next assault. [274]

Examples of sapper attacks[edit]

Sapper attack on Firebase Mary-Ann, 1971[edit]
Weapons captured in the aftermath of sapper attack against US 46th Infantry at Firebase Mary-Ann, 1971

The attack against US Army Firebase Mary-Ann in 1971 by the Main Force VC 409th Sapper Battalion, is an example of these techniques. Surprise was achieved on the objective- with many on the US side not believing the NVA or People's Army would attack such a small outpost. The Firebase had seen little serious threat in the past, and was manned by 250 mostly American soldiers and some ARVN. In addition, earlier helicopter and aircraft operations at the base had touched off a number of warning flares in the wire surrounding the complex. These had not been replaced when the attack came.[275] A mortar barrage was laid down at a set time to open the battle. This provided cover for the sappers, who were already pre-positioned far forward, to move quickly towards their objectives. They destroyed the Battalion Operations Center and a number of command posts, and created general mayhem before withdrawing when helicopter gunships arrived.

The final toll was almost 30 dead and 82 wounded. Suspicion still lingers about this controversial attack, including charges that VC infiltrators posed as ARVN soldiers to facilitate the assault.[276] If so, the incident demonstrates the long reach of the VC intelligence services, and their sophisticated planning and execution of the assault. Several senior American commanders were relieved of duty or were reprimanded after the event. Audaciously, the VC attacked the ruins of the firebase the following day with machine gun fire. One Vietnam historian calls this incident the “U.S. Army's "most blatant and humiliating defeat in Vietnam." Others dispute this characterization. [277]

Sapper attack on 242d Aviation Company- Cu Chi, 1969[edit]
12 US helicopters were put out of comission during the 1969 Cu Chi sapper attack

Attacks on the US 25th Infantry Division base at Cu Chi, in 1969, illustrate sapper operations that caused less destruction, but they were carried out nevertheless on one of the most important and well-defended US bases in Vietnam. This particular action involved an apparent mix of VC and NVA elements that destroyed 9 Chinook double-rotor heavy lift helicopters, damaged 3 more and blew up an ammo dump.[278] VC sappers by some reports led the assault, with NVA providing follow-on ground or fire-support attacks. However, by 1969, most Main Force VC formations were manned by northern soldiers, and communist forces continually used shifting unit numbers to confuse ARVN and US Order of battle experts,[279] so the VC-NVA distinction and unit designations are less than clear.

POW interrogations revealed close coordination with local guerrilla elements and informers, including provision of detailed drawings and sketches of the target area. Penetration teams achieved almost complete surprise, with the sappers cutting 10 barbed wire fences, and advancing without being detected by sentries, obstacles or patrols. A rocket attack was the signal for the sappers to go into action against the helicopters and soldiers. Aside from the aircraft, US troop losses were comparatively light (1 dead, 3 wounded versus some 30 NVA or VC dead),[280] nevertheless the incident reveals the ability of the VC/NVA to stay in the field while they rebuilt after the losses of Tet.

Final victory by conventional forces[edit]

Improvements in PAVN performance over the 1972 Offensive[edit]

right|thumb|North Vietnamese T-54 in Saigon, 1975

Assessment of VC/NVA performance must look beyond the American interlude, and the guerrilla warfare phases to the final outcome of the Vietnam War in 1975. Well before the end, the Viet Cong were reduced to a minor force, and regular PAVN formations controlled the field. While final victory was aided by absence of American airpower, the PAVN/VPA armies were no longer the light-infantry formations mauled at the Ia Drang in 1965, but a tough, proficient, well-equipped modern force. Their capabilties had grown considerably, and several shortcomings of the conventional 1972 Easter Offensive were remedied.

In 1972 there was distinct weaknesses in the coordination of armor, artillery and infantry, with the three fronts of advance failing to support one another satisfactorily.[281] Armored forces were often committed in penny packets, with lack of effective infantry support and artillery co-operation, making them vulnerable to US and ARVN countermeasures. The logistics system was also unable to support the tempo of full-scale conventional battle. By 1975, these weaknesses had been substantially corrected, and a sophisticated military machine attained a rapid victory. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was increasingly a network of paved roads easing the logistical flow for the Offensive and tactical concentration and coordination of infantry, armor and artillery was much tighter.[282]

Integral to the PAVN advance was combined infantry and armor columns, that threw ARVN opponents off balance with swift moves and rapid concentrations. Extensive use was made of the "blooming lotus" tactic to assault cities and towns.[283] Rather than surround them and work inward in the orthodox manner of many contemporary Western armies, PAVN mobile columns bypassed opposition on the target's perimeter, and drove inward to seize vital command and control nodes in the central areas first, before striking outward to liquidate opposition. A reserve force was held on standby to defeat counterattacks against the penetration force.[284]

A leap-frogging tactic was also employed to maintain momentum. Spearhead units would sometimes deploy quickly to tackle opposition, while follow-on echelons bypassed such engagements to strike deeper.[285] Infiltration units like sappers also assisted the push by seizing bridges, road junctions and other key points ahead of the main forces. Deception measures were also widely used, with diversionary operations across a broad area, and troop movements timed until the last minute, to avoid telegraphing the main points of attack. Such methods for example, enabled quick conquest of towns like Ban Me Thuot and their surrounding highways, and paved the way for further operations towards Saigon.[286]

Terror and panic played their part in the NVA/PAVN advance, particularly in the Central Highlands where 5 rapidly moving divisions overwhelmed hapless ARVN formations. During the retreat from the Highlands, massive columns of civilian refugees mingled with fleeing South Vietnamese troops. PAVN forces shelled these columns indiscriminately with mortars, rockets and artillery, killing over 100,000 civilians by some estimates, and liquidating some 40,000 out of 60,000 retreating ARVN soldiers.[287]

PAVN as a modern, professional army[edit]

The fall of Ban Me Thuot

The final PAVN triumph was aided by numerous weakneses and failures in South Vietnamese forces and leadership.[288] Thieu's "hold everywhere" strategy in the months before the Northern offensive stretched ARVN forces too thinly and withered away any central reserve. Ongoing corruption and incompetence dogged and demoralized the ARVN rank and file. For example, rampant inflation wiped out the inadequate wages of troops that already had little medical care available. In a society where regular full-time soldiers and their dependents made up about 20% of the population, this amounted to widespread impoverishment of important segments of South Vietnamese society.[289] Desertion rates after the American pullout approached 25% of total force strength, reductions that were not made up when the end came. Of the total 1,000,000 men theoretically mobilized for defence (including about half a million militia), only about 10% were direct combat troops.[290] Diastrous leadership decisions in the final weeks of fighting such as the debacle in the highlands (see Ho Chi Minh Campaign) sealed the doom of a troubled force.[291]

Such weaknesses were skillfully exploited by the fast-moving Northern conquest, in a final campaign that illustrates a coming of age for the PAVN forces in the minds of some Western historians.

"Almost a quarter century ago, a third world country won the final battle of a long and difficult war through the use of an unexpected and decidedly modern strategy. The tutorial embodied in this victory is worth remembering today, in an age when there is a tendency to rely more on technology than on strategy and to assume that our enemy's strategic skills are as backward as his nation's economy, social structure, and technological base...
For the first time, PAVN's campaign strategy was not based primarily on the demonstrated willingness of its troops to die in greater numbers than those of its opponents. Moreover, it paid only lip service to the old dogma of a popular uprising. The PAVN campaign relied instead on deception, diversion, surprise, an indirect approach, and alternate objectives--in short, a highly cerebral strategy. PAVN finally mounted a campaign worthy of the modern, professional army the Vietnamese communist leadership worked so long to build.."[292]

Summary and assessment of VC/NVA performance[edit]

Focus on American versus Vietnamese perspectives[edit]

NLF Main Force troops

Numerous Western histories of the Vietnam War, some scholars argue, tend to assign the Vietnamese a secondary role in terms of the developments that led to victory by the North. For example, while American combat deaths are often referenced in the large number of Western histories, comparatively little mention is made of the 275,000 combat deaths suffered by the South Vietnamese, almost 5 times the American total. Just the evacuation of Danang in March 1975 cost the South Vietnamese an estimated 60,000 deaths, more than total US military losses for the entire conflict.[293]

There is often heavy concentration on the American effort and its mistakes, contradictions and strategy, but comparatively little on the Vietnamese side, save as it ties-into the theme of American failure or missteps.[294] Whatever the merits of these arguments about war coverage, it is clear that the main 8-year American interlude (albeit important) was only a relatively short one in the decades-old struggle for hegemony in the Second Indochina (Vietnam) War. Primary responsibility for victory in that struggle goes to the formidable, totally mobilized political and military machine that was North Vietnam. The spearhead of that machine was the VC/NVA forces.

VC/NVA battlefield performance[edit]

VC/NVA performance waxed and waned with the fortunes of war. Weapons and equipment at the small arms level were equal with those of their enemies, and in some categories of heavy artillery they also achieved parity. The struggle against US bombing saw deployment of one of the most sophisticated air defence systems in the world, albeit with Soviet assistance. In other categories they could not match the wide range of advanced US technology.

Against their ARVN opponents the VC/NVA generally did well in both guerrilla and conventional warfare, and were on the verge of victory in 1965, before the American intervention. While ARVN forces achieved a number of impressive successes,[295] they were, on balance, clearly outclassed by the PAVN armies, which suffered from weaknesses in certain areas, such as airpower and the handling of armor- illustrated particularly in the 1972 Easter Offensive[296]. Subsequent campaigns in Indochina however, illustrate a number of PAVN strengths- from the rapid victory of 1975, to the initial 1979 invasion of Cambodia which saw well coordinated corps-sized combined arms operations including an amphibious assault against the coast. PAVN strengths were also shown in its defensive operations during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.[297]

NVA troops survey a ruined ARVN bunker, 1971

Against US forces the record is more mixed. There were a number of successes particularly in ambushes, sapper attacks and various other engagements. When entrenched in strong positions, they were able to exact a price on attacking American troops, before withdrawing to cross-border sanctuaries to fight another day. VC/NVA operations however were sometimes marked by very heavy casualties. Typical of these were the Tet attacks and the border battles that saw heavy losses against superior US air, ground and naval firepower. American strategic mobility, using airpower and helicopters also took a heavy toll and blunted several communist initiatives, most notably at the Ia Drang, Tet and oother places. Expansion of the battle-space over a wide area, and attrition over time however, the linchpin of their protracted war strategy, kept their forces intact until this formidable opponent withdrew.

Against both the US and ARVN the VC/NVA demonstrated an ability to adapt on the battlefield. They learned from their mistakes and adopted tactics and measures to reduce losses. These ranged from deep tunnel systems, "hugging" techniques in infantry battles, widespread random mining, fast-moving sapper assaults, treetop fighting positions to foil US helicopters, deployment of new Soviet supplied weaponry like man-portable missiles, to simple avoidance of battle without overwhelming numerical superiority.

Elements in VC/NVA triumph[edit]

PAVN troops. After 1968, they increasingly made up the bulk of the fighting forces

There are numerous keys to the final outcome of the Vietnam War. A few of these interrelated factors are summarized below:[298]

  1. A protracted, integrated strategy that maximized Northern strengths against the weaknesses of their Southern and American opponents. This was the strategy of protracted war, that tightly integrated political and military factors, and slowly weakened opposition over time by an attritional campaign. Protracted war also involved sequencing a mix of combat styles. This ranged from small scale guerrilla attacks, to main-force battles that even when costly, atrophied enemy strength and morale. All these measures were keyed to political ends, and included ruthless assassination, kidnapping and sabotage efforts throughout the war. To some US soldiers who fought against the VC/NVA, like US Lt. General Phillip Davidson, Chief of Military Intelligence from 1967-69, this strategy was a superior one in terms of Communist objectives and strengths, and American/GVN weaknesses.[299]
  2. Detailed, overlapping organization backed by thorough going indoctrination. Historian Douglas Pike in 'Viet Cong' (1966) asserts that the closest thing to a "secret weapon" of the revolutionary forces was organization [300]- tight, overlapping mechanisms of structure that emeshed its subjects in a tight web of control. This structure included the parallel system of party control at all levels of civilian and military life, the overlapping plethora of organizations from province to village hamlet that enhanced resource exploitation, the three-man cells all troops were organized into, and the heavy use of "criticism and self-criticism" that pervaded all levels. One American Vietnam War historian calls them "more disciplined and organized than nearly any insurgents in history."[301]
  3. Lavish logistical, military, political and diplomatic support by friendly communist nations. Aid from China and the Soviet Union was indispensable to the tough military machine on the ground, and the equally tenacious machine on the diplomatic and political fronts. This aid made North Vietnam dependent on their suppliers, but it was able to play one off against the other to enhance their bargaining power and maintain a stance of relative independence.
  4. Logistical resilience and manoeuvring space. The enormous, and successful Communist logistics effort in the face of devastating enemy firepower provided another key to victory. Supplied by supportive socialist allies, distribution to the battle zone, utilizing the manoeuvring space that was the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails was an impressive logistical feat. This vast space- encompassing parts of Laos, Cambodia as well as the two Vietnams, stymied American interdiction efforts. Thorough organization and lavish use of manpower were the skeleton and muscle of this achievement.[302]
  5. Time and tempo. While they absorbed severe blows at times, the VC/NVA had time on their side under the strategy of protracted conflict. Communist forces suffered some one million dead according to their own estimates [303] but this was relative in a conflict where manpower reserves were plentiful and key allies like China were providing tens of thousands of troops to keep border supply and transport routes open. Added to time was control over the long-term tempo of the struggle. Communist forces were able to meter their losses as the conflict waxed and waned- scaling back as after Tet, and ramping up as in 1972 and 1975, when the situation looked more favorable.
  6. Shrewd performance on the political and diplomatic fronts. Communist forces waged a number of effective propaganda and diplomatic campaigns to exploit contradictions in the camps of their enemies. One key triumph of politics (albeit backed by force of arms) was the continued use of sanctuaries in supposedly "neutral" countries, the cultivation of indigenous "liberation forces" like the Pathet Lao, and the inability of their opponents to make significant inroads against these indispensable rear bases. Other triumphs included the division of American opinion (epitomized in visiting American celebrities and media reports), the isolation of the Southern regime from their American backers, the "talk-fight" stonewalling strategy to extract maximum concessions, and perceptive calculation of the limits US leaders would observe in deploying military force.[304] Considerations of political performance must include the efficacy of dau tranh strategy in the creation and manipulation of numerous "front" or shell groups within South Vietnam to isolate its ruling regime, mobilize grassroots support for revolutionary aims, and encourage evasion and defection among its armed forces.[305]
  7. The ruthless determination of leaders of the revolutionary struggle. This includes both northerners and a heavy southern presence in the North's ruling echelons. By the time of the final victory in 1975, many of these leaders had been on the field of struggle for two decades. There was often division within this leadership. More conservative "north-firsters" clashed with "south-firsters" but ultimately, their collective determination prevailed.
  8. Failure of the South Vietnamese leadership to develop an effective political narrative and civil/military administration. Some of this failure grew out of the conditions in which South Vietnam was initially established and included endemic corruption, inefficent administration, political instability and military incompetence. The American failure was marked by its own set of shortcomings and miscalculations, but was inextricably linked to South Vietnamese difficulties, some historians maintain.[306] Ultimate settlement of the conflict was between the Vietnamese.
  9. The mobilizing force of Marxism-Lennism, mated to Vietnamese nationalism. While in some ways Marxism was alien to the Vietnamese landscape, revolutionary leaders succeeded in blending it with traditional Vietnamese xenophobia and a growing modern sense of nationalism. Marxism also presented a sense of inevitable historical progress that enhanced mobilization, and included the key role of the Lao Dong, the Communist Party of North Vietnam.
  10. Superior motivation and morale. Seen in terms of determination to achieve final victory in Indochina, Communist motivation and morale was superior to that of their enemies. For VC/NVA forces the conflict was not simply another costly Cold War episode but a life and death struggle spanning generations. Some northern leaders stressed the predominance of spiritual over material factors,[307] a notion sometimes paid for with dire results and painful lessons under enemy (particularly American) firepower. Nevertheless many argue that over the course of almost two decades, both PAVN leadership and the ordinary PAVN soldier were more determined to achieve final triumph, and more willing to expend lives and treasure towards this end, than their opponents.[308]


  1. ^ RAND Corp, "Insurgent Organization and Operations: A Case Study of the Viet Cong in the Delta, 1964-1966," (Santa Monica: August 1967) pp. 3-195; see also Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, (Viking Press: 1983) pp. 12-239
  2. ^ Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg, Inside the VC and the NVA, (Ballantine Books, 1993), pp. 33-56
  3. ^ Douglas Pike, PAVN: Peoples Army of Vietnam, (Presidio: 1996) pp. 37-169
  4. ^ Merle Pribbenow (transl). 2002 "Victory in Vietnam. The official history of the people's army of Vietnam". University Press of Kansas), pp. 18-211, ISBN 0-7006-1175-4
  5. ^ Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg, Inside the VC and the NVA, (Ballantine Books, 1993), pp. 33-56
  6. ^ Douglas Pike, PAVN: Peoples Army of Vietnam, (Presidio: 1996) pp. 37-169
  7. ^ Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975. Trans. by Merle Pribbenow, Lawerence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002, p. 78-211
  8. ^ Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, (Viking Press: 1983) pp. 181-239
  9. ^ Dave Richard Palmer, Summons Of The Trumpets: U.S. - Vietnam in Perspective (Presidio Press, 1978), pp. 34-165
  10. ^ Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: Organization and Technique of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, (The MIT Press: new ed. 1970) pp. 37-146
  11. ^ Lt. General Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, (Presidio Press: 1988), p. 138-244
  12. ^ Edward Doyle, Samuel Lipsman, Terrence Maitland- THE NORTH: The Vietnam Experience, (Boston Publishing Company, (1986), pp. 31-157
  13. ^ Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, (Viking Press: 1983) pp. 181-239
  14. ^ Lt. General Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, (Presidio Press: 1988), p. 312-316
  15. ^ Davidson, pp. 312-329
  16. ^ Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 316
  17. ^ Lt. General Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, (Presidio Press: 1988), p. 316
  18. ^ John Prados, The Blood Road, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), p. 62-139
  19. ^ Lanning, op. cit
  20. ^ Douglas Pike, PAVN: Peoples Army of Vietnam, (Presidio: 1996) pp. 37-169
  21. ^ Lt. General Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, (Presidio Press: 1988), pp. 325-470; 795-811
  22. ^ Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975. Trans. by Merle Pribbenow, Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002, p. 78-211
  23. ^ Karnow, op. cit
  24. ^ Davidson, op. cit
  25. ^ Davidson, op.cit,;Karnow, op. cit.
  26. ^ Davidson, op.cit,;Karnow, op. cit.
  27. ^ Terrence Maitland, A CONTAGION OF WAR: THE VIETNAM EXPERIENCE SERIES, (Boston Publishing Company), 1983, pp. 11-98
  28. ^ Lt. General Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, (Presidio Press: 1988), pp. 386-425
  29. ^ Karnow, op. cit.
  30. ^ Lt. General Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War: op. cit.
  31. ^ Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (Harvest Books: 2007), pp. 17-228
  32. ^ Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, The Easter Offensive of 1972, Indochina Monograph (Washington, D.C., US Army Center For Military History, 1979), p. 13-22
  33. ^ Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., The Army and Vietnam [Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986], pp. 188-275, pp. 219-222
  34. ^ Krepinevich, pp. 219-222
  35. ^ Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh, Lam Son 719, Indochina Monograph (Washington, D.C., US Army Center For Military History, 1979), p. 9-24
  36. ^ Karnow, pp. 340-546
  37. ^ Vo Nguyen Giap, Big Victory, Great Task, (Pall Mall Press, London (1968)
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  60. ^ Toward a Better Understanding of Attrition: The Korean and Vietnam Wars. By: Malkasian, Carter. Journal of Military History, Jul2004, Vol. 68 Issue 3, p911-942
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  84. ^ Quoted in: Karen De Young, Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, (Alfred Knofpf: 2006), pp. 60-75
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  152. ^ Mark Moyar,"The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Warfare,"Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 47. (No. 4th Quarter 2007), pp. 155-159
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  303. ^ THE NORTH.. op. cit
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See also[edit]

Category:Irregular military Category:Guerrilla warfare Category:Vietnam War Category:Warfare by type Category:Military operations of the Vietnam War