It is better that they do a thing imperfectly than for you to do it perfectly: for it is their country, their war, and your time is limited.
    Lawrence of Arabia, 1919

In order to place this into a perspective, I believe it is essential to first examine the French experience. [1] If we had truly understood their situation we might have been more successful. It is important to understand that France as a world power, even in the post-WW II period, had a great potential for force in the form of military power. However, the actualization of that potential was quite limited. On the other hand, the Vietminh force potential had its basis not only in themselves but also in their allies, especially China. They elected to actualize as much force as they possibly could. Thus, they drew on their own potential for manpower and relied on China for most of their weapons. When evaluating relative combat power one must not confuse actualized force with potential. [2] There appears to have been a tendency on the part of many observers to measure the potential of France against the potential of the Vietminh. This often resulted in the erroneous perception that the balance was clearly in favor of the French. This misunderstanding worked for the Vietminh and against the French. Vietminh losses were expected and, therefore, minimized; however, French losses were not expected, and an inordinate weight was attached to them. In addition, one must understand their purpose, the purpose or intent of the respective opponents. If we understand their purpose for actualizing force, then we can understand how they defined victory as well as defeat. It seems the French labored under a post-World War conventional definition of victory and therefore applied combat power to create an imbalance in which the Vietminh would admit defeat. The French definition of victory was predicated on an admission of defeat by their opponent. "If the objective is to defeat an enemy force rather than denying it victory, then the eventual cost depends as much on the enemy as on one's own plans." [3]

The Vietminh defined the situation very differently from the French. For them, victory was simply the ability to survive, to maintain a balance of combat power with the French. Their definition of victory was not dependent on any admission from the French. The situation was exacerbated for the French in that the rest of the world accepted the Vietminh definition. [4] They did not have to create an imbalance in order to defeat the French. They merely had to remain viable in the face of what was perceived by the world as superior French combat power. The longer they survived, the more recognized their victory became. Thus, with respect to combat power, the French were committed to achieve an imbalance in their favor; whereas, the Vietminh were committed to survival and balance.

Let us examine the two opponents in terms of their relative combat power. The French potentially had more fire than did the Vietminh; however, they were inferior in mass. Their mobility was grounded in vehicles which severely limited them -- at great cost -- to a few serviceable roads. Although they had airborne forces, these did not appreciably alter the balance. Thus, the Vietminh, though foot mobile, had superior mobility and were able to concentrate at will. It must be remembered that mobility will provide for concentration or dispersion; but unless fire is applied, an opponent cannot be destroyed. The ideal application of combat power is to apply concentrated fire to a concentrated, vulnerable opponent and to destroy him without his being able to react. This is the ideal to be sought and may be viewed as the measure of our tactics. To dominate totally with impunity is the absolute function of combat power. The best example of this, as previously mentioned, is the ambush. We must, therefore, understand the dynamics of the ambush in the context of combat power and balance. In the ideal, one opponent is totally balanced; whereas, the other is totally unbalanced. Furthermore, the imbalance is both objective and subjective. The Vietminh became masters at applying their combat power in this fashion. [5] Since they had superior mobility they were able to select the place to concentrate fire. This selection was made much easier by the road limitations of the French. The Vietminh retained the selection of space but gave the dimension of time to the French. That is, once the Vietminh had selected the place, they had to wait for the French to enter that space before they could apply their fire. They were able to balance effectively French combat power, and their successes were perceived as French defeats. The Vietminh were able to survive; and, thus, they saw victory. The French were not able to dominate; so, they saw defeat. The main problem for the French was that in order to dominate, they had to deliver effective fire. However, they could not get the enemy to concentrate his mass in neither time nor space, so that it could be addressed with fire. The French situation became desperate as time weighed against them. Lack of support at home and a growing, hostile world opinion served to erode the morale of the French troops and government officials. Every means was used by the Vietminh to manipulate the French perception of the situation so as to achieve a psychological imbalance. Eventually the French decided to become decisively engaged with the Vietminh combat forces. This engagement, by definition, would determine the balance. The French decided to entice the Vietminh to concentrate. In order to do that, they had to present what would appear to be a vulnerable mass. Furthermore, the vietminh had to perceive the mass as vulnerable and advantageous to dominate or destroy. Thus, the French projected their mass into an area normally dominated by the enemy. The place, selected by the French, was Dien Bien Phu. The time, selected by the Vietminh, was April, l954. The French knew they were inferior in size and mobility; however, they believed they could dominate by having superior fire. Their tactic may have been correct; in fact, the events of 1972 lend credence to their approach. However, they grossly miscalculated the balance of fire. The kind of massive concentration of fire they needed could only be delivered by a large air mass or atomic fire -- neither of which was available to them. [6] Their fixed position soon became a concentration for Vietminh artillery pieces, while their own fire was delivered to a highly dispersed enemy mass which was frequently covered. The vital balance of combat power rested on fire which was not forthcoming. [7] Without the fire they were doomed. The enemy did in fact concentrate his mass in time and space and would have been exceedingly vulnerable to massive, concentrated fire.

The significance of these events and their relationship to the combat power equation become more meaningful when we briefly examine the American experience.

In 1965, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was applying combat power in South Vietnam against the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). They hoped to create an imbalance, both physically and psychologically, which would allow them to dominate. However, the introduction of American combat power immediately restored the physical balance while diplomatic efforts attempted to restore the psychological balance. The advantage of mobility once held by the NVA was negated by the large scale use of American helicopters. This fact was stunningly illustrated during the Pleiku Campaign of October and November, 1965. [8] Superior American fire was concentrated in time and space against a concentrated and vulnerable enemy mass. The enemy mass was intercepted while advancing; thus, it was exposed. Both the time and the place were selected by the Americans. The American mass could be rapidly concentrated so as to fix the NVA mass, and American fire could be concentrated on the exposed enemy mass. These were the key ingredients in the combat power equation which allowed the Americans to restore balance in the eleventh hour. "If certain victory was not yet guaranteed, certain defeat had obviously been averted." [9] Early success and traditional definitions soon worked against the Americans, much the same as they had with the French. The lack of a clear strategy seriously affected the definition of victory and the actualization of force as combat power. [10] In the absence of definitive guidance, victory was defined as dominating or destroying the enemy. "Search and destroy soon had as its goal defeat of the enemy in the South by United States forces." [11] Thus, an imbalance of combat power was essential, and implied was admission by the enemy that an imbalance had been achieved. [12] Herein, the psychological balance favored the North in that American military combat power was committed to "win." The NVA quickly recognized that they could not dominate the Americans, but they could deny us our victory by surviving and remaining viable in the face of our power. [13] "It was not the aim of this strategy to defeat American forces in battle, that would have been beyond Hanoi's military capability." They could strike a physical balance and seek a psychological imbalance. "The war had to be made a test of will rather than a trial of strength."[14] Domination and destruction of the enemy mass became the primary objective of American combat power. There were striking similarities between the American situation and that of the French a decade earlier. American combat power grew rapidly but was closely matched by the rapid expansion of the NVA. "In other words, escalation had to be met by escalation." [15] The extensive use of helicopters put the Americans in a more favorable position than were the French; however, superior mobility was not achieved because large land areas used by the enemy mass were not accessible to the Americans. These politically imposed restrictions allowed the enemy mass to disperse -- reach a safe area -- almost at will. Furthermore, American efforts to close with and destroy the enemy often resulted in the enemey selecting the space if not the time. Often the enemy mass had carefully prepared the ground to receive concentrated American fire. Their preparations provided cover and greatly reduced the effectiveness of American fire in these engagements. Clear evidence of American dominance was not forthcoming. The enemy would not admit to what appeared to the Americans as an objective reality. Furthermore, the enemy went to great lengths to deny the Americans any objective evidence, such as dead bodies or abandoned weapons. In the absence of such tangible evidence, and as a result of strong pressure to achieve an objective imbalance, statistical definitions of victory were used; e.g., the body count. Evidence that American combat power was superior had to be provided in order to justify its continued use in a political climate of growing doubt. [16]

The NVA continued to survive, and it successfully manipulated the American perception of reality. Many times, Americans compared the apparent tenacity and determination of the NVA with that of the ARVN. Always the comparison accentuated the seeming invincibility of the NVA and the ineptness of the ARVN. During a period when American successes seemed to support an objective reality of imbalance in favor of American power, the enemy staged a clear statement of their viability which did not substantively affect the physical balance but which greatly altered the psychological balance -- Tet, 1968. [17] Although the enemy mass suffered great losses, the balance was reestablished and continued until the American withdrawal. American combat power was not able to dominate, and America declared itself a loser. The NVA survived.

One of the most controversial applications of American combat power was the bombing of the North. [18] This application of fire was a failure in that it was not concentrated against a vulnerable enemy mass. [19] Since the greater part of the enemy mass (by our definition - troops) was not in the North, fire applied to the North had little effect. Furthermore, there was no industrial base to speak of. The only available mass was the civilian population and foreign national ships which were carrying weapons and supplies. [2O] In addition, the former must be eliminated because America did not see itself as being in a life-and-death struggle with North Vietnam; the civilians were not strategically defined as part of the enemy mass. [21] The foreign ships were not addressed because of the fear that including them as part of the enemy mass would initiate direct third party intervention. Thus, fire applied to the North cannot be assessed as effective. Its primary purpose was to achieve a psychological effect by intimidating the enemy. Its failure only served to strengthen the North's psychological position. They nurtured and cultivated the perception that they were David and America was Goliath. [22] This serves to illustrate that it does not necessarily follow that a large volume of fire will also be effective fire.

America withdrew its mass but continued to commit its fire. The combat power equation took on a unique balance. The mass was provided by the ARVN, while the fire remained essentially American. In fact, tremendous quantities of fire could be concentrated at will. A subtle but extremely important shift in the balance took place with the withdrawal of the American mass. With American presence the NVA could define victory as balance. However, against the ARVN they were compelled to define it in terms of dominance. (The situation can be likened to our own civil war; to be victorious the South had only to survive.) [23] This represented a fundamental change which gave the ARVN a superiority in combat power. The enemy mass would have to concentrate against the ARVN mass, which would make them very vulnerable to American fire. The crucial issue here, as it was for the French at Dien Bien Phu, was the timely actualization of fire. Without it, survival of the ARVN mass was out of the question. "While on this subject, there is no doubt that American air power inflicted very heavy casualties on North Vietnamese troops investing Khe Sanh and made their positions untenable." [24] Events of 1972 indicate that a vulnerable enemy mass concentrated in time and space can be destroyed by concentrated fire.

I believe a detailed analysis of the Easter Offensive of 1972, specifically the Battle of Kontum, would serve to illustrate some of the key concepts of combat power. The intensity of combat coupled with the unique mix of an ARVN mass and U.S. firepower make the events of that period important to our understanding of the use of force, especially in light of the recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. In addition, looking at the vital role played by helicopters during that period may provide insights into the roles they might play in a future conflict.

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1. For an excellent discussion of the French experience see W. Scott Thompson, "Lessons from the French in Vietnam," Naval War College Review, March-April 1975, pp. 43-52. [ Return ]

2. "It has to be recognized that, when a great power steps down from the top league into a minor league, it has to conform with the rules applicable at that lower level. This is a grave disadvantage because whereas the minor power, in this case North Vietnam, can in its terms fight a total unlimited war, for which it is conditioned and trained, the United States in its terms must fight a limited war, for which it is not entirely conditioned nor suitably trained." Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., Updated edition 1970), p. 109. [ Return ]

3. Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1977), p. 40. [ Return ]

4. "The Vietminh were, therefore, prepared to settle for what they had already gained on the battlefield, thereby obtaining international recognition of their victory." Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, p. 77. [ Return ]

5. For an excellent description of Vietminh ambush tactics see Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), especially pp. 185-250. [ Return ]

6. "In order to support the French the question of direct American intervention, at least with air power, was considered during the battle of Dien Bien Phu but, partly owing to the opposition of Sir Winston Churchill and Mr. Anthony Eden, who foresaw that such intervention might not be effective, no direct action was taken." Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, p. 105. [ Return ]

7. "Air power on a more massive scale than was then available could not have changed the outcome of the Indochina War, but it would have saved Dien Bien Phu." (Emphasis added.) Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 455. [ Return ]

8. For a short presentation of the events of that period see Report on the War in Vietnam (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1968), pp. 107-111. [ Return ]

9. Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, p. 98. [ Return ]

10. "To secure its aims by a military victory, the United States was committed, without any limitation, to a progressive increase in costs and to a steadily mounting escalation. In retrospect the whole process, step by step as it occurred, appears to have been inevitable, which raises two questions: how could an apparently inevitable process have been avoided and how could the instrument of American intervention in Vietnam have been used to achieve their aims? (Emphasis added.) Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, p. 108. [ Return ]

11. Kinnard, The War Managers, p. 39. "The first operational term was 'search and destroy.' Operations of this type were designed to find, fix in place, fight, and destroy (or neutralize) enemy forces and their base areas and supply caches. This was essentially the traditional attack mission of the infantry." Report on the War in Vietnam, p. 91. [ Return ]

12. "The basic in essence: Could the Americans win a victory in accordance with their concept of the war unless at the same time they inflicted a defeat on the enemy in accordance with his concept of the war?" Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, p. 17. [ Return ]

13. Ibid., p. 62. [ Return ]

14. Ibid., p. 64. [ Return ]

15. Ibid., p. 56. [ Return ]

16. "Battle followed battle and casualty figures proclaimed the victories, but the North Vietnamese also claimed victories because they understood the overall long term effect of the battles -- that they were keeping American costs high and preventing American forces from achieving any productive or permanent results." Ibid., p. 139. [ Return ]

17. Ibid., p. 103. [ Return ]

18. The decision to bomb the North had many consequences, not the least of which included expanding the point of contact and broadening the definition of mass. " spread the war into North Vietnam and brought into play all the population of the North instead of only those being infiltrated into the South. All could now make a direct contribution to the war." Ibid., p. 50. [ Return ]

19. For a detailed discussion of operation "Rolling Thunder," see Reoprt the War in Vietnam, pp. 16-54. [ Return ]

20. "Almost the only targets that remained off limits were the harbour of Haiphong (for fear of hitting a Russian ship), the population itself and the Red River dykes. As the bombing campaign escalated, so, of course, did the reasons for it." Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, p. 94. [ Return ]

21. "Hanoi knew quite well that there was only one asset in the North which was vital to the war and that was the human material, i.e., the manpower. It was the only target which the Americans could not attack either directly by bombing the centres [sic] of population or indirectly by bombing the Red River dykes which, if destroyed at a certain time of the year, would have caused enormous flood damage and destroyed much of the rice crop." Ibid., p. 59. [ Return ]

22. "...the bombing put Hanoi in what might be termed the underdog position and, therefore, attracted to her great international sympathy and support, in addition to awakening the conscience of the United States itself." Ibid., p. 140. [ Return ]

23. "If, as I have argued, the war was basically an internal insurgency within South Vietnam boosted by infiltration, raids and an element of invasion from North Vietnam, then, because the war was defensive in character, it would have been sufficient merely to thwart the enemy's purpose without necessarily achieving a military victory. This concept of victory was better understood in ancient times and was well expressed by Belisarius, one of the great generals (if not the greatest) of all time:

'The most complete and happy victory is this: to compel one's enemy to give up his purpose, while suffering no harm oneself.' Ibid., p. 116. [ Return ]

24. Ibid., p. 69. See also Report on the War in Vietnam, p. 171. "The key to our success at Khe Sanh was firepower, principally aerial firepower." [ Return ]