The French Experience
In order to place this presentation on the Battle of Kontum in perspective, I believe, it is important to better understand the American Experience in Vietnam in light of the French experience in Vietnam or Indochina. Perhaps if we had truly understood their situation, we might have been more successful in ours. There were three critical mistakes made by the French. These were: first, a flawed definition of victory; second, an underestimation of the Vietminh's mobility; third, the unforeseen ability of the Vietminh to create effective fire.
It is important to understand that France as a world power, in the post-WW II period, had a great potential for force in the form of military combat power. However, the actualization of that potential was quite limited and the French did not have a significant ability to project that force. On the other hand, the Vietminh forces' potential and combat power 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 to generate the maximum amount of combat power, at the point of contact, against the French forces. Thus, they drew on their own potential for manpower and relied on China and others, for most of their weapons. When evaluating relative combat power between combatants, one must not confuse actualized force with the potential for force. In the early 1950's 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 who were equipped with modern weapons and an organized army. In the court of world opinion, this misunderstanding worked in favor of the Vietminh and against the French by defining the concepts of acceptable losses, expected gains, and eventually, victory or defeat. 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. If we understand their objectives for actualizing force as combat power, then we can understand how they defined victory as well as defeat. It seems that the French labored under a post-World War conventional definition of victory (i.e. total destruction or surrender of one's enemy) and therefore applied combat power to create the perception of a tactical imbalance, which would force the Vietminh to admit defeat. Victory, as defined by the French, was completely and singularly levered on the Vietminh's admission of defeat. This put the French at a tremendous disadvantage in that they had to expend whatever force was necessary to get the Vietminh to admit defeat or, by definition, face defeat themselves. For in the court of world opinion, if they could not win by their own definition, they would be defeated.
The Vietminh defined the situation very differently from the French. For them, victory was simply the ability to survive in the face of French combat power, and to maintain a balance of combat power at the point of contact with the French. Their definition of victory was not dependent on any admission from the French. The situation was made more difficult for the French in that the rest of the world accepted the Vietminh definition and also understood the French definition. The Vietminh did not have to create an imbalance of combat power in order to defeat the French. The Vietminh merely had to remain viable in the face of what was perceived by the world as superior French combat power. The longer the Vietminh survived, the more recognized their definition of victory became. The French were committed to achieving an imbalance of combat power at the point of contact whereas; the Vietminh were committed to survival and, at minimum, achieving balance with the French.
Beyond these ideas of victory and defeat, the concept of combat power is inherently coupled with the assumption of battlefield infrastructure so relied upon, and fought over, in WWII (i.e. roads and bridges). This assumption added to the failure of the French in Vietnam. The French forces on the ground potentially had more firepower than did the Vietminh. However, they were limited to the few serviceable roads then available in Vietnam and although the Vietminh were foot mobile, they had a clear mobility advantage against the French. Although the French had airborne troops that did not appreciably alter the balance of combat power because of the terrain. The Vietminh were able to engage the French ground forces when and where they chose, usually in a classic ambush, which provided them both surprise and devastatingly effective fire. The ambush is the quintessential application of combat power in that, if successful, it provides the attacker with total control and dominance of the situation. The Vietminh became masters at applying their combat power in this fashion. Their relative superior mobility allowed them to select the place and time to deliver their fire against the exposed and vulnerable French forces. The Vietminh were able to survive and were being defined as victorious. The French were not able to dominate and, therefore, were being defined as defeated.
The French became decisively engaged at a place they chose, Dien Bien Phu. The French plan was based on the Vietminh presenting its massed forces as a vulnerable and exposed target in front of the French positions. The Vietminh did, in fact, mass their forces and were vulnerable to massive air strikes. Unfortunately for the French, they were unable to generate the volume of firepower, from available artillery or air strikes, necessary to destroy the exposed Vietminh forces. They also underestimated the ability of the Vietminh to create effective firepower in the form of artillery (that was literally dragged up mountains) where it could dominate French positions. In the end, the French were forced to pin their hopes on the United States to provide effective firepower, in the form of massive air strikes. These requested air strikes were the only thing that could have saved the French position at Dien Bien Phu. The United States political leadership decided not to provide that level of support. The Vietminh demonstrated that they were not only able to survive, but also dominate at the point of contact. The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu sealed their fate and emboldened the Vietminh, and later, the Army of North Vietnam.
These lessons, these critical lessons, must not be lost on anyone contemplating the use of force in the form of combat power. The generation of effective firepower, at the point of contact, is the most essential ingredient to both physical and psychological dominance.
The American Experience
On May 13, 1972, as reported in the Stars and Stripes newspaper, "the allied commands reported these total casualties for the war: Americans --- 45,734 killed in action, 303,045 wounded, 10,152 dead from non-hostile causes. South Vietnamese --- 141,977 killed in action, 361,048 wounded. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong --- 828,050 killed." Many years later, the Vietnamese would admit that during the war, the NVA had more than 100,000 MIA.
The debate of "what ifs" "could haves" and "should haves" will go on and this cannot be the place to resolve it. In retrospect, the decisive nature of the unrestricted B-52 bombing of North Vietnam in late 1972, ordered by President Richard Nixon, over a very short period of time, brought about a resolution to the combat operations of the Vietnam War, if not the hoped for, "peace with honor".
The American concept of victory in Vietnam was, like the French before us, never realistically defined; however, the "Vietnamization" of the war ordered by President Nixon in the early 70's, clearly changed the definition of victory for North Vietnam. The old definition of survival in the face of superior American combat power had to be replaced with a new definition of victory, which meant defeating the ARVN in the field. In contrast, the ARVN merely had to hold on to their country and survive in the face of the NVA attacks in order for the South to be declared victorious. As stated earlier, their ability to do that, was totally depending on the enormous firepower that could only be generated by the U.S. Air Force.
"The Long Way Home Project," a recently released documentary series on the Vietnam War provides a more positive and unbiased look at the country's longest war and highlights many of the misconceptions America has about the men and women who served the country in this conflict.