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Posted by William Page on 20:48:09 06/24/04

Found this article on a website while searching for "John Paul Vann" on google. there wan no copyright that I could find.



By Rich Webster

In November of 1968 I can remember the legendary John Paul Vann speaking to our graduation class of newly trained advisors at Di An, South Vietnam. You cant win a guerrilla war by dropping bombs from the air, he said. You may kill some of the enemy, but you will alienate the people you are there trying to help, and they will turn against you.

John Paul Vann was our Lawrence of Arabia in Vietnam. He spent 10 years there, first as an American infantry officer, then later as the main architect of the Vietnamization/Pacification program.

Other words of his I remember were, You need to go after the guerrilla with a rifle at the village level and kill them face to face. And to do that effectively, you need local Soldiers from the area to assist you. If the locals are properly led and equipped, they will do the job.

What Vann was saying seems to me to be applicable to Iraq today. You need the support of the local population and indigenous troops to combat the guerrillas/terrorists/thugs on their own turf. Large conventional American military infantry units arent necessarily best suited for this task.

Most think that it was just the Special Forces who were conducting counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. Very few have heard about the Co Van Mis (Vietnamese for American Advisors) and the mobile advisory teams (MATs). After 1968, fewer than 5000 assisted, advised, and to use a recently coined term, were embedded with a 500,000 Regional Force/Popular Force Army that took the war to the enemy at the local level for a period of over five years.

There were 354 mobile advisory teams made up of five U.S. Army personnel (two officers and three NCOs). The MATs were really a scaled-down Special Forces team with one of the NCOs being a medic and there was a Vietnamese interpreter for communication purposes. As a young lieutenant, I served with a number of Popular Force platoons and Regional Force companies while a member of Advisor Terms 49 and 86.

Very little has been written about this little known aspect of the Vietnam War. In the book about John Paul Vann and the advisory effort, A Bright and Shining Lie, the big lie is what the author, Neil Sheehan, leaves out of the book. Most of the book deals with the South Vietnamese Army and the advisory effort up to the Tet Offensive in 1968, and very little if any detail or mention is given to the many years afterward where the Regional Forces and Popular Forces gave quite a good accounting of themselves against the enemy.

Sheehan spends the first 700 pages of his book detailing how bad the South Vietnamese Army was up to the end of 1967 (parts of which are true), then spends several pages on the Tet Offensive in early 1968, in which he fails to emphasize that the main fighting units of the Viet Cong army including their commanders and NCOs were eliminated, never again to become a viable fighting force. Some interpret this sound defeat of the Viet Cong as a deliberate attempt by the Hanoi Leaders to eliminate their comrades in the south.

Sheehan then skips five years of the war effort where the Regional Forces/Popular Forces held their own against the NVA/VC and defeated them in most of the smaller unnamed battles of the war at the village level. Then he picks up again with the 1972 Easter Offensive where Vann was killed, not by enemy contact, but by a helicopter crash during the monsoon rains. Barely 30 pages of Sheehans book are devoted to Vanns success with Vietnamization. There was hardly mention of the Regional Forces/Popular Forces [RF/PF] the home militias, the little guys in tennis shoes, who inflicted over one-third of the casualties against the enemy.

I spent almost nine months with these little guys as a lieutenant taking the fight to the VC at the hamlet and village level. Not all the RF/PFs were great soldiers, but many of them were if properly led, just as Vann had told us at the advisor school.

Nicknamed the Ruff-Puffs, they were not configured to stand up against a large force of NVA regulars, but they could provide security for the locals in a hamlet or village. The Soldiers either had their families living with them, or in the nearby village. Who better to know when the enemy was coming into a village than those who lived there?

There were many times when I knew when the Vietcong were coming into the village at night to recruit or create havoc. And then instead of being ambushed, I and my little band of Popular Force Soldiers became the ambusher. We beat the guerrillas at their own game. We took the night away from them. We no longer patrolled endlessly and aimlessly looking for a needle in a haystack, waiting for the enemy to initiate contact.

We waited for them in the darkness of the night, and kicked hell out of them. In today's military vernacular, we preempted them. Thats how you fight the guerrilla and the terrorist and beat him at his own game.

I cringe now watching news clips on TV as young American Soldiers in Iraq are ambushed by snipers and blown up with the new version of the command controlled booby trap, the IED (improvised explosive device). But how would the young American Soldiers be able to distinguish the al-Qaida terrorist from a local Iraqi civilization? The simple answer is, they cant.

And how do they find the IED? The answer is they cant unless an informer warns beforehand as to the location.

I believe the answer to this problem is found in the type of force that Vann created in Vietnam, coordinated by CORDS (Civil Operations for Revolutionary Development Support). So different was this approach to conventional warfare tactics that Vann insisted it be operated under civilian control on equal footing with the military hierarchy. Vann really wanted the U.S. military advisors to be in command of the Ruff-Puffs instead of being advisors, but Robert Komer, the first director of CORDS, resisted this idea.

Vanns approach to counterinsurgency was the blending of all civilian agencies in Vietnam under CORDS with a loan of 1800 U.S. military personnel to serve as advisors to local Soldiers to provide security for all aspects of the U.S. effort in Vietnam. These were the front line guys who made up the mobile advisory teams, who moved from one RF/PF unit to another accompanying them on day and night time operations.

It seems to me we are always waiting for the enemy to ambush us in Iraq. The first strike is always thrown by the terrorist, and then we react by sometimes killing Iraqi civilians as the sniper fades away into the crowd. This unfortunate response is, in itself, a tactic of the terrorist/insurgent/enemy combatant.

Dont we need to pre-empt the terrorist as he is preparing the IED to blow up an unsuspecting U.S. Soldier and dont we need to know that a terrorist cell from outside Iraq has begun operating in a neighborhood? To do so, we need intelligence from the local civilians and Soldiers from the area who understand the language, customs, and dynamics of the local situation, who can easily point out strangers in the area even though they speak the same language, but look different.

The best of the MAT teams helped perform all of the above missions because they lived with their Vietnamese counterparts 24 hours a day, ate their food, got to know their families and developed friendships that last even today, 28 years after the war. The Co Vans did not retreat back to a secure base camp far removed from the people they were trying to help and defend.

So where do we get the local Soldiers in Iraq to perform this mission? As a former Co Van, I sat in astonishment when I saw the 500,000 man Iraqi Army being disbanded and sent home immediately after Saddams main army collapsed. For the most part, they surrendered without firing a shot. Why send home a trained army, although obviously not well trained according to Western standards, but surely part of them could have been used along the guidelines of the MAT team concept in Vietnam?

I realize that all of Saddams army could not have been used like we used the RF/PF in Vietnam, but surely some of them could. It was obvious that a large number of Saddams conscripted forces were not loyal to him.

We could have had local Iraqi soldiers patrolling under the command of small military advisor teams to help flush out enemy combatants and newly arrived in-country al-Qaida terrorists. The advisor teams would provide the coordination and communication with the larger American units in the area. This would enhance security for the civilian efforts and NGOs in Iraq. The Iraqi civilians must feel safe and secure before a new form of government can develop without the imprint of a terrorist stamp.

I believe that what Vann said in the 1960s in Vietnam is relevant today in Iraq as it relates to counterinsurgency. All the high tech gadgetry and firepower that our military has today, leaves us relatively helpless when it comes to fighting the insurgent who blends in with the civilian population. An innocent civilian killed translates into a win for the terrorist. To avoid this, it takes the Soldier on the ground with a rifle taking the fight to the terrorist, in an area that he previously thought was a safe sanctuary. And to do that, you need local Soldiers familiar with the terrain, the language and the customs of the area. John Paul Vann understood that.

The Vietnam Was has been misremembered, misunderstood, and misreported in regard to John Paul Vanns effort with Vietnamization and the fighting ability of the South Vietnamese Soldier. Sheehan has done them a great disservice in hi book, A Bright And Shining Lie, from which a movie of like title was made.

Few know that the Viet Cong lost the war, and that they were no longer a viable force after 1968. The Viet Cong could not have won the war and bested the South Vietnamese Army in battle. The advisory effort in Vietnam wasnt perfect, but the South Vietnamese forces held their own in the 1972 Easter Offensive by the North.

The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was finally defeated in 1975 when they were invaded by the fifth largest army in the world. They were invaded by 17 divisions of the North Vietnamese Army to include over 700 tanks that steamrolled everyone in front of them. The North Vietnamese were still being supplied with war materiel by their allies, the Soviets and Chinese, while the allies of the South Vietnamese, the United States, abandoned them in their hour of need.

The ARVN were also disadvantaged and vulnerable because they had to defend everywhere, and the NVA could concentrate superior forces at weak points in the South.

The myth perpetuated by the anti-war media was that the South Vietnamese military was no good. I returned to the province capital of Xuan Loc, Vietnam, in 2002 and visited the large communist cemetery there filled with 5000 graves. This is where the last battle of the Vietnam War was fought, where the 18th ARVN Division defeated three NVA divisions before finally being overrun by 40,000 of the enemy.

Would Vanns model of counterinsurgency work in Iraq today? Thats a good question, but what is the alternative? Our Soldiers now are getting tired, and our forces are being stretched too thin to continue the mission indefinitely.

The architect of the 1975 invasion of South Vietnam, North Vietnamese Tein Van Dung, in an indirect manner, gave Vann a complement for his conduct of the pacification program. In his book, Great Spring Victory, he never once mentions revolutionary warfare or the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong as aiding him in his final assault on the South. Thats because Vann's program of Vietnamization had basically wrested control of the south from the guerrillas who we no longer a viable fighting force.

Thats rather ironic, isnt it? The myth exists today that peasants wearing rubber tire sandals employing guerrilla tactics won the war in Vietnam.

Our officials in Iraq are saying it will take three to five years to build an Iraqi Army. With Vanns model, we could have taken the best of the 500,000 former Iraqi military, and put them under the control of U.S. military advisors. Instead of having young American soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad and the smaller cities around the country, surely we could have used Iraqi soldiers advised by several thousand American military personnel. Instead, we sent them home to do what?

Unlike Vietnam, there is no outside Army that is going to invade Iraq in division-size strength and overwhelm our military units there. Our powerful and well-trained military units, with the aid of the British, have already won the big battles of the war. Now we need small units of local Soldiers taking the war to the enemy at the village level. I see no other way to preempt the terrorist before he has the time to act.

The small suitcase bomb, the suicide bomber, chemical and germ warfare, and the IED, all weapons used by the terrorists in the 21st century, make it necessary to defend everywhere. The terrorist will always go for the target of opportunity, searching for the most vulnerable target.

And this appears to be the difficulty of the are of the future the preempting of the terrorist before he can strike. Or, even before that, having the will and knowledge of how to preempt the terrorist.

Note: The above article appeared in Counterparts quarterly journal Sitrep in the Winter/Spring 2004 issue. Counterpart is an association of US-Vietnamese advisors and their Vietnamese counterparts.

For more information on the author, the association and its periodical, contact:

Ken Jacobsen


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