Winning battles and losing wars

The past few weeks saw an understandable wave of articles and television news spots remembering the fall of Saigon 30 years ago. Everyone had his own take on the significance of it all.  The left continues to pound the 'limits of American military power' line as if they'd never heard of the recent military operations that liberated 50 million people.

Some tried to paste together a complex political and foreign policy mosaic that equates the current situation in Iraq with the Vietnam quagmire, usually failing to make the connection.  Unfortunately, there is a striking similarity in one aspect of both wars that seems to have escaped the attention of most of the punditry with the exception of our own Andrew Sumereau.  As he so eloquently put it , the military has 'belatedly understood' that to defeat an enemy such as this, we must 'slaughter every last one of them.'

The American people, then as now, sense that our military is invincible when unleashed on the so—called insurgents, but that we are still playing whack—a—mole with these murderous thugs two years after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The more experienced understand that, like Vietnam, we are failing to capitalize on our initial successes with a coherent regional and country—wide operational scheme.  And even though there is no draft, these lost opportunities may adversely effect our already strained military manpower situation.  Certainly the stagnant military situation in Iraq does nothing to motivate the young people of a culture groomed on getting distasteful things done as quickly as possible.  Even the youths of the 'greatest generation' understood this principle.

Looking back on the first major battles Vietnam provides a clue to our current predicament.  It was on November 16, 1965, that the last helicopter departing LZ X—Ray carried an exhausted Hal Moore and his command group of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry back to Camp Halloway in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.  Years later a book, and then a movie about the heroic fight at X—Ray would divert attention from the overall campaign that lasted over a month in the Fall of 1965.

The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) B—3 Front had committed the 320th, 33rd, and 66th Regiments in the Central Highlands in the hopes of luring the new airmobile 1st Cavalry Division into battle.  The 33d Regiment opened the operation in late October by attacking the Plei Me Special Forces Camp approximately 40 miles south of Pleiku City.  The PAVN laid siege to the camp for several days, and also introduced the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) relief column to the old 'bait and switch tactic.'  In this case, the ARVN relief force coming out of Pleiku was ambushed by the reinforcing PAVN 32nd Regiment.  Thankfully, with the assistance of 1st Cav artillery, the PAVN were sent running and the siege was lifted.

What is now mostly forgotten is that for the next two weeks, the 1st Cavalry Division conducted a tactically savvy and relentless pursuit against the retreating PAVN forces, mauling them at every turn.  After capturing a PAVN Field Hospital and a large weapons cache on Nov 1st, the PAVN commander committed the fresh 66th Regiment along the Ia Drang River in the western area of the valley in an attempt to stem the U.S. advance.  This unit was promptly ambushed by the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry, and was also sent scurrying towards the Cambodian border.

The stage had now been set for Hal Moore's 1—7 Cav operation at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif.  I will not rehash the most well—known battle of the Ia Drang campaign here.  Suffice to say that the remnants of the PAVN B—3 Front took another drubbing and then beat feet for Cambodia.  The scene at the end of the movie, 'We Were Soldiers' of the PAVN commander reflecting on the meaning of the battle while his men solemnly retrieve their dead is a figment of the writers' imagination.  What was left of about four PAVN regiments was running like hell towards their Cambodian sanctuary.  Then, thanks to some marvelous operational coordination, an ARVN airborne brigade, advised by a young Major named Schwarzkopf, administered the coup de grace to the retreating PAVN at Duc Co before they had a chance to cross the border.

Historians still debate the lessons learned from this campaign, while others ponder the true effectiveness of airmobile operations.  What no one can doubt is that over 2,000 PAVN were killed and thousands of others were wounded out of a force of about 12,000 regulars.  The entire B—3 Front was routed from the field of battle and forced to flee to Cambodia because of the courage and skill of an under—strength U.S. airmobile division and their ARVN allies.  Yet, in the following years, this type of large—scale offensive operation went the way of the dinosaur, except when reacting to North Vietnamese offensives, such as at Hue and Khe Sanh.

In some ways, we are witnessing a repeat of this scenario 38 years later, although the outcome will be very different in Iraq given enough time.  When the US—led Coalition toppled Saddam's regime and liberated Iraq in a matter of weeks, the U.S. offensive seemingly faltered in pressing home its military advantage and attacking into the Sunni Triangle.  Of course, the primary reason for incomplete victory was that the Turks would not allow the 4th Infantry Division to attack into Iraq from the north to seal off the escape routes of Saddam and his retreating Special Republican Guard units.

But somehow, the U.S. military command frittered away valuable time in completing the task.  Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and all the command could do was fall back on the standard complaint about the lack of actionable intelligence. This provided the precious time needed for former regime cadre to train and deploy their units, and time for the mainstream press to propagandize on the rise of the 'insurgency.'  Coordinated, large—scale offensive operations were almost non—existent until Baathist die—hards in Fallujah and Iranian mercenaries in Najaf forced the issue in the Spring and Summer of 2004.  Once again, the US had thrust the bayonet deep into the enemy's gut, but had failed to twist.

What is markedly different in this case, is that this lack of will seemingly resided not with a micromanaging President named LBJ and an egghead SecDef called McNamara, but apparently with the high—level uniformed leadership in theater.  Trying to impress the folks back home with fanciful tactical and technical terms such as 'kinetics,' or 'precision targeting,' or 'presence patrolling' does not inspire confidence in prospective recruits who realize that over two years since the fall of Baghdad, the main road to the airport is still the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country.

We are right to be concerned with the conduct of the regional nature of the war in Southwest Asia, but we must also understand that the administration has conducted a magnificent, long—term campaign on the global geo—political level to box in our opponents. Therefore, I would still counsel patience in this regard.  But the current situation in Iraq speaks volumes on our overly nuanced approach to modern warfare.  It is true that support and reconstruction operations are keys in promoting democracy in lands previously oppressed by terrorist regimes.  However, these rebuilding operations will never be totally successful without first defeating our fanatical Islamo—fascist enemies. War is brutal, and victory requires the willingness to relentlessly press home the advantages our training, skills and weaponry give us, until the enemy are all dead or incapable of further fighting.

If the US cannot deliver on that simple principle, then we will continue to snatch stalemates from the jaws of victory.

Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent.

The past few weeks saw an understandable wave of articles and television news spots remembering the fall of Saigon 30 years ago. Everyone had his own take on the significance of it all.  The left continues to pound the 'limits of American military power' line as if they'd never heard of the recent military operations that liberated 50 million people.

Some tried to paste together a complex political and foreign policy mosaic that equates the current situation in Iraq with the Vietnam quagmire, usually failing to make the connection.  Unfortunately, there is a striking similarity in one aspect of both wars that seems to have escaped the attention of most of the punditry with the exception of our own Andrew Sumereau.  As he so eloquently put it , the military has 'belatedly understood' that to defeat an enemy such as this, we must 'slaughter every last one of them.'

The American people, then as now, sense that our military is invincible when unleashed on the so—called insurgents, but that we are still playing whack—a—mole with these murderous thugs two years after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The more experienced understand that, like Vietnam, we are failing to capitalize on our initial successes with a coherent regional and country—wide operational scheme.  And even though there is no draft, these lost opportunities may adversely effect our already strained military manpower situation.  Certainly the stagnant military situation in Iraq does nothing to motivate the young people of a culture groomed on getting distasteful things done as quickly as possible.  Even the youths of the 'greatest generation' understood this principle.

Looking back on the first major battles Vietnam provides a clue to our current predicament.  It was on November 16, 1965, that the last helicopter departing LZ X—Ray carried an exhausted Hal Moore and his command group of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry back to Camp Halloway in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.  Years later a book, and then a movie about the heroic fight at X—Ray would divert attention from the overall campaign that lasted over a month in the Fall of 1965.

The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) B—3 Front had committed the 320th, 33rd, and 66th Regiments in the Central Highlands in the hopes of luring the new airmobile 1st Cavalry Division into battle.  The 33d Regiment opened the operation in late October by attacking the Plei Me Special Forces Camp approximately 40 miles south of Pleiku City.  The PAVN laid siege to the camp for several days, and also introduced the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) relief column to the old 'bait and switch tactic.'  In this case, the ARVN relief force coming out of Pleiku was ambushed by the reinforcing PAVN 32nd Regiment.  Thankfully, with the assistance of 1st Cav artillery, the PAVN were sent running and the siege was lifted.

What is now mostly forgotten is that for the next two weeks, the 1st Cavalry Division conducted a tactically savvy and relentless pursuit against the retreating PAVN forces, mauling them at every turn.  After capturing a PAVN Field Hospital and a large weapons cache on Nov 1st, the PAVN commander committed the fresh 66th Regiment along the Ia Drang River in the western area of the valley in an attempt to stem the U.S. advance.  This unit was promptly ambushed by the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry, and was also sent scurrying towards the Cambodian border.

The stage had now been set for Hal Moore's 1—7 Cav operation at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif.  I will not rehash the most well—known battle of the Ia Drang campaign here.  Suffice to say that the remnants of the PAVN B—3 Front took another drubbing and then beat feet for Cambodia.  The scene at the end of the movie, 'We Were Soldiers' of the PAVN commander reflecting on the meaning of the battle while his men solemnly retrieve their dead is a figment of the writers' imagination.  What was left of about four PAVN regiments was running like hell towards their Cambodian sanctuary.  Then, thanks to some marvelous operational coordination, an ARVN airborne brigade, advised by a young Major named Schwarzkopf, administered the coup de grace to the retreating PAVN at Duc Co before they had a chance to cross the border.

Historians still debate the lessons learned from this campaign, while others ponder the true effectiveness of airmobile operations.  What no one can doubt is that over 2,000 PAVN were killed and thousands of others were wounded out of a force of about 12,000 regulars.  The entire B—3 Front was routed from the field of battle and forced to flee to Cambodia because of the courage and skill of an under—strength U.S. airmobile division and their ARVN allies.  Yet, in the following years, this type of large—scale offensive operation went the way of the dinosaur, except when reacting to North Vietnamese offensives, such as at Hue and Khe Sanh.

In some ways, we are witnessing a repeat of this scenario 38 years later, although the outcome will be very different in Iraq given enough time.  When the US—led Coalition toppled Saddam's regime and liberated Iraq in a matter of weeks, the U.S. offensive seemingly faltered in pressing home its military advantage and attacking into the Sunni Triangle.  Of course, the primary reason for incomplete victory was that the Turks would not allow the 4th Infantry Division to attack into Iraq from the north to seal off the escape routes of Saddam and his retreating Special Republican Guard units.

But somehow, the U.S. military command frittered away valuable time in completing the task.  Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and all the command could do was fall back on the standard complaint about the lack of actionable intelligence. This provided the precious time needed for former regime cadre to train and deploy their units, and time for the mainstream press to propagandize on the rise of the 'insurgency.'  Coordinated, large—scale offensive operations were almost non—existent until Baathist die—hards in Fallujah and Iranian mercenaries in Najaf forced the issue in the Spring and Summer of 2004.  Once again, the US had thrust the bayonet deep into the enemy's gut, but had failed to twist.

What is markedly different in this case, is that this lack of will seemingly resided not with a micromanaging President named LBJ and an egghead SecDef called McNamara, but apparently with the high—level uniformed leadership in theater.  Trying to impress the folks back home with fanciful tactical and technical terms such as 'kinetics,' or 'precision targeting,' or 'presence patrolling' does not inspire confidence in prospective recruits who realize that over two years since the fall of Baghdad, the main road to the airport is still the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country.

We are right to be concerned with the conduct of the regional nature of the war in Southwest Asia, but we must also understand that the administration has conducted a magnificent, long—term campaign on the global geo—political level to box in our opponents. Therefore, I would still counsel patience in this regard.  But the current situation in Iraq speaks volumes on our overly nuanced approach to modern warfare.  It is true that support and reconstruction operations are keys in promoting democracy in lands previously oppressed by terrorist regimes.  However, these rebuilding operations will never be totally successful without first defeating our fanatical Islamo—fascist enemies. War is brutal, and victory requires the willingness to relentlessly press home the advantages our training, skills and weaponry give us, until the enemy are all dead or incapable of further fighting.

If the US cannot deliver on that simple principle, then we will continue to snatch stalemates from the jaws of victory.

Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent.