Recounting Abrams' War in Vietnam

There's much talk about the lessons of Vietnam, and plenty of arguments about the relevance of the comparison. But I was going through some old files the other day, and ran across a true historical gem. 

Somewhat yellowed, the March 17, 1969 edition of The Army Reporter was nevertheless in pretty good shape.  The newspaper was the official command information publication for the US Army, Vietnam, led by Gen. Creighton Abrams.  Given the ongoing
debate about the validity of counter-insurgency theory and practice, the articles provide contemporary insight on the combat environment during Abrams' tenure.  And what is gleaned from the detailed accounts of combat action debunks popular myths of how we have supposedly adapted the Abrams' small war methods for ongoing surge  in Iraq.

No big battalions?

Even before Gen. Petraeus assumed command of Coalition forces in Iraq, military analysts who should have known better touted the wisdom of Gen. Abrams' enlightened counter-insurgency strategy using secure-and-old tactics, and his avoidance of Westmoreland's "big battalion" operations.  We were told that this was the small war concept that if successfully implemented by Petraeus, would lead us to "sustainable stability" n Iraq.

But according to The Army Reporter, Abram's operations were anything but small.  For the most part, battalions and brigades maneuvered and fought to inflict the maximum amount of punishment on the enemy and to secure villages and other key terrain.  And Abrams wasn't shy about publicizing enemy losses, either.  A paraphrased sampling of articles tells the true story.  [All emphasis added by author]

- The Americal Division and the 173d Airborne Brigade had recently completed six long-term operations that resulted in 2,776 enemy killed.  Operation Cochise Green, which began over a year earlier, featured reconnaissance-in-force operations by the 173rd against the 22d NVA Regiment, the 3rd NVA Division, and local VC forces.  It eventually accounted for 929 enemy dead, 2,062 detainees, and captured 122.1 tons of rice.

-During one month of heavy fighting, the South Korean 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment killed 329 of the enemy.  The battalion then conducted a combined sweep and clear operation with the 40th ARVN Regiment in September of 1968 and killed over 300 VC.

- Operation Fayette Canyon started in mid-December 1968 when over 1,000 NVA regulars were spotted 25 miles northwest of Tam Ky.  Three infantry battalions from both the 196th and 198th Light Infantry Brigades killed 322 enemy soldiers including 238 NVA.

- Post-Tet enemy offensives were launched on several installations of the 25th Infantry Division during February of 1969.  These attacks were carried out by NVA regulars including sapper troops.  All told, the 25th and other US divisions killed over 3,000 NVA regulars and VC while repulsing all enemy attacks in the country.

- In late February, 1969, two ground cavalry troops, one air cavalry troop of 3rd Squadron, 4th Armored Cav supported by Battery B, 1st Battalion, 8th Artillery, fought for eight hours in the Boi Loi Woods.  The physicallycounted enemy dead numbered 33; add to that the bodies carried away by the enemy, by the way.  Two days later the Squadron again made heavy contact in these same woods, and the enemy lost another 22 dead.

To be sure, there are stories of building projects, MEDCAP (medical civic action programs), and other hearts and minds operations.  But clearly, Abrams' goal was first to bring enemy forces to battle and kill them to ensure a secure environment.  Only then could ancillary operations proceed to rebuild vital infrastructure.

The next year saw a continuing drawdown of US troops and one of the most successful multi-divisional offensive operations in history.  President Nixon gave the go ahead, and on 29 April, 1970 Abrams attacked into Cambodia with the 1st Cavalry Division and the llth Armored Cavalry Regiment.  They were soon followed by the 25th Infantry Division.  On another axis of attack, elements of the US 9th Infantry Division went in, along with 12 ARVN battalions of approximately 8,700 troops and the 3rd ARVN Airborne Brigade among numerous other formations.  The huge attack set back Hanoi's timetable by over a year.

So, Abrams' war was not really new or small at all.  It was simply occupying and securing critical terrain, infrastructure, and towns that had been seized from the enemy instead of returning to the comfort of the base camps.  There was not one, I repeat, not one mention of "counter-insurgency" in the entire issue of The Army Reporter.  If anything can be said for Gen. Petraeus in Iraq over 38 years later, it's that he has managed to somewhat reverse the base camp mentality that bred a never ending series of inconclusive operations that resulted in a four-year stalemate; a set of circumstances nearly identical to Westmoreland's stagnant campaign in Vietnam.

During a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars,  last month, President Bush cited a number that for this politically correct era was an absolute stunner.  He said that we,
...have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year.
Rather than falling over while slipping into a coma, most people I know jumped up and applauded as did the veterans at the convention.  The dry and formulaic press accounts from official military websites seemingly want to shield Americans from what they most want from a war: knowledge that the bad guys were getting their behinds kicked on a routine basis.

Tales of battles, enemy losses, and the heroism of our Soldiers and Marines should not be relegated to what amounts to police blotter reports that describe mysterious midnight raids that net three detainees and some assault rifles.  The President says we're nailing a lot of bad guys.  So, the Coalition's public affairs staff could learn a lesson from Abrams' and The Army Reporter and give us the unvarnished details about our battles in the Iraq Campaign.  To do any less does a disservice to our service men and women who sacrifice their blood in the cause of victory.

Douglas Hanson is the national security correspondent of American Thinker.
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