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 V I E T N A M P R I M E R (PART 1)

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PostSubject: V I E T N A M P R I M E R (PART 1)   Mon Nov 08, 2010 3:02 pm



Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall (Ret.)





The two authors of this study went to Vietnam in early
December, 1966 on a 90 day mission, one as a private citizen with vast
experience in analyzing combat operations, the other, a Regular Army
officer representing the Army's Chief of Military History. Their
collaborative task was to train combat historians in the technique of the
postcombat interview. In the course of conducting six schools for officers
selected for this duty in Vietnam, they put into practice the principles
they advocated, and from their group interrogation of the men who had done
the fighting, they were able to reconstruct most of the combat actions of
the preceding six months, including all but one of the major operations.
The present work emerged from this material.

Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall, Retired, longtime friend of the
Army, and Lieutenant Colonel David Hackworth, veteran of a year's combat in
Vietnam as a brigade executive and infantry battalion commander, have
pooled their experience and observations to produce an operational analysis
that may help American soldiers live longer and perform better in combat.
Their study is presented not as the official solution to all the ills that
beset combat troops in Vietnam but as the authors' own considered
corrective and guide for the effective conduct of small unit operations.
Although it does not necessarily reflect Department of the Army doctrine,
it can be read with profit by all soldiers.

General, United States Army
Chief of Staff




A critique of U.S. Army tactics and command
practices in the small combat unit digested from
historical research of main fighting operations
from May, 1966 to February, 1967.

The material presented in this document was prepared by Brigadier General
S. L. A. Marshall, U.S. Army, Retired, and Lieutenant Colonel David H.
Hackworth, Infantry; and the opinions contained herein do not necessarily
reflect the official positions of the Department of the Army.



THE POST-ACTION CRITIQUE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

THE CORE OF THE PROBLEM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

LESSON ONE - THE DISTRICT ASSAULT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

LESSON TWO - WARNING AND MOVEMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

LESSON THREE - DOUBLING SECURITY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

LESSON FOUR - CONTENDING WITH JUNGLE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

LESSON FIVE - RATES OF FIRE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

LESSON SIX - COMMUNICATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

LESSON SEVEN - SECURITY ON THE TRAIL. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

LESSON EIGHT - THE COMPANY IN MOVEMENT. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

LESSON NINE - RUSES, DECOYS, AND AMBUSHES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

LESSON TEN - FIELD INTELLIGENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36

LESSON ELEVEN - THE DEFENSIVE PERIMETER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41

LESSON TWELVE - POLICING THE BATTLEFIELD. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45

LESSON THIRTEEN - TRAINING. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48

LESSON FOURTEEN - THE STRANGE ENEMY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50



All of the lessons and discussion presented in this brief document are
the distillate of after action group interviews with upwards of a hundred
rifle companies and many patrols and platoons that have engaged
independently in Vietnam.

Every action was reconstructed in the fullest possible detail,
including the logistical and intelligence data, employment of weapons,
timing and placement of battle losses in the unit, location of wounds, etc.
What is said herein of the enemy derives in whole from what officers and
men who have fought him in battle learned and reported out of their
experience. Nothing has been taken from any intelligence document
circulated to the United States Army. The document therefore is in itself
evidence of the great store of information about the Viet Cong that can be
tapped by talking with men of our combat line, all of which knowledge lies
waste unless someone makes the effort.

The briefing actions at the company level generally took less than one
hour. The longest lasted two days and more. The average ran about three
and one-half hours. To reconstruct a fight over that span of time required
from seven to eight hours of steady interrogation.

Soon after engagement, any combat unit commander can do this same
thing: group interview his men until he knows all that happened to them
during the fire fight. In their interest, in his own interest, and for the
good of the Army he cannot afford to do less. There is no particular art
to the work; so long as exact chronology is maintained in developing the
story of the action, and so long as his men feel confident that he seeks
nothing from them but the truth, the whole truth, then the needed results
will come. Every division and every independent brigade in Vietnam has at
least one combat historian. He is charged with conducting this kind of
research; he can also assist and advise any unit commander who would like
to know how to do it on his own.

Special rewards come to the unit commander who will make the try.
Nothing else will give him a closer bond with his men. Not until he does
it will he truly know what they did under fire. Just as the combat
critique is a powerful stimulant of unit morale, having all the warming
effect of a good cocktail on an empty stomach, and even as it strengthens
each soldier's appreciation of his fellows, it enables troops to understand
for the first time the multitudinous problems and pressures on the
commander. They will go all the better for him the next time out and he
will have a much clearer view of his human resources. Combat does have a
way of separating the men from the boys; but on the other hand the boys
want to be classed with the men, and influence of a number of shining
examples in their midst does accelerate the maturing process. The
seasoning of a combat outfit comes fundamentally from men working together
under stress growing in knowledge of one another.

Mistakes will be brought out during the critique. Their revelation
cannot hurt the unit or the man. Getting it out in the clear is one way -
probably the only way - to relieve feelings and clear the atmosphere,
provided the dignity of all present is maintained during the critique.
Should the need for a personal admonishment or advice become indicated,
that can be reserved until later.

Far more important, deeds of heroism and high merit, unknown to the
leader until that hour, become known to all hands. From this knowledge
will come an improved awards system based on a standard of justice that
will be commonly acknowledged. Men not previously recognized as possessing
the qualities for squad and platoon leading will be viewed in a new light
and moved toward promotion that all will know is deserved.

No richer opportunity than this may be put before the commander of a
combat company or battery or the sergeant who leads a patrol into a fight.
He who hesitates to take advantage of it handicaps himself more than all
others. If he does not know where he has been, he can never be certain
where he is going.

That is to say, in the end, that something is lacking in his military
character, a "zeal to close the circuit," which is the mark of the good
combat leader.



Though it may sound like a contradiction to speak first of the tactics
of engaging fortifications in a war where the enemy of the United States is
a hit-and-run guerrilla, seeking more at
the present time to avoid open battle than to give it except when he
imagines that the terms are more than moderately favorable to his side, a
moment's reflection will sustain the logic of the approach.

His fortified areas almost invariably present the greatest difficulty
to U.S. tactical forces, and it is when we voluntarily engage them that our
loss rates are most immoderate. At no other technique is he more skilled
than in the deceptive camouflaging of his fortified base camps and semi-
fortified villages. There, even nature is made to work in his favor;
trees, shrubs, and earth itself are reshaped to conceal bunker locations
and trench lines. Many of these locations are fund temporarily abandoned,
thus presenting only the problem of how to wreck them beyond possibility of
further use. On the other hand, when he chooses to fight out of any one of
them, the choice is seldom, if ever, made because he is trapped beyond
chance of withdrawal, but because he expects to inflict more than enough
hurt on Americans in the attack to warrant making a stand.

There is even more to it than that. The fortified base camps and
villages are the pivots of the Communist aggression. Denied their use, the
movement would wither. The primary problem of defeating the North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) south of the 17th Parallel and the ultimate problem
of destroying the Viet Cong (VC) between that line and the southern
extremity of the Delta are joined in the tactical task of eliminating their
fortified areas with maximum economy of force.

Years of labor and mountains of irreplaceable material have gone into
building this network of strong camps over the country. It is the
framework that sustains irregular operations, and a semi-guerrilla army can
no more get along without it than a conventional army can hold the field
when cut off from its main bases. Yet there is no such camp or armed
village in Vietnam today that is beyond the reach of U.S. forces. However
remote and concealed, none can be moved or indefinitely kept hidden. To
find and smash each, one by one, is an essential task, a prime object in
conclusively successful campaigning. The Viet Cong movement cannot survive
as a horde of fugitives, unidentified as they mingle with the village crowd
and bury their arms in the surrounding paddies. When the fortified bases
go, the infrastructure withers, and thus weakened, finally dies.

The fortified base camp is roughly circular in form with an outer rim
of bunkers and foxholes enclosing a total system of living quarters,
usually frame structures above ground, command bunkers, kitchens, and
sleeping platforms. But as with the U.S. defensive perimeter, the shape
will vary according to the terrain, the rise and fall of ground, and the
use of natural features to restrict attack on the camp to one or two
avenues. Some of the bases, and in particular those used only for training
or way stations, have minimum defensive works. In all cases, however, the
enemy is prepared to defend from a ground attack.

The semi-fortified village is usually an attenuated or stretched out
set of hamlets, having length rather than breadth, a restricted approach,
bunkers (usually at the corners of the huts), lateral trenches, and
sometimes a perpendicular trench fitted with fighting bunkers running the
length of the defended area along one flank. There will be at least one
exit or escape route rearward, though the position is often otherwise
something of a cul de sac, made so by natural features. Tunnels connect
the bunkers and earthworks, enabling the defenders to pop up, disappear,
then fire again from another angle, a jack-in-the-box kind of maneuvering
that doubles the effect of their numbers. An unfordable river may run
along one flank while wide open paddy land bounds the other. The apparent
lack of escape routes makes the position look like an ideal target for our
side, with our large advantage in air power and artillery. But until
bombardment has blown down most of the foliage any maneuver into the
complex by infantry skirmishers is a deepening puzzle.

When the attempt is made to seal in the enemy troops, one small
opening left in the chain of force, such as a ditch, the palm grown slope
of a canal bank, or a drainage pipe too small for an American to venture,
will be more than enough to suit their purpose. They will somehow find it;
there is nothing that they do better by day or night. It is as if they
have a sixth sense for finding the way out and for taking it soundlessly.
They are never encircled so long as one hole remains. Beaten, they will
lose themselves in shrubbery and tree tops while the daylight lasts, get
together when night closes, and make for the one exit.

Three ground units of the 1st Air Cavalry Division fought through an
action of this kind in early December, 1966, and took heavy losses. By
dark the fight was won and resistance ended. The natural boundaries of the
combat area permitted no chance for escape over 95 percent of the distance.
Through a misunderstanding, the two rifle units covering the one land
bridge left a 30 meter gap of flat land between their flanks. Though it
was a moonlit night, the enemy remnants, estimated at two platoons or more,
got away without a fight.



The record of U.S. Army operations in South Vietnam demonstrates one
hard fact: a company sized attack upon an enemy fortified base camp or
semi-fortified village, held in equal strength by NVA or VC main force with
a determination to defend, and not subjected to intense artillery and/or
air strikes beforehand, means payment of a high price by the attacker. The
result of such an attempt is either ultimate withdrawal by the attacking
force, too often after excessive loss, or a belated reinforcement and a
more prolonged involvement than was anticipated or is judicious.

Yet the tactic seems to have a fatal allure for the average young U.S.
rifle company commander. It has been many times tried and, just as often,
failed. The enemy deliberately tries to make the position look weak, and
hence attractive. One ruse is to leave frontal bunkers unmanned, though
the approach of the attacker is known. Initial resistance will be offered
by a squad minus, while within the complex a company plus is preparing to
maneuver. The effort is subtly directed toward getting the attack snarled
in a maze of fortifications not visible to the eye, whence extrication
grows ever more difficult and advance becomes extremely costly.

The direct consequence for the rifle company that impulsively engages
a position well beyond its strength, at least 50 percent of the time, will
be as follows:

(1) Its battle order, or fighting formations, are weakened
through immediate losses in its frontal element.

(2) It must concentrate on the problem of extracting its
casualties under fire.

(3) Its direct pressure against the enemy is diminished and
disorganized. In short, overimpulsiveness runs counter to
effective aggressiveness.

Upon contacting any such fortified position, where direct enemy fire
by automatic weapons supplies proof of the intention to defend, the rifle
platoon or company should thereafter immediately dispose to keep its
strength and numbers (weapon power and men) latent and under cover to the
full limit permitted by the environment. It may even simulate a
withdrawal, continue desultory fire from its forward weapons, or seek the
enemy rear when favored by terrain, weather, and light. The full length
assault is to be avoided while the heavy fires of supporting arms are
brought in. The careful, fire covered probe is the called-for expedient.
The headlong rush, like the attempt at envelopment before any attempt has
been made to feel out resistance, should be avoided absolutely.

Where environment and weather permit such intervention, artillery
fires should concentrate on the rear, while tactical air targets on the
enemy camp. Otherwise the effect of bombardment is likely to be the
premature aborting of the position. Following bombardment, the direct
frontal assault by the single rifle company should not be pressed unless
reinforcement is already on its way, within 20 to 30 minutes of closing, in
strength sufficient to engage at least one flank of the enemy position.

The attack should then proceed by the echeloning of fire teams, taking
advantage of natural cover and concealed avenues of approach. Gradual
advance is the one safeguard against full exposure and undue loss, as in
the taking of a city. Holding at least one platoon in reserve is so much
insurance against enemy attack on the flank or read.

When casualties occur in the initial stage of encounter with the enemy
in fixed positions, the extraction of WIA's by forward skirmishers should
not be more than the distance required to give them the nearest protection
from enemy fire. This stricture should include a relatively secure
approach for the aid man. Extraction of the dead is to be delayed until
the development of the action makes it unnecessary to be done under fire.
Unless these rules are followed during engagement, unit action stalls
around the attempt to extricate casualties, thereby yielding fire-and-
movement initiative to the enemy. This effect was observed in
approximately one-third of the company actions researched.

The data basis clearly indicates that the one most effective way to
deal with the enemy fighting out of the fortified camp or village is to zap
him with the heaviest artillery and tactical air ordnance, not to maneuver
against him with infantry only. The "finding" infantry must also carry on
as the "fixing" force, leaving the "finishing" to the heavy weapons that
can both kill men and batter down protective works. If overextension is to
be avoided, the sealing-in of the position may hardly be assigned to the
unit that has initiated the action. The sealing-in is higher command's
problem. Additional maneuver elements are dropped to the rear of the
position, and if need be the flanks, to block likely escape routes, strike
the withdrawing columns, and continue the mop up once the enemy, realizing
that our infantry in the assault will not fall victim to his subtle trap,
wearies of the punishment. How far these reaction deployments are spread
should depend on the topography, availability of natural cover, and all
else connected with the enemy's ability to vanish into the landscape and
our chance of cornering him before he does so.



For the rifle platoon or company to attempt envelopment of any village
where there is some reason to suspect that it is fortified and will be
defended is tactically as foolhardy as to assault directly any enemy
position in a non-built-up area not subject to ground level or overhead
surveillance. Reports from air observers that when seen from directly
above at not more than 100 feet the village looks unguarded and unfortified
are not to be considered conclusive, since it has been repeatedly shown
that the enemy's skill with natural camouflage may wholly conceal at such
distance a truly formidable position.

A "position" is defined for this purpose as that ground from which, on
initial contact, volley or approximately synchronized fire from a number of
automatic weapons is directed against the friendly unit in movement.
Particularly, when the enemy opens with a mix of rifle and machinegun fire,
there is positive indication that he has not been surprised and rates
himself strong enough to invite the attack. Even when he opens with random
and unaimed rifle fire from somewhere in the background, this is no sure
sign that he is getting away and that therefore prompt pursuit is in order.
Here is a much-used VC-NVA ruse to draw the attack pell mell into a well-
concealed, defended position.

An attempt to envelop a village with light forces, when its possession
of defended works or lack thereof is unknown, can only lead to dispersion
of force and a regrouping at unnecessary cost when the village is defended.
A careful probe on a narrow front with a fire base in readiness is the
proper method. If fired upon, the unit then has two options: (a) house-by-
house and bunker-by-bunkers movement into the complex as in attack on any
built-up area; or (b) the calling in of heavy support weapons, according to
the volume and intensity of the enemy fire. Any attempt to close escape
routes by surrounding a succession of hamlets prior to developing the
situation by limited probing is either prohibitively hazardous or time
wasting. Any direct fire out of a village serves warning. And, as
previously said, so does erratic and distant fire from beyond the hamlet
when it is time to the American forward movement and is roughly counter to
the direction of the attack. This familiar enemy come-on is an incitement
to rush into a well-laid ambush.

A sudden volley fire out of the hamlet, wood patch, or any location
must prompt caution and reconsideration rather than prompt immediate
forward extension in the assault. The enemy does not volley to cut and
run; almost never does he do so even when his sole object is to delay and
disrupt pursuit, after breaking off engagement. Furthermore, the enemy
does not employ ground as we do, with emphasis on fields of fire and a
superior height. He may do so some of the time; his surprises are staged
most often by his choosing a position that we would rate impractical or
untenable. He will fortify a ridge saddle to fire therefrom in four
directions, ignoring the higher ground. Thus he can block advance via the
draws or engage the attackers at close quarters when they move via the
trail which often follows the spine of the ridge. Or he may rig a deadfall
in front of a seeming dead end where slopes to front and rear seem to cut
off all possibilities of escape. In village defense, he will leave empty
his best situated forward bunkers covering the one track that leads into
the first hamlet to create the illusion of abandonment. As a result the
assault is enticed into an interior jungle of foliage covered works and
underground passages that in combination will facilitate the enemy's rapid
movement from point to point. To thwart his design, the following measures
are indicated:

(1) In the approach march, except when it is over terrain where
observation to front and flanks removes any possibility of his
immediate presence in strength, all ground should be approached
as if he were present in force. Seldom in Vietnam are there
marches over such an obviously secure area.

(2) Defended built up areas, whether of purely military character or
a native hamlet, when clearly supplied with surface works and
amplified by underground passages, are not to be reckoned as
proper targets for the rifle company or smaller unit operating
unassisted. One or two "snipers," or riflemen operating from
cover, spending a few rounds in token resistance and then
fleeing, do not constitute "defense of a village" or of a wood
line. Four or five enemy continuing to fire together at close
range from any such location after being taken under fire should
be accepted as warning that larger forces are immediately
present. If the enemy force is no larger than a platoon minus,
its advantage in position still warrants the prompt calling in of
maximum supporting fires.



The record of more than 100 U.S. rifle companies and as many platoons
that have been heavily engaged since May 1, 1966 shows unmistakably that
the most frequent cause of surprise, disorganization of the unit under
fire, and heavy initial losses has been excessive haste in the advance
overland and outright carelessness about security.

A great part of our shock killing losses occur in the first stage of
engagement. The enemy, fortunately, is not skilled at following up a first
advantage in surprise fire. His musketry, when large numbers of his people
engage at close range, is highly inaccurate compared to our own. Our
losses in the rifle line once the fight is joined are rarely extravagant.
The great wasting of lives comes of too much rushing in the movement to
contact or of tactical carelessness in the first stages of engagement. A
column that indulges in all-out chase of the enemy can be caught by him if
it has not taken pains to make sure that it is not being followed. Or the
column on departing its night location may expose its intent to continue in
widely separated fractions disregarding whether its every move is under
enemy observation. Or it may march blindly onto ground such as a jungle
clearing when common sense dictates extreme caution.

In every incident that has involved the destruction of a platoon-size
unit, the misfortune was due less to enemy guile than to our own lack of
judgment. The enemy is fairly well skilled at laying ambushes and using
lures and ruses to draw forces in the right direction. But he is not
superhumanly clever. Applied common sense will beat his every design. It
is not common sense to run chances by making haste when one is rushing
straight to an entrapment. Consider two recent examples of sudden shock
loss due to impetuous advance:

(1) The platoon on patrol moved out over the same route - a straight
running trail - taken by a patrol the previous day. There was no
periodic halt to scout enemy presence in any or all four
directions. No stay-behind party was peeled off to see whether
the patrol was being followed. The platoon in single file
continued on the same azimuth for two hours. That line,
projected, let to two large clearings in the jungle separated by
less than 200 meters. The column advanced across the center of
the first clearing, 125 meters wide, and on the far side of the
wood line walked directly into a well-prepared ambush.

(2) The company had passed the night in defensive perimeter adjacent
to much higher ground where observation was unrestricted by
vegetation. The Cambodian border lay directly to the west.
Although the men on LP (listening post) duty could hear enemy
moving through the grass nearby during the night, when the
company moved out shortly after first light it did not
reconnoiter the high ground to the south along its line of march.
The lead platoon advanced directly past it, and was soon 1,000
meters forward of the main body, which was also in motion. The
rear platoon was kept tied to the ground of the night position,
600 meters behind the main body. While one group of enemy
engaged and immobilized the main body, after luring it into an
ambush, another closed on the rear platoon from two sides and in
two minutes of action annihilated it with automatic weapons.
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