August 18, 1965. Preceded by 155mm artillery fire and 18 tons of bombs and napalm, United States Marines descend by boat and helicopter around Van Tuong. The successful attack on the Viet Cong stronghold is the first major American combat action of the Vietnam War, but carries with it all the problems and uncertainties that will dog American efforts in the growing quagmire unfolding in South Vietnam.
There have been hundreds of books written on the epic tragedy of the Vietnam War, and the United States’ descent into what may be its most controversial conflict – and first great defeat – is a long one, so I won’t bother you with it today. The French defeat in the First Indochina War saw Vietnam divided in 1954. This was of course only meant to be a temporary divide, but since North Vietnam was held by Ho Chi Minh’s Communists, and the South was held by a regime increasingly backed by the United States, this was going to be a divide that lasted a while.
After a brief period of something kind of like peace, the North began infiltrating its troops into South Vietnam and coordinating with the anti-South resistance, the National Liberation Front – better known to Americans as the “Viet Cong,” or “VC.” While the North was not taking a direct role in the fighting, it was certainly sending aid and volunteers to the South, and soon the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) began suffering embarrassing losses. The corrupt regime of South Vietnam, the misery of the peasantry, and the incompetence of the ARVN all fed into the growing strength of the Viet Cong.
This fed into the United States’ fear that a Communist takeover of Vietnam would lead inevitably to Communist takeovers across Southeast Asia. The American political aspects of Vietnam are so immense that if I start talking about them now, I’ll talk about them forever. (It’s one of my most recent fascinations.) Whatever the reasons, the United States soon had a vested interest in propping up the rotting corpse of South Vietnam, Weekend-at-Bernie’s style. Throughout the early 1960s, the United States supported South Vietnam with advisors, helicopter squadrons, and logistical support. None of this managed to motivate the ARVN soldier or turn his officer into a good leader, and the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac in 1963 only made that resoundingly clear.
With South Vietnam obviously disintegrating under the insurgency of the Viet Cong, it was a good time for the United States to get out. Instead, we doubled down. A series of honestly miniscule and partially manufactured naval skirmishes in the Gulf of Tonkin provided the opportunity. The Congressional resolution that followed, to the later shame and agony of many Congressmen who supported it, ended up granting President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to do whatever he liked. Johnson chose to escalate the war in Vietnam, and this meant American ground troops committed to a major war for the first time since Korea.
On March 8, 1965, 3500 United States Marines waded ashore on the beach near Da Nang, where a major American air base was rapidly expanding. This move was supposed to have been kept lowkey, but ended up being a photop-friendly recruitment commercial, with the Marines teeming ashore like they were in a World War II flick. Anyone who saw it could only have one conclusion: America had come to Vietnam to do battle. Still, for most Americans, the escalation in Vietnam was so slow that it was hard to notice it until the casualty lists started coming out. Then it was hard to ignore. Like the proverbial frog in a slowly heated pot, Americans did not know we were in Vietnam until it was far too late.
When this all began, no one had wanted ground troops in Vietnam. That was crazy talk. But we needed advisors. Well, the advisors needed helicopters, and men to operate them, but those aren’t really ground troops. But helicopters and airplanes need bases. And it’s not a huge ask to have American boys defending American bases, right? So…let’s send troops to defend the bases. Only a few, of course, we’re not engaging in combat operations. But now those troops are under attack! They can patrol the base. Outside the base. A bit farther beyond the base. Now they’re taking out VC strongpoints, fighting off attacks. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could attack them first? Be proactive? In that case, though, we need more men. A lot more.
The Vietnam War could have invented the term “mission creep.” Before you know it, you go from “just some advisors” to “full-scale ground war” – and it was so slow, so subtle, such a gradual slide into full-on war that it seemed inevitable.
The man we chose to lead the difficult war in Vietnam was General William C. Westmoreland, a man so obviously a general that his West Point classmates joked about how he would be one. “Westie” would have been an outstanding general in a conventional war, but all the traits that would have made him an ideal World War II general made him the worst possible fit for a counterinsurgency campaign in Southeast Asia. Westie was part of the “airborne” clique, the small group of generals that dominated high command after 1945. Undoubtedly brilliant, his genius ran on a narrow track. Someone later described him as a “corporate executive in uniform.” Westmoreland was the consummate manager-general; no stranger to combat, he somehow avoided the realities of the war he fought.
William Westmoreland was instrumental in facilitating the slide to combat in Vietnam. All military men secretly want to be in a war. The military is one of the only professions in which people practice their profession, but are granted scarce opportunity to craft it. I myself have felt the same desire. Westmoreland, like every general, wanted a victorious war, so he purposely expanded his prerogative and pushed for more men and more resources, no matter what the situation on the ground. Westie was a World War II vet, who had seen the potential of firepower and mass to achieve victory; he believed the same lessons could be applied to Vietnam. He asked for a lot, and got a lot. The initial wave of 3500 Marines was the first drop in the bucket. By December 1965, Westie would have 200,000 men in Vietnam – more troops than America ever had in Iraq.
The whole sad cycle began on July 30, 1965, when Westmoreland told Marine General Lewis Walt that he expected him to start carrying out attacks against the VC units that had been raiding the air base of Chu Lai. Chu Lai had only been established in May 1965, since the growth of American forces had put Da Nang over capacity. (We have to expand our airfields to meet the needs of our growing ground forces, and expand our ground forces to defend our growing airfields. But you get it.) When Walt reminded Westmoreland that command policies restricted him only to operations that supported South Vietnam, Westmoreland responded that “these restraints were no longer realistic.” On August 6, Walt received permission to carry out offensive operations – without South Vietnamese assistance – against the VC. It would be a war fought Westmoreland’s way.
How did Westie fight the Vietnam War? The American tactic was crude: “search and destroy.” From 1965 to 1968 – the years of Westmoreland’s command – the main American practice was to descend on VC strongholds, violently root them out, and withdraw immediately after. This strategy was intimately tied to helicopter airlandings, which facilitated both a quick entry and a quick exit. “Search and destroy” was opposed to the strategy of “clear and hold”, which required attackers to fortify and secure any area they captured. Unfortunately, “search and destroy” was the wrong tactic to use against guerrillas, who when they didn’t want to fight melted into the jungle and when they did want to fight it was because they were ready.
To deal with the guerrilla problem, Westmoreland used a method that had been supposedly vetted in World War II and Korea: the generous use of firepower. Americans used helicopter gunships, artillery barrages, airstrikes and napalm to clear the way for their “search and destroy” missions.” This did have the desired effect of damaging the VC presence in the area. It also wreaked devastation on the Vietnamese countryside, destroying villages and causing the deaths of untold civilians. The abuse of firepower, intended to reduce American casualties, helped turn the Vietnamese people hostile to their supposed saviors.
Since “search and destroy” did not hold the conquered ground, how could American commanders measure success? The solution to this question was easy, simple, and wrong: the “body count.” Westmoreland’s headquarters tracked the progress of American forces through the number of enemy dead. In theory this made sense, but in practice junior officers wanting to build their careers and commanders eager to show their worth exaggerated every number to the point that the numbers were useless. By 1967, Westmoreland was reporting a higher body count than the Viet Cong had people in the field. The American strategy in Vietnam was built on a fabric of lies.
General Walt’s target would be the area directly south of Chu Lai, where VC forces had recently overrun an ARVN garrison and captured artillery and weapons. With the VC guerrillas reported in the area and prisoners reporting an imminent attack on the Chu Lai airfield, Walt and Westmoreland agreed that they needed to launch an attack on the epicenter of the VC forces near a village complex called Van Tuong. It would be called “Operation Starlite.” Just like that – without a Congressional vote, a declaration of war, or a statement to the UN – American forces were fighting their own war in Vietnam.
To ensure secrecy, the ARVN was not informed. This was a watershed moment as well; it marked the transition of the Vietnam War from a war fought between Vietnamese with American support to a war fought by Americans with Vietnamese puppets. One battalion of Marines would land by helicopter, while the other would land amphibiously on the beaches, with the two attack forces launching a pincer attack on the expected VC forces in the area. They would be supported by naval gunfire, close air support, and artillery from Chu Lai.
At 0615, the Marine artillery began to prepare the landing zones with fire from its 155mm howitzers. 20 Marine A-4s and F-4s began to drop bombs and napalm across the helicopter LZs, and more A-4s strafed the landing beach with 20mm cannon fire. A few minutes later, 3/3 Marines disembarked from its amphibious vehicles, as 2/4 Marines landed from their Huey choppers into the high undergrowth of Van Tuong.
The VC allowed the first few helicopters to land and let the Marines get inland, but only when they advanced into the village complex did the Marines meet serious resistance. Positioned on a ridgeline, they spattered the incoming Marines with AK-47, machine gun and mortar fire. The Marines soon realized that driving the VC from defensive positions was a hard task. The Vietnamese guerrillas dominated the terrain of rice paddies, hedgerows and dense forest, and defended every tiny village like it was their last stand. The whole village complex was lousy with traps, foxholes, concealed trenches and even tunnels.
The Marines pressed on into surprisingly dense combat; the air attacks and naval gunfire had failed to uproot the Viet Cong. The resistance took down several helicopters, and Marine platoons got misdirected in the increasingly chaotic fight. Soon M48 tanks and other armored vehicles were sent for support, but even they got confused and bogged down in the heavy fighting. Viet Cong would lie in wait while the first units passed by, only to ambush the follow-on forces. Ambushes, snipers and booby traps lay in every unexplored area, and recoilless rifles drove off armored vehicles. It was as intense a combat operation as something from World War II, and even the overwhelming American firepower could not extinguish the powerful flame of VC resistance.
Despite the desperate Viet Cong resistance throughout a battle that lasted seven days, the Marines finally managed to overwhelm the Van Tuong village complex. Firepower and vastly superior numbers finally told out; the Marines had been forced to call in three more battalions, and their numbers engaged totaled 5,500, while the VC force had never been larger than 2,000 men. Operation Starlite had been a success by Westie’s standards; the Marine force reported a “body count” of 614 killed and 42 captured, for 45 Marines killed and 203 wounded. These were good numbers, right? Well.
Both Americans and Viet Cong claimed victory in Operation Starlite. The Americans had their “body count,” and thanks to Westmoreland’s uncritical acceptance of the numbers this could be counted as a victory. Of course, the body count was almost always wrong, thanks to American tendency to overestimate and an unfortunate propensity for counting civilian dead along with enemy dead. The Vietnamese themselves reported only 200-300 dead or captured, which would still outnumber the American losses but make the “victory” far less complete.
Operation Starlite, as the first all-American combat action in Vietnam, was Vietnam in a nutshell. Based on traditional rules of warfare – seize the ground, expel the enemy – the United States won the battle. But they suffered heavy casualties in a week-long battle that demonstrated how tough and resilient the Viet Cong would be in the coming war. Massive firepower and American courage were not an automatic remedy for Viet Cong determination, preparation and motivation. Even if the Americans suffered 45 dead to the Vietnamese 600 dead, too, the American people were not willing to accept that casualty ratio for long. It was attrition on the wrong side of the balance sheet, since Americans were not willing to take high casualties for a war in a foreign land that most were not crazy about. The Vietnamese, of course, were.
The battle at Van Tuong also demonstrated how bankrupt the American policies were. The VC would be back in Van Tuong within the year; “search and destroy” only kicked them out for a while. The massive firepower employed by the United States in its attack failed to stop or even damage VC resistance to the attackers. Finally, the “body count” was a flawed and terrible method for measuring the progress of a counterinsurgency war, especially when so many incentives existed to falsify or fudge the numbers. As the “body count” continued to promise success, the actual progress of the war ground to a halt in the coming years. The war was built on a lie, a lie fed by “success” stories like Van Tuong. What exactly did Operation Starlite accomplish? Dead enemies, and that was not enough.
And that was Vietnam in a nutshell. Some years after the war, an American officer met a Vietnamese counterpart at a diplomatic summit. “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,” the American said. The Vietnamese officer pondered that remark, then said “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”