Official Australian Army View of American Operations in Vietnam

Discussion in 'Vietnam' started by Drusus Nero, Sep 5, 2015.

  1. Drusus Nero

    Drusus Nero Banned

    Hello to all....

    I have a most interesting book here, "Australian Military Operations in Vietnam" Published by the Australian Government Army History Unit in Canberra,(2006), and specifically

    "Written for members of the Australian Army, with a focus on leadership, command, startegy, tactics, lessons and personal experiences."

    This is, therefore, the "official" Australian Army viewpoint of the conflict, something they encourage their soldiers to become familiar with. And of particular note are the preliminary chapters at the front of the book, which I will give you for perusal and comment. Enjoy!


    The American soldiers who arrived in Vietnam in 1965 brought with them a clear and deeply held institutional understanding of how to wage war. Characteristically, the American way required the orchestration of intensive firepower, advanced technology, and abundant material in order to inflict maximum damage on the enemy. The goal was to dominate the battlefield to such an extent that the American forces would quickly break the enemie's will to resist and bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion.. The origin of the army's concept lay in the American Civil War, and was reinforced by experiences during WW2 and in Korea. It was also the type of battle the United States planned to wage against the Soviet Union.

    Confident and committed to their concept of war, the Americans did not make the distinction between requirments for waging conventional and counter-insurgent wars. By contrast, the British and Australian experiences in counter-insurgency warfare highlighted the need for commanders to assign equal, if not greater, weight to a conflict's political dimensions instead of focusing solely on military considerations. Senior United States officers did not share this belief. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen, Earle Wheeler, commented with complete self-assurance that, "The essense of the problem in Vietnam is military." When asked for his answer to the insurgency, the Commander of the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), Gen. William Westmoreland, replied, "Firepower".

    In 1965 it was Westmoreland's responsibility to design, implement and oversee the American plan for the defeat of the VC.He was a devotee of the Army's concept of war, and his operational goal was to search and destroy the VC as quickly as possible. Westmoreland intended to direct a war of attrition and mobility in which he would break VC resistence by inflicting casualties at a rate greater than they could accept. Nor would the VC be able to hide. The Americans would use helicopters to swoop down on the enemy wherever they lay, and then rapidly redeploy to the next atrget. Westmoreland planned a campaign of an intensity and speed the VC could not match. In the parlance of the day it's aim was to "Find, fix and finish" the enemy, and to do it as quickly as possible.

    Westmoreland's strategy was a thoroughly coventional approach to warfighting that incorporated American cultural values and made use of his force's strengths. However, it was also intellectually rigid and completely ignorant of the nature of insurgency warfare. MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) intended to transform the Vietnam campaign into a coventional style war in which it would be able to bring to bear it's great advantages over the enemy in firepower, technology and mass. Whether the VC would agree to this transformation and allow themselves to be annihilated was not a point of concern for American planners.

    Even had the Americans proceeded ata slower pace, and paid greater attention to the principles of counter-insurgency warfare, the realities of their concept made winning of the local peoples hearts and minds prohibitively difficult. The widespread and indiscriminate application of mass firepower, and a reliance on technology rather than personal contact, had severe consequences for the well-being of the local people. The effect of the American way on the population, however, was rarely a factor in the force's mantra of killing VC. In February, 1967, for example, the American 1st Cavalry Division conducted an operation in Binh Dinh Province. During it's three month course, the division's ordnance expenditure included....

    ....136,000 rounds of artillery
    .....5,000 round of naval gunfire suport
    .....171 B-52 sorties
    .....2,622 fighter bomber sorties
    .....500,000 pounds of napalm
    .....35,000 pounds of tear gas

    The operation was considered a success since it netted 1,757 VC KIA. Yet it also displaced 12,000 villagers whose homes and farms 1st Cavaly Div had destroyed. It is not possible to determine how many of these villagers became recruits for the VC, but the American offensive probably did little to garner support from Binh Dinh's peasantry.

    Handicapping American planning was MACV's inability to develop a methodology that documented the efficacy of it's strategy of attrition. Possession of territory and the occupation of strategic points, both traditional indicators of success, were meaningless in the context of Vietnam. Instead, MACV turned to statistics. The most infamous of these was the body count: each dead VC brought the U.S. closer to victory.

    The reporting process became a self-fulfilling prophesy- and one that was not really representative of the course of the war. Moreover, the importance of submitting statistical increases encouraged commanders to expend materiel without concern for the local people. It is not known how many non-VC were included in body count submissions, but the system rewarded the reportage of the highest count possible.

    There was some opposition to the attrition strategy and the concept's inability to treat the conflict as a counter-insurgencyoperation. However, such opposistion was abherrant. It lay outside the American Army's mainstream, and was unable to breach the institution's committment to it's way of war. The most vigorous alternate strategy was the United States Marines Combined Action Platoon Program. This program saw the forming of mixed Marine and ARVN Popular Force platoons. Each platoon occupied a village and provided it's defence. The platoon remained in place for the duration and their members became familiar with the locals while gradually extending the safe zone around their location.

    This initiative did not have Westmoreland's approval, but the Marines were a seperate service and MACV could not stop them from proceeding.

    When the U.S. opted for military intervention in Vietnam, no one in Washington or Saigon considered the nature of the army that was to deploy, whether it was prepared for the conflict, or what it would do differently from the French. Instead, reliance on the army's concept of war was complete- a faith that the course of the war showed to be seriously misplaced. Setbacks resulted not in the concept's reconsideration, but demands for more resources to increase it's intencity.

    In the aftermath of defeat, General of the Army Omar Bradley summarized his force's performance in Vietnam as...
    "...the wrong place , at the wrong time, with the wrong army." (Drusus Notes....Bradley should have added "...and the wrong commander.")


    While relations between the Australian and American soldiers were friendly and each earned the others respect, combat experience exposed the dramatic differences that underpinned their concepts of war and operational procedure. One of the most significant contrasts was a function of time. The 1 Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) operations officer, Major John Essex-Clark, remembered that at his first meeting with Williamson (Brigadier-Gen Ellis Williamson, commander of the 173 Airborne Brigade(Seperate) of III Corps that 1 RAR were assigned to work with), the American commented that,
    "The war will be won in a few months, once the Viet Cong feel the firepower of the brigade."
    Essex-Clark, however, recognised that the insurgency's defeat would take a "long time".

    Once away from Bien Hoa the different expectations of the conflict's duration became readily apparent. American patrols recieved vast areas to clear, moved toward objectives by direct path, and stuck to timetables set by base-bound staff officers. an Australian patrol, by contrast, searched the jungle at a slower pace than the Americans and followed a serendipitous route dictated by a combination of terrain and enemy signs. Seen from the air, the respective patrols of the two allies moved so differently that on several occasions the Americans mistook the Australians for VC.

    Compared to the diggers, the Yanks made extravagant claims of having cleared great tracts of land. Yet, their rapid march and telegraphed route offered the VC opportunities to slip away whenever they wished. Because 1 RAR's men did not simply traverse the ground but sought to control it, land declared 'clean' of VC by the Australians came with a high degree of certainty.

    On operations, Americans displayed a cockiness which Australians neither understood, nor desired to emulate. In the bush the airborne soldiers invited contact with the VC by talking, smoking, firing their weapons, retaining brightly coloured patches on their uniforms, marching in columns, (preferably along a track), and recieving resupply from helicopters.
    The Australians were the opposite. They moved stealthily, patrolling slowly and silently, fanning out in sections, refusing to walk on tracks, and avoiding helicopters until it was pickup time. One Australian observer declared,

    "Keep those bloody helicopters AWAY from us - they give away our positions."

    Even in their bases the Americans continued to display a lack of caution where the VC were concerned. In the Bien Hoa compound at night the American units on either side of 1 RAR left electric lights on and routinely illuminated the approaches to their positions with flare. Watching VC would have seen a mass of lights with a small black patch - the Australians - in the middle. The VC regularly mortared the American sectors of the base but left the Australian area alone.

    The American soldiers were neither slack nor poorly trained. Rather, they were confident, elite warriors who possessed a 'gung-ho' attitude that was backed up with a scale of weaponry the magnitude of which was beyond anything the Australians had previously experienced. American units taunted the VC to "have a go", and in doing so accepted casualties as the price of having the opportunity to bring their firepower to bear.

    The Australians did not have the depth of reserves that the Americans enjoyed. 1RAR had no option but to husband it's manpower because the Army could not replace it if the VC destroyed the unit. Thus the Australians adopted a more cautious approach to the enemy. Their message was,
    "You will never know exactly where we are, but we will find you and kill you."

    The Australian 'go slow' approach, however, did gain their ally's respect. One American battalion commander called the Australians....
    "...quiet hunters - patient, thorough, trying to out-think the Viet Cong." He continued, "I would not have liked to operate at night and know there was a chance of ending up in an Aussie ambush."
    In another example, 1 Infantry Division (US) specifically requested 1 RAR's assistance during Operation Abiline. Australian excellence at patrolling had become common knowledge, and the divisional commander wanted 1 RAR, not an American battalion, to protect his fire support and logistics bases.

    Even language posed difficulties for the two allies. The Australians had to learn a host of Yank expressions in order to avoid confusion, especially during radio transmissions. A 'slick', for examlpe, was a Huey transport helicopter and a 'dust-off' was a medical evacuation. When 1 RAR arrived in Vietnam it's signallers used the 'Able-Baker-Charlie-Dog' phonetic code for radio procedure, but had to adapt to the prevailing American usage - 'Alpha-Bravo-Charlie-Delta'. The language problem was so serious that when Commander of Australian Armed Forces Vietnam (COMAAFV, Brigadier O.D. Jackson) visited Williamson's headquarters for the first time he found an Australian soldier outside the airborne brigade commander's tent. When asked what he was doing the soldier replied,
    "Sir, I'm the interpreter.". He had been assigned to the Americans!

    The area of American activity that drew the greatest wonder and perplexity from the Australians was the employment of helicopters.
    High aerial mobility was the 173rd's raison d'etre. According to it's advocates, helicopter aviation was the coming arm in the art of war. Between Korea and Vietnam wars the United States Army intensely debated the role of tactical aviation on the battlefield. They did not see the helicopter as a counter-insurgency weapon. Instead, it's advocates wanted to exploit it's manoeuvre potential on a nuclear battlefield against the Soviet Union. 173 Airborne Brigade (Seperate) was one of the first formations raised for this purpose, and was 'light' only in the sense that it was not armoured.

    Essex-Clark described a typical American helicopter insertion. The sequence was:

    1. F-100 Super Sabres bomb edge of landing zone.
    2. A1-E Skyraiders drop napalm.
    3. Helicopter gunships strafe the area with machine-guns and rockets.
    4. Artillery pounds the landing zone; and finally
    5. A phosphorus smoke round announces the end of prep fire and the transport helicopters begin their descent.

    He concluded that a helicopter insertion accomplished little. At best it saved walking and the troops arrived fresh from the insertion point. However, the accompanying noise and firepower display revealed the americans planned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR), and thereby surrendered the initiative, allowing the VC to either slip away or set an ambush as they desired.
    Having experienced them first ahnd, Essex-Clark left a vivid recollection of participating in an American insertion.. He wrote....
    " air-mobile assault is a roller-coaster helicopter ride accompanied by a screeching Wagner and a thundering Guy Fawkes. It is madness, and the surrealism makes me laugh with increduality. It is adventure, it is excitement, but it is utter fantasyland........What on earth are the VC thinking as they slip away from all this bother?".....(End)

    The Australian Army does not mince words. Coveniently enough, this was published in the year after Westmoreland died. I have a sneaking idea this was deliberate. One American politician post war was quick to label William Westmoreland as.....

    "The most disasterous commanding officer this country has produced since George Armstrong Custer"....Arthur Schleisinger Jr.

    It's a criticism that fits well. "Westy" never could back down and admit it. Still with his Vietnam 'blinkers' on, he died un-repentant.
  2. Drusus Nero

    Drusus Nero Banned

    I have a couple of other chapters to give, but they concern the Australian approach to counter-insurgency, and the American atitude to the ARVN.

    Since they don't fall in the perimeter of this thread, (it deals with Australian atitudes toward the U.S. Army), i'll leave it for another post.

    Meantime, if you have any comments to make, or criticisms, feel free to post.

  3. mapshooter

    mapshooter Senior Member

    The Aust units in 28 Commonwealth Bde in Malaya were using the Alfa, Bravo, etc NATO phonetic alphabet long before 1965. I'd put money on it being the SEATO standard as well.
  4. Drusus Nero

    Drusus Nero Banned

    Just a couple of notes to expand on issues raised in the text.

    1/..."Gung-Ho" Attitude of Ameican Soldiers

    By my understanding, the interpretation of "Gung-Ho" would have been very different in the Australian Army from the Americans.

    The Australian idea of the expression comes, in the main, from the twisting it recieved when it was transfered from a purely military philosophy, to use in civilian life. In Australia, someone who is "gung -ho" is assume to be offensive minded, daring to the point of recklessness, a person who has a 'thrusting' attitude, sometimes leaping in without thinking. It's a word full of negative associations in Vietnam, for it reflects the negative aspects, in the Australian Army's point of view, for it brings with it overconfidence, which transfers itself to many other aspects, like higher casualties.

    In the context of Vietnam and this work, the Australian Army does not even qualify the term in print, giving me the impression that the soldiers whom this book was mainly written for, already had the term fixed in their minds as a negative.

    The U.S. Army , no doubt would think differently. "Gung-Ho" is a combat philosophy originated by a Marine officer called Evans Carlson. It means (literally), WORK TOGETHER, and was the result of Carlson's service in China as an observer of the Sino-Japanese conflict, (1931-1945). Carlson had mixed political views, and was accused of being slightly Red. During his tenure as an observer, Carlson was introduced to Mao and the Chineses leadership. Their insurgent style left a deep impression on him, and he formulated his own tactical theory for 'behind the line' operations; formed around the 8 man squad, rather than a ten man unit, and with fireteams composed of three men.

    In 1942, Carlson's Second Raider Battalion arrived on Guadacanal to spread the Gospel. Carlson had staged a raid on Makin in the Gilbert Islands that was a disaster. Ironically, 9 men were left behind, and executed 'bushido' style. (not exactly "working together"). This raid, and Wake Island, were the only contact the U.S. Marines had with the Japanese up to that point. Tokyo Rose taunted them, ("Where", she said on her broadcasts, "are the United States Marines hiding?").

    Carlson recommened long patrols at Guadalcanal, but conducted by Intelligence sections, rather than ordinary 'macs'. It is this philosophy that was, naturally, still present throughout the entire US Military in Vietnam. To use the phrase "Gung-Ho" and link it to " attitude Australians neither understood nor wished to emulate," demonstrates that, to this day, the Australian Army does not really understand the philosophy at all.

    And maybe that was a good thing, for it appears to be the antithesis of their 'go slow' approach, honed by the Malayan Insurrection, and sharpened by the natural caution displayed by an Army who have limited resources to spare. Ironic too, that an Asian (Chinese) inspired Guerilla philosophy should come back to bite the US Army on the bum 20 odd years after it appeared.

    2/ Australian Army Sticking to Tracks

    This doctrinal practice was mantra in the Australian military when Vietnam came. No doubt, it was heavily influenced by the Malayan experience, but this one had a sting in the tail.
    By the end of Australian involvement, very near half of their casualties were caused by mines and booby trap. Their practice, at first, was to fan out into the jungle, on the assumption that trails and tracks would be obvious points for mine warfare. When the VC discovered this aspect of Australian operations. VC patrols took to searching for and pinpointing Australian mines that had been positioned for ambush, which would then be triggered by the Australians themselves.
    The VC, knowing full well the Australian abhorrance for trail patrolling, used these same trails with impunity.

    So this particular aspect of Australian operations backfired badly.

    3/..."An Airmobile assault is a rollercoaster helicopter ride accompanied by a screeching Wagner and a thundering Guy Fawkes"

    ..." is utter fantasyland...."

    This is a description by Essex Clark that probably owes a lot to artistic license. This is the only mention of Wagner I've ever run across anywhere in association with Vietnam literature. And Essex-Clark was writing at the time of Vietnam, well before Coppola's film hit the screens.; Was it meant for effect, or a real observation that he threw in from his experience?
    Whatever the case, this sentence from his report could be the germ of inspiration for screenplay writer John Mileus, scripting for Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now". Mileus must have got it from somewhere during his research. Moreover, it's now such a well known cliche' of the war that it's taken on a life of it's own, becoming, in the popular mind of the modern civilian, an image of American involvement in Vietnam that will probably never die away.

    "..utter fantasyland..." also appears in Mileus's film script, slightly modified; when Sam Bottoms, (as 'Lance') drops acid, and while reading a letter from home, comes across a reference to a 'wish you were here' trip to Disneyland by his relatives. Lance, whose grip on reality slips further away as the film goes on, soon after exclaims of his time in Vietnam,

    "F**k! This is better than Disneyland!"

    The power of modern cinema is great. The truth is more elusive.
  5. mapshooter

    mapshooter Senior Member

    Having served in the Aust Army in SVN, I suggest that the above is not entirely correct. VC track mining was a real risk, the MFC in our coy triggered an M16 when crossing a track, it jumped but didn't detonate. Tracks were where the VC placed their mines, of course the only times they generally got lucky was if US troops were operating in Phuoc Tuy, and this was fairly rare. A better bet for them was mining where APCs were likely to go, including M16s in roadside verges.

    However, VC did use tracks and this made sustained ambushing of tracks 24x7 a useful activity by us, the VC certainly did not gain 'impunity' by using tracks. Of course it was always better if there were intelligence clues suggesting good opportunities as to which tracks might be in use. The main patrolling purpose off track was to find the VC base camps, because these were off track although often not too far off, and in the dry season proximity to water was a factor in their siting. When patrolling off track by day we also used 'harbour-ambushes' on tracks at night if the opportunity was there.

    I also taught at Battle Wing JTC, avoiding tracks was emphasised. I also do a mean line in LZ preps.

    APCs could ambush tracks at night as well, in one very successful incident this resulted in the decimation of a VC coy.
    Owen likes this.
  6. Drusus Nero

    Drusus Nero Banned

    Thanks Map.....good to hear from someone actually on the ground.

    This idea of Australians and mines on tracks may well be something that was rumoured, and then passed into the genral idea of how things were.

    But, we did sustain very many of our 523 odd KIAs in Vietnam to these horrible weapons, so it could have been a method of explaining this away.

    I was also attempting to offer some balance. American readers may well feel a little miffed at a junior ally telling them how to wage war. But our results speak for themselves. Like it or not, the Australian Army emerged from Vietnam with it's military reputation largely intact. Our Soldiers tried very hard to confine their war to the people we had been sent there to fight. Post war, our government contributed a lot of money to the reconstruction of Vietnam, and our people at home welcomed Vietnamese refugees into our country permanently in (for us) large numbers.

    If you have anything more to add to my posts, please feel free to be as critical as you please.

    I thpought somebody would pick me up on the last one concerning Essex-Clark and the origins of some of the wierd stuff we all saw from Coppolas film.

  7. mapshooter

    mapshooter Senior Member

    It's also worth remembering that Aust learnt a lesson on using tracks across the water in Borneo. IIRC 4 KIA in a single incident on a track in the vicinity of the border. I spent most of my time in that theatre with Gurkhas, we were far too smart to be caught by anything so simple, tracks were what we ambushed, we didn't use them. Memorably in early 1966 we had a radio frequency clash with US in SVN. The US Army radio operator said "get off this frequency its an operational one" our guy said "so is this and we're winning ours". In 1966 the British squaddy (a good Glaswegian) could see the US Army was up sh** creek!
    Owen likes this.

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