Lessons learned from the Vietnam War
Early in US history, American military leaders relied on French and German advisors to help prepare the Continental Army for the American Revolution. Since then, select members of the US Army have served as military advisors for more than a hundred years, beginning in the early 1900s. During and after World War II, US military advisors have trained and advised the armed forces of Cambodia, Laos, Nationalist China, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, and more recently, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Whenever one thinks about US military advisors, they may envision someone wearing a green beret, and they’d be right. The green beret is the headgear of the US Army Special Forces. The basic mission assigned to the Green Berets is to train and lead unconventional or clandestine guerilla forces, but this mission has been expanded to include the training of conventional forces.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, US military advisors were assigned to Military Assistance Advisory Groups (MAAGs). More recently, advisors are referred to as Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) or Military Transition Teams (MTTs). ETTs and MTTs are composed primarily of US Marines, Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, and members of the Army national guard serving in the combat arms. Members of the Air Force, Navy, and Army Reserve serve as advisors in matters and functions of combat service support.
Marines, by the way, have been “military advisors” for a very long time. After the turn of the twentieth century, US Marines were dispatched to the so-called banana republics to protect American interests and restore order out of the chaos caused by rebels and/or bandits (although they were often one and the same). The process of restoring order frequently caused Marines to establish or reform constabularies, train constables, lead them, and monitor their development. This was an advisory as well as a counterinsurgency role. Marine Corps officers and NCOs were frequently assigned away from their regular units to serve in the Haitian gendarmerie, Dominican constabulary, and Nicaraguan national guard.
Background and overview
During the Vietnam War, US civilian and military advisors supported the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in its endeavor to pacify urban and rural areas. The concept of pacification evolved from counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1950s, which included a wide array of civil and military programs: martial training and readiness, economic development, land reform, and democratization. None of these efforts could succeed without security forces (and their military advisors) to protect the people by seeking out and destroying communist terrorists. In the RVN, there were three essential objectives of US/RVN counterinsurgency/pacification: (1) Prevent North Vietnam from conquering South Vietnam; (2) Countering the communist insurgency, and (3) preparing the South Vietnamese to survive on their own merits (Vietnamization programs). Military and civilian advisors were key to each of these objectives, but none of these were easy to achieve for a wide range of reasons. Among these difficulties were a lack of coordination between various US efforts, confusion about what pacification was trying to accomplish, an absolutely corrupt Vietnamese government, and a highly dysfunctional military high command. This is a summary of a rather voluminous history.
First —the Marines
When the French colonial army departed Indochina, they left behind a fledgling military force, which included a small riverine navy, and an assortment of army commandos who served as naval infantry. Together, they constituted the river assault units, which some scholars claim was the only true French contribution to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). In replacing the French, the United States established a robust effort to aid the RVN against the communist bloc-supported People’s Republic of Vietnam (PRV).
In 1954, the Vietnamese Joint-General Staff re-designated these army commando units as Marine Infantry of the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (NRVN). Organized into two landing battalions, they were again renamed in 1956 as the Vietnamese Marine Corps of the Navy (VMC). Four years later, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) (North Vietnam) and the RVN were locked into a deadly conflict that became known as the Second Indochina War, which lasted from 1960-1975. This war employed the full spectrum of armed violence, from individual terrorist acts and assassination and small unit guerilla actions to extensive land, air, and sea engagements.
There was no shortage of “the enemy.” There was the National Liberation Front (NLF) (also, Vietnamese Communists referred to as VC) and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (also called People’s Army of Vietnam, PAVN). The NLF mostly consisted of North Vietnamese communist agents, sent into the RVN between 1954-1956 to destabilize the government through insurgency. It was also a civil conflict that involved international actors: The Democratic People’s Republic of China (Communist China), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the Kingdom of Laos among them.
In 1961, the VMC was assigned to South Vietnam’s national reserve, used almost exclusively against political dissidents and urban and rural warlords. In 1962, the JGS formed the VMC into a 5,000-man brigade. In 1960, 1963, and 1964, the VMC involved itself in several coup d’état.
Several steps were necessary to transform these ARVN-trained men into Marines, chief among them was the authority to do so by the JGS. Next, it was necessary to establish a boot camp unique to the Vietnamese Marines Corps. Marines were given their own distinctive emblem that set them apart from the other branches of the South Vietnamese military. Additionally, officers and enlisted men with promise were sent to Quantico, Virginia for advanced training. By 1965, the VMC consisted of more than 6,500 men. The brigade was organized into a headquarters element, two task force headquarters, five infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and several smaller units of engineers, transportation, military police, field medical, and reconnaissance. Marine headquarters was located in Saigon; its commandant also served as the brigade commander and answered to the JGS. No longer attached to the Vietnamese Navy, VMC units were based at somewhat austere encampments at Song Than, Thu Duc, and Vung Tau.
Another VMC battalion was formed in 1966, but the Marines still lacked field armor, aircraft, and logistics support. Within two years a VMC infantry division was formed from two brigades. Two years after that, the VMC had three brigades (9 infantry battalions and 3 artillery battalions). By the time American forces were withdrawn in 1975, the VMC had organized four brigades. These were, in every sense, combat Marines. During the Easter Offensive of 1972, Vietnamese Marines lost 2,455 killed in action (KIA) and another 7,840 wounded in action (WIA).
Second —VMC Advisors
The first U. S. Marine Corps advisory section was established in 1955. It consisted of a lieutenant colonel and two captains as senior advisors and assistants attached to the Navy Section, Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAGV). In 1961, the advisory effort was expanded to include battalion level infantry and artillery advisors, then consisting of eight officers and sixteen enlisted men.
In May 1964, the Marine advisory unit was transferred to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and became the Marine Advisory Unit (MAU), Naval Advisory Group, MACV. An increase in manning was approved for 20 officers and 11 enlisted men. In January 1965, the strength of the MAU was 25 officers, 2 enlisted Marines, and a Navy Corpsman. The Senior Marine was now a colonel, in keeping with the rank of the VMC Commandant.
The mission assigned to the US Marines was ever-evolving. Its principal effort remained at providing tactical advice and assistance, but the staff and logistical advisors played an important role as well. In the 14 months between January 1968 and March 1969, the MAU was expanded to 49 officers/10 enlisted men. In addition to a small administrative section, there were also advisors for principal staff officers, communications, and medical advisory elements. Field advisors now existed at the brigade and battalion levels.
A drawdown of manpower began in 1972 because it was believed, at the time, that the VMC battalions no longer needed advisors. The Easter Offensive of 1972 changed that thinking, however. The advisory unit fully deployed its advisors to support the VMC division in the field. Additional support was rendered by the 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Company (1stANGLICO), 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron of the U. S. Air Force, and the Army’s 14th Company, 1st Signal Brigade. This team effort resulted in a victory for the VMC at Quang Tri City.
Subsequently, US Marine advisors performed as liaison officers to VMC battalions on an as-needed basis to coordinate supporting arms (artillery and air support). By the time the US Marines were withdrawn from RVN, the VMC infantry division was self-sufficient.
Third—the other Marine Advisors
In 1935, US Marines began putting together a doctrinal publication they titled simply Small Wars Manual, published in 1940 as NAVMC 2890/Fleet Marine Force Publication 12-15. The Marine Corps is well known for its professional reading program, and so, when the Marine Corps was deployed to the RVN, they brought with them the knowledge acquired during pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. During these earlier operations, the Marines would first pacify the region of operations by locating and killing bandits and revolutionaries. They would then establish and implement programs to administer local areas and train citizens to take over all such responsibilities.
The first undertaking of the Combined Action Program (CAP) originated in the summer of 1965. LtCol William W. Taylor, commanding 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, had an assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) that included six villages and an airfield within an area of ten square miles. 3/4 was over-extended. It was more “area” than the battalion could control. From this situation came the suggestion from the Battalion Executive Officer, Major Zimmerman, that the Marines incorporate local militias into the battalion’s operations. The idea was passed up the chain of command to LtGen Lewis Walt (Commanding III MAF), and LtGen Victor H. Krulak (Commanding FMFPac), both of whom had fought in the banana wars, who recognized the potential long-term value of such a plan. Both Walt and Krulak agreed to the proposal.
Four rifle squads were integrated with local popular forces (PFs); assigned Marines were volunteers, each of whom were screened to determine their suitability for independent duty, and then assigned to local villages. The rifle squad, when combined with PFs, would be able to protect the village from low-level VC threats. It was a workable plan because the poorly trained PFs could learn from the Marines, and the Marines would gain information and understanding about the local population and surrounding terrain. When the Marines weren’t training PFs, they engaged in local self-help programs and distributed CARE packages, tools, and hygienic supplies. The squad’s Navy Corpsman became the village “Doc.” The arrangement produced a win-win situation.
The CAP went through expected developmental problems, of course. Not every Marine commander supported the program; giving up trained combatants to engage with local populations. The loss of personnel was painful to the battalions who were tasked to provide them. The program became “official” in the summer of 1967; a local (inadequate 10 day) school was established near Da Nang. CAP was one of the US Marine Corps’ signature contributions to the Vietnam War. By 1969, the CAP involved 102 platoons, 19 companies, and 4 (supervisory) Combined Action Groups. By the end of 1970, CAP units operated throughout the five provinces of I Corps. See also: Combined Action Platoon (CAP) Vietnam (in six parts) by LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired).
Fourth —Everyone Else
As previously stated, the advisory effort in RVN involved far more than tactical advice and training. There were also civilian advisors, for the most part working under a structure known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). CORDS was a unique hybrid civil-military structure directly under COMUSMACV. General Westmoreland’s deputy for CORDS was a civilian by the name of Robert W. Komer. Each Corps Tactical Zone commander, a Lieutenant General, was assigned a deputy for CORDS. Below the Corps were provinces. In Vietnam, a province might equate to a US State, below the province, districts (similar to counties), and below districts were villages. A province chief was likely a senior ARVN officer (colonel), assisted by both a US military advisor and a civilian CORDS advisor. A similar arrangement existed within districts, headed by lieutenant colonels or majors, with advisors. District chiefs took on the responsibility of coordinating and supervising the combined action platoons.
Civilian advisors at the corps, province, and district levels coordinated among the various agencies working to pacify the RVN. These included the activities of the United States Agency for International Development and the Central Intelligence Agency. Because these functions were in many cases overlapping, close coordination was necessary between military and civilian advisors.
Given all this effort, most of it stellar by any measure, then why did the Republic of Vietnam fall to the communists of North Vietnam? Earlier, I identified three essential objectives of counterinsurgency and pacification. I also listed four hindrances to achieving the objectives. What follows is my opinion, most likely useful to no one, except that it might provide a learning moment about our present military ventures, or even those in the future.
The United States overcame the challenge of interagency unity of effort. The pacification/counterinsurgency/advisory efforts mostly overcame the confusion concerning a rather vague notion of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. But the United States failed to address the pervasive government corruption, and the US was unable to sort out the dysfunctional chain of command. These last two alone were enough to derail every US effort to help the RVN to save itself. The United States was unable to prevent a North Vietnamese invasion or its conquest of the RVN. Part of this is explained by the fact that Republican President Richard M. Nixon made promises to the South Vietnamese that Democrats in Congress refused to honor. Some might, therefore, argue that the fall of Saigon came as a result of insufficient American aid. Let’s take a look at that …
The United States was either on the periphery or deeply involved in two Indochina wars. In the second war, the American people gave up over 58,000 dead. More than 153,000 were wounded. Some of our boys are still listed as missing in action. North Vietnam gave up 1.1 million killed in action; South Vietnam lost 250,000 combatants. Both countries lost more than two million civilians (each). Vietnam is the most heavily bombed country in the world’s long history. More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped compared to 2.1 million tons in World War II. US planes dropped more than 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle; 5 million acres of forested land was destroyed and a half-million acres of farmland.
The Vietnam War cost the American people $168 billion. In today’s money, that’s about $1 trillion. US military operations cost $111 billion; another $29 billion provided non-military aid to the South Vietnamese. These costs continue. Compensation and benefits for Vietnam Veterans and their families continue to cost $22 billion annually. Since 1970, post-war benefits paid to veterans and their families amount to $270 billion.
Following the Korean War, the United States entered into a period of economic recession. In 1964, Congress passed a tax cut. The next year, war costs along with President Johnson’s war on poverty created what is now referred to as the “Great Inflation.” The top marginal tax rate in that year fell from 91% to 70% which boosted economic growth sufficiently to reduce the level of US deficit spending. Also, in 1965, Johnson signed Medicare into law, which helped create a heavier reliance on hospital care —resulting in substantial increases in healthcare costs.
The Vietnam War also accelerated the mechanization of the US agricultural industry. In 1970, a quarter of the US population lived on farms or in rural communities. Of those, 2.2 million men were called to the Vietnam Era service. Farms compensated for this decrease in labor by purchasing larger machines and concentrating on fewer crops. In the next year, the controversy over the conscription of 18-year old men who could not vote led to two additional changes in America: a voting age lowered to 18 years, and the beginning of an all-volunteer military force.
Finally, as a result of the Vietnam War, Americans began to distrust the federal government. Americans learned that President Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the underlying reason in 1965 for sending in Marines and the commencement of a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam. Americans also learned that the government conducted unauthorized wiretaps on Americans, and it has only gotten worse with NSA data mining, secret FISA courts, and fake news and dossiers.
Most Americans work hard for their living. Most of us simply want to care for our families, improve our lot in life, and in terms of our obligations to America, we want to do the right thing. We expect (and should expect) no less of our governments (federal, state, or local). Our federal government’s decisions, particularly in matters of sending our young men to war, must be moral decisions. Lying about the need for war is not moral behavior, or of surveilling our citizens, or collecting electronic metadata, or wasting taxes in areas of the world that do not warrant our generosity. It all comes down to one thing: voting responsibly —because the people we choose to lead us have the power to send our youngsters into harm’s way. We do need warriors in America; we do not need to waste them.
- Klyman, R. A. The Combined Action Platoons: The U. S. Marine’s Other War in Vietnam. Praeger, 1986.
- Melson, C. D., and W. J. Renfrow. Marine Advisors with the Vietnamese Marine Corps. Quantico: History Division, Marine Corps University, 2009
- Sheehan, N. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988
- Stoli, R.H. S. Marine Corps Civic Action Efforts in Vietnam, March 1965-66. Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1968
- West, B. The Village. New York: Pocket Books, 1972
 Military advising may come somewhat naturally to Marines since it has always been the senior’s responsibility to teach, train, advise, monitor, and correct the junior. It is a cycle repeated now for going on 245 years.
 It remains popular among academics to criticize the so-called Banana Wars and the Marines who were sent into these Central and South American countries. Criticism of US foreign policy may very well be warranted, but it now seems necessary to remind people that US Marines do not formulate American policy, they implement it. Moreover, were it not for these banana wars, Marine officers and senior enlisted men would not have been as prepared for World War II, during which time they distinguished themselves by their knowledge, experience, courage, and calmness during times of utter chaos.
 Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient
 A clasp on the Vietnamese Campaign Medal reflects these dates.
 This information is part of the official record, but some Marines were “volunteered.”
 Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, an international humanitarian agency.
 Some of these civilians were former or retired military personnel or employees of the CIA.
 Dubbed “Blowtorch Bob” by US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge because of his brusque management style. Under Komer, the Phoenix Program intended to identify and destroy VC operatives through counterterrorism, infiltration, assassination, capture, and often torture. Komer, later replaced by William Colby (later, Director of the CIA), was said to have been responsible for 26,000 deaths and neutralization of over 81,000 VC. Claims have been made that the Phoenix Program scraped up innocent civilians along with the VC, and whether or not this is true, the program was successful in suppressing VC political and insurgency activity.
 One of these advisors was John P. Vann, a retired Army officer. In 1967, Vann was asked by Walt Rostow, one of President Johnson’s advocates for more troops, whether America would be over the worst of the war within six months. Vann replied, “Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow. I’m a born optimist. I think we can hold out longer than that.” For more on John Paul Vann, see also A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan.
 I returned to Vietnam in 2012. Eight years ago, corruption was alive and well, and the political structure was as bad as it always was. It has probably been this way for the past two-thousand years and gives us no hope for Vietnam as a future regional ally.
 2.5 million US servicemen were exposed to Agent Orange, increasing veteran’s probability of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and birth defects.
 The rate at which tax is incurred on an additional dollar of income. In the United States, the federal marginal tax rate for an individual will increase as income rises. It is also referred to as a progressive tax scheme. Democrats have never seen a tax they don’t adore.