Vietnam: The Unwinnable War Essay, Research Paper
The Vietnam conflict began in the late 19th Century. France forcefully took ownership of the islands and made the Vietnamese islands a protectorate of France. The Viet Minh, or the League Of Independence was formed sometime around 1940. They were a group of people seeking independence from France. The French Government opposed this action and decided to try and stop the Viet Minh from advancing their political ideals into the rest of Vietnam. In the city of Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh surrounded the French Expeditionary Force, and after a fifty-five day siege, the French surrendered (1). After the French pulled out of Vietnam, there was a conference held in Geneva to decide the fate of the small nation. Vietnam was divided into two parts along the 17th parallel. To the North, the Government was supported by Communist Russia and Communist China, while the Southern half had a Democratic Government supported by the United States and France. The rebels in the South, who fought against their Government, were called the Viet Cong, and they were supplied and supported by the N.V.A, or the North Vietnamese Army. Northern Vietnam?s goal was to reunite North and South Vietnam through military force, and to spread Communism throughout all of Vietnam. John F Kennedy and the United States Government did not want this to happen. They provided South Vietnam with economic and military aid, but were not yet involved in the conflict, as North and South Vietnam were still engaged in a Civil War. The North Vietnamese took the United States aid as an act of war and on August 2nd, 1964, sunk a United States destroyer ?Maddox? in International waters. On August 3rd, 1964, the United States began retaliatory attacks on Vietnamese ports and gunboat facilities. In 1964, two more United States destroyers were sunk, and the United States brought even more ships and planes into the area. The United States did not officially declare a state of war against the Vietnamese until August 5th, 1964. United States forces were to remain in South Vietnam and were not to cross the 17th parallel, until Feb 7th, 1965, when North Vietnamese forces attacked a major United States airbase in Bein Hoa. By the end of 1965, the number of American troops stationed in Vietnam was approximately 180,000. By the end of 1968, that number rocketed to 542,000 men (2). The role of Communism was very important in this conflict. America felt that it was its duty to fight the spread of Communism in Asia, as it wanted to deter other countries from doing as the Vietnamese had done. America was counting on a quick war that would be very easy to win, as Vietnam was a third world nation, and America was a very strong militaristic nation. However, as time passed and casualties mounted on both sides, it became clear that this was not the case. The Americans realized that this would not be a conventional war, with wide-open fields like in Europe. This would be a brutal conflict that involved dense jungles, vicious fighting, and virtually no honor. Despite the Americans numerous advantages, they could not have won the Vietnam War due to weapon neutralization, Vietnamese strategy, and a lack of morale within their own troops, and a lack of support back home.
The United States had an excellent air force when compared to Vietnam. The most widely used aircraft was the Bell UH-1 ?Huey? (3). This helicopter was used in every role in the war, including gunship and medical transport. Also used were the Huey Cobra, and many other types of helicopters including the Canadian built Chinook. These helicopters were integral for scouting, evacuation, and rapid deployment. However, the Vietnamese became adept at knowing ahead of time where the perspective landing zones were going to be, and could do one of many things. First, they could lay mines around the perimeter of the landing zone, or it could be targeted for a heavy mortal and machine gun ambush. They also planted thin wires across numerous treetops to bring the helicopter down by becoming tangled up in the very sensitive rotor assembly. They would also use pressure sensitive mines that would detonate when the helicopter wash created sufficient enough pressure to depress the trigger (4) (See appendix 1). The Americans were always worried about what could happen at a landing zone with their helicopter because of the North Vietnamese ingenuity and know-how. Also, the F-4 Phantom was the most advanced plane at the time, capable of dog fighting, bombing, reconnaissance, and supporting roles, the engineers neglected to mount any type of traditional projectile weapon. This made pilots of the F-4 Phantom completely useless in a close dogfight because they only had Aim-9 and Aim-7 missiles which contained too much explosive power to be detonated at close range (5). When engaged in dogfights, the Russian built MiG?s would eat the F-4?s alive. This problem took two years to solve when someone decided to stick a 6-barreled auto cannon in the nose of the Phantom. Also, the casualty rate among pilots was very high for this type of conflict because American pilots trained for only six weeks, instead of the customary 1-year usually given to pilots due to a high need for their skills. The B-52 ?Flying Fortress?(See appendix 2) was America?s largest bomber, built to deliver nuclear payload into Russia. It was able to cruise at a height that the Russian built MiG?s could not reach, and carry over 60,000 pounds of payload (6). However this bomber was designed to drop it?s payload on huge World War II type industrial centers or large equipment movements. This proved useless in Vietnam because there were never such factories or movements exposed to the Americans. Instead, the B-52 was used to destroy large Northern Vietnamese cities and towns in a hope to force surrender. Also, the napalm that was dropped by these ?Flying Fortresses? killed more civilians than soldiers, and the bombings actually had a reverse affect on North Vietnamese morale. Instead of becoming demoralized, it brought them closer together due to their hatred for Americans. Also, the American armored divisions that were so effective during World War II were almost completely useless. The United States could not bring any of their M-60 tanks or mobile Howitzer artillery units into the jungle, and they were destined to remain only in cities or large American bases. The United States had to rely mainly on lightly armored M112 troop carriers with only a .50 caliber machine gun turret mounted on the top of the vehicle. This is quite a large step down from the 80-millimeter cannon that is mounted on an M-60. The Americans also thought that they would have the advantage when it came to small arms, including: rifles, sub-machine guns, and pistols but since the Russians and the Chinese were supplying the Vietnamese, that was not the case. The American M-4 rifle that fired a .308 caliber shell, held 20 rounds, and could be switched between semi or full automatic, proved to be almost an exact match to the Soviet SKS rifle which fired a 7.62 millimeter shell, held 20 rounds, and could be switched between semi or full automatic. Also the ever popular M-16 rifle, (which is still in service today and remains the most largely used rifle in the world) which fired a .223 caliber shell, held 20-30 rounds, and could be switched between semi and full automatic, and three round burst had very big problems at the start of the war (See appendix 4). When the ammunition clip was slammed into the gun too hard, the gun had a chance of jamming. If any dirt or mud got into the bolt or the action of the gun, it would jam. If the gun got wet, it would jam. This rifle cost many marines their lives early on, and it cannot be said that it was at this time, better than the Soviet made AK-47, which fires a 7.62 millimeter shell, has a 30 round capacity, and can be switched between semi and full automatic (7) (See appendix 5). While there were minute differences between the small arms of the two nations, they can be considered almost exactly equal in every way. This is not how the Americans wanted it. They expected the Vietnamese to be using old French built ?Lafayette? bolt-action rifles. They were wrong.
What the Viet Cong and the N.V.A lacked in pure destructive firepower, they made up for in their brilliant tactics, mobility, and experience. While American forces did have uncontested air superiority over the Vietnamese, as well as tanks and Howitzer mobile artillery, the United States also decided to drop unconventional bombs such as: phosphorous, fragmentation bombs, napalm, and agent orange. To combat these inequities, the Vietnamese soldiers had to be cunning and rely on strategy to defeat the Americans. The Vietcong had been using tunnel systems for many years versus their Chinese, French, and Japanese invaders. There were hundreds of underground guerilla bases in South Vietnam that had been built by slave labor from surrounding towns. The longest tunnel systems were found in the ?Iron Triangle? and ranged between 50 kilometers long to 200 kilometers long (8). (The Ho Chi Minh tunnel was the longest tunnel ever built by the Vietnamese and was in the area of the ?Iron Triangle?.) Many tunnels were constructed with water pits in them to help reduce poisonous gasses from entering the tunnel, and some were even strong enough to withstand direct bombing/shelling. Some tunnels were so well camouflaged that American soldiers were only alerted to their presence when one of them stepped through the covering and fell into one. In any tunnel it was entirely possible that there would be barracks, armories, supply depots, air raid shelters, classrooms, hospitals, factories, and ammunition depots. These tunnels proved to be an excellent strategy for fighting in the Vietnamese jungles, as they were perfect for transporting men and supplies unnoticed through the jungle. Another strategy that the Vietnamese used to combat America?s military superiority was the laying of booby traps. Booby traps are defined as ? Concealed devices used to inflict casualties?. Booby traps were an integral component of the war waged by the Vietnamese forces. Between January 1965, and June 1970, booby traps and mines caused 12 percent of the fatalities and 18 percent of the wounding that were inflicted on American soldiers (9). Booby traps were used mainly to delay and disrupt the movement of American troops, divert manpower towards clearing traps and mines, and also to fill up American field hospitals. Booby traps were a key component in pre-arranged killing zones. The use of booby traps also had a psychological effect on Marines. The fear of booby traps was so great that even Platoon Commanders were reluctant to send Marines into Vietnamese territory. Many materials that were used for the mines and booby traps were of American origin. These parts included unexploded bombs and captured or abandoned munitions. They would also use bamboo and venomous snakes in their traps. One historic example of the effectiveness of such traps was when Charlie Company of the First Battalion, 20th Infantry sustained over 40 percent of their casualties in 32 days without ever seeing their enemy. The effect on their morale was so great that it was the surviving marines who committed the My Lai massacre. Booby traps can be divided into non-explosive and explosive traps. The most common types of traps were the single punji stake gravity traps (See appendix 3). Punji stakes were sharpened shoots of bamboo that had been hardened in fire and coated in human excrement to cause infection. These were hidden in shallow pits and covered with foliage. This trap was intended to be walked on and to injure the lower leg portion, as well as poison their targets. Other pit traps followed the same basic design but would have many punji stakes and were designed to injure more than one target. Also, there were weight sensitive traps that would only be activated by over 1000 pounds of weight and were approximately 10? by 10?. The pits on these traps were dug about seven feet deep and were designed to impale American troops and kill them. There were many other traps as well including the swinging ball trap, and the bear traps. The Vietnamese also constructed explosive traps that were meant to injure and kill dozens of Marines at one time. Once triggered, the Marines would have three to five seconds to clear the 20-meter kill zone. The most deadly explosive trap was the Claymore, because it was able to be detonated from high up in a tree and send shards of shrapnel showering down in a 60-degree radius onto Marines. Most explosives worked very much the same, were cheap and easy to build. Other devices included daisy chains, (grenades tied together in sequence), and toe poppers, (a bullet set under the ground with a nail under the firing pin which when stepped on would obliterate the foot of whoever stepped on it). These Vietnamese strategies coupled with the fact that the Vietnamese had been fighting for over fifty years in the jungle, completely stripped the United States of all of it?s military superiority because they could not possibly keep up with the rag-tag Vietnamese force that would not be drawn into a traditional war.
?Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity?. This is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. He said this about the Vietnam conflict. While president Johnson did have the country?s support at the beginning of the war, as Americans began to realize that the war was a lost cause, the President?s support began to decline. With a mortality rate of 1-5 men who were drafted, people began openly protesting the war by burning their draft cards, organizing walk-outs, and holding anti war rallies. Why did the Americans continue to fight? Because of General Westmoreland. General Westmoreland would change the body counts from both sides to make it look like the Americans were being triumphantly victorious. Along with these lies, General Westmoreland also failed to mention that while the Americans were killing many enemy soldiers, the draft pool from which the Vietnamese were able to draw from included almost all of Northern Vietnam. From a soldier?s point of view, the Government was downplaying their efforts and their sacrifices by manipulating body counts. In the field, morale suffered greatly due to daily engagements, friends dying all around, and officers being replaced every week. Most Marines would do drugs before their patrols to take their mind off what they were doing and where they were. Also, the number of soldiers who went A.W.O.L (absent without leave) was higher in Vietnam than in any other conflict in history. Officers who were hard on their men ran the risk of getting fragged (killed by your own men). While American soldiers were basically fighting for another nations? independence, it was very demoralizing for them to not be respected or appreciated by the people they were fighting for, – the South Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese were not happy about the Americans being in Vietnam and it was very obvious. Every single day, hundreds of South Vietnamese citizens would join either the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. This made it very difficult to know which South Vietnamese villages could be trusted. By not having Vietnamese support or appreciation of their efforts, the Americans began to mistrust the South Vietnamese people and could be the reason for a horrible event. In 1968, when the village of My Lai was completely destroyed, and over 100 innocent Villagers were killed, the marines who were responsible claimed that the Village had been a staging area for recent attacks on a nearby Marine base. Not one weapon was found in the wreckage of the Village, nor any enemy troops. This made it clear that some American soldiers had been through too much and could not longer control themselves. Another unnecessary morale-dropping event was the radio broadcast by Jane Fonda in 1972. She went on to praise the Viet Cong, ?Without hesitation, he offered me, an American, their best individual bomb shelter, while American bombs fell nearby.? She continued to later criticize the way in which the Marines were fighting. ? I witnessed the systematic destruction of civilian targets ? schools, hospitals, factories, houses, and the dyke system.? Although she did apologize 16 years later on the Barbara Walters show, the damage had already been done. The consequences of war are usually economic and political. However, this time the social effects were the most important. For the first time, the United States got involved in a situation where they not only had external pressures against an action, but internal pressures as well. When the people saw the death toll rise, and the horrific carnage, the American people demanded the end of the slaughter in Vietnam. Two large anti war groups were founded by students and were known as S.D.S (Students For A Democratic Society), and Y.I.P.P.I.E (Young International Peoples Party). One such group was involved in the Kent State riots. A group of students who were protesting the war got out of hand and the National Guard had to be called in. A fight broke out and the Guard killed five students. Socially this destroyed whatever support for the war that was still present in America.
By all means and against any other enemy, the Americans should have been able to win this war. Unfortunately for the Americans, in this scenario, where most of their advanced weaponry was neutralized by either nature, geography, or the cunning of the North Vietnamese, the strategy that was used against them, and their lack of morale and support, it was impossible for the Americans to have won this war. Americans had a very bad experience in Vietnam, while the Vietnamese who participated had the honor of defending their nation. 91 percent of Vietnamese veterans said that they were glad that they served in Vietnam, to the 13 percent of Americans who answered the same (10). Also, 74 percent of Vietnamese veterans said that they would still enlist today knowing the brutal outcome of the war, to the 8 percent of Americans who answered the same. On January 27th, 1973, all three involved parties, (Viet Cong, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States) held peace talks in Paris. They negotiated for two years while fighting during peace talks in Paris. The involved parties agreed that American troops would gradually withdraw from Vietnam, and that all prisoners of war would be released from both sides. Also, the treaty stated that South Vietnam would have the right to choose whether or not to remain a sovereign nation, or to re-unite with North Vietnam. Going against the peace talks, North Vietnam rolled into Saigon with no resistance, and on July 2nd, 1976, Vietnam was once again under Communist rule. The North Vietnamese renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, after the instigator of Communism in Vietnam. 47,000 American soldiers were killed in the line of duty, and at a cost of well over 200 billion dollars, the war had been all losses and no gains. After the Vietnam War, America imposed trade sanctions against Vietnam, crippling their economy. It was until Soviet aid made it?s way to Vietnam that they were able to stand on their own two feet. Despite the American effort: Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam all remain communist today.