The Bitter Triumph Of Ia Drang


ALTHOUGH IT HAS been almost thirty years since the beginning of our military involvement in Vietnam and almost twenty years since American ground combat forces were committed to battle there, many still find the Vietnam War difficult to understand. This is not surprising. That master theorist on the nature and conduct of war, Karl von Clausewitz, could have been talking about Vietnam when he complained a century and a half ago about “the confused and confusing welter of ideas that one so often hears and reads on the subject of the conduct of war. These have no fixed point of view,” he wrote, “they lead to no satisfactory conclusion; they appear sometimes banal, sometimes absurd, sometimes simply adrift in a sea of vague generalization.” If “vague generalization” is the problem, then getting down to specifics may help provide the answer, and a good place to start is with the first major engagement of the U.S. Army in Vietnam—the Battle of the Ia Drang valley. Fought in November 1965, it was a more accurate portent than we could know of the final battles that took place almost ten years later.


Where was this battlefield? To say that it was in Indochina or more precisely in the central highlands of South Vietnam doesn’t help much. But visualize for a moment the United States as it existed in the 175Os during the French and Indian Wars. Recall that the American settlers lived mostly on a narrow strip between the Atlantic and the foothills of the Appalachians. To the west were a series of outposts—Fort Pitt, at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny, for instance—to protect the settlements from attack by the French and their Indian allies, whose forces stretched in a great arc from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, then south to the Mississippi delta.

Now superimpose South Vietnam on that map: its coastline extends about the distance from Pittsburgh (Fort Pitt) to Savannah. Like our early settlers, most of the Vietnamese also live in a narrow strip along the coast. In place of the Appalachians are the mountains of the Chaîne Annamitique, with peaks reaching over eight thousand feet. Beginning in the early 1960s, the South Vietnamese, with the help of American Special Forces teams, established a series of outposts in these highlands along the hundreds of miles of border they shared with Laos and Cambodia. These were built to protect South Vietnam from the North Vietnamese, who, like the French and Indians, also stretched in a great arc to the north and west, from the Demilitarized Zone south along the socalled Ho Chi Minh Trail in supposedly neutral Laos and Cambodia. One of these outposts was at Plei Me, about two hundred and fifty miles from Saigon and a hundred inland from the coast. This was rugged country, inhabited only by small bands of Montagnards (what we would have called’Indians) of the Jarai tribe. About fifteen miles southwest of Plei Me, astride the Cambodian border, the densely forested Chu Phong Mountains rise eighteen hundred feet from the valley of the Ia Drang River. At first glance it would seem a most unlikely site for a battle.



But for the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap and his field commanders, this isolated area was the perfect place to begin their campaign to conquer South Vietnam. The groundwork for the battle of the Ia Drang had been laid in Hanoi a year earlier when the North Vietnamese Politbureau made what Maj. Gen. Dave Palmer has called “the key command decision of the war”: the decision to commit their regular armed forces to battle in the south. Besides bolstering the guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese intended to bring the war to a close by slicing South Vietnam in half with an attack from their bases in Cambodia across the central highlands to the sea. The first step was to be an assault on the Special Forces camp at Plei Me. The 33d North Vietnamese Army Regiment would mount the attack while the 32d Regiment lay in ambush along the approaches of the camp to destroy any relief force. It was hardly a new strategy, but Hanoi had not counted on the airmobile tactics of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division.