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The Bitter Triumph Of Ia Drang
The first major engagement of the U. S. Army in Vietnam was a decisive American victory. Perhaps it would have been better for all of us if it had been a defeat.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
His remark was particularly telling because it highlighted the disregard for military history and military theory that marked our Vietnam-era Army. The North Vietnamese colonel was echoing an admonition made by Clausewitz one hundred and fifty years earlier:
“If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next… we are liable to regard them as windfall profits. In so doing, and in ignoring the fact that they are links in a continuous chain of events, we also ignore the possibility that [a successful battle] may later lead to definite disadvantages. This mistake is illustrated again and again in military history… an isolated advantage gained in war cannot be assessed separately from the general results [for] in war the advantages and disadvantages of a single action could only be determined by the final balance.”
Our initial victory had lulled us into the delusion that we couldn’t lose in Vietnam.
The “final balance” of the Vietnam War was victory for the North Vietnamese army and the conquest of South Vietnam. The link between their initial defeat in the Ia Drang and their final victory is revealed by their selection of Ban Me Thuot in the central highlands, just a few miles south of the Ia Drang valley, as the launching point of their final offensive. Repeating the tactics they had used in 1965, they attacked eastward from their sanctuaries in Cambodia on March 10, 1975, concentrating three divisions against one South Vietnamese regiment. The massive American firepower that had saved the day at the Ia Drang and had foiled the offensives of 1968 and 1972 was no longer available to the South Vietnamese defenders, and this time the North Vietnamese were victorious. Quickly exploiting their success, they soon cut South Vietnam in two, as they had planned to do almost a decade earlier, and on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the army of North Vietnam.
For the Americans, on the other hand, success in this first battle truly led “to definite disadvantages.” Dazzled by victory, the Army was blinded to the fact that the whole nature of the war had changed. It had become more a conventional than an unconventional war, with the Viet Cong acting as picadors (the horsemen at a bullfight who prod the bull with lances to weaken its neck and shoulder muscles) to wear us down while the North Vietnamese army played the role of the matador, waiting in the wings until it was time for the killing blow. Cocky and sure of itself, enamored of the new and fashionable doctrines of counterinsurgency, the Army could not see what was obvious even to civilian observers. On November 16, 1965, the front page of The New York Times carried the war correspondent Neil Sheehan’s battlefield dispatch. “Although the implications of the fighting were not clear,” he wrote, “it appeared that something was taking place that might indicate a change in the character of the war. The battle around Plei Me… would have been unthinkable only a few weeks previously in what had been primarily a hit-and-run insurgency in South Vietnam by irregulars.” But instead of turning attention to North Vietnam after the Ia Drang battle and applying military power to block infiltration into the South, the combat power of the U. S. Army was largely frittered away in social programs such as pacification and nation building. After seven years with no victory in sight, American patience finally ran out, and in 1972-73 all American combat units were withdrawn from the war. Without American fire support, the combat advantage passed to the North Vietnamese army, an advantage they successfully exploited with their blitzkrieg in the spring of 1975.
Terrible as it may be to say, it might have been better in the long run if we had lost this first battle, as we had lost the first major battle of World War II. While we celebrate the Normandy invasion and VE-Day, few now recall the battle between American and German forces in the Sbeitla Valley in North Africa in February 1943. At the Paid and Kasserine passes, American forces were outgunned, outranged, and outfought, and we suffered a disastrous defeat. This setback provided a valuable lesson, one we never learned in Vietnam. Our initial defeat in North Africa scared us with the knowledge that if we did not devise better strategies and tactics, we could lose the war.
The sad truth is that in Vietnam our mind was never concentrated on how to win the war. Our initial victory had lulled us into the delusion that no matter what we did, we couldn’t lose. Because we did not see the connection between the Ia Drang battle and our ultimate goal, we made the fatal error (as Clausewitz put it) of “taking the first step without considering the last.” When Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford assumed office in 1968, he found that no one could tell him what constituted “victory,” no one could tell him our plan to end the war. We had violated the first and the most important principle of war, the Principle of the Objective, and with such a deficiency, the final outcome was inevitable.