Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Tragic Bit of Bad Advice

Recently I picked up Armored Combat in Vietnam and Marine Corps Tank Battle in Vietnam. The latter, written by Marine Corp vet Oscar Gilbert, is a pretty compelling set of narratives. It chronicles the Marine's armored efforts in the war and concentrates on individual soldier's recollections and accounts. The former text is more grand tactical is scale and while interesting it doesn't pack the same emotional punch.

Both books are worth taking a look at. They agree on a number of points. First, it was harder than pulling teeth to get any armored vehicles into the theater. Planner envisioned a foot soldier war with air and artillery support.

They both also suggest that armored vehicles, including tanks, ended up playing a useful role in the war. They describe moments in which armored vehicles were mildly helpful and also moments (such as at the relief of Tan Son Nhut during first Tet) where they were pretty vital.

All that being said, it was revealing to start reading my copy of The Street Without Joy last week. This book was published in 1961 and is one of the most accessible texts describing the French experience in Indochina from the forties through the early sixties. In fact, unless one can read French, it might be one of your only sources of information regarding that conflict if you were, say, an American policymaker contemplating the region in 1962.

The stage now set, l
et's turn to the forward, written by Marshall Andrews:

     "There was no lack of equipment for modern war in the hands of the French Union Forces (FUF)... this very plentitude of heavy equipment proved a handicap in the test of battle. Not only did it tie the FUF to what few roads there were, but both the equipment and the doctrine it imposed led FUF commands time after time into easily contrived ambushes. The French contended against the jungle while the Viet-Minh made use of it."

There's more in that vein. He concludes with:

     "What is needed now, in the light of France's failure in Indochina, is a search for stout legs, stout hearts, fertile brains, and an understanding of the new relation of big politics to little wars."

It's almost enough to make you cry. For one because a great many stout hearts were identified and then snuffed out during that conflict- combatants, civilians, men, women and children. So "stout hearts," check. Further, many of the political issues that bedevil the French stay active during the American involvement. It is clearly easier to mobilize stout hearts and legs than it is to develop understanding.

But, on a much more trivial note, it's also sad how misleading this text is. I suspect Fall's book was a major influence on American tactical doctrine. From what I've read, at least, it appears that armor in Vietnam was fairly effective, especially when used as a mobile striking force and not diluted into isolated palace guard duty. But by the time the information from experience was making its way back to the States the policies had already been developed.

Now there are additional arguments against an armor heavy involvement in the war. Personnel caps made exporting a large vehicle support infrastructure difficult. And Fall's work suggests that the French also suffered from insufficient numbers of troops. So American planners probably decided to increase foot troop strength at the expense of (theoretically) inefficient armor.

If nothing else, it's an ironic cap on two books about armored combat in Vietnam and an interesting example of how policy is developed.

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