- US Special Forces and Counterinsurgency in Vietnam: Military Innovation and Institutional Failure, 1961-1963
Was the Vietnam War an insurgency or a conventional conflict? Did America's failure in Vietnam come from an inability to see the war for what it was? Christopher Ives argues that at least in the early years of the Kennedy administration, the war was an insurgency. Although the American army as a whole suffered from doctrinal deficiency writ into practice when it came to counter-insurgency, at least the Special Forces community in its operations in the Central Highlands got it right. The efforts of a small contingent of committed professionals created a corps of capable allies among the Montagnards that successfully challenged Viet Cong operations between 1961 and 1963. The victory proved fleeting, however, as Operation Switchback placed what had been a CIA initiative under the control of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V) and the South Vietnamese army. The Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program that emerged expanded the scope of Special Forces initiatives and altered the program from one defensive in nature to one designed more for offensive purposes; in this it largely failed. Small outposts were pushed ever closer to the Cambodian and Laotian borders. Armed with antiquated small arms and with little indirect firesupport at their disposal, the farther from their own homelands the Montagnard units were stationed the less effective they tended to be. Incompetence and political infighting in the South Vietnamese government and military as well as the US Army's willingness to relegate population control to a back burner as the war became more conventional in 1964 and 1965 further undid the program. [End Page 620]
What Special Forces accomplished in the Central Highlands came by way of understanding and playing to Montagnard desires for autonomy coupled with a willingness on the part of Special Forces soldiers to share the dangers Montagnard villagers experienced. Special Forces A-teams created a series of well-defended villages and hamlets that complicated Viet Cong operations while at the same time allowing the South Vietnamese government to extend their influence, however tenuously, into the area. Success came by way of understanding the local culture and taking on the Montagnard's problems associated with their political isolation from Vietnamese society. Ives correctly notes that what Special Forces did was to serve as an effective buffer between the majority ethnic community (the Vietnamese represented by the Saigon government) and the minority represented by the Montagnards. The presence of Special Forces units guaranteed Montagnards a voice in Saigon while providing the means to defend themselves against the terror-based intimidation of the Viet Cong.
One of the most intriguing chapters given the problems facing the American military today in Iraq and Afghanistan is the chapter entitled "Operational innovation, Institutional failure." In this chapter, Ives reconciles the success of Special Forces with the failure of the US Army as a whole to find a means to effectively fight the war. However notable the accomplishments of Special Forces, little of their techniques, tactics, and procedures crossed over into the everyday war of the Army's conventional forces.
The U.S. Army experienced considerable difficulties measuring progress in Vietnam. What variables offered a sound gauge of operational success? How were they to be measured? Practices that led to results in one area proved less than effective in another. Faced with ambiguity, the Army elected to define metrics by body counts, weapons seized, and POWs captured. Prone to seek technological solutions, the Army failed to see that the war in Vietnam would not be won by technology but rather by soldiers who could see past the camouflage the culture itself presented. The Army saw the war in purely military terms. Helicopters would provide mobility for infantry to close with and destroy the enemy should the enemy present himself. Most of the time, he did not. The Army suffered institutional amnesia, relegating its own long history of fighting...