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This is the forty-seventh in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

To those who saw Vietnam as a growing failure, the results from from the battlefields of 1966-1967 demonstrated that failure. Road to Disaster describes the the strategy of seeking large-scale engagements as “attrition,” and as a fight that Westmoreland was clearly losing. The narrative is that U.S. commander through this period in adding more troops to the fray was simply throwing good lives after sunk costs. His repeated requests for increases came on top of a decided lack of progress. In other words, while he could show nothing so far he would claim that “just 100,000 more soldiers” would turn the stalemate into a victory.

There is another side of this argument. At the time, Westmoreland’s claim was that he was showing substantial improvement and that the additional troops would hasten the achievement of victory for the U.S. The numbers, it was said, showed solid progress, particularly in contrast to the year before. It was asserted that the ability of the communists to continue the war was being steadily degraded. While that assertion seems to have been proven entirely wrong by the Tet Offensive in 1968, I don’t think it is quite as far-fetched as it might seem in retrospect.

Taking the Offensive: October 1966–September 1967 gives a counterpoint to Road to Disaster‘s tale of disaster. This version not dominated by the ultimate failure to save South Vietnam and the anti-war post-analysis that is so prevalent today. This is now the third in the five-part Campaigns of the Vietnam War, a booklet-type format summarizing the major phases of the U.S. Army involvement in Vietnam. Compared to the first two, it is considerably less dramatic. For the most part, it summarizes the Army’s operations, breaking them down by region. Perhaps more interesting here is the Analysis section at the tail-end of the book.

That analysis is generally positive about the performance of the Army during this period, a sharp contrast to the gloomy outlook of Road to Disaster. Whereas VanDeMark cites the “attrition” strategy as utter failure, both in general and particularly through 1967, Taking the Offensive explicitly calls it successful. As evidence it cites the 10:1 loss ratio between insurgent and U.S. forces. In the first nine months of 1967, there were 66,000 communist deaths compared to 10,000 South Vietnamese forces and 7,000 U.S. servicemen. Furthermore, they calculate a disparity in replacement rates, after which the U.S. force rose by 66,000 while the communist forces declined by 20,000. Another metric cited is the percentage of the rural population living under the government’s control rose from 44% to 48%.

Part of that latter figure is related to the relocation of civilians to refugee camps in secure areas. Even Taking the Offensive acknowledges the problem with tracking, as a good thing, the creation of refugees by forcible removal from their home villages. By the numbers, it both increases the population under government control as well as denying the communists the resources (whether provided voluntarily or under duress) that they would obtain from the local population. While Road to Disaster goes into considerably more detail about the inability of the South Vietnamese government to care for refugees, Taking the Offensive refers to the “squalid refugee camps” “straining the ability of provincial administrators to care for” the refugees which contribute to the ostensibly positive pacification numbers.

One final area where Taking the Offensive and Road to Disaster diverge is in their assessment of the health of that South Vietnamese government. Road to Disaster paints a rather bleak picture of a dysfunctional system. The rather-compelling conclusion is that saving South Vietnam was simply impossible due to a government that simply was unworthy of popular support. Worse still, it seems that there simply wasn’t anyone competent waiting in the wings. One might conclude that the War in Vietnam was essentially lost with the removal and assassination of Diệm, who for all of his faults, may have been a capable administrator. This fits with the story of Road to Disaster which is analyzing the failure of the Kennedy administration to do what it should have known was right. In this case, it seemed that they would have put a halt to U.S. support for the coup, had they just got themselves a little better coordinated. Taking the Offensive, on the other hand, talks about “the growing political stability of the South Vietnamese state.”

The campaign in Binh Dinh, where the 1st Cavalry moved in to again clear areas near the populous coast of insurgent forces, is included in Taking the Offensive, but only to introduce the situation of mid-1967. The U.S goals in targeting the province in the fall of 1966 occur too late for the series’ previous installment and apparently too late to feature in the current one. In the more detailed Combat Operations series, operation Irving is in the Stemming the Tide book, it coming right on the transition between defensive and offensive operations. Within that context, Stemming the Tide doesn’t tie the operation into the pre-Tet offensive campaign in terms of impact. It does give the military details, which are a primary source for the Vietnam Combat Operations TOAW scenarios. Nevertheless, Vietnam Combat Operations Vol. 4, per its subtitle (Counteroffensive II), it is grouped with the U.S. offensive actions that extend through 1967.

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1st Cavalry deploys to the Binh Dinh coastline to search the Kim Son Valley.

The TOAW scenario steps through the phases of the American search for the 3rd PAVN Division in Binh Dinh province. You are instructed to create a headquarters at LZ Hammond (the highlighted hex, above, near the center of the screen) and allocate your forces in a mix – some active and some in reserve. As I described earlier, executing the historical operations grants you extra points towards your score. It also sets you up to properly trigger engagements with the enemy as they should occur historically. Of course, and this is the point isn’t it, it also lets you choose to alter those historical engagements.

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After making themselves scarce in the Kim Son Valley, the 95th Battalion attacks my base at LZ Hammond

For example, as I was beginning to redeploy my forces away from Kim Son and into the mountainous area just west of Hoa Hoi (see the red victory point flag on the coast), a sizable enemy force showed up just outside LZ Hammond. Historically, this was a ten-minute bombardment that occurred in the middle of the night, notable (mostly) for the damage it caused. One American serviceman was killed and 32 were wounded, while 17 aircraft were damaged. Searching for the enemy turned up nothing; they were gone by morning.

In my pretend version, I moved all the forces that I could spare in an attempt to trap the attacking enemy near my strong point. It’s a level of reaction entirely out of place for 10 minutes worth of mortaring, no matter how destructive that fire may have been. Now an operational level treatment doesn’t go into that kind of detail – I can’t distinguish between an attack by mortar crews as opposed to an attempt at infantry overrun. From my perspective in TOAW, I had identified a large (potentially superior) enemy formation and therefore I planned to destroy it. It’s an interaction closer to what really occurred near the coast when multiple companies of communist forces were pinned down in the village of Hoa Hoi.

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The Hoa Hoi scenario specifically includes the command helicopter of Lt. Col. George W. McIlwain,

That most significant battle of this campaign, that engagement at the village of Hoa Hoi, is presented as a scenario pair in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty. The scenarios were put together by John Tiller himself, so I was again looking forward to seeing the engine put to its best use. Obviously, with only two steps to the scenario, it is not the breaking down of the battle into key parts which worked so well before. The two scenarios correspond, more or less, to two major phases in the historical battle. In the first phase, the U.S. command was made aware of a communist presence in Hoa Hoi but had no idea to what extent. A platoon was inserted to determine what was there. When the platoon met significant resistance they soon realized that they were facing a numerically-superior force.

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Of considerably more interest are the Huey gunships.

The first scenario portrays the insertion of a platoon into a hot Landing Zone. As is typical for Squad Battles, it ignores any landing zone preparatory bombardment (no off-board artillery here), but does allow you to designate your LZ “on the fly,” so to speak. In the two preceding screenshots, you can see my helicopters approaching the area around the village, coming in from the south. Instead, I flew them around to the northeast (see below).

Perhaps the highlight of this scenario is shown in the second of the two above screens. The insertion is supported by two Huey gunships with rockets. To me, this allows something closer to what an American unit in a contested landing might expect in terms of air and artillery support.

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I felt better about losing my two gunships when I began the second scenario and saw the wrecks of all three aircraft from the prior scenario.

Unfortunately, my use of those gunships ended up in some embarrassment for my command. Even before I could get my guys landed, I lost both of the air-support helicopters to enemy fire. Both in the real calculus of that war and in terms of victory points, whatever the success of the infantry’s mission, that significant loss of assets is not going to look good on paper. I did, in fact, do pretty well with this scenario once you set aside the downed helicopters, but losing two “vehicles” meant a loss on points. My sense of failure was mitigated somewhat in that when the second scenario is loaded, all three helicopters from the first scenario on present on the map as wrecks. I have not read that the actual battle had significant cost in terms of support aircraft. In particular, I would think if the command helicopter would have been shot down during the operation, that would have been notable. I don’t know if John Tiller had sources that I didn’t read, or he was just starting you at what seemed to be a likely outcome of playing that first scenario.

That second phase of the battle includes the final assault on the village with a full battalion of troopers. The second scenario in the pair begins with the helicopter lift of those forces and ends with successful (or not) capture of the village. In this, the scenario has the features that I complained about in the single-scenario battles. The reinforcement and, ultimately, replacement of the initial platoon began shortly after the fighting started, a soon as U.S. commanders realized what they faced. Yet, despite a desire to take out the enemy quickly (before they had a chance to make their escape during the night), the final attack could not be organized before night fell. The assault and capture of the village actually took place the following day, using forces that were encamped overnight around the village.

What this highlights for me is the inability of these games, or any games, to determine the conditions under which history could be changed in the Vietnam War. Whether or not, in a particular campaign or battle, a player can beat history seems not to be what would tilt the outcome to a victory. Assuming one accepts the premises of Road to Disaster, they key factors resided in the political. U.S. politics, in terms of the extent to which the Johnson presidency was willing to risk drawing in China or the Soviet Union into a broader war. Also South Vietnamese politics as, ultimately, a military victory could only be sustained if it was followed up by good governance which would gain the support of the people. Many of the best Vietnam War games do model these political factors and the “morale” impacts that determine the support of the people. In all cases, though, the results of these calculations and whether they result in the player “winning” or “losing” the war, depend entirely on the assumptions that the game designer creates. Would pursuing retreating insurgents into Laos force the North to the negotiating table or cause the Chinese to send in ground forces? The best we can do is speculate.

Return to the master post for more Vietnam War articles or move forward to a book review.