Brooks on Vietnam and Iraq

This evening David Brooks of the New York Times offered the opinion that in Vietnam our Army "At last" got it right at the end of the war and began to concentrate on what the French used to call the "oil spot" technique (tache de huile) in which one secures inhabited villages, towns, etc. and gradually expands the area of control into the spaces between until the oil spots meet and, voila! No more guerrilas.  The French fastened on this method through the efforts of some very bright and creative French officers, most notably, Colonel Roger Trinquier as expressed in his masterpiece, "Modern War"  (La Guerre Moderne) which was required reading in 1964 at the "US Army Special Warfare School’s" "Counterinsurgency Staff Officer" course.

This theory worked quite well for the French in Indochina and Algeria.  They essentially defeated the guerrillas in both countries, but lost the wars anyway.  In Vietnam they lost to the main field forces of the Viet Minh who were a real army with regiments, divisions, uniforms, artillery, tanks ,etc.  The French chose to fight their war on Indochina "on a shoestring" and in the big battles, like Dien Bien Phu, they were often badly outnumbered and outgunned.  In Algeria, the French Army eventually pacified most of the country, but after a quiet couple of years, DeGaulle was elected and simply made the wise political decision to leave Algeria.  He felt that the time had passed for such things as "Algerie Francaise."  He was right.

Why do I know so much about the "oil spot" method?  I know it because it worked for us also in Vietnam.  I worked in the application of this method.  I am not sure what year Brooks thinks was "at the end of the war," but from 1967 on the US was busily trying to apply this method under the major part of the US Mission called "Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support" (CORDS).  This effort united USAID, military training groups at all levels, Agricultural, Educational, Civil Police, Medical, etc. all into one effort with a national, regional and provincial, and district  planning and operations policy.  I worked at the District and Provincial levels.  This went on until US forces completed their withdrawal process under Nixon’s Vietnamization Policy" in early 1973.  I was on one of the last planes to leave.  By that time most of the heavily inhabited areas of the country were pretty much under government control.  How it is that Brooks thinks that we adopted this kind of strategy late in the war is a mystery to me.

Like the French the US faced the main battle forces of the Viet Minh as well as the local force guerrillas, and shadow government that CORDS was occupied with.  After gaining control of Tonkin in 1954-55 the Vietnamese communists had renamed themselves as a national army and so we knew them as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  It was the same army.  The divisions and regiments which had fought the French at Na San in 1953 and Dien Bien Phu in 1954 fought us in our war.  I remember talking to PWs captured by us who had actually been in the same units at DBP.

We brought our main forces into the country in the mid 60s to meet the very real threat to our early pacification programs posed by the introduction of the NVA regular army into South Vietnam.  As a result our regular forces fought the NVA’s regular forces all over the country and almost all the time out in the woods where the civilian population was pretty thinly scattered.  In 1965-1967 it was "force on force" in the "Iron Triangle,"  "The Ashau Valley, "The Michelin Rubber Plantation" and similar places.  The infamous My Lai case occurred in the course of an American unit’s attempt to search a complex of villages which were thought to house the 48th VC Local Force Battalion.  No one can deny that what resulted there was a grotesque crime perpetrated by a very poorly led unit.

From 1967 on the job of "heavy" US forces was to fight the NVA in SUPPORT OF the strategy that Brooks thinks was adopted "at the end of the war."  People like me who were located in Vietnamese towns and villages out in the country depended for our lives on the shield provided by US Regular units who would come to our rescue if the NVA attacked in strength.  That happened a lot since they were not happy with what we were doing.

Unfortunately for the NVA we (and the South Vietnamese) were neither outnumbered or outgunned.  Throughout the period under discussion we had something over half a million men in country  As a result, they found themselves in a losing situation in which they could rarely win engagements against our side if our main forces were engaged.  The only situations in whch they could prevail were fights against isolated units and in particular against small groups of CORDS advisers and their Vietnamese allies in the border regions.  How did we losein the end?  Just like the French in Algeria.  People at home just got tired of the whole thing and pulled the plug.  After a couple of years of "peace" under the armistice of 1972, the North Vietnamese government decided to test the system and attacked and captured a provincial capital on the Cambodian border.  It fell and the reaction of the US media and Congress was to immediately declare that under no circumstances would ANY assistance be given to the South Vietnamese.  Collapse then followed.  There were NO American forces or advisers in the country then.  There had not been for a long time.

Is this Vietnam example applicable in some way to Iraq?  Not really, not at present strengths in Iraq.  In Iraq we do not have the forces to go out and provide the protection for isolated coalition "development" teams all over the country.  Neither do we have the policy generated structure to provide integrated teams of experts to occupy a large number of towns on a permanent basis.  If we want to do that we will have to organize such an effort and put it in in place.  It will be a major additional commitment.  At the same time we will have to remember that these scattered groups will be very vulnerable and will need the the prospect of reinforcement by US Army or Marine units within a couple of hours. All this implies a very different deployment, a different commitment, and a lot more troops.

Can we pacify the country that way?  Yes, we can if we are willing to pay the price in assets and invlovement over four or five years.  The answer is also dependent on whether the various Iraqi groups do not start "competing" to see who can ask us to leave first.

In the meantime, David Brooks needs do some more reading

Pat Lang

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14 Responses to Brooks on Vietnam and Iraq

  1. sbj says:

    I listened to David Brooks this evening too. I figured his references to the situations in Vietnam as they related to Iraq today were almost certainly inaccurate, and that he was proffering these comparisons in order to advance the notion that the lack of support from Democrats and the American public is the cause of our (possibly) eventual failure in Iraq, not the implementation of the Bush administration’s policies themselves.
    I’m glad you are able to shed some light on the actual mechanics of the conflict in Vietnam in a way that helps expose Brooks’ flawed and misleading construct. His lack of knowledge seems perfectly in tune with his desire to blame the public for the disaster in Iraq rather than the architects of that ongoing debacle.

  2. McGee says:

    Colonel – I think you’re referring here to the South Vietnamese Revolutionary Development Teams? I had friends who also worked in these programs, and their experience was not as positive as yours. As you must be aware, the efficacy of the local programs depended to a large degree on the qualifications (particularly linguistic) of the US personnel assigned to them (often minimal), and to the level of corruptness of the Vietnamese district chiefs and the local ARVN commanders (quite often maximal). But you’re absolutely correct in that these pacification programs were ongoing from at least ’66 or ’67 to the bitter end. I’m just not convinced that many were that successful, though I’m sure yours was. And, yes, David Brooks does need to do a LOT more reading.
    Thank you for your insights, as always!

  3. ismoot says:

    You can watch the “stab in the back” myth being formulated already. pl

  4. ismoot says:

    I have never heard of the “South Vietnamese Revolutionary Development Teams.” You would have to give me a reference to look at before I could comment. CORDS was the countrywide structure and it was pretty uniform everywhere.
    Local government officials are what they are. They are representarives of their culture. The trick is for Americans to learn to work with such people, good or bad, using such leverage as one possesses. In VN that leverage was considerable in terms of money and supplies. I thnk you have to expect that local norms will be different from ours. Ironically, the enemy had a better record on “corruption” because they represented something different from the local “Conficianist,” family oriented tradition. The enemy represented European style nationalism and revolutionary socialism.
    The CORDS structure paralleled the RVN government structure. The US head of CORDS in the region of the country that I was in 1968-69 was John Paul Vann. pl

  5. McGee says:

    Colonel – Thanks for your response and comments. It’s been years and years of course, but I think the Revoluionary Development Teams and CORDS were the same program – just differnet acronyms. Perhaps I’ve muddied the name slightly (mittelsheimers!). Working for Colonel Vann must have been a gift!

  6. Pat Lang says:

    Vann was a lot more involved emotionally with the vietnamese than I can claim to have been. That made him a bit difficult at times. I wanted to win the war. He wanted to do something for them that would erase the pain of his early life.
    I think that CORDS was like any other big program. It varied a lot by area and leadership.
    The communist shadow government had been there in some of these places since the late 40s. Very well rooted. It was easier where I was that year becuase the population was all montagnards in the country and Vietnamese in the towns. pl

  7. angela says:

    Well now we are paying some attention to the fact that we have something like 2 translators per company. We’ve made little effort to recruit US arabs, haven’t pumped up our language schools and Iraqis can only be hired by a contractor who pays too little money. Since we’ve decided that those in the Green Zone should avoid all danger, the rebuilding seems to have fallen on military commanders who have almost no one who can speak the language.

  8. Pat Lang says:

    One of the nasty little secrets here is that Arabic is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. I used to teach it. pl

  9. Jerome Gaskins says:

    Is it okay to ask about some things I’ve read and heard about Viet Nam?

  10. Pat Lang says:


  11. Jerome Gaskins says:

    Why did it start in the first place? What was the conflict with the French that could not be resolved politically?
    Is it true that the partitioning was to be followed by an election that never happened?
    I’ve heard that before we got involved, the Vietnamese asked us for help to combat the French. Why did we turn them away? If they asked for our help, why did we treat them as enemies later on?

  12. Pat Lang says:

    France did not wish to give up its colonial posessions after its liberation from German occupation. There was rubber in the country that was worth something but mostly I think their national pride was involved
    With regard to the post-partition election that never happened, the Viet Minh movement was and had been busy employing its very ruthless “agitprop” methods in the South and the Vietnamese there (many of whom were refugees from the North and Christians to boot)were afraid they would lose yet another refuge.
    In the immediate post-war period there was a discussion in Washington as to whether the French or the Vietnamese meant more to us. The pro-French group won.
    By the early 50s, the Cold War was going full blast. France was an important member of NATO. France had sent troops to fight alongside us in Korea. Europe was much more important to us than SE Asia and France was essential to the alliance in Europe. Hell, at theat time the NATO headquarters was right outside Paris. It was very clear by 1954 that the communists has gained control of the Viet Minh and that Communist China was helping them in a big way. So we started providing some military assistance to the French in the way of surplus aircraft, tanks, artillery, etc. It wasn’t a lot of stuff and it wasn’t new. We also gave them advice some of which was terrible.
    Recommend you read Windrow’s “The Last Valley.” It covers a lot of the politics of this in detail pl

  13. Jerome Gaskins says:

    Thank you, sir.
    Did the Viet Minh actually approach us, or was the discussion generated by something else?
    I’ll get the book and read it, but I wonder how the French “got” Viet Nam in the first place?

  14. Pat Lang says:

    The Japanese occupied French Indochina duriing WW2. The French government there was Vichy. So OSS supported the Viet Minh against the Japanese. We were there with a small group doing that when the French came back after the war.
    The French acquired Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the last couple of decades of the 19th Century in the general process of colonial expansion that pretty much all the powers in Europe were engaged in. It was the fashion of the day. pl

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