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