US soldiers call for a medical evacuation in Vietnam.
No war is easy for those fighting it – and Vietnam War soldiers faced many challenges, some insurmountable and some impossible. In Vietnam, soldiers on both sides faced physical challenges posed by the climate, terrain and wildlife of the country, along with the tactical and political problems thrown up by what was an inherently complex situation. On top of that, Vietnam was a war with few conventional objectives like territory held, no frontline, not even a well-defined theatre of war. The Vietnam conflict was a shiftless, dynamic and fluid struggle, where people moved freely and their political loyalties could not be easily identified. It was also a 360-degree war – attacks, ambushes and booby-traps might be encountered at any place, at any time, launched or set by an unseen enemy.
The troops of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were under-resourced and poorly equipped, at least in comparison to those of the US. They did have some considerable advantages, not least of which was a close knowledge of the local people, language and terrain. The NVA and Viet Cong also benefited from the eight year-long war with France (1946-54) which gave them valuable experience in fighting a major Western power. Their leadership adopted guerrilla methods to inflict American casualties, while avoiding major battles. It was a reiteration of the ‘elephant and tiger’ strategy used against the French, only the ‘American elephant’ was larger and potentially more dangerous. Hanoi’s goal was to prolong the war, while inflicting casualties on US personnel. It knew that America’s involvement was costly; that its political and military leaders were impatient; and that the American public would soon withdraw their support if the war was going poorly.
The success of this guerrilla strategy hinged on training and discipline. Though essentially a civilian militia, the Viet Cong also had a significant number of men who were highly trained, uniformed and well drilled; consequently they saw themselves as professional soldiers. There were in excess of 50 Viet Cong training bases or centers across South Vietnam, where personnel were given instruction in weapons handling, explosives, radio operation, subterfuge and guerrilla warfare tactics. To ensure loyalty and discipline, they were also tutored in the historical and political background of the conflict. Not all Viet Cong were so well trained. A sizeable number were civilian farmers, teenagers and boys, who took up arms when necessary; they were trained occasionally, if at all. Some were volunteers, while others participated in the Viet Cong under pressure from family members or local cadres.
The ‘ghostly army’
Viet Cong troops used whatever weapons were available. The most common was probably the Chinese-made AK47 submachine gun, though some Viet Cong also used confiscated French or Japanese rifles. Soviet-made artillery, grenades and mortars were also used, though were in much shorter supply. The Viet Cong instead relied on improvised or ‘home-made’ munitions, constructed by soldiers and sympathetic villagers from whatever material could be scrounged. Weapons were fashioned from anything dangerous, from scavenged tin cans to discarded wire. The most important ingredients – gunpowder and explosive materials – were often provided by the enemy. In a single year, dud American bombs could leave more than 20,000 tons of unexploded ordnance scattered around the Vietnamese countryside. After air-raids, volunteers retrieved the duds and the dangerous business of creating new weapons began. Many Viet Cong units also relied on primitive weapons and booby traps, such as ‘Punji stakes’ (sharpened spikes hidden in ditches or pits).
Evasion and concealment were also Viet Cong priorities. In the mountains and jungles, where the landscape and foliage served as cover, this was comparatively easy. In the plains and closer to the cities, the Viet Cong instead relied on enormous and quite complex underground tunnel systems. Tunnel-building pre-dated the arrival of the Americans but the Viet Cong hierarchy quickly made it a priority. Every civilian in a Viet Cong area was expected to dig three feet of tunnel per day. The tunnels were not just hiding places or for shelter; they also served as headquarters, barracks, warehouses, munitions dumps, hospitals and kitchens. The largest tunnel systems were in the Cu Chi district and the ‘Iron Triangle’, just a handful of miles from Saigon.
GIs under strain
Who is the enemy? How can you distinguish between the civilians and the non-civilians? The same people who come and work in the bases at daytime, they just want to shoot and kill you at nighttime. So how can you distinguish between the two? The good or the bad? All of them look the same.
Vanardo Simpson, US soldier
There is no doubt that US soldiers were better armed, better equipped and more extensively trained than the Viet Cong. The vast majority of American troops there had completed eight weeks of basic training, followed by 8-26 week specialist courses in infantry, artillery, engineering and other specialisations. Soldiers deployed to Vietnam were given a fortnight’s specialist training before departure. On arrival in Vietnam, these newcomers – colloquially known as ‘cherries’ – were also given another fortnight’s training and orientation. Whether this preparation was adequate or specialised enough for the situation in Vietnam is another issue. There is no doubt that in the 1960s, America’s combat troops formed the most powerful offensive battlefield force on the planet. But the Vietnam War was far too complex to be won simply on the battlefield.
The effectiveness of American soldiers in Vietnam was undermined not by a lack of skill or courage, but by local conditions, uncertain military objectives, the highly politicised nature of the war and the inventiveness of their enemy. The sub-tropical climate, terrain and fauna all exacted a toll on American troops. The heat, humidity and monsoonal rain meant heavily-clad GIs were almost constantly drenched with water or sweat. Patrols into the ‘boonies’ (rural or remote areas) often had to traipse through thick jungle, sharp vines and foliage, up and down steep rises and ditches, through swamps and flooded rice paddies. Vietnam’s wildlife posed its own dangers, including malarial mosquitoes, leeches, ticks, fire ants and 30 different kinds of venomous snake.
The war takes its toll
The very nature of the war also brewed confusion and self-doubt in the minds of US soldiers. Though trained to follow orders and disregard external factors, most American GIs were acutely aware of the tremendous difficulties of their job. Their mission to secure South Vietnam, gain the trust and loyalty of the people and eradicate the Viet Cong often seemed impossible. Many combat operations had no discernible outcomes other than ‘body counts’, which were often no more than estimates. An area could be cleared of Viet Cong today but be back in their hands immediately after US troops left. The villagers were sometimes welcoming, sometimes treacherous, but largely indifferent to the Americans, very few of whom could speak their language. As one US soldier in Vietnam asked: “What am I doing here? We don’t take any land. We don’t give it back. We just mutilate bodies. What the fuck are we doing here?”
Disillusionment with the war was coupled with psychological trauma. Most US soldiers ‘in country’ had seen fellow servicemen, sometimes their friends, killed or disfigured by sniper fire, mines or booby-traps. But the Viet Cong who laid these traps were reluctant to engage in conventional warfare, so American soldiers felt deprived of the opportunity for retaliation or ‘payback’. Some units experienced a breakdown in discipline. The practice of ‘fragging’ – killing or injuring superior officers by intentionally activating a fragmentation grenade close by – was relatively common (one source cites 730 cases between 1969 and 1971). Illicit drugs were commonly available in Vietnam, including marijuana, opium, morphine and heroin. In some combat units, up to 80 per cent of men were casual or regular drug users. The US military did little to combat drug abuse until 1971.
1. Though some Viet Cong soldiers were uniformed and highly trained, most received only occasional training, if at all.
2. The Viet Cong used Chinese and Soviet-supplied weapons but often relied on makeshift explosives and booby-traps.
3. In comparison, US soldiers were highly trained and well equipped, though this was not always an advantage.
4. Both sides struggled with climate, terrain and other factors, though the Viet Cong had the advantages of local knowledge and experience.
5. Many US soldiers grew disillusioned with the war and its outcomes, leading to ‘fragging’ of officers, drug abuse and other problems.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Vietnam War soldiers”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/vietnam-war-soldiers/.