Lest we forget: lessons for us from the Battle of Ia Drang

On 14 November 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) flew to the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, initiating the first major battle between the North Vietnamese and American armies. This marked our transition from our role as advisers to direct combatants. After the battle lessons were drawn by both sides that determined the course of the war. With the clarity of hindsight we can see whose analysis proved better.

Forty-two years later we have again committed our Army and Marines to fight in a distant land. Again we have come to an inflection point, at which all sides devise plans for the future. Least we forgot, Ia Drang holds profound lessons for us.

The quotes in this post are all from one of the great works about the Vietnam War: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, by Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, US Army, retired) and Joseph L. Galloway. I strongly recommend reading it.  (For more information, see the Wikipedia entry about the battle.)

Ia Drang tested the new concept of air assault. Now we could insert troops into a distant area, supply and extract them by helicopter. During that four day “test” 234 American men died. “That is more Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at he Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War.” Both sides drew optimistic conclusions from the result.

  • We believed that our combination of innovative technology and tactics could achieve a victory that eluded France. “In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, Gen William C. Westmoreland, and his principal deputy, Gen William DePuy, look at the statistics of the 34-day Ia Drang campaign … and saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese to one America. What that said … was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.”
  • “In Hanoi, President Ho Chi Ming and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident. Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americas to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory. In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.”

As General Vo Nguyen Giap explained in 1950 to the political commissars of the 316th Division (discussing France, but eventually true of America as well):

“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: he has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war.”
— From Bernard Fall’s Street without joy: Indochina at war, 1946-54 (1961).

Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, Retired) says that our situation resembles that following Ia Drang. We saw Ia Drang as a tactical success validating our new methods, and so continued — and expanded — the war. Today violence in Iraq has substantially decreased from the early 2007 peak, although still at horrific levels. Interpreting this as proof of our new counter-insurgency doctrines, it has re-enforced the commitment of America’s governing elites to a long-term war in Iraq.

Reduced violence in Iraq gives us an opportunity to declare victory and leave Iraq. This would force the Iraq people to come to terms with themselves and their neighbors, through the usual combination of diplomacy and military readiness. The development of regional governments — unexpected and initially unsupported by the US — suggests that this is already happening.  I discuss this in more detail in these articles:

The decreased violence against US troops in Iraq probably results from a confluence of events.

  1. We support the Sunni Arabs (against the wishes of the “National” government). Why fight us when we support their militia with training, arms and money?
  2. We support the Kurds as they build Kurdistan, as provide a shield against Turkey and Iran.
  3. We support the Shiite Arabs as they consolidate control of both Baghdad, their southern provinces, and what little there is of the “National” government. Although our support of the Sunni Arabs and Kurds prevents — perhaps forever — complete Shiite Arab control of Iraq, the net benefit of our aid is too great to pass up.

We give everybody much of what they want. Defense against their enemies, money & arms, a free hand with ethnic cleansing, freedom to create their own culture (secular or Islamic, as they choose). Furthermore, they need our shield — Iraq’s weakness and fragmentation invites invasion by less obliging foreigners. Best of all (for them), there seems to be little long-term support for the war among the American people — although our ruling elites like it. Perhaps we will eventually just leave, rather than be thrown out. It is a deal difficult for them to refuse.

In return for all this we ask only for bases on their soil. Bases of foreign infidel soldiers, allies of Israel. We ask only that the Iraq people surrender their pride. Perhaps this is the basis for a long-term relationship; history contains stranger things.

What America gains from this is difficult to see. Current trends offer little hope of achieving neither our political objectives for the war nor the Benchmarks for progress. Instead our strategy seems to be to hope for the best (see this New York Times article: “U.S. Scales Back Political Goals for Iraqi Unity”).

However unlikely the benefits, the war’s costs are real.

  1. Our limited strategic flexibility, as our military is tied down in Iraq.
  2. Our government’s inability to address other national needs, as senior levels of the Executive and Legislature focus on Iraq.
  3. Our money — the current expenditures we borrow from Asian and Middle Eastern Central Banks, the future costs add to our $50 trillion in liabilities.
  4. Our dead and injured soldiers, whose numbers grow every week.

One of the great similarities of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars is that both saw a series of methods and goals adopted during their long years. Our leaders were like children playing dress up in their parents’ closet. We went into Iraq to seize Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, then plant democracy in the Middle East, then to build a strong ally, and now to stabilize Iraq. Similarly our methods have varied. Direct application of US power. Training Iraq national security forces to “stand up.” Bombing plus clear and hold. Now allying with regional militia of all sides. Perhaps we have finally found a working combination of goals and tactics. Or perhaps we pass through just another quiet phase in the war.

We come to the closing quote in We were Soldiers Once. It says that “some of us learned that Clausewitz had it right 150 years earlier when he wrote these words”:

War plans cover every aspect of a war, and weave them all into a single operation that must have a single, ultimate objective in which all particular aims are reconciled. No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose, the latter its operational objective.

Unfortunately the Iraq War shows that this lesson did not stick in America’s collective memory. That is our failing, not theirs. Let us honor the men who fought in Ia Drang so long ago, and consider what we can learn from their sacrifice.

Note: see Chet Richards related post at his new blog, Certain to Win.

For more information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  To read other articles about these things, see these posts about the war in Iraq:

  1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007.
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007.
  3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008.
  4. Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008.
  5. Brief update about events in Iraq, 8 April 2009.
We Were Soldiers Once
Available at Amazon.
We Were Soldiers Once
Available at Amazon.

16 thoughts on “Lest we forget: lessons for us from the Battle of Ia Drang”

  1. “War plans cover every aspect of a war, and weave them all into a single operation that must have a single, ultimate objective in which all particular aims are reconciled.”

    I think this is one aspect you and Richards don’t address. While Iraq is ending up being one of the causes of the US losing its sovereignty, by borrowing against our rule-sets, it really represents a very small loss in comparison to all the other operations.

    The US is still in containment mode, with Iraq a part of this, agaist a force that it feels threated by. Iraq was or still is the center of gravity in a cold war against China. We grabbed the high ground so to speak. It is a war in we are fighting on both “sides”, because the guys who think we can or should win against China are still in power and the ones embracing the insurgency are building a global market that connects the world.

    Pardon me if I am skeptical that you are going to get them to leave Iraq as you say.

    It is as Lt. Gen Riper says, “we are fighting a world insurgency”. I am not sure but the biggest problem could be that we don’t know which side we are on or even who we are fighting for or against. Maybe one question that can clarify this is: which side is the military/industrial complex on? If you can answer that question, then we are on our way to weaving “them all into a single operations”. Once you do that you up the anty just a bit. Kind of like using the goggle maps zoom-out command. That which once looked complex (Iraq) is now hardly noticable and we see a bigger more complex problem.

    Maybe one way to observe the situation is to see the military/industrial complex as being made up of entirely kinetic energy. There is no potential or, in other words, political force to its existence. It is completely about displacement and exerts no force in its movement of resource. As such, I believe it can do globalization, but can do little about containing itself, because it is on both sides of the gap.

  2. fabiusmaximus2000

    Nobody can speak with authority on these things — we are all guessing — but I do not share most of these assumptions. US losing its sovereignty. US cold war against China. Iraq center of of gravity in cold war with China.

    Most of our problems are imho self-inflicted. Our desire to see relations with so much of the world (Russia, China, Islam) as antagonistic might reflect our psychology more than objective conditions.

  3. I don’t see them as antagonistic. I see them as relationships between masses held together with friction. Mass moves by displacement in units of power. I would actually rather see world wide power than world power. I think many in power here in the US are holdiing on to illusions that won’t be around in 10 years.

    “Combatants”? what are you trying to say there rethiningsecurity? Oh yah, North Vietnam and the USA.

  4. At best war with China, cold or otherwize is a vastly overrated concotion of those who might seek short term profit.
    Short term profit being being the cornerstone of phylosphy, and driving interest of the United States today.

    We’re talking about an advanced nuclear space faring country, that has exported tens, perhaps hundereds of immigrants worldwide, that can easily feild 70 million men in arms, and could afford to lose 100 million in battle, and would still have a burgeoning over population problem.

    Disturbing is the very real prospect that the lunatic regiem in Washington today, might be in Iraq, only to prevent China’s
    influence, and the fact that war with China is seriously discussed
    and even advocated, convinces me that those involved have crossed
    the line into insanity.

    But hey, don’t let that stop you.


  5. Can you explain to me the logic of US equipping Lebanese , Afghan , and no doubt other fairweather friends’ Air Forces ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: To understand America’s grand strategy you must first free yourself from the confines of logic.

  6. You mentioned “What America gains from this is difficult to see.

    No, it’s entirely clear. America gains control of the third largest oil reserves in the world. (Estimates run from 150 billion to 300 billion barrels in Iraq.) If the oil stays in the ground in Iraq, that’s even better, for the longer it stays in the ground, the more valuable it becomes. Much better to have U.S. bases sit atop and control the disposition of $150-a-barrel oil 10 years from now than $40-a-barrel oil, and even better to have U.S. bases sitting atop $400-a-barrel oil 20 years from now. (150 billion barrels times $40 per barrel = 6 trillion, but $150 per barrel times 150 barrel = 22.5 trillion. That makes the 3 trillion dollar cost of the Iraq war negligible by cmparison.) In fact the less oil Iraq produces right now, the better, just as long as we maintain permanent bases in Iraq, and continue to operate a dependent lapdog regime that “rules” Iraq from the Green Zone. As long as we control the Iraq oil reserves, that’s all that counts.

    Study the treaties America has forced the Iraqi coalition government to sign as a price for keeping our puppet regime in power. They cede complete control of Iraqi oil to American oil companies for at least the next generation. Mission accomplished.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I stated that poorly. First, as you note, I omited to mention the oil (I’m adding that). Second, the key IMO is this: “Perhaps this is the basis for a long-term relationship; history contains stranger things.” Without that all these advantages will vanish like last winter’s snow, leaving Iran as the regional winner of the Iraq War(s).

    Our neo-colonial relationship with “Iraq” might be more limited leverage than expected. The new Iraq oil law, giving legal force to the agreements (are they treaties?) with the US, was proposed in May 2007 — and has yet to be approved. Without that western oil companies have not and probably will not make substantial investments.

    The de facto sovereign Kurdistan is the only area with a vibrant oil development program, although on a small scale. See this article for details. Note the 3 companies listed: one Canadian, one Norwegian, one UK. No US firms, just as there are no US bases in Kurdistan.

  7. I always gets the impression that US military planners never did take people like Ho Chi Ming seriously untill its too late.

    People like Ho Chi Ming never seeked victory in most battles. If any insurgents read Mao’s work carefully, they would hide and make noises until their oppoent tired out. By the time insurgents actually want to win battles, it usually means their oppoent had already lost the entire war.

    US military planners should stop measuring progress by numbers of battles won, its misleading against insurgents since they don’t care to win battles anyway. In fact, it is comforting for insurgents to see US military reacts strongly to all the white noises they make, because it just shows the insurgent can directly project their wills over US planners.

    IMO, real progress in war against insurgents should be measured in how well the US military can predict and influence insurgent actions, not by body counts.

    Just my two cents after going over some Mao’s work.

  8. Sorry if I’m off topic a bit, but the comment about Iraq as Cold War against China just caught my eyes…

    I believe the theory that Iraq as Cold War against China is a bit far-fatched. China always maintain strong friendship with Iran/Iraq through out its imperial history, but they never tried to project their military power in the region because they view Iraq as Iran’s backyard, and disputing that would disrupt their silk trade with Europe. I don’t believe the situation has changed much today because Iran also has a lot of oil China wants too.

    If people are really looking for the next Cold War with China, Afganistan and Pakistan is the place to start. Pakistan is China’s military ally and an important counter-weight against India. The fact that US is spreading GWOT into Pakistan and forcing Pakistan’s military to turn their back against India is bound to raise a few eyebrows in Beijing.

    BTW, is FM going to do a piece about North Korea? The current situation could reset the balance of power between China, Japan and United States.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No post about N. Korea in the pipeline. I doubt that it will reset the balance of power in any meaningful way.

  9. Let’s remember 1973 — Paris Peace Accords, end of war (?ha – not really!), where Rep Pres. Nixon ‘won’ the war, but then the Dem dominated Congress cut support for our S. Viet allies. So, when the lying N. Viet commies attacked, and our incompetent, corrupt, and cowardly allies fled (certainly not all the officers, but too many of the S. Viet leaders), waiting for promised US support that never came, the commies won pretty easily.

    No side can ‘decide’ to win. The decision options: fight, or not-fight = lose.

    With respect to the costs of war, I agree our bad planning is costing us much more than it should. But #4 is weak: Our dead and injured soldiers, whose numbers grow every week

    How many soldiers died under Clinton? How many under Bush? [more died under Clinton than died in Iraq]
    How many is so many that the public becomes more willing to lose than to fight?
    Only America, so far, can decide to make America lose a war.

    I would like more of the thoughtful war critics to be looking for constructive ways to reduce the cost of fighting, rather than merely complaining about those costs and, usually not quite openly, calling for the US to stop fighting in some area and lose.

    The Killing Fields of Cambodia were one of the real costs of the US losing in Vietnam. I’d guess most Americans, like me (or more reluctantly), would rather continue fighting in Iraq rather than leave and allow another genocide.

  10. There is another, never mentioned reason why Iraq quietened down. The US mandate from the UN was running out and a lot of Iraqis (with a lot of pressure from Iran) saw a political solution to get the US out. As evidenced by their rejection of the US’s various SOFA proposals (their reply was -translated- “so long and thanks for all the fish”).

    They, the internationally recognised Govt want them to leave when the US’s (and the UK and Australia .. which weazeled out of its obligations as an occuping power) mandate runs out

    But now the US is renaging (10 more years is the latest cry I hear) and under international law will be very soon an illegitimate invader, without even a fig leaf of legal support and against the wishes of the legitimate and elected Govt. And the Iraqi Govt will be legally correct to fight against a foreign, occupying invader.

    So, if they don’t go then the violence will ramp up. Remember, the US has NEVER fought in any real sense against the Shiite majority, which are well armed and trained (some by Hezbollah which should make everyone shudder) and have had 6 years to prepare.

    My gut feel? 6-12 months as it becomes clear that the US is going to try and keep its prize (“we won it fair and square” is one quote, despite the fact that they didn’t*) then the attacks on the US troops will make the last 6 years look like a picnic.

    Bill Lind’s horror scenario, 50-100 thousand US troops as captured hostages is not off the table by any means. Especially if Iran is attacked as well (which amazingly is still on the table in the US).

    * The US actually ‘won’ Iraq so cheaply by utilising its best strength …. bribery. They bought off a lot of Iraqi Generals.. who got the flight out shortly afterwards with a lot of money and probably nice new US passports for them and their families.

    Ditto Afghanistan, which was a proxy war, you paid and supplied the (losing and quiet at that time) opposition (which were the drug lords .. great …. making Afghanistan safe for opium production).

    When is the US going to get it into its head … it’s not good at war. Bribery and corruption yes, but not actual war, where its performance has always been, at best, poor. As for COIN type stuff it just repeats the ‘Indian wars’ over and over, which worked once, but has been a bit less successful since .. mainly because smallpox (et all) has gone or lost its force.
    Fabius Maximus replies: There are several interesting aspects to this.

    First, your note one of the many “secret history” chapters of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: our secret weapons were not Special Ops heros with laser designators but CIA bag-men with cash. In fact, the media version of these wars has little relation to the real story, as the other key elements were ethnic militia (also paid for) and massive firepower against civilians (the hidden air war).

    Second, as I described in a series of articles startign in mid-2007, Iraq has evolved its own solution despite our interference. So far there are two strong States — Kurdistan and Shiite Arab-land. The Sunni Arabs have wasted their opportunities to unify, but it might not be too late now. The process might be smooth or bloody; nobody can yet say. Or they might wind up ruled by the Shiite Arabs they oppressed for so long. Either way we have little to say.

    Third, there will be no great wars with the US in Iraq (i.e., the odds of such are tiny). We’re not in Kurdistan. We are unlikely to fight alongside the Sunni Arabs against the Shiite Arabs. We might bribe the Shiite rulers to let us stay, guarding them from Iran. But if the Shiite government, assisted by Iran, tells us to go — we’ll go. As we left the Philippines.

  11. Agree with you totally FM. Plus Iran’s agenda is so strighforward it is easy to work out. A conservative trading society attacked so many times in the past? It wants a stable, miltarily weak but stable and rich, society as a trading partner and a bullwark against its perceived threats (US and the ultimate enemy … Saudia Arabia).

    The poor Kurds, they remind me of the Tamils or the Poles or Georgia. Dreams beyond their reality. There will never be an independent Kurdistan, neither Iran or Turkey will allow it. But they can cut a deal that gives them a lot of freedom within an Iraqi federal structure. Will they pull their heads in?

    Trouble is Israel and the US keep stirring the pot. Bit like like Georgia, where they were prodded into an insane attack .. until the Russian tanks appeared and the US and Israeli ‘advisers’ ran for their lives. The Kurds, if they get smart will do very well .. unfortunately they probably won’t. And then it will be the Turkish tanks, following the (already regular) airstrikes. Australian lesson .. don’t fight the Turks.

    This is the ultimate lose-lose situation for the US/EU. Push Iran into Chinese/Russian hands, push Turkey into Russian/Chinese hands. Push Iraq into … you get the picture.

    Yes, you have raised this issue so many times .. there really is a US Grand Strategy .. push everyone into Chinese/Russian hands.

    Hey, Australia is going that way. Goodbye US “and thanks for all the fish”, though we havn’t yet got smart enough to buy excellent cheap Russian planes vs really rubbish expensive US ones … but that will happen (note the US used to build good planes… not now). Economics, who is all the ‘experts’ in Australia hoping to bale us out of the GFC? Not the US .. even our Reserve Bank hopes on China.

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