50 years ago the Battle at Ia Drang began our war in Vietnam. What have we learned since then?

Summary: Fifty years ago today American troops fought their first major battle in Vietnam. The lessons both sides learned from the battle set the course of the war. History shows whose analysis proved more accurate. We have concluded the first phase of our post-9/11 wars, proving that we’ve forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. As the next phase begins we have the opportunity to do better. But only if we begin to learn from our experiences.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Soldier at Ia Drang. Major Crandall's UH-1D in the background.
Soldiers at Ia Drang. Major Crandall’s UH-1D in the background. US Army photo.

On this day in 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 advisers to direct combatants.

Fifty years later we again have lessons from battles fought by our military in a distant land. Again all sides devise plans for the future. Lest we forgot, Ia Drang holds profound lessons for us today.

The quotes in this post come 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 journalist Joseph L. Galloway. I strongly recommend reading it.  For more information about the battle, see the Wikipedia entry.

What happened at Ia Drang?

Ia Drang tested the new concept of air assault, in which helicopters inserted troops to a distant battlefield, then supplied and extracted them. During that four day “test” 234 American men died, “more Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at the 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 the 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.”

We saw Ia Drang as a tactical success that validated our new methods, and so we expanded the war. General Võ Nguyên Giáp more clearly saw these events, which evolved as he had explained in 1950 to the political commissars of the 316th Division (then discussing France, but eventually true of America as well — in Vietnam as well as our post-9/11 wars)…

“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).

Lessons learned tombstone

Lessons for today

The closing quote in We were Soldiers Once gives the bottom line: “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.  {The opening of Chapter 2, Book 8 in On War}

We learned this at great cost from the Vietnam War, but our poorly conducted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen show that this lesson did not stick in America’s collective memory. Our fumbling in Syria provides still more evidence of this inability or unwillingness to learn.

That is our failure, not that of those who fight in our wars. Let us honor the men who fought in Ia Drang so long ago — and in the too many vain wars since — and learn to do better in the future.

For more information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  For more information see all posts about the Vietnam War, and especially these…

For more about the battle of Ia Drang, see the book and the film

We Were Soldiers Once
Available at Amazon.
We Were Soldiers Once
Available at Amazon.