Lessons paid for in blood but ignored

Summary: Fifty-three years ago this week American troops fought their first major battle in Vietnam. The lessons both sides learned set the course of the war. We know whose analysis proved more accurate. Worse, the WOT proves that we’ve forgotten whatever we learned from Vietnam, despite the price in money and blood we paid for them. But we can still learn.

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 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 advisers to direct combatants. There were two battles. One at Landing Zone X-Ray, where Americans under the command of Lt. Colonel Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, US Army, deceased) withstood fantastic odds – inflicted absurdly disproportionate casualties (with the aid of airpower and artillery), and withdrew. One at Landing Zone Albany, where Lt. Colonel Robert McDade made a series of basic mistakes that led to his unit being mauled.

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 powerful 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 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. We saw Ia Drang as a tactical success that validated our new methods, and so we expanded the war. We absurdly believed the victory resulted from our technology, not the valor and skill of our troops.

“In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, Gen William C. Westmoreland, and his principal deputy, Gen William DePuy, looked at the statistics of the 34-day Ia Drang campaign … and saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese to one American. What that said …was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.”

North Vietnam’s leaders drew the opposite conclusions.

“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 firestorm 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.”

Also, North Vietnam’s leaders believed that US commanders would more often be like McDade than Moore. The next decade proved that they were correct. General Võ Nguyên Giáp understand the significance of this battle, and that the war would 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

A lessons for today about war

The closing quote in We were Soldiers Once gives the bottom line.

“Finally – even though it took ten years, cost the lives of 58,000 young Americans, and inflicted humiliating defeat on a nation that never before had lost a war – 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.}”

Unfortunately “some of us” did not include our senior military leaders, as shown by our poorly conducted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Or perhaps this lesson did not stick in America’s collective memory. This is yet more evidence of our inability or unwillingness to learn from experience. No amount of national wealth and power can overcome such a weakness.

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.

A deleted scene from the film We Were Soldiers Once

Another lesson from Ia Drang – about leadership

Good leadership can allow a team to withstand and sometimes triumph over almost impossible challenges. Building organizations that recruit, train, motivate, and retain such leaders is one of our most important national challenges. But we are doing the opposite, as our sclerotic institutions become bureaucratic – with leaders whose eyes are closed and concerns are with politics and personal goals rather than the institution’s performance.

We are the people responsible for this. When we no longer tolerate America’s decline into senescence, then reform becomes possible.

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 … and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam b Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, retired) and Joseph L. Galloway (journalist). Both were there.

The film (I highly recommend it): We Were Soldiers. The film shows the victory by Moore’s unit at Landing Zone X-Ray. It ignores the successful attack on McDade’s unit at Landing Zone Albany. That would have ended the film on a more historically accurate note, but been bad box office.

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

13 thoughts on “Lessons paid for in blood but ignored

  1. The post on the Vietnam War’s winners and losers, does not mention the Military-Industrial Complex. Has it not been a major winner of all our post-WWII wars? And did its captains and colonels and generals of the business of war not do all they could to keep the Vietnam War and our subsequent wars going? The financial profits from war-making are not the whole story, but surely they are a major part of the story.

    1. Opton,

      “The post on the Vietnam War’s winners and losers”

      What post about winners and losers? That is a complex and larger lesson. This just discusses lessons learned from one battle.

  2. Could we not say the First and Second World War were not the same thing for Germany.

    Lightning advance then bogged down in France in the trenches for WW1.

    Technological blitzkrieg took over huge tracks of land then after failed to win the Battle of Britain, or keep Moscow were slowly worn down.

    With of course the huge US influence in the second and winning half of both wars.

    To win a war you have to plan who will run the country at the end, in the colonial type wars you set up your own Government and keep a standing army, made up of mainly your own overpopulation, paid for by the conquered.

    In modernity you impose a Government and use your precious home manpower (no more over population in the West or Industrialised countries, rather ageing populations) to uphold the imposed and largely unwanted Government on your tax dollar.

    I think we are not winning, not because we lack the guts or guns, but because we can’t go the next step to seize power fully and make the conquered pay for the war. If we were mining lithium and oil like mad to refill the coffers, then we could afford to maintain an army large enough to deter resistance. This is impossible in today’s world and it makes defence a more winnable position.

    I remember that my Father had a friend who had been in Vietnam with the British Army, he was light infantry, he said that they could win Vietnam, but there was no way they would be allowed. He said withdraw the troops and make it a special forces only war, on 6 month deployments blowing up bridges, killing Officers and NCOs, destroying infrastructure and putting the country on its knees. His commander said it would take twenty years, all dark ops and media black out. He said an on mass army would have the same thing done to it and run the country out of money and public support for the causalities.

    I fear my children will still have these wars and the terror, it is like the situation where your brother has started a fight and he has fought one to one and won or lost, but fought and they got the tensions out. Now the next day the other guy has arrived with three more guys and your brother is standing there alone and you know, it is nothing to do with you, but next thing you know you are at his side saying you want him, you got me too.

    The invaded country has more people locally to call on in the next and next and next punch up. As yet technology does not match that next , next and next dust off, at least not at a price we can pay and not see use bankrupted.

    1. Don’t know if true, but there was a story where at the end of the Vietnam Peace talks, an American general and NVA general talked about the Tet Offensive. The American claimed that US Army kicked their ass in the Tet, and the NVA replied that it was the Americans belief about the Tet that caused their loss.

      Just A Guy, the forever war of today indicates you are wrong. We loss Vietnam for the same reasons we are losing the forever war. The reason is as old as Sun Tzu “I. Laying Plans 1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State. 2. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin… 3.The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. 4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

      IMO: Here is a fair discussion of the struggle from Council on Foreign Relations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-y2FyHFx6g . Since a broad discussion involves politics, I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions, but rather the politics of the time whether from the left or the right, or USA vs Vietnamese, were one of the most important reasons we lost. Reducing the countryside would not help, unless we colonized Vietnam. I don’t think that such was politically impossible for the American people.

      One of the speakers does not think Tet was important. Such arguments of counter factuals misses the point IMO. The US was telling everybody they were winning. The communists lost more in the Tet than the US claimed were communists. The Vietnamese had correctly understood that the outcome depended on the political win.

      Winning the moral or political is one of the oldest of military axioms. Nations ignore this at the risk of losing wars.

    2. John,

      (1) “Don’t know if true, but there was a story …”

      Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation): “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”

      Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation): ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

      — From Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982).

      (2) “One of the speakers does not think Tet was important.”

      That’s the war in a nutshell. As hundreds of posts here have discussed (as well as countless books and articles by others), we were fighting a 3rd generation war (ie, like WWII – maneuver warfare). North Vietnam was fighting a 4th generation war, giving them an immense advantage.

      On another level, by 1965 there were dozens of anti-colonial wars for us to have learned from. Including the French in Vietnam and Algeria. We were too arrogant to learn. We still are.

      “At an early intergovernmental meeting {1962} on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong. But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

      “’Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,’ answered Kelleher.”

      — From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

    3. Just a guy,

      “I think we are not winning, not because we lack the guts or guns, but because we can’t go the next step to seize power fully and make the conquered pay for the war.”

      That’s a great example of Failure To Learn. you are describing colonialism. It was in widespread use up to WWII. After Mao brought 4th generation war to maturity, all the colonial powers were defeated. As Martin van Creveld describes in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006):

      “What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

      “Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”

  3. I didn’t know about LZ Albany until fairly recently. I read a long detailed write up on it in one of the Decision Games military history/gaming magazines. It made me think of the deleted scene in the movie We Were Soldiers where Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) reports to Westmoreland and McNamara. If you watch it, (And it’s up on YouTube), you can see why it ended up on the cutting room floor. It doesn’t fit the narrative that the movie was pushing. The good guys are supposed to win in the end.

    I read a number of books written by American Generals about Vietnam, and I think about three different times I ran into some iteration of “We won Tet, and it was over pretty quickly after the initial shock except at Hue” No mention or explanation of what exactly did happen at Hue. apparently they weren’t too proud of the fact that a whole NVA Division walked into a major city, so that ended up on the cutting room floor.

    That deleted scene in We Were Soldiers really would have changed the whole meaning of the movie if it had been included, but sometimes there’s more of a market for happy endings than there is for the truth. (Go check it out, it’s worth a watch) But the facts on the cutting room floor are a little more serious than cut scenes in a movie,

    Here is the deleted scene:

    https://youtu.be/xlVcduLh6ec

    1. The Man,

      Thanks for flagging that deleted scene. I added it to your comment and to the post.

    2. PAT,

      Americans watch Vietnam War films like We Were Soldiers Once like Southerns watch Gone With The Wind – for dreams giving nobility to failed wars.

    1. Chad,

      Thanks for catching that. I took some of this text from a book review I posted on Nov 14th in 2015. I changed the number of years ago, but not the date. Fixed!

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