Tag Archives: vietnam

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.

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Study body counts to learn about our wars: how we fight, why we lose

Summary: Our wars simple to those who see only bad guys to be killed, but appear as a mystery to many Americans. Unnecessarily, since our journalists tell us all we need to know. Unfortunately these few key facts are buried amidst a flood of trivia. This post gives a small but telling example by examining what experts tell us about body counts, showing how they reveal the key insights about US tactics and progress, both now and in a historical context. Learning is the first step to governing ourselves. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

River of Blood

At an early meeting {1962} about 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).

Body counts as a measure of success

“When Harkins firs arrived in Saigon {Jan 1962} to head the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) he told reporters that he was an optimist and that he was going to have optimists on his staff. The reports he sent to Washington were titled “The Headway Report”… {Halberstam}.

Our military uses body counts as a measure of success today for the same reason they used them in Vietnam: we plan to win by attrition through firepower, yet lack intelligence about targets and results. Body counts can be estimated (aka guessed at), and provide the public with metrics showing progress — a high-priority necessity in the America way of war. Whether pointing to our assassination programs (al Qaeda’s #3 killed for the 7th time!) or our bombing, it shows that we’re winning — always.

For example, see this good news from our Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, in an in an interview on Al Arabiya News Channel on 21 January….

“{Airstrikes have} taken more than half {of ISIS’s leadership}. We estimate that the airstrikes have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq … {and} destroyed more than a thousand of ISIS vehicle inside Iraq. {These numbers were} not so important in themselves … they do show the degradation of ISIS.”

A laundry list of wins in a speech by Hawk Carlisle (General, USAF; commander of Air Combat Command) on 1 June 2015 {Air Force Magazine), similar to the others we’ve heard during the past 14 years….

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The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told

Summary: Another war starts with its barrage of propaganda on America, raising the usual questions. Can we learn from experience? Will we demand accurate information and better analysis, laughing at those who have been so often wrong?  Today’s post provides some context that might help you decide what’s happening, or at least create useful doubts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“‘Truth,’ it has been said, ‘is the first casualty of war’.”
— Philip Snowden in his Introduction to Truth and the War, by E. D. Morel (1916).

Ministry of Truth


  1. Update from Ukraine.
  2. About previous clashes with Russia.
  3. Compare Ukraine with Vietnam.
  4. Conclusions.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Update from Ukraine

The US Army announced that “about 300” soldiers from the 173rd Airborne arrived in Ukraine on April 14 “to begin a six-month training rotation with Ukrainian national guard forces”. The NY Times describes the training in the upbeat prose typical of its stenographers repeating what they’re told, with a few specifics (“The courses will train 705 Ukrainian soldiers at a cost of $19 million…”). Canada has sent 200 trainers, Britain has sent 35, and perhaps Israel has sent some as well.

There’s no mention of involvement by US Special Forces, the premier trainers of foreign armies in the methods to fight civil wars, beyond a bland announcement by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) of deployments to train local troops in “Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces”.  No mention of direct involvement of US special operations troops, the covert tip of DoD’s spear — but then we shouldn’t expect to be told.

Relive the cold war

(2)  Compare it to previous direct confrontations with Russia

As usual with American geopolitical analysis, many “experts” quickly lose their perspective at the first hint of conflict, venting breathless warnings that we’re in a new Cold War — perhaps even sliding to nuclear war. It led them to predicted scores of great power wars since WWII; every month brings a new crop of war rumors (last year the hot “news” concerned war between some combo of Japan, the Philippines, and China).

Back on Earth, nuclear powers tend to walk lightly around each other after their first close call. For the US and Russia that was a close brush with death in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (see the tapes of the NSC meetings described in Virtual JFK; you’ll have a far higher opinion of him after reading it). For India and Pakistan that was a not-close but still scary moment during Kargil War in summer 1999.

One glimpse of atomic death convinces national leaders to avoid direct confrontations of armed forces, relying instead on proxies willing to die for the interests of their great power sponsors. After centuries of experience, western governments have become expert in managing these.

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