Ia Drang screwed us up in Vietnam because of the lessons we drew from it

Ia Drang screwed us up in Vietnam because of the lessons we drew from it

By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense chef de bureau, Saigon

Today we remember the 48th anniversary of the end of the battle of the Ia Drang, the first big fight that pitted soldiers from the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division against North Vietnamese Army regulars in what amounted to a bloody draw. Both sides licked their wounds, and each came away believing that the war’s outcome would depend on force-on-force encounters.

This philosophy of war was basically unchanged in U.S. doctrine until the revolutionary practices seen in Afghanistan and Iraq gave rise to COIN, or counterinsurgency warfare. The idea of beating an enemy into submission until he cried "uncle" was seen as costly and unproductive, failing to focus other aspects of national power. While General Petraeus is often seen as the godfather of modern COIN, others came to the same conclusion. The debate now ongoing is what force structure will be needed for wars of the future, conventional or COIN-ish.

Meanwhile, I also want to celebrate the courage, endurance, and battlefield bravery of those who fought at Ia Drang. Woe to any army that doesn’t recognize qualities of individual soldiers who do their duty, whatever the cost. They earned their place in history for what happened from the 14th to the 18th of November, 1965.

Our failure in Vietnam derived from General Westmoreland’s believing that decisive large-scale engagements would keep South Vietnam viable. While that may reflect conventional thinking at the time, it was a strategic error that all the bravery at Ia Drang cannot erase.

Charles A. Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. Now hanging with his posse in Panama City Beach, Florida, he served in Iraq in 2003-2004 as public affairs adviser to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, and later as public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission.