Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Vietnam War explained as never before, in hard numbers and good facts

Hey, how come no one ever mentioned to me Thomas Thayer’s War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam? What do I pay the frequent friers for, anyway? (You know who you are.) I finished reading it over the weekend, while it snowed in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I think it is one of the best ...

U.S. Army Heritage Center Foundation
U.S. Army Heritage Center Foundation
U.S. Army Heritage Center Foundation

Hey, how come no one ever mentioned to me Thomas Thayer's War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam? What do I pay the frequent friers for, anyway? (You know who you are.) I finished reading it over the weekend, while it snowed in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I think it is one of the best books I've ever read on the war, with page after page of good, usable, dispassionate data, much of it counterintuitive.

Here are just some of the things that surprised me:

The enemy was simply not going to give the Americans the war they wanted. Out of 37,990 enemy attacks in 1968, just 126 were of battalion size or larger. And that was the peak year for large attacks, which declined to 34 in 1969, 13 in 1970, and 2 in 1971 -- before rebounding in the 1972 offensive. (P. 44) In terms of spending, it was more of an air war than a ground war. In fiscal 1969, for example, U.S. land force operations cost $4.6 billion, while air operations cost more than twice that, some $9.3 billion. (P. 25) American bombers hit Laos hard, with 8,500 B-52 sorties in 1970 (more than twice the 3,697 sorties over South Vietnam that year) and even more the following year. (P. 84) Yet all that bombing, with virtually no political constraints, was unable to interdict the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which raises the question of whether more firepower applied against North Vietnam would have made any difference. (P. 86) The cost of bringing in a Communist defector under the "Chieu Hoi" program averaged out to $14. The cost of killing the same enemy combatant with firepower was $60,000. (P. 202) Which method do you think American commanders focused their attention on? In terms of productivity per dollar expended, "the most effective" allied military force was the much maligned militias, the "Regional Forces and Provincial Forces," aka "Ruff Puffs." (P. 165) Two-thirds of Army soldiers killed ranked E-3 or E-4. (P. 111) More soldiers and Marines were killed by indirect fire (artillery, mortar, rocket, land mines, etc.) than by small arms fire. (P. 117) Some 613 of the Marines who died in Vietnam were draftees. (P. 115)

Hey, how come no one ever mentioned to me Thomas Thayer’s War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam? What do I pay the frequent friers for, anyway? (You know who you are.) I finished reading it over the weekend, while it snowed in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I think it is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the war, with page after page of good, usable, dispassionate data, much of it counterintuitive.

Here are just some of the things that surprised me:

  • The enemy was simply not going to give the Americans the war they wanted. Out of 37,990 enemy attacks in 1968, just 126 were of battalion size or larger. And that was the peak year for large attacks, which declined to 34 in 1969, 13 in 1970, and 2 in 1971 — before rebounding in the 1972 offensive. (P. 44)
  • In terms of spending, it was more of an air war than a ground war. In fiscal 1969, for example, U.S. land force operations cost $4.6 billion, while air operations cost more than twice that, some $9.3 billion. (P. 25)
  • American bombers hit Laos hard, with 8,500 B-52 sorties in 1970 (more than twice the 3,697 sorties over South Vietnam that year) and even more the following year. (P. 84) Yet all that bombing, with virtually no political constraints, was unable to interdict the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which raises the question of whether more firepower applied against North Vietnam would have made any difference. (P. 86)
  • The cost of bringing in a Communist defector under the "Chieu Hoi" program averaged out to $14. The cost of killing the same enemy combatant with firepower was $60,000. (P. 202) Which method do you think American commanders focused their attention on?
  • In terms of productivity per dollar expended, "the most effective" allied military force was the much maligned militias, the "Regional Forces and Provincial Forces," aka "Ruff Puffs." (P. 165)
  • Two-thirds of Army soldiers killed ranked E-3 or E-4. (P. 111)
  • More soldiers and Marines were killed by indirect fire (artillery, mortar, rocket, land mines, etc.) than by small arms fire. (P. 117)
  • Some 613 of the Marines who died in Vietnam were draftees. (P. 115)

The book poses a mighty hurdle to those who say that, despite much proof to the contrary, the Army was a learning organization in Vietnam. Here is much evidence that there was good, solid information about how the Army’s approach was profoundly counterproductive — and also that this information largely was available internally at the time. Indeed, the author notes in an afterword that the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice tried to stop dissemination of the internal reports on which the book is based. (P. 259) He suggests that Westmoreland was particularly peeved by these analyses.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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