In the Vietnam war there were some great moments of destruction when opposing forces met and did not back off. Examples of this were the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Khe Sahn. But these battles were not truly representative of the war. The Vietnam War was most often a small unit war, with vicious small unit battles.
American forces relied on overwhelming and lethal firepower support. Examples of this support were artillery from a support base, air support from carriers, and fixed wing aircraft with rockets, bombs, and napalm
Helicopter gun ships provided machine gun and rocket fire support. The helicopters could also bring in reinforcements.
In June 1966 President Johnson approved a drastic expansion of the bombing of North Vietnam. This was known as Operation Rolling Thunder. B-52s and other aircraft made 79,000 bombing runs against North Vietnam in 1966 and 108,000 in 1967. According to the book The Vietnam War by Mark Atwood Lawrence, the bombing campaign “destroyed 59% of North Vietnam’s power plants, 55% of its major bridges, and killed an estimated 52,000 North Vietnamese.”(Lawrence 99)
Despite its overwhelming nature the bombing campaign was not particularly successful. The gradual expansion of the bombing gave North Vietnam time to disperse its industrial facilities. In addition, the targets of Operation Rolling Thunder were mainly industrial sites and North Vietnam was predominately an agricultural society and not heavily dependent on industry. Also, The north received a great deal of Chinese and Soviet assistance. The Soviet Union provided anti-aircraft weapons and crews to operate them, resulting in heavy U.S. aircraft losses. North Vietnam moved factories and supplies to remote locations (Lawrence 101). For all these reasons, North Vietnam was able to withstand the heavy bombing campaign.
One element of Attrition Warfare in Vietnam was the U.S. strategy of doing Search and Destroy missions. The United States determined the success of each search and destroy mission by a body count, and therefore the objective of these missions was to kill as many opposing soldiers as possible. The Search and Destroy missions were assignments where a group of U.S. soldiers would storm villages and kill all the Vietcong soldiers in that area (Turner 26). Because there were not many Vietcong troops taking up base in Southern Vietnam, these Search and Destroy missions would successfully eliminate the enemy without very many casualties to the United States. As explained in the book The Ten Thousand Day War by Michael Maclear, “Villages suspected of aiding the enemy could be ordered destroyed by the search commander” (Maclear 157). The difficulty of distinguishing between guerrillas and regular villagers often resulted in civilian casualties.
A civilian during a search and destroy mission
In what was the most shocking Search and Destroy mission of the Vietnam War, on March 16, 1968, lieutenant W.L. Calley led a platoon of thirty men, members of Charlie Company, into a village in central Quang Ngai province. According to the book Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse, “What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the other soldiers asked: ‘are we supposed to kill women and children?’ and Captain Medina’s reply: ‘kill everything that moves’” (Turse 2). It has been estimated that between 200 and 500 unarmed villagers were killed. Women and children were raped and animals were slaughtered (Turse 3). This tragic Search and Destroy mission is known as the My Lai Massacre.
To help compensate for their technological inferiority, the Vietcong resorted to ambushes, hit-and-run attacks, and close in fighting. According to the book The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold, “For a guerrilla army, stalemate- pinning down a larger force in its huge bases – is equivalent to winning” (Mangold 64). This makes sense because the larger U.S. force pinned down was prevented from launching any attacks of its own.
The Vietcong engaged in battle only when they felt they had a tactical advantage. If the Vietcong did not have a tactical advantage they would stay underground in their complex and hard to find tunnel system and let the Americans pass.
Lanning, Michael. Inside the VC and NVA. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. Print.
Lawrence, Mark. The Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Maclaer, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Print
Mangold, Tom. The Tunnels Of Cu Chi. New York: Random House, Inc., 1985. Print
Turner, Fred. Echoes of Combat. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996. Print
Turse, Nick. Kill Anything That Moves. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013. Print
Weist, Andrew. Vietnam A View From The Front Lines. Long Island City: Osprey Publishing, 2012. Print.