May 09, 1966

‘Ambush’ Is Term Often Misunderstood

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, is now in the field with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division in Viet Nam.  His dispatches on the war in Southeast Asia will continue daily in The Enquirer.)

Enquirer Military Writer

SAIGON - There is a word which has become famous and infamous in the history of the fighting in South Viet Nam - ambush.

An ambush is defined in the dictionary as “an arrangement of soldiers or others in hiding so as to make a surprise attack.”  The word has always figured largely in Viet Nam fighting.  Correspondents’ accounts often bristle with it, in fact, and not accurately so.

There is a policy among most public information officers with U.S. units in that country, however, to never use it to describe an attack on American forces.

“The good guys don’t get ambushed in this shop,” one PIO told me when I asked about a particular action where Americans had been hit while on the move.

Carries Connotation

The touchiness of officers concerning the word is that it carries a connotation with it - the victims are almost always presumed to have been made suckers for a clever trap set up by the bushwhackers.

Correspondents in Viet Nam, on the other hand, seem overly eager to use the word to describe any action which the Viet Cong undertake.  They talk about the methods of ambush and the craftiness of the VC in setting them as if the tactic has a mystique of its own, as if ambush is the acme of dreadfulness.

Because neither the correspondents who seem to delight in the guile of a VC ambush nor the PIOs who deny Americans ever run into ambushes are correct, and because the argument between these extremes often distorts accounts of action, the way in which fights develop in South Viet Nam deserves some study.

Americans run into three kinds of resistance in this country, and each uses different tactics.

Part-Time Guerrillas

The part-time guerrillas of the villages, sometimes farmers and sometimes fighters, are usually snipers who use electrically detonated charges or mines to pick off vehicles on a road, or who set up small, night-time traps on blind curves where a burst of shotgun and carbine fire is followed by a rapid retreat.

The main force guerrillas, South Vietnamese (sometimes with some regular North Vietnamese Army (troops) formed into regularly organized and equipped battalions with heavy weapons and strict discipline, are the enemy who seem most adept at sophisticated ambush tactics, and they use them by preference.  They work hard at making careful preparations for an ambush.

The units from the People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) which are the main foe in the Central Highlands, have more rigid tactics than the main force units and are not so subtle in their ambush methods.  In fact, they apparently reflect the attitude of almost any regular Army unit toward the elaborate preparations a really sophisticated ambush requires - they are wasteful if a target is not certain and an ambush ties down men who might better be employed as a mobile force.

American units and South Vietnamese units use the ambush tactic when it seems profitable, and have done well with it.  However, it isn’t a good method for men who want to keep pressure on an enemy by hunting him out and keeping after him.

Hastily Arranged

The ambushes set up by American forces are rarely the kind so dear to a guerrilla-aficionado’s heart.  They are usually hastily arranged and uncomplicated, and depend on Claymore mines and the American soldier’s fantastic firepower to provide what they lack in subtleness.

A real ambush is set up with the purpose of luring the enemy into a killing zone or so that the path he is expected to travel is turned into a killing zone.  It is - by definition - an arrangement which has a definite motive behind it of having contact with the enemy.

Often Americans run into hidden PAVN units with a carefully dug-in fringe of fighting holes guarding them.  Correspondents have described these as ambushes, but they are actually defense perimeters.  The enemy involved has as its fondest hope a desire not to be found by the U.S. units.

The dug-in positions here are precautions any unit takes around its camp area.  In such an instance, no matter how violent the surprise to the lead elements of the U.S. units, the PAVNs had been out-generaled because their hideout is located.  The fury which comes from American artillery, air, helicopter aerial rocket artillery and reinforcements is not what they want.

Deployment Tactics

American units on the move have also run into PAVN units which deployed in a fashion tested by Mao Tse-Tung with the Chinese Communist route armies and which is still effective.

The PAVNs almost always move by battalions.  When Americans make the initial contact with a few enemy scouts or snipers, the companies of PAVNs split.  One goes right, one goes left, the rear company and the mortars, rockets, etc., fall back and set up a perimeter for the headquarters group.

When the time is judged right, the PAVN companies moving away from the trail turn and assault back into the advancing Americans, and the mortars and heavy weapons open fire.  This tactic has caused local surprise, but the American units hit with it have recovered with violent reaction and heavy support.

Not Classic Ambush

The tactic is not a classic ambush, of course, because hasty positions can be arranged only by the PAVNs near the mortars, and even then the company there usually is maneuvered as a reserve.  It is, perhaps, a form of mobile ambush, but even giving it that much connotation is risky.

One PAVN unit which used the tactic very effectively considered itself the victim of an American ambush, in fact.

Prisoners taken during this particular fight, which cost the PAVNs four deaths to each American Casualty, said their battalion was attempting to move surreptitiously when the meeting engagement broke out.

They said that they believed the sudden smash of American artillery and helicopter gunships which came quickly to the support of the U.S. unit, followed by the heavy aerial support called in by the Air Force foreword controllers, was evidence of a planned ambush by the Americans.  Several prisoners said they were victims of treachery, that somebody in their unit had betrayed their route to the Americans.

For the purpose of newspaper readers, it is best to view the word “ambush” used in description of Vietnamese actions with a certain caution.
The facts of the fight usually will be written n the article clearly enough for the reader to tell if the unit involved was actually ambushed - attacked from a prepared position set up in the hope the Americans would come - or if it was on the move and had found its target by the age-old method of running into it with vast local surprise for a few seconds on both sides.

And it is also a good thing to remember that running into a prepared ambush isn’t evidence of military obtuseness.  Outfits on the offensive have to move, and moving men are always subject to the ambush tactic and expect it to be used against them.

Sometimes units move deliberately into a mission so important it must be accomplished, but with full knowledge that the ambush technique is going to be employed to stop them.

The victory in such a fight is not automatically to those who set up the ambush, but to the ones who win or lose the fight which follows.

Firepower, support, training and poise of the individual soldier have enabled American units in Viet Nam to beat ambushes with a consistency unusual in combat.


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