May 09, 1966
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.)
By CHARLES BLACK
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.