(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following dispatch from Charles Black, Enquirer military writer in Viet Nam covering the 1st Cavalry Division, was mailed Nov. 14.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
DUC CO, Viet Nam - Communist prisoners taken at Plei Me indicate that the first battle there was little more than a field exercise for green North Vietnamese units.
It was very evident the objective of the attack on the camps was not to overrun them but to put them under such pressure that relief simply had to be committed.
The real objectives are the ambush sites. This weary game has been played out for years in the Vietnamese war and it deserves some attention by the men in charge.
The solution is actually a simple one and it is certainly an obvious one. The Special Forces camps in these areas are kept so fully occupied, with providing for their own security that they don’t function for any other real purpose.
Labor is expended on adding to wire entanglements, digging shelters, clearing brush and grass and building up a useless fortress.
Patrols are sent out not so much with the mission of offensive action and of pacifying the area as to keep an attacking force from gathering around the camp - and, even this objective usually isn’t attained.
When local recruits are trained, they are usually fed right into the defensive requirements of keeping the camp secure. The North Viet Nam units use the camps, then, simply as bait.
The little force pinned like a butterfly for the methodical tacticians in the training camps north of the 17th parallel and a plan achieved months in advance can be followed to the letter by the units coming to South Viet Nam - with apparent absolute assurance that the camp will be taken by surprise and that the units sent to relieve it will wearily accept the lot of proceeding into the prepared ambushes.
Since a well-prepared ambush is practically impossible to spot and since the camps are the focal point for all other plans of offensive action by the PAVN (Peoples Army of North Viet Nam) forces - and often enough by the main force Viet Cong guerrillas who are much more fanatical and vicious foes - and since there isn’t too much being accomplished by these exposed outposts, the solution would seem to be just to tear them down and be done with it.
The entire concept of the Special Forces has been toyed with by men outside of it, and who must have had better things to do, so that it is almost lost now.
These troops were originated as an offensive weapon. They were conceived as a force which would infiltrate an enemy area in secrecy and organize and train guerrillas to operate in that area.
Somebody commenced talking about “bolsheviks and snake eaters” and now men wearing the clean collars of the Saigon Sappers smile rather smugly as they explain the emasculated concept of the Special Forces as one of “counter-guerrilla” activity.
The new “basic mission” is defensive by definition and lends itself neatly to the refrigerator-equipped “camps” which are so handy for Viet Cong planners. It is time to change this and to return to reality.
The A teams in this country need to be kicked back out into the brush where they can give their CIDG fighters the kind of training they need and where they will have to operate in a sneaky and offensive manner - ambushing, patrolling, and hiding their tracks for security. They can bring their bands back into areas made safe by the power of conventional forces when rest, recreation and a square meal is dictated. This would produce more intelligence, it would make the infiltrating North Viet Nam troops frightened of the night and it would put some sense back into the Special Forces program here.
I am talking about the Central Highlands area in these paragraphs. I’m not prepared to make such armchair general remarks on anything in the Mekong Delta areas and I see advantages to the camps when they are located in populous zones even in this region.
The ones out in the boondocks are simply stupid, however. They sop up precious airlift capability; require enormous loads of supplies which could be put to better use; waste the talents, training and dedication of fine NCO’s and officers. Any good they do is overshadowed by their availability as bait in Communist operations.
I am certain that the men in charge of planning these affairs in Hanoi must be bored by them and astonished that the game is allowed to continue for so long.
Even at this writing, after the 1st Air Cavalry’s 1st Brigade provided the first new development in the long and hackneyed history of these actions by pursuing and hacking up the PAVN attacking force when tradition dictated that the fight was over and everybody would proceed as before, it is predictable that someplace in the very near future a Special Forces Camp will be hit by the 324th PAVN Division.
This unit is now resting up across the Cambodian border southwest of Duc Co after leaving North Viet Nam on Aug. 15 and walking through Laos. If the game is played out, a South Viet Nam relief force will proceed to the camp’s rescue with all concerned fully aware that the relief force will be ambushed.
Plei Me should have been enough of this kind of military tradition established by the 40 or 50 other such events which had preceded it, but the reaction of military bureaucracy is no swifter than any other so it is possible that the whole farce will be run through just once more to make certain that something should be done about it.
The trip to Duc Co showed me that good men, in fact some of the finest men the U.S. Army can provide, can be used for a sterile purpose and sacrificed to needlessness simply because a program got under way once and the inertia keeps it rolling along.
It also showed me the heights to which heroism and dedication among our professional soldiers can scale.
The Special Forces A Team at Duc Co had its feet planted and were doing their best to carry out their work of training troops and fighting the enemy when I saw them.
I hope that they and the others penned up in the barbed wire traps have good luck and that somebody does something about the situation.
What is more likely, however, is this:
Somebody in an office will take great umbrage at this article and maintain that the team at Duc Co is somehow at fault for my observations and judgments.
The team will have a load of reports and paperwork and irate letters put on top of the other useless endeavors of the camp.
This is as predictable as the next PAVN or Viet Cong attack on the next camp someplace and the ambush of the relief column. It will make me unpopular with the men I met in Duc Co because they have enough trouble already and it will make me unpopular in many staff offices as well.
I worry more about the opinion of the men at Duc Co, however, than about the latter. The staff men are in a position to remedy the problem. The A Team has to live with it or die with it.
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