The following reflections on the Vietnam War were written by General Frederick Kroesen, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, in his memoir “General Thoughts: Seventy-Five Years with the Army” published in 2007 by the US. Army Association. Kroesen, who commanded a brigade and a division in Vietnam, passed away at age 97 this April 30 and has received a tribute in the Farewell section of the August 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine.
★ I first went to Vietnam in 1968 to become a brigade commander in the Americal Division. When I assumed command of the 196th Brigade it was in very good condition. Morale was high in all the battalions, and I thought the commanders had a sense of confidence that only a very good combat outfit could have. The brigade had been tried severely under fire and had proven that it was a capable, professional organization.
★ My company and field grade commands were almost all in combat zones, so I learned firsthand why men fight. They fight for each other. The principal thing that keeps men fighting together in combat is their need for the respect of their own buddies.
★ It had been 13 years since I had last held a command. I had commanded a battalion as a major in Korea, so I was not given a battalion while I was a lieutenant colonel. I spent my years from 1955 to 1968 in staff duties, going to school and on the faculty of the Army War College. Frankly, I was ill-prepared professionally for the job of commanding a brigade. For example, I had never fired the M16 rifle. I had a lot of catching up to do in basic soldiering and in remembering the requirements for command.
★ While serving in Vietnam, I earned my third Combat Infantryman’s Badge – one of my proudest possessions – and my second Purple Heart, having already received one in World War II.
★ In the early stages of the Vietnam buildup it was a constant struggle to properly time the activation of units and organizations that were requested by MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and get them trained and shipped. My experience in building and then disassembling the Army that went to Vietnam gave me a long-standing interest in force management.
★ Shortly after I assumed command, the brigade was ordered to conduct Operation Pocahontas Forest, a foray to move farther west in Quang Tin Province than the division had ever before ventured. For almost six weeks we established new fire bases and prowled the jungle, but with little effect. The enemy chose to retire rather than fight. Nevertheless, it was a valuable operation from my standpoint.
★ We had some very successful combat operations and some very successful civic action projects while I was commanding the brigade. I was most proud that during my year with the 196th Brigade we were able to reestablish the district of Hiep Duc, the westernmost district in Quang Tin Province.
★ North Vietnam exploited the guerilla efforts of the Viet Cong, establishing the base for their winning strategy.
★ Vietnam also became a ground force war, one won eventually by the North Vietnamese despite the complete absence of an air force on their side and an almost unlimited air campaign on our side that delivered bomb tonnage far in excess of that expended in World War II.
★ There was a buildup in the early 1960s much like that of the early 1980s during the Reagan administration, so the Army was a confident, professional organization from 1960 to 1965, and it went to Vietnam in very good condition. The United States had an Army that was prepared properly in 1965 to go to war, but the nation was not ready to employ or sustain it properly. The military was committed piecemeal with policies that assured a sort of self-destruction.
★ By 1968, the Army was a shadow of what it had been in 1965. It was not really ready for that war, any more than it had been for any others.
★ It was in Vietnam that the centralization of control reached an apex, with the White House dictating bombing targets and division and brigade commanders playing “squad leader in the sky.” We reached a condition in which the chain of command was in a state of dysfunction.
★ We had three-star generals worrying about what captains and platoon leaders should have been worrying about. As we got into the Vietnam War, we continued the same kind of thing where we had “squad leaders in the sky” telling the squad leaders on the ground how to fight their war. That practice took the initiative away from the non-commissioned officers and junior officers. It got everybody looking over his shoulder waiting for somebody to tell him what to do and how to do it.
★ In Vietnam low-level commanders were subject to a cluster of helicopters carrying higher commanders calling for information, offering advice, making unwanted decisions and generally interfering with what squad leaders and platoon leaders and company commanders were trying to do.
★ In Vietnam, “bombing them back to the Stone Age” was a popular thought, and indeed we expended bomb tonnage in a greater quantity than we had used against Germany trying to do that, but we did not win that war because we never employed a maneuver force to threaten the destruction of the communist regime.
★ The ultimate loss of South Vietnam, caused by the terms of the Paris peace accords of 1973 and the congressional denial of subsequent air and logistical support, does not change the observation that the war was won at the end of 1972.
★ In Vietnam our commanders shared command and control helicopters with their counterparts, accompanying them on Army of Vietnam (ARVN) combat actions. Advisors in Special Forces camps, districts guarded by popular force platoons, and all ARVN battalions were expected to be present and take part in the combat operations of their units. With few exceptions our advisors were highly respected, well-liked, wanted and considered essential by their counterparts. Their acceptance stemmed primarily from their presence and willingness to take part, share risks and endure hardships.
★ No one today disputes the stark realities from which the Army had to recover after its withdrawal from Vietnam. Great credit has devolved on the architects who rebuilt the U.S. Army from its historic nadir in 1972 to the world-class capability it displayed in Just Cause and Desert Storm, but little attention has been paid to the causes of the conditions from which it had to recover.
★ Both the Korean and Vietnam Wars should have taught us that preparing for a long haul is an essential element of our national strategy if we are intent on winning.
Gen. Kroesen has received a Farewell tribute in the August 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine. Read his full memoir online at: https://www.ausa.org/sites/default/files/SR-2007-General-Thoughts-Seventy-Five-Years-with-the-Army.pdf
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