Just before Saigon’s police chief, Col. Nguyen Van Luan, was killed by a misfired American rocket, he noted bitterly that U.S. air strikes in the city’s suburbs were helping the enemy more than hurting them.
“The Vietcong has no Air Force of his own so he uses ours,” he said a week prior to his death–a remark which must be classed as one of the most ironic of the war.
The continued use of American air and artillery power in the cities of Vietnam since the Tet offensive has created more refugees, destroyed more allied property, and killed more civilians in the urban areas than all the Vietcong rocket and mortar attacks during the entire war.
In Hue alone, US jets and helicopters, plus Marine 106-mm. cannon, turned Vietnam’s once most beautiful city to rubble and created more than 200,000 refugees. In Saigon, at least half a million Vietnamese fled their homes before U.S. planes leveled them. The number of civilian dead can only be surmised, but conservative estimates put the figure in the thousands.
When it became apparent in February that the United States would respond to Vietcong infiltration of the cities with the same massive fire power used for years in the countryside, many Vietnamese observers in Saigon were quietly crediting Gen. Nguyen Vo Giap with a new and shrewd tactical innovation.
“Giap realizes that the government’s last refuge in Vietnam is the cities. Now he is out to destroy these havens by turning our own guns against us,” a prominent Vietnamese Senator told me.
Its simplicity made Giap’s new strategy seem all the more cunning. By infiltrating a handful of snipers into a few blocks, he induced U.S. and South Vietnamese military commanders to destroy entire areas. For example, it is estimated that only three snipers were firing from the An Quang pagoda before this symbolic home of thousands of Vietnamese Buddhists was leveled.
One source who shouId know claims that Giap did not devise this strategy a priori. “Giap never dreamed the Americans would dive bomb their own cities,” Wilfred Burchett told me in an interview in Cambodia recently. He said that the decision to attack the cities was a resumption of tactics broken off in early 1965 when the National Liberation Front was prevented from winning the war by the massive U.S. troop buildup.
“By the beginning of this year, Giap had retrained and regrouped his main force units which he withdrew from action in 1965.” The Tet offensive, according to Burchett, indicated that Giap felt the countryside was under control and it was time to begin the final battle for the cities.
Whether the North Vietnamese or Vietcong leadership hit on the theory of using U.S. fire power before the offensive, or have simply seized upon a windfall since then, is of little help to the American commanders faced with the choice of how to combat urban infiltration. As the military see it, they must drive out the snipers either by house-to-house fighting or by leveling the area.
The disastrous outcome of the former tactic was proved in the battle of the Citadel in Hue, where 50 per cent of several companies of the First Battalion, Fifth Marines were killed or wounded during street fighting inside the walled city. The Marines spent three weeks advancing house by house for about fifteen blocks along the eastern wall of the fort. The thick masonry of the well-constructed homes plus the proximity of the enemy (two or three houses away in some cases) made air and artillery strikes impractical. The Marines had to run through the open streets to advance while the snipers fired from concealed positions. Those of us who were there estimated the kill ratio to be around 3 to 1 in favor of the North Vietnamese.
When it was over, a young Marine officer cursed the tactics which cost the lives of so many of his men: “We should have pulled back and blown the place apart.” It was done in the main city on the far side of the Perfume River, where 80 per cent of the buildings were destroyed.
“Blowing the place apart” has been the normal strategy used in urban areas since the battle for the cities began early this year. If the price in American lives has been held down, the overall cost has been geometrically inflated.
Not only must an additional million refugees be fed, clothed and sheltered, and thousands of homes be rebuilt with U.S. dollars but a significant shift in Vietnamese attitudes toward the war has resulted. From the poorest peasant angered at the American planes strafing his home, to high officials such as the late Colonel Luan, a growing distaste for the war threatens to crack the fragile government structure now headed by President Thieu.
Dr. Phan Quang Dan, one of Saigon’s most popular politicians, has recently been ousted as Minister of State for publicly stating what more and more Vietnamese are privately saying. Dr. Dan told an audience at the Hoover Institute in California that the Saigon government should be more liberal in agreeing to talks with the Vietcong. “Either you kill them all or you talk to them, and killing all of them is impossible,” he said. For this suggestion, considered treasonous in Saigon, he was stripped of his portfolio only four weeks after becoming a minister.
The Vietnamese peasants have traditionally been pragmatic in their loyalties, giving allegiance to that side which offers the best protection. The Vietcong’s new Air Force, complete with American markings and pilots, is not likely to stem a growing feeling in Saigon and elsewhere in the country that the best interests of the average Vietnamese will not be served by the Saigon government and its foreign allies.