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.