The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

I asked General Man about Khe Sanh.

"Westmoreland thought Khe Sanh was Dienbienphu," he said. "But Dienbienphu was the strategic battle for us. We mobilized everything for it. At last we had a chance to have a favorable balance of forces against the French. We never had that at Khe Sanh; the situation would not allow it. We wanted to bring your forces away from the cities, to decoy them to the frontiers, to prepare for our great Tet offensive."

Some American generals and historians agree with him; General Westmoreland, among others, does not. "They put too much into it for it to have been simply a feint," Westmoreland told me after I returned from Vietnam. "They abandoned their attack because we made it impossible for them to win." And Khe Sanh, for Westmoreland, was not simply bait for the STVA or a blocking position to prevent the North Vietnamese from attacking Hue and cutting off the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. It had a potential role of great importance as the base for the campaign that had been crucial to Westmoreland's own offensive strategy since early in the war: a major operation down Route 9 and into Laos, with the purpose of cutting the NVA's single most important asset—the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Without Khe Sanh astride Route 9 the attack would have been impossible; with Khe Sanh secure, Westmoreland could continue to hope that President Johnson would change his mind and allow a strike at the NVA's most vulnerable point. But Johnson never did, and Khe Sanh proved useless as a defensive position; during the Tat offensive the Communists ignored it and seized Hue anyway.

I asked General Man why the people hadn't risen up to join the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive, and if that didn't show that the Viet Cong had lacked the popular support they had always claimed they'd had.

"Not at all," he said. "Uprisings were very successful in 1959 and 1960, the early years of the war. But it would have been suicide to ask the people to rise up unarmed against American soldiers. Uprisings are appropriate only after the armed enemy is paralyzed."

"Why, then, did you call the Tet offensive 'the general offensive/general uprising'?" I asked him. "Isn't an uprising what you expected?"

He looked at me, his eyes harder. "We expected to win, and we did," he said.

But Tin is the Kilroy of Vietnam, who seems always to have been wherever history was being made—from Dienbienphu, where he was a regular soldier, to Saigon, where as a North Vietnamese officer and journalist in 1975 he was present at General Duong Van Minh's surrender. Today he is the military correspondent for the Communist Party newspaper. In his opinion, the Americans lost for three reasons. "One weak point was your rotation of soldiers. You were strangers here anyway, and as soon as someone began to learn the country you sent him home. Your second weak point was to try to win the hearts and minds of the people while you were using bombs to kill them. And finally, you had a very bad ally: ninety percent of the puppet army were corrupt, and the ten percent that were good soldiers were not enough."

Bui Tin saw the best the Americans had—the astonishing mobility of helicopters, the terrifying power of artillery and B-52s, and the huge losses that such a modern army could inflict. To the Americans, who were measuring progress in the war by counting bodies, those losses meant we were winning. Our logic was the logic of the trenches of the First World War: if you kill enough of your enemy's troops, sooner or later he will realize that the price is too high and give up. That may be true in the rational world of game theory, but it had no appreciable effect on our enemy in this war. In fact it was true, but for us—we got to the point where our losses were too high, and we quit. The war was the equivalent of Muhammad Ali's Rope a Dope tactic: they let us pound them until we gave up.

I asked Bui Tin about the losses the Viet Cong suffered in the climactic battle of the war, the Tet offensive. "Some companies were wiped out," he said, "and in Saigon and Hue we suffered terrible losses. But we did not lose even one third of all the Viet Cong forces."

I said that seemed like a lot to me, the equivalent of the Americans' losing 180,000 men in one battle. Bui Tin brushed this aside, as every Vietnamese did every mention of the size of losses, underscoring how the American strategy of attrition was doomed to failure. "We had hundreds of thousands killed in this war. We would have sacrificed one or two million more if necessary. Every family has had relatives killed. I myself have closed the eyes on hundreds of my comrades. Many of my closest friends sacrificed their lives. But we had no choice!"

Late one afternoon, as the light was fading, I met with General Nguyen Xuan Hoang, the principal army historian of the war. He had joined the fight against the French in Hanoi in 1945. He fought at Dienbienphu and in 1965 was the aide to the general commanding the North Vietnamese forces at the first big battle with the Americans, the battle of the Ia Drang, in the central highlands, near the Cambodian border.

"I look back on that time with sadness," he told me. "By the end of 1964 our forces in the South had defeated the puppet troops. The war could have ended then, without so much bloodshed and suffering." (Later, in Saigon, a veteran of the Viet Cong told me the same thing, with an added barb. "If you had not come in," he said, "we Southerners could have won the war and set up our own government. Thanks to you, the Northerners had to come to our aid. They took over the war, and now they have taken over the country. And you are to blame.")

I asked General Hoang about the battle of the Ia Drang, which had done so much to shape the war's future tactics. He had fought there, and he told me how the thinking had developed.

"We could not indulge in wishful thinking. We were facing a modern army, very mobile, never short of firepower. When you sent the 1st Cavalry to attack us at the Ia Drang, it gave us headaches trying to figure out what to do. General Man [the NVA commander] and I were very close to the front, and several times the American troops came very near us. With the helicopters you could strike deep into our rear without warning. It was very effective. But your troops were never really prepared. The 1st Cavalry came out to fight us with one day's food, a week's ammunition. They sent their clothes back to Saigon to be washed. They depended on water in cans, brought in by helicopter.

"Our mobility was only our feet, so we had to lure your troops into areas where helicopters and artillery would be of little use. And we tried to turn those advantages against you, to make you so dependent on them that you would never develop the ability to meet us on our terms—on foot, lightly armed, in the jungle. Because you depended on artillery, you built fire bases and seldom went beyond their range. And once you had built a fire base, you didn't move it. So we knew how to stay away from your artillery, or how to get so close you couldn't use it. Also, you seldom knew where we were, and you seldom had a clear goal. So your great advantages ended up being wasted, and you spent so much of your firepower against empty jungle. You fell into our trap. Our guerrillas served to keep you divided. You could not concentrate your forces on our regular troops, so your advantages were dissipated."

I replied that we had been more effective than that: the Viet Cong had been destroyed after Tet, and by 1969 pacification was working. The Communists were unable to mount a single major offensive in 1969, and much of the countryside was secure. Also, whenever American troops faced Communist regular forces in major battles, either we were clearly victorious or the outcome was a draw.

He smiled indulgently at me. "Of course we had many losses, suffered many defeats. But we never stopped winning the war. Time was on our side. We did not have to defeat you militarily; we had only to avoid losing. A victory by your brave soldiers meant nothing, did nothing to change the balance of forces or to bring you any closer to victory. That was because the people, the Viet Cong, and our regular forces were inseparable. If you had a temporary success against one, the other would take up the battle."

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