Search and Destroy

The three most basic operations or missions were:

1. Search and destroy,

2. Clearing,

3. Security.

These terms and the concepts they described were new, and like most new names and ideas, they were understood by some and misunderstood by others. Best known and most misunderstood was search and destroy. Search and destroy operations began in 1964, before U.S. ground forces were committed. These operations were conducted to locate the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong main force units in and around their base areas and to attack them by fire and maneuver. Since enemy infiltration of the populated areas depended heavily on the availability of base areas near the population centers, destruction of close-in base areas received priority attention.

The second of the three basic missions was clearing. Clearing operations were conducted to drive enemy forces away from populated areas and to allow small units to carry on securing activities among the people. These operations upset the pattern of mutual support that was essential to the enemy’s integrated main force-local force effort. Operation IRVING demonstrated the clearing of the central coastal area of Binh Dinh Province and the effects of the operation on the inhabitants.

Securing operations, the last of the three missions, were directed at the enemy in the hamlets-at the infrastructure and the farmers by day and at the Viet Cong guerrillas by night-who operated individually as well as in squads and platoons. These enemy elements required tactics that were different from those used against the main forces. Saturation patrols and squad-size ambushes, which were highly risky in the jungle against the main forces, proved to be effective against the local guerrillas. During securing operations, U.S. and allied forces maintained a respect for private property and for the people whose hearts and minds were the objectives of the enemy forces.

General Maxwell D. Taylor, who was appointed Ambassador to Saigon in mid-1964, believed that a carefully calibrated air campaign would be the most effective means of exerting pressure against the North and, at the same time, the method least likely to provoke intervention by China. Taylor thought conventional Army ground forces ill suited to engage in day-to-day counterinsurgency operations against the Viet Cong in hamlets and villages. Ground forces might, however, be used to protect vital air bases in the South and to repel any North Vietnamese attack across the demilitarized zone, which separated North from South Vietnam. Together, a more vigorous counterinsurgency effort in the South and military pressure against the North might buy time for Saigon to put its political house in order, boost flagging military and civilian morale, and strengthen its military position in the event of a negotiated peace.

Throughout the spring of 1965 the Viet Cong sought to disrupt pacification and oust the government from many rural areas. The insurgents made deep inroads in the central coastal provinces and withstood government efforts to reduce their influence in the Delta and in the critical provinces around Saigon. Committed to static defense of key towns and bases, government forces were unable or unwilling to respond to attacks against rural communities.

By the summer of 1965, the Viet Cong, strengthened by several recently infiltrated NVA regiments, had gained the upper hand over government forces in some areas of South Vietnam. With U.S. close air support and the aid of Army helicopter gunships, Saigon’s forces repelled many enemy attacks, but suffered heavy casualties. Elsewhere highland camps and border outposts had to be abandoned. ARVN’s cumulative losses from battle deaths and desertions amounted to nearly a battalion a week. Saigon was hard pressed to find men to replenish these heavy losses and completely unable to match the growth of Communist forces from local recruitment and infiltration.

In early March 1965, General Harold K. Johnson, Chief of Staff of the Army, was in South Vietnam to assess the situation. Upon returning to Washington, he recommended a substantial increase in American military assistance, including several combat divisions. He wanted U.S. forces either to interdict the Laotian panhandle to stop infiltration or to counter a growing enemy threat in the central and northern provinces.

The commitment of U.S. forces in 1965 prevented the enemy from attaining his objectives and averted collapse in the south. In this environment of impending disaster U.S. units were first ordered to search for and destroy or neutralize North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces, base areas, and supply points. The question of how best to use large numbers of American ground forces was still unresolved on the eve of their deployment. Focusing on population security and pacification, some planners saw U.S. combat forces concentrating their efforts in coastal enclaves and around key urban centers and bases. Under this plan, such forces would provide a security shield behind which the Vietnamese could expand the pacification zone; when required, American combat units would venture beyond their enclaves as mobile reaction forces. This concept, largely defensive in nature, reflected the pattern established by the first Army combat units to enter South Vietnam.

But the mobility and offensive firepower of U.S. ground units suggested their use in remote, sparsely populated regions to seek out and engage main force enemy units as they infiltrated into South Vietnam or emerged from their secret bases. The pattern of deployment that actually developed in South Vietnam was a compromise between the first two concepts. On 28 July 1965, President Johnson announced plans to deploy additional combat units and to increase American military strength in South Vietnam to 175,000 by year’s end.

During 1966 and 1967, the Americans engaged in a constant search for tactical concepts and techniques to maximize their advantages of firepower and mobility and to compensate for the constraints of time, distance, difficult terrain, and an inviolable border. Here the war was fought primarily to prevent the incursion of NVA units into South Vietnam and to erode their combat strength. In the highlands, each side pursued a strategy of military confrontation, seeking to weaken the fighting forces and will of its opponent through attrition. Each sought military victories to convince opposing leaders of the futility of continuing the contest. For the North Vietnamese, however, confrontation in the highlands had the additional purpose of relieving allied pressure in other areas, where pacification jeopardized their hold on the rural population.

Four phases of the Vietnam strategy have been described by General Westmoreland. All four phases emphasized strengthening the Republic of Vietnam armed forces. In addition, during the first phase, from mid-1965 to mid-1966, the enemy offensive was blunted.. The second phase, from mid-1966 to the end of 1967, saw the mounting of major offensives that forced the enemy into defensive positions and drove him away from the population centers. In phase three, beginning in early 1968, the Vietnamese armed forces were addition?ally strengthened, and more of the war effort was turned over to them. The final phase called for further weakening of the enemy and strengthening of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam as the U.S. role became, in the words of General Westmoreland, “progressively superfluous.”

The communist army simply refused to fight unless it had a distinct advantage. The JCS reported in 1972 that of all the American patrols conducted in 1967 and 1968-years of peak combat activity in the war-less than 1 percent resulted in contact with the enemy. When South Vietnamese patrols are considered as well, the number drops to one-tenth of 1 percent! (Edward Doyle, Samuel Lipsman et al., America Takes Over, The Vietnam Experience [Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1982], 60).

The third phase of the war began in early 1968. Although the objectives of the second phase included wearing down the enemy and driving him away from the population centers, they did not take into consideration that the enemy was a victim of his own propaganda, that he was irrational, or that he was prepared to pay an awesome price to enter the cities of South Vietnam.

Early in the third phase the U.S. command recognized that the term “search and destroy” had unfortunately become associated with “aimless searches in the jungle and the destruction of property.” In April 1968 General Westmoreland therefore directed that the use of the term be discontinued. Operations thereafter were defined and discussed in basic military terms which described the type of operation, for example, reconnaissance in force. Besides avoiding the mis-understanding of search and destroy operations, the change expressed the difference between U.S. operations in the early stages of the war and those conducted during the third phase. In the early stages, the terms “clearing,” “securing,” and “search and destroy” had served as doctrinal teaching points to show the relationship between military operations and the pacification effort. They had been adopted in 1964 for use by military and civilian agencies involved in pacification. By 1968, when the terms were dropped, the pacification program had developed to the point where civilian-military co-ordination was routine.


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