Why did the vast US war machine come to grief in the jungles and paddies of Vietnam? Or put another way: How did the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) survive the fearful battering they received and sweep on to victory?
The nightmare of Vietnam may be dimming in the nation's memory. Indeed, the beguiling place names that struck dread into US troops and a watching television audience may today seem as remote as craters on the moon. But for the last few years, while Pentagon chiefs have been poring over maps of the Persian Gulf and adjacent areas, Lt. Col. William Darryl Henderson has been pondering the reasons for America's humiliation in South Vietnam and setting down his conclusions in a book entitled "Why the Vietcong Fought," published earlier this year.
In a telephone interview from Mountain View, Calif., where he is serving with the 351st Civil Affairs Command, a unit of the US Army Reserve, Colonel Henderson, who fought in Vietnam, warns that it would be dangerous for the nation to ignore the lessons of the war.
In this book Henderson observes that at the height of its power in Vietnam, the United States deployed 40 percent of its combat-ready divisions, one-half of its tactical airpower, and 33 percent of its naval forces in the country. "The final victory of US troops should not have been in doubt," he declares.
But despite this formidable array of military might, the VC and NVA (he regards them as one and the same) managed to survive what he describes as "the most continuous and intense firepower ever directed against any army."
Morale, Colonel Henderson concludes, was the key to the Vietnam war. No amount of napalm, defoliants, gunships, or B-52 strikes, it seems, could make up for the stamina displayed by the communist forces, whom he refers to as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) -- the name they preferred for themselves.
Among US forces, combat power "eroded significantly" as deteriorating morale led to drug abuse, "combat refusals," and even "fraging" (killing of US officers by their own men), Colonel Henderson writes.
Morale among US forces was further sapped by US domestic politics, the "Greening of America," racial friction, and international politics, declares Colonel Henderson, who holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh.
The cohesiveness of US units began to unravel, he suggests, as a result of the one-year combat tour and the rotation of officers and men. "The relatively firm unit cohesion within the Army in Vietnam in 1965 gradually gave way to unit environments in which strangers were thrown together for a few months in an atmosphere of organizational impermanence and uncertainty."
He maintains that the "dismal performance" of the US Army in its latter years in Vietnam is attributable to the collapse of small unit cohesion. "In sharp contrast to this picture of organizational decay was the steadfast cohesion and endurance of the PLA."
So how did the PLA do it?
By the end of 1967 its very survival seemed to be in doubt, asserts Colonel Henderson, pointing out that it had been badly mauled in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1966 and a year later during Operation Attleboro in Tay Ninh Province. Pounded by B-52s and subjected to more conventional firepower than had ever been previously concentrated in an area the size of South Vietnam, PLA main force units "were gradually forced into remote areas and jungle sanctuaries in order to maintain themselves as cohesive, organized units," he observes.
Basing his findings on Rand Corporation interviews of PLA prisoners of war and defectors between 1965 and 1967, he concludes that the PLA's almost unbelievable resiliency was based on:
* The three-man cell, which acted as a "buddy system." As a PLA interviewee put it: "The purpose is . . . to give constant assistance to each other. . . . It usually unites three best friends."
* Cadre leaders, hardened revolutionaries politically and militarily, who were charged with indoctrinating and directing their men in accordance with party goals. Observed Ho Chi Minh: "With good cadres, everything can be done."
* Party organization and ideology, which permeated and controlled the PLA at every level of command.
* The right of PLA troops to discuss and criticize battle plans.
* Vietnamese nationalism and the group orientation of Vietnamese society.
* The importance of "face" and the Vietnamese concern with status.
* Vietnamese fatalism. "Life is endless disillusion," wrote admired Vietnamese scholar Nguyen Kyen, "Success, railure, gain, loss are not worth a jug of wine."
Stressing the importance of the three-man cell, Henderson writes:
"The soldier was never allowed to be an individual and was constantly remined of his duties to his two buddies, to the unit, to the country, and to the party."
"There's a real lesson there for almost any army that wants to observe it," says Henderson, "and that is that unit cohesion makes armies impervious to all sorts of things -- stress in combat, hardship, lack of food, sleep, and so on. One of our biggest shortcomings, I think, is the turbulence in personnel policy that in many cases creates units of strangers. As long as you have units of strangers you can't have good cohesion. It's this cohesion that makes an army able to resist."
The problem, he says, is currently "one of the highest priorities in the Army."
If the US had to fight another Vietnam this year, would it turn in a better performance?
"Well, I sure hope so," the colonel replies. "I'm way out here on the West Coast, and I don't know what the politices would be. But I would hope we've learned some lessons about personnel."
"Why the Vietcong Fought" is published by Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.