- - Sunday, June 7, 2015


In April 1970, our brigade commander ordered each of his three line infantry battalions to deploy squad-sized ambushes along the border with Cambodia (which looked like an angel’s wing on the map). This tactic would allow the brigade to completely block the infiltration of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units from Cambodia into South Vietnam. Following the order, a squad-sized unit was hunkered down in ambush positions every 500 meters near the border in the brigade sector.

At this time, I was the battalion acting operations officer, having just given up command of a rifle company. The brigade commander’s clever tactic was a complete flop. Several company-sized NVA units crossed through our lines over a couple days. Our young “shake-and-bake” squad leaders would call in the NVA movements, sometimes after they passed literally through their ambush sites so as to not alert the NVA soldiers. Not a single ambush was sprung by our troops.

The brigade commander and his staff lived in a compound in the Division Base Camp at Cu Chi. They were in an ivory tower of reports, radio traffic, map boards, and meals prepared and served by local Vietnamese in their officers’ mess. So removed from the war, how could they have known this plan would fail completely?

They could not know unless they had led at the platoon or company level. Then they would have understood that in order for an infantry unit to initiate offensive action, several conditions must be met. First, the unit had to have either an officer or a hard-charging non-commissioned officer as a leader. Then they had to have a medic, a machine gun and at least two radio operators (to assure one of the two would work to call for Medevac or close air support). The squads deployed by brigade usually had one radio, and about one in three did not have an M-60 machine gun. And finally, the leader had to have some sense that they had a fair chance at a win. This would not be the case for the seven of our soldiers huddled behind the rice paddy dike facing 100 NVA regulars. Most of the troops in our units were draftees. While they would fight bravely, they expected their leaders to give them a fighting chance to win.

Our brigade commander was saved from this tactical debacle by the order from on high to invade Cambodia and take on the NVA divisions operating freely west of “the angel’s wing.” This was an interesting time for our battalion. Before the invasion, we were harassed by brigade headquarters with inane questions such as, during a firefight, “How many rounds have your sniper teams fired?” But when brigade headquarters had to leave the comfort of the Cu Chi base camp and actually operate as a HQ in the field, this nonsense stopped and we were able to get on with the fighting, unencumbered by officers who had nothing to do but fill out reports for division staff to brief and forward to HQ in Saigon.

What does this experience offer to those clever, young staffers crafting military tactics and rules of engagement in the White House National Security Council (NSC) for our military units in Iraq and Syria? Do not expect any military unit, especially a bunch of Iraqi Sunni soldiers led by corrupt Shiite officers, to risk their lives in a fight against ISIS fighters. They will not. And neither would many American troops without effective leaders, adequate weapons, communications, Medevac and close air support, and a fighting chance to win.

Fortunately, our troops have the materiel for battle. But at some point up the chain of command, they have general officers who risked their lives in combat in the past but will not speak truth to the young NSC staffers who set the currently amateurish rules of engagement, define the limits of military power and craft empty speeches in which President Obama declares with a straight face that our goal is to degrade and defeat ISIS.

As someone who cares deeply for our country and still carries grenade fragments from battle, I can only hope that at some point, our troops will be able to say that their senior military leaders choose the truth over political and career expediency. In Vietnam, much of the foolishness was generated by military officers who either never understood battle or had forgotten its lessons. Now this Peter Principle tendency has been exacerbated by the youngsters who rule the NSC.

A country that allows political hacks to set military operations policy has lost its way. And we are lost, for sure.

Lt. Col. Jeff Fuller is a retired infantry and Special Forces officer.

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