Veterans of the Vietnam War have strong opinions of the fighting qualities of their adversaries. Some of them are open in their admiration for the enemy; other less so, even to the point of contempt. Some veterans consider them to be masters of deception, discipline, and skill; others scorn such talk as propaganda fueled by a hostile press and an ignorant public. The truth may be somewhere between these extremes. The VC and NVA may not have been the supermen legend made them out to be, but it cannot be denied that they won the war. Clearly they must have been doing something right.
I found the most balanced view in the opinions of James H. Webb, Jr. Webb was a platoon commander, intelligence officer, and later company commander with the 5th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division from 1969 to 1970. Webb was in the thick of the action for a long period of time, and his views carry much weight. The following comments are taken from the book Inside the VC and the NVA, by Michael Manning and Dan Cragg, which for me remains the most authoritative study on the subject of the armed forces of North Vietnam during the conflict.
This subject has a contemporary relevance today, and we should not forget this. No one who has followed the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency in Syria and Iraq can fail to draw historical comparisons between this insurgency and the earlier enemy that the United States fought in Vietnam. In some respects, the two groups share similarities; but in others, they are radically different.
Webb served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy from 1984 to 1988. I should also add that I met him once, very briefly; it was many years ago, at the US Marine Corps’s Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. He radiated a youthful vigor and command presence that instantly inspired devotion and trust, at least for me. His novel, Fields of Fire, is highly recommended as the semi-autobiographical account of one lieutenant’s experience in the field. I read it a long time ago, in the early 1990s, when I was stationed on Okinawa. I still think about it sometimes.
Here are Webb’s opinions of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA):
I interrogated a lot of NVA prisoners. Many referred to the VC in the same contemptuous way that a lot of Americans talked about the ARVN. The political discipline of the VC was very strong but their military capabilities varied from unit to unit. The VC units in my area “connected” a lot with the NVA–particularly as transport units and guides for night infiltration…
The VC were capable guerrillas as well. They constructed highly sophisticated booby traps from captured US ordnance. Some of these booby traps were so well concealed that they were like plastic surgery on the earth. Twenty-five to thirty percent of my unit’s casualties were from booby traps. In a booby-trapped region our morale often sagged, knowing that they could hit us like that and we couldn’t hit back. Booby traps create within you an emotional uneasiness with the earth.
However, I’d say that the morale of the VC was low in ’69 because by then we’d beaten the crap out of them and they knew it. VC soldiers seemed less dedicated than those in the NVA. They often seemed happy to be captured while the NVA were scared to death of us at first–they’d been told we’d kill them when we got hold of them. Their political strategy was aimed at their own people. They used assassination as a disciplinary tool. The main element of their political strategy was ruthlessness–a carrot with a very big stick. The South Vietnamese officials literally could not remain in the villages and hamlets they were responsible for administering because of the terrorism the VC used against them and their families.
Probably the bloodiest scene I viewed while in Vietnam was inside a small hootch where we had persuaded thirty people from nearby villages to come to a “town meeting.” Our commanders convinced the District Chief to come out along with the morning convoy from Da Nang–the VC and NVA totally controlled the roads in the An Hoa basin except when protected convoys ran. Although a squad from our company was providing security for the meeting, a small VC assassination team infiltrated in broad daylight.
I was coming back from a patrol. I heard three automatic rifle bursts and three grenade explosions. A few seconds later one of the assassins ran right into my point man By the time we got to the hootch, nineteen people were lying dead in a lake of blood, and the other eleven were hideously wounded–for the crime of meeting with the RVN District Chief, who had also died. That was the VC version of “hearts and minds.”
The NVA were good soldiers but so were we–my Marines were super. We beat the socks off of them most of the time. And I think that needs to be said, because too often it’s forgotten. So were the better ARVN units, like the Rangers. I particularly remember the 51st ARVN Regiment, which operated with good success in the Arizona Valley.
The NVA had great fire discipline and good marksmanship skills. They built excellent fortifications, incredibly impressive trenches and emplacements. They used a “grab and hold” tactic: Their ideal scenario was to wait until we were so close to them that we couldn’t use supporting fires for fear of hitting our own men. That required tremendous fire discipline on their part–to hold off until we were so close. They were able to spring very effective and sizeable daytime ambushes in the trenches and treelines adjacent to wide rice paddies by using the “grab and hold” tactic…
I’ll never forget the letter we took off the body of an NVA sergeant we killed in one engagement. He’d been shot through the waist before we found him and he was obviously bleeding to death at the time, but his last act was to try and grease my point man. He fired an automatic burst from his AK and somehow missed, and we killed him.
We found and unfinished letter on his body. Our Vietnamese interpreter translated it on the spot. He told us it was a letter to the guy’s “congressman” back in North Vietnam. That’s just how the interpreter translated whatever this official’s title happened to be. In the letter this sergeant wrote that he’d been in the army in 1949-54, fighting the French with the Viet Minh, and then again since 1964. Here he was back in the South, still fighting. He said he had teenage children back in the North. He was complaining that he’d had too much war and now he just wanted to go home.
These are some of the views of James Webb on the enemy he faced in Vietnam.