COUNTING VICTOR CHARLIE: SOUTH VIETNAMESE AND
AMERICANS SEARCH FOR AGREEMENT, 1961-1965
Charles R. Anderson
U.S. Army Center of Military History
4th Triennial Symposium
The Vietnam Center
Texas Tech University
12 April 2002
COUNTING VICTOR CHARLIE: SOUTH VIETNAMESE AND
AMERICANS SEARCH FOR AGREEMENT, 1961-1965
Like my colleagues here on the panel, I will be dealing with problems of counting the Viet Cong forces on the battlefield. However, I will be treating the issue before those enemy soldiers became part of anyone's body count. So, if you will bear with me, I will bring the enemy back to life, so to speak, and explore problems encountered by the South Vietnamese and Americans in trying to count them.
In the spring of 1968, immediately after the Communists' Tet Offensive, General William C. Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, requested 205,000 more American troops on top of the nearly half million already in country. The request became controversial among policy makers, members of Congress, and the American people, in part because it implied that previous estimates of enemy strength, and thus estimates of the number of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops needed to defeat them, had suddenly become invalid. The controversy
over troop strength did not go away quietly. Instead, it festered for years, climaxing in a very American spectacle: a media circus trial featuring platoons of lawyers and commentators debating allegations of numbers crunching and conspiracies to mislead.
The contention that surfaced in 1968 over how many American troops would be needed to defeat the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies was not the unexpected appearance of a new problem relating to enemy forces. It was, instead, the flip side of the older problem of counting the enemy. Put simply, before a commander can determine how many troops he will need to defeat an enemy force, he must have a good idea of how many troops the enemy has. The number and type of troops which each side has is referred to as the ORDER OF BATTLE. The contending commanders in modern warfare have on their headquarters staffs order of battle specialists. It is the job of such specialists to study the other side and make an educated guess about the enemy's order of battle, and then keep their own commander informed of any changes they detect. Based on the decision of his order of battle specialists, a commander decides how many troops he needs to send into the field.
Order of battle specialists have a number of sources of information about the other side. These include enemy casualty totals, whenever they can be determined after battles; interrogations of captured enemy; and translations of captured documents relating to recruiting campaigns and training facilities. During the Vietnam War other types of documentation were also useful to order of battle specialists: records of grain storage and equipment and weapons distribution along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, since these would indicate how many fresh troops were approaching the southern battlefields. The processes by which order of battle specialists operate seem logical and reliable. They investigate the same categories of information, and they count the same types of evidence. In fact, however, because the estimating process involves interpretations often arrived at independently, two groups may arrive at substantially different numbers for an enemy's order of battle.
Differences of interpretation and calculation caused South Vietnamese and Americans to reach different estimates of the Viet Cong order of battle. From 1961 through 1965 the South Vietnamese consistently estimated that the Viet Cong had between 2,000 and 7,000 more men than the Americans estimated.
These differing estimates of enemy strength went
unreconciled for years because of several factors. For one,
the South Vietnamese and Americans placed enemy troops in different categories. The South Vietnamese recognized five types of enemy soldiers: a Regimental Headquarters cadre, a Battalion, a Mobile Company, a Local Company, and a Local Platoon. The Americans, however, recognized only four of those categories, and they used different terminology for two of them. The term ”separate” indicated that a unit was not permanently assigned to the same battalion, and it could be deployed across district or provincial boundaries. To the South Vietnamese, the term ”mobile” implied the same flexibility of deployment.
Second, the two national armies decided on their own how many men the Viet Cong enrolled in their units. For most armies, the question of how many men are in each unit--that is, the issue of force structure--is a very standardized one. For the Viet Cong, however, the issue depended on the recruiting potential of each region, province, and district. In some areas the insurgent recruiters found a receptive population. In others they met with resistance. The result was that in different districts, for example, a local company could vary in strength between 50 and 100, and in different provinces a battalion could vary between 300 and 600 men. In addition, depending on how often the local company had been called upon to join a field operation, its strength might be further reduced by illness and casualties. After interrogating the same prisoners of war, it was possible for South Vietnamese and Americans to disagree on the strength of the same Viet Cong unit.
Third, the South Vietnamese and Americans issued their own estimates of the enemy order of battle separately each quarter, even though they held frequent meetings about order of battle developments, and often shared captured documents and sometimes jointly interviewed prisoners.
Finally, since the relationship between South Vietnamese and Americans was officially a partnership of equals, neither side could order the other to adopt its interpretations of evidence and estimates.
In one respect the American side of the partnership contributed to the difficulty of agreeing on the Viet Cong order of battle. In October 1963, MACV changed its terms of calculation for the strength of enemy units. Before the change, MACV assumed a strength of 100 for a Viet Cong company, and 30 for a platoon. After the change, the Americans assumed no standard strengths for enemy units but based all estimates on prisoner interrogations or captured documents.
The persistence of these different estimates of Viet Cong strength were frustrating to Americans in the MACV order of battle section. But there was something about the South Vietnamese that was even more irritating. They allowed themselves to be stampeded by the Viet Cong into making radical short term adjustments to order of battle estimates. Specifically, whenever the enemy mounted an unusually successful operation, the South Vietnamese dramatically increased their estimate of enemy strength.
One such example occurred in September 1961. On the night of the 17th-18th, an estimated three enemy battalions attacked Phuoc Vinh, the capital of Phuoc Thanh Province, just 35 miles north of Saigon. In a well-organized operation, the Viet Cong overran and occupied the capital city for several hours. During that time, they assembled the townspeople to witness show trials of local officials, and then executed the province chief, his assistant, and two other persons before the horrified populace.
In the wake of this event, which was the first time the Viet Cong had taken over a provincial capital, South Vietnamese military officials concluded that there must be many more Viet Cong in their country than they had thought. They quickly increased their estimate of enemy strength from about 22,000 before the attack to 41,000 after.
A second unusually alarmist estimate occurred just five months later, in response to an enemy action 350 miles north of Saigon in Quang Nam Province. On the night of 27 February 1962, a Viet Cong battalion attacked the Hau Duc District Capital west of DaNang. After killing or capturing the entire local militia company defending the capital, the Viet Cong occupied the town for three days. This was the first time a district capital in the northern-most I Corps Tactical Zone had been taken over by an enemy force. While fighting their way toward the capital, government troops were ambushed several times and, in the end, absorbed more casualties than the Viet Cong.
After this enemy success, the South Vietnamese were convinced that the attack must have been preceded by a massive infiltration of enemy troops. Accordingly, they increased their estimate of enemy strength from 26,100 before the attack to 46,000 after.
An even more alarmist adjustment of the enemy order of battle followed a flurry of Viet Cong attacks the first week of February 1964. In a remarkable demonstration of planning and coordination, the Viet Cong mounted a series of six battalion-size attacks in three provinces in the Mekong Delta over a period of three days. In the largest attack, which took place 45 miles northwest of Saigon, insurgents killed at least 94 South Vietnamese troops and possibly as many as 114, depending on various reports, and wounded another 32 from a relief force. Convinced that these attacks indicated a dramatic inflow of enemy forces from Cambodia, the South Vietnamese increased their estimate of insurgent strength from just over 34,000 to 147,000.
The Americans could do little to counter these alarmist estimates of Viet Cong strength. American advisers had been serving at each echelon of the South Vietnamese command structure for years. But advisers could not command; they could only instruct and hope that their counterparts accepted and used their techniques and criteria of interpretation. In March of 1965 the South Vietnamese raised the hopes of American order of battle specialists that the problem of different estimates might be solved by agreeing to the joint publication of estimates. However, as soon as the first joint estimate was distributed it was clear that joint publication was not the answer. The South Vietnamese insisted that their figures on the enemy were valid, and while they understood the process by which the Americans operated, they still believed that policy makers and field commanders would benefit from an awareness of the statistical range that came out of the application of the same basic methodology. As a result, the gap in estimates persisted.
The inability of South Vietnamese and American order of battle specialists to agree on their estimates in the period 1961 to 1965 posed only minor problems to field commanders during that time. But when American combat forces were deployed to Vietnam in mid-1965, the potential for major problems arising increased markedly. Within three years the potential became real, and General Westmoreland found himself confronting a skeptical and hostile audience of office holders and citizens in the United States as he sought to finalize what appeared to him a knockout blow against the Viet Cong.
. Report, Maj. Paul E. Suplizio, subject: A Study of the Military Support of Pacification in South Vietnam, April 1964-April 1965, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, 1966, Chap. 4.
. Memo, Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State, for the Secretary of State, 8 Nov 63, sub: JCS Comments on Department of State Research Memorandum RFE-90, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Vietnam, 4:583.
. Message, U.S. Embassy, Saigon, 385 to Department of State, 20 Sep 61; Message, Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Department of Army, to U.S. Army Attache, Saigon, 17 Oct 61, both in Historians files, CMH.
. Record, Third Secretary of Defense Conference, 19 Feb 62, item 1, pp. 1-2, Historians files, CMH.
. New York Times,7 Feb 64.