/ Published June 30, 2014
Grab Their Belts to Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big-Unit War against the U.S., 1965–1966 by Warren Wilkins. Naval Institute Press, 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, 2011, 288 pp.
One finds an unfortunate level of truth in Warren Wilkins’s assessment that the Vietcong (VC) are popularly remembered as little more than a black-pajama-clad guerrilla force from a bygone chapter in American military history. The vision of men in black dress, sandals, and conical hats running around setting rudimentary booby traps and lining pits with bamboo spears often appears synonymous with Vietnamese guerrilla warfare and the VC’s art of war. Wilkins’s latest contribution to the literature on the Vietnam War demonstrates that this was not necessarily the case. Marrying both communist Vietnamese sources with US military recollections and after-action reports, the author undertakes to show that between 1965 and 1966, communist leaders in the North had a very specific strategy in mind for VC forces fighting in South Vietnam: the big-unit conventional war.
Wilkins, a Fellow at the Center for Threat Awareness, provides a richly detailed history of the VC’s big-unit war by tracing events from the policy-making level in the North right down to the tactical experiences of VC main-force fighters in the South. As a result, he offers readers insight into the plenum meetings of the Communist Party Central Committee and Hanoi’s strategic direction for VC and North Vietnamese army regiments designed to quickly and decisively defeat US and South Vietnamese forces and bring them to the bargaining table. Spreading his analysis to the tactical level of VC warfare, Wilkins underlines the practice of these main-force VC units “hugging” American units in both offensive and defensive actions to separate the American GI from the greatest tool in his inventory—supporting arms.
The book’s title, Grab Their Belts to Fight Them, refers to an oft-recited army mantra that would dictate the VC’s best means of overcoming American conventional military superiority. That is, by getting close enough to see the shine on a GI’s buttons, the VC hoped to void the tactical impact of impressive American firepower employed in support of the infantry. Thus, during engagements at Bau Bang, Trung Loi, the Ia Drang Valley, and others, VC main-force units strove to get close enough to American infantry lines to make them think twice about calling in support from artillery and aircraft. Unfortunately for the VC, the US troops’ superiority in maneuver and the employment of air mobility enabled them to keep their belts out of reach without losing the tactical objective. Simply put, according to Wilkins, the big-unit battles of 1965 and 1966 represent a continual failure for the VC in trying to force the United States out of the war quickly and decisively. By detailing a number of VC/US infantry clashes during those years and showing that VC units often went headlong into battle with their opponents, the author makes a strong case that the VC’s pre–Tet Offensive modus operandi was more conventional than often thought.
In detailing VC big-unit warfare of the mid-1960s, the book also gauges another strategy of the war—Gen William Westmoreland’s scheme of focusing US war efforts primarily on defeating conventional communist Vietnamese units. It is hard to find strategic successes in a war that, for years after, seemed the proverbial stain on the reputation of American proficiency of arms. Nevertheless, by highlighting the preeminence of big-unit warfare in VC strategy and displaying the perpetuity of tactical failures experienced by the VC between 1965 and 1966, Wilkins shows that Westmoreland’s strategy in the South was not as misguided as it might appear. The author also underlines the effectiveness of the American military triad of maneuver, firepower, and combined-arms action that, in practice, saw a US conventional force able to outmaneuver, outgun, and outwit its communist counterparts. In relating the effects of American firepower and supporting arms on the VC’s big-unit battles, this history demonstrates that airpower in the Vietnam War involved far more than the strategic bombing operations that targeted the North. Combined with artillery and helicopter gunships, fighter-bombers provided useful close air support in various US/VC engagements that enabled American Soldiers to fight another day—and keep their belts too.
Wilkins strikes a fine balance by offering a book accessible to everybody. One need not have extensive knowledge of the Vietnam War to understand the author’s highly academic and well-supported analysis of two years of VC strategy. Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the inclusion of so much communist Vietnamese primary material, all wonderfully translated, which gives readers insight into the mind-set of VC strategic leadership; further, it provides more of a frontline Vietnamese reflection of the conventional tactics employed by the VC to attain strategic success. By presenting the recollections of American troops and military reports, Wilkins illustrates the experiences from both sides of the VC big-unit war. The author does not set out to wholly destroy the image of VC irregular warfare; indeed, he notes that VC main-force units often fought in conjunction with their “local force” guerrilla affiliates. Rather, Wilkins shows that the VC’s art of war entailed much more than bamboo spears and booby traps, a task he carries out very well. Grab Their Belts to Fight Them portrays the VC as a more complex organism than previously understood, and Wilkins’s account of VC big-unit warfare between 1965 and 1966 is a necessary addition to the literature if we wish to keep learning from the Vietnam War. If nothing else, this assessment of VC fighting highlights the fact that, with the right strategic direction, seemingly unconventional armies are quite capable of fighting in a more conventional manner, whether or not they wear pajamas.
Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."