Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War: Military Information You're Not Supposed to Know

Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War: Military Information You're Not Supposed to Know

by James F. Dunnigan, Albert A. Nofi

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Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War allows us to see what really happened to American forces in Southeast Asia, separating popular myth from explosive reality in a clear, concise manner. Containing more than two hundred examinations of different aspects of the war, the book questions why the American military ignored the lessons taught by previous encounters with insurgency forces; probes the use of group think and mind control by the North Vietnamese; and explores the role technology played in shaping the way the war was fought. Of course, the book also reveals the "dirty little secrets," the truth behind such aspects of the conflict as the rise of the Montagnard mercenaries-the most feared group of soldiers participating in the secret war in Laos-and the details of the hidden struggle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

With its unique and perceptive examination of the conflict, Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War offers a critical addition to the library of Vietnam War history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312252823
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/05/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,160,937
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi are the authors of hundreds of books and articles on military affairs. Dunnigan has been a consultant to the State Department, the CIA, and the Army War College. Nofi is the editor of the series The Great Campaigns of Military History.

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Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War

By James F. Dunnigan, Albert A. Nofi

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8472-4


The Enduring Myths of the Vietnam War

All wars attain a certain mythic character as time passes, but the myth rarely invades historical treatments. Not in the case of Vietnam. Much of the writing on the war has been tainted by the political outlook of the authors, and so much "common knowledge" about it is so flatly wrong that we decided to group the myths together.


American troops were not defeated in combat, but the American people refused to pay the price of victory. That's an important distinction. Several presidents got sucked into Vietnam because, first, they didn't want to offend France, and, later, no one wanted to risk appearing reluctant to confront Communist aggression. Once President Johnson realized he could not generate enough popular opinion to get the forces he knew he needed to win the war, he simply quit politics and retired. The next president, Nixon, got elected on the promise to "get America out of Vietnam," and he did just that, though it took a long time. This was not without precedent. As early as the War of 1812, the American people showed a marked reluctance to support what it would take to win the war. In 1812, it was the conquest of Canada (or at least some parts of it). In 1952, Eisenhower got elected on the promise of "getting America out of Korea." It takes a lot to get Americans into a war big time, always has, and probably always will. As the casualties build up, and especially if there is no dramatic progress, public support quickly wanes. In our long wars, such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, it became very difficult to keep things going on the home front toward the end. We still commemorate the harsh Winter of 1777–78, when General Washington pulled off a seeming miracle by keeping his army together during that season of discontent. Had Washington not been able to hold things together that winter, the British would have likely won the war the following spring and summer. During the American Civil War, the number of Union voters eager for a negotiated settlement grew as the 1864 elections approached. President Lincoln had to jump through a lot of political hoops to head off the peace movement. Even World War II, seen as the "good war," found the American people quite war weary by 1945. Despite what many feel we should have thought then, the use of two atomic bombs was enthusiastically received by Americans quite tired of war and its sacrifices. There's little doubt we could have defeated the Vietnam Communists, but it would have meant risking war with China and/or the Soviet Union and the application of a lot more airpower and infantry. There might have been twice as many Americans dead, and a lot more Vietnamese dead. Still, it was certainly possible. But too many of the people were not behind it. That's how a democracy works. Sometimes you can't win. Or don't want to win. That doesn't mean you were defeated, but simply that you changed your goals. In 1964, America wanted to keep the Communists out of South Vietnam. By 1968, we were well on the road to accomplishing this, but by then most Americans just wanted to keep Americans out of South Vietnam. The American people got what they wanted.


An oft-repeated myth of the Vietnam War is that the American soldier was somehow "different" in that conflict than in previous ones. Some of the biggest myths about the American soldier in Vietnam are that in contrast to his predecessors in previous wars, and most notably World War II, he was:

• Young. The commonly cited figure is that the average soldier in Vietnam was only nineteen, in contrast to twenty-six during World War II.

• Poorly Educated. The conventional wisdom is that the war was fought by "high school dropouts."

• Drafted. After all, who would join the army during a war?

• Black. Some commentators have placed the proportion of black troops "in the front lines" as high as 80 percent, "most of whom didn't come back."

In fact, although frequently encountered, and indeed a part of the popular culture of the war, none of these assertions are correct, as can be seen in the opposite table.

It's worth looking at these myths in some depth.

1. The "Young Soldier" Myth. The origins of the notion that the average age of the troops in Vietnam was nineteen are difficult to determine. It may derive from the fact that the average age of recruits during the war was slightly less than twenty. The draft normally took twenty-year-olds, so those younger than that were volunteers. In any case, most recruits had several months of training before shipping out. As a result, although there were some soldiers in combat as young as seventeen (indeed, a handful were even younger), men under twenty never constituted a majority of the troops in a particular unit. Looking at the average age of American military personnel who died in the war (see here) gives a pretty good picture of the age of the average soldier.

Even excluding warrant officers and officers, who were on average older than enlisted personnel, the average soldier in Vietnam was rather more than twenty-two years old. If that isn't enough evidence, consider the figures for men with the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 11B. "Eleven Bravo" is the MOS for infantry rifleman (there are also MOSs for other infantry specialties, such as mortarman or machine gunner). The ultimate "grunt," 18,465 "Eleven Bravos" died in Vietnam, accounting for 31.76 percent of American deaths in the war. Their average age at death was 22.55, actually slightly higher than the average for all enlisted personnel.

It is true, of course, that the average member of the armed forces during the Vietnam War was younger than the average in the Civil War or World War II. But those were total wars, and enormous efforts were made to mobilize the maximum manpower. In World War II this was done by conscription, while during the Civil War it was accomplished by offering generous cash bonuses to those who enlisted, up to $1,100 in some jurisdictions, more than three years' pay for the common workingman.

Footnote: Underage Soldiers in Vietnam. One of the true secrets of the Vietnam War — indeed of most wars — is the number of underage boys who enlisted using false identification, sometimes with the knowing consent of their parents. The number of underage soldiers who died in Vietnam is also unknown. At least five of the men killed in Vietnam are known to have been under seventeen years of age. One, a Marine, seems to have been only thirteen.

2. The "Poorly Educated Soldier" Myth. The origins of this myth are rather mystifying. The troops during the Vietnam era were, on average, the best educated in American history to that time. Fully 79 percent of them had completed high school. This was a proportion that actually declined for a while after the war, with the introduction of the "All Volunteer Army" in the early 1970s, before rising to the point where today you must have a high school diploma to enlist (no GEDs need apply). In all earlier wars the educational standards had been lower. Only 24 percent of the enlisted personnel in World War II were high school graduates, a figure almost matched by the 20 percent of Vietnam-era enlisted personnel who had some college. In fact, the academic preparation of the average recruit in World War II was so bad the army found itself having to institute special literacy programs for draftees, about 20 percent of whom were more or less functionally illiterate. One probable source for the notion that the average Vietnam-era soldier was poorly educated may have been the approximately 354,000 men who entered the service through Project 100,000. Instituted in 1966, partially in response to criticism that the armed forces "weren't doing enough" to promote social change in America, this program involved the recruiting of up to 100,000 men a year who fell into Mental Category IV. This was the second lowest of five groupings based on test scores, personnel whom the armed forces had been reluctant to accept in the past. In essence, Project 100,000 was a large-scale remedial education program. Over the life of the project, about 157,000 "New Standards" men were drafted and nearly 200,000 more voluntarily enlisted, the total comprising about 10 percent of all recruits in the period from October of 1966 to December of 1971. About 37 percent of the "New Standards" men were members of various racial and ethnic minority groups. Like nearly everything about the Vietnam War, Project 100,000 is controversial. Left-wingers (who originally supported the program) tend to argue that it was merely a way for the Pentagon to lay its hands on more cannon fodder. Right-wingers (who opposed it) argued that it was a fuzzy-minded "do-gooder" program that ruined the armed forces by bringing in all sorts of mentally deficient men. Claims have simultaneously been made that these men suffered disproportionately from their experience, to the assertion that most of them benefited greatly from it. In fact, the actual effects of the program cannot be determined, as the army was never able to establish a reliable system for monitoring the success of "New Standards" men. It is known that about 2,100 "New Standards" men were killed in action, a proportion lower than their percentage of those in the service.

3. The "Reluctant Draftee" Myth. This one is easy to nail down. It is based on the fact that during the Vietnam era a lot of recruits entered the army through the Selective Service System (SSS). Seeing this, a good many people have assumed that all of those who served were drafted. To some extent this was correct, at least for the army, but in fact this conclusion ignores the common practice of "volunteering for the draft." During the fifties and sixties it was by no means unusual for a young man fresh out of high school, with no immediate plans, to request to be drafted. It may sound a bit crazy, volunteering to be drafted in the middle of a war, an increasingly unpopular war at that, but as the proverb has it, these men were being "crazy like a fox." There were a lot of benefits to volunteering to be drafted. For one thing, it got your service out of the way with only a two-year liability rather than the three (for the army) or four (for the other services) you would incur if you enlisted. Local draft boards liked the practice because it was a relatively painless way of filling their manpower quotas. The army — and the Marines, when they began taking draftees — liked it because they were getting men who were better motivated than those who waited around for their numbers to come up. As a result, a lot of guys who "pushed up their number" ended up in special training programs to emerge as "Shake 'n Bake" NCOs, helicopter crew chiefs, and the like, a fact not lost on those waiting around to get the famous letter that began "Greetings ..."

A lot of men also genuinely volunteered to enlist, signing up for three years in the army or four in the Marines, navy, Coast Guard, or air force. The navy and air force never accepted draftees during the war, and the Marines only took about 20,000 a year, combing through each batch for men who were willing to opt for the corps. If you volunteered for the army, your chances of being sent to Vietnam were actually rather lower than if you waited to be drafted. While the war was going on in Vietnam, the armed forces still had to maintain troops in Germany and Korea, and a strategic reserve at home as well. A tour of duty in Germany was eighteen to twenty-four months, one in Korea was twelve or thirteen, depending on the service, just as for Vietnam. A draftee was only in the service for twenty-four months, which meant he had just enough time in uniform to complete basic training and some advanced training in order to be sent to Vietnam for a thirteen-month tour of duty. As a result, it was not unusual for draftees to be discharged some weeks before their enlistments expired. After several months in training, a few more with a unit stateside, and then twelve or thirteen in Vietnam, the armed forces didn't have much they could do with these troops for the last few weeks. So volunteering was a good way to "beat the draft."

Incidentally, during the Vietnam era (1960 through 1975, which was two years after draft calls ended) some 26.8 million men were legally liable for compulsory military service. About 8.7 million voluntarily entered the service and 2.2 million were drafted, some of whom later volunteered for additional hitches (and thus may have been double counted). Of the balance, 15.4 million were either disqualified or deferred. So approximately 500,000 men were technically draft dodgers, but of these only about 210,000 were charged and only 8,700 actually convicted.

4. The "Black Army" Myth. This is strongly felt among African Americans and generally believed by most liberals and leftists. In fact, there is some substance to the idea that the armed forces were "blacker" during the Vietnam War than in earlier wars, but not in the sense that is usually assumed. In fact, the notion that the war was fought by a "Black Army" is a myth created out of whole cloth for political purposes. Since the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, African Americans have numbered between 10 percent and 12 percent of the population. There were times when no black men were permitted to serve. And even when blacks were recruited for military service, their numbers were kept small, never more than about 8 percent of the total force, figures attained during the Civil War and the World Wars. In these three wars few African-American troops were permitted to enter combat, so that black combatants usually numbered no more than about 3 percent of total manpower committed to action. This began to change in 1947, when Pres. Harry S. Truman issued his famous order ending segregation in the armed forces. The full effects of this measure were not felt until the late 1950s, by which time the armed forces, and particularly the army, had become relatively the most integrated institution in America. With opportunities far more equal in the service than in society as a whole, a military career held distinct advantages for black Americans. As a result, by the early 1960s the percentage of career military personnel who were black had risen to more than the proportion of African Americans in the overall population. This was particularly the case among career enlisted personnel in the army, and notably so in volunteer specialties such as the airborne, which received higher pay for "hazardous duty," which resulted in reports of airborne platoons composed "mostly of blacks." Perhaps a fifth of the NCOs in the army were of African descent, though the number of black officers lagged in all services. This had serious consequences when American troops became engaged in the war on a large scale. During the first two years of serious American involvement (1964–66), black Americans do seem to have comprised about a fifth or a quarter of those killed in action. Casualties were particularly heavy among career NCOs, the guys leading the troops. Thereafter, as the armed forces expanded, the percentage of troops who were black fell markedly, as the draft brought in proportionately more whites.

As a result, the percentage of black casualties fell, so that overall about 12.5 percent of those killed in action were black (see table here). This was still somewhat higher than the proportion of blacks in society, but was about the average percentage of blacks in the army over the course of the war, and did reflect the proportion of blacks among men of military age in the population as a whole. Of course the notion that the frontline troops were mostly black had by then become pervasive, spread for political reasons by pacifists, black radicals, and the merely misinformed.

So black Americans were not disproportionately represented in the ranks in Vietnam.

There was, however, one group that was very overrepresented in Vietnam, though this is often overlooked. About 30 percent of the Americans who died in Vietnam were Roman Catholics, who constituted only about 24 percent of the population, most of whom were of Irish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Italian, or Polish background. Like African Americans, these groups were more likely to come from lower socioeconomic levels. A young man from the lower half of the American economic spectrum seems to have been about 300 percent more likely to die in Vietnam than one from the upper half.


Excerpted from Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War by James F. Dunnigan, Albert A. Nofi. Copyright © 1999 James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1: The Enduring Myths of the Vietnam War,
CHAPTER 2: The Forty-Year War,
CHAPTER 3: In The Bush (Ground Combat),
CHAPTER 4: Slicks, Puffs, and Fast Movers (War in the Air),
CHAPTER 5: Blue Water, Green Water, Brown Water (The Naval War),
CHAPTER 6: Base Camp Follies,
CHAPTER 7: War in the Shadows,
CHAPTER 8: Leadership,
CHAPTER 9: Numbers and Losses,
CHAPTER 10: The Home Front,
CHAPTER 11: The Other Side,
CHAPTER 12: Logistics,
CHAPTER 13: The Combat Units,
CHAPTER 14: The Aftermath,
APPENDIX: A Vietnam War Glossary: Acronyms, Code Words, and Slang,

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