Tactical Success and Strategic Confusion: Lessons Not Learned

By Ed Timperlake

Recently, we interviewed David Evans, who has had an unusual career as a Vietnam War Marine, and then a decorated journalist.

This interview underscored a key element of the Vietnam War experience. Tactical victories and significant American and allied sacrifices to establish a free Vietnam were undercut by strategic direction from Washington making decisions with little regard to the facts on the ground.

Cubical commanders made strategic decisions: Marines and U.S. and allied forces achieved significant tactical victories. The two seemed to not mesh, which is an unfortunate U.S. pattern to be repeated notably in Iraq and Afghanistan with the disastrous blitzkrieg withdrawal from Afghanistan under President Biden.

David Evans USMC Artillery officer served at two of the most legionary Marine combat bases in the history of the Corps.

Both Con Thien and Khe Sanh wrote a noteworthy chapter of USMC training, combat discipline and heroic dedicated combat prowess against a brilliant tenacious enemy the North Vietnam Army. Outnumbered on the ground by NVA infantry backed up by horrific numbers of Artillery and mortars they held the terrain against all attacks.

Marine F-4 Phantom jets along with A-4 Skyhawk and USAF B-52s put a ring of death from above munitions between the NVA and Marine forces.

When the defensive air support could not stop determined sappers and infantry it became a close quarter fight that the Marines had to win to survive and they did with significant casualties in repulsing attack after attack.

The creation of “Leatherneck Square” anchored by positions such as Con Thin and Khe Sanh along the DMZ was the brain child of General William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Marine leadership saw a flawed strategic strategy right away, but when ordered they saluted smartly and said “Yes Sir” and Marines won the tactical battle but America ultimately lost the war.

The entire “Best and Brightest” DC academic cubicle commanders were strategically out thought by the brilliant NVA commander General Giap;

Giap viewed the buildup of U.S. Marine Corps forces as a promising development. As part of his grand strategy, he was keen to draw the Americans away from the heavily populated coastal areas of South Vietnam so that he could engage them in a grinding war that would produce high casualties and fuel the anti-war sentiment in the United States.

The Marines had to defend more than 230 square miles of hills, forested jungle, and verdant lowlands just below the DMZ. They garrisoned scattered outposts that were vulnerable to both constant guerilla attacks and occasional main force assaults.

The late Vietnam War writer Col. Harry Summers USA got it spot on when he discussed  General Giap’s strategic vision for victory essentially pointing out that the U.S. was never defeated on the battlefield-but for the Vietnamese leadership that was strategically irrelevant.

The U.S. had enough politically and walked away, and that was that!

Harry was devoted to that search for the truth–whatever it might be, warts and all. He believed that until very recently, “the accounts from academia were so twisted and distorted by ideological bias as to be utterly useless.” And while he placed great store in personal accounts and individual experiences, he had little use for the “Rambo” and “soldier of fortune” schools of military history. He believed that the unvarnished truth of combat was dramatic enough without embellishment or outright lies.

The history of Con Thien brilliantly captures the deadly difference between ground truth and DC combat fantasy thinking with horrific consequences for the troops.

In an article by Al Hemingway entitled, Con Thein: Hell on the Hill of the Angels, the author underscored the dynamic of battle and the logic of Washington.

Lieutenant General Lewis Walt was not a happy man. The burly III Marine Amphibious Force commander had just been ordered by Commanding General William C. Westmoreland to assist in the construction of a barrier to stem the flow of men and materiel coming into South Vietnam from the north. To professional military men like Walt, the concept was a foolish one. Washington, as usual, had other ideas.

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had been convinced by Harvard Law School Professor Roger Fisher that a “conventional mine and wire barrier to be backed up by monitoring troops” was the key to halting the estimated 15 enemy battalions crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into the south. The proposed barrier was to run from the South China Sea westward across the northern part of South Vietnam, all the way to Laos and eventually into Thailand.

From the outset, McNamara met resistance to his plan. Navy Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, commander-in-chief of all American forces in the Pacific, objected vehemently. He pointed out that the scheme would put a tremendous strain on the logistical community. The gigantic construction endeavor and massive amount of manpower required to maintain and protect it weren’t worth the effort, in Grant’s opinion.

Walt and his Marines could not have agreed more. “To sum it up,” said one Marine officer, “we’re not enthusiastic over any barrier defense approach to the infiltration problem. We believe that a mobile defense by an adequate force would be a more flexible and economical approach to the problem.”

Another Marine put it even more bluntly: “With these bastards, you’d have to build the zone all the way to India, and it would take the whole Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it. Even then they’d probably burrow under it.”

Still, McNamara persisted. In September 1966, the JASON Group, a self-described “university think tank,” presented their new, improved barrier design.

This time they added air support to the mix.

Determined to implement the plan, McNamara chose Army Lt. Gen. Alfred D. Starbird to lead Task Force 728. He directed him to “provide an infiltration interdiction system to stop (or at a minimum substantially reduce) the flow of men and supplies from North to South Vietnam.”

Westmoreland also wanted the barrier put in place.

Instead of an actual fence, a path would be hewn out of the jungle just below the DMZ and anchored by strongpoints. Phase one of the so-called Strong Point Obstacle System (SPOS) would extend from Gio Linh, on South Vietnam’s east coast, to Con Thien, an abandoned French fort located near the DMZ.

In April 1967, the Marine 11th Engineer Battalion quickly cleared a 200-meter swath of land between the two bases dubbed the “Trace.” Those who participated in its construction called it a “firebreak.” Others referred to it more pessimistically as a “death strip.” The SPOS plan called for six eventual strongpoints. Alpha 1, near the South China Sea, would be occupied by ARVN (South Vietnamese) soldiers. Alpha 2 would be located at Gio Linh. Con Thien would become Alpha 4. (Alphas 3, 5, and 6 would not come along until later.)

These strongpoints would be backed by fire-support bases located several kilometers to the south. The Marines were to build one strongpoint halfway between Cam Lo and Con Thien. A dirt road identified on the maps as Route 561 would become the main supply route between them. The four Marine positions at Con Thien, Gio Linh, Dong Ha, and Cam Lo formed a rough square. Soon, “Leatherneck Square” would assume a permanent place in Marine Corps lore.

Con Thien was subjected to some of the heaviest shelling of the war. Communist gunners would lob mortar and artillery rounds at the base, then quickly move their weapons before the Marines could locate them. Between September 19-27, an incredible 3,077 shells battered the Marine positions. September 25 was the worst day—some 1,200 rounds crashed into the fire base.

“The thing about September 25th that really sticks in my mind,” said Hartzel, “is a Marine sitting in a pool of blood, his legs blown off. He was numb from morphine and in shock from loss of blood. He was smoking a cigarette very calmly as if nothing had happened.” Of the 45 men who reported for duty from Hartzel’s platoon, only 12 walked out unscathed.

By the end of 1967, the imminent threat toward Con Thien had finally subsided. Attention would soon be focused on the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh, and Con Thien quickly faded from memory. The barrier and SPOS plan that Secretary of Defense McNamara had envisioned would prove to be a dismal failure. Those who survived the hell of Con Thien would never forget their “time in the barrel.”

The torrential monsoon rains that transformed the red dirt around the base into a quagmire, the constant shelling that could leave one totally demoralized and the threat of being overrun and killed would be indelibly etched in their minds for all time. As for the hundreds of Marines and U.S. Navy corpsmen who died defending that seemingly worthless piece of land—their spirits would remain forever on the Hill of Angels.

That was then, but the pattern of tactical success and strategic confusion, uncertainty and lack of foresight continues.

From Vietnam Marine to Washington Correspondent: No Cubical Commandos Wanted