February 19, 2018 by oriskany
Here we are at last, Beasts of War, for the conclusion of our 50th Anniversary article series on the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.
So far we’ve seen:
- Part One: Introduction
- Part Two: Southern Battles near Saigon
- Part Three: Northern battles near the DMZ
- Part Four: Beginning of the Counterattack
But now it’s time to wrap up the Tet Offensive and review how its uncertain outcome wound up so dramatically changing the Vietnam War (and modern war in general). We’ll also hear from BoW community member Dave Wheeler (@davebpg) for a specific look at wargaming Vietnam in Flames of War: Tour of Duty.
Prognosis: Tet Offensive
Military Failure, Strategic Success?
So we’ve seen how the Tet Offensive attained nearly complete surprise. The NVA and especially the Viet Cong overran targets all across South Vietnam, but in the end were unable to hold any of them in the face of American firepower, or coordinate a successful “Phase Two” of their offensive.
In all, some 80,000 Viet Cong and NVA troops were committed to the Tet Offensive. At least 30,000 were killed or captured, making this a shattering military defeat, especially for the Viet Cong. In fact, the communist political structure in South Vietnam would never be the same, leaving the NVA to lead their war effort from now on.
Strategically, the Tet Offensive also failed because the anticipated popular uprising never took place. The Saigon government never fell. Communist forces had taken punishing damage and did not control anymore of South Vietnam’s geography or population than they had before.
Yet the Tet Offensive had a huge unintended strategic effect, one that demands study by anyone with even a passing interest in how modern warfare is actually fought (or decided). In the end, the battlefield that really counted in Vietnam wasn’t in the hills or the rice paddies or the streets or the jungles…it was on the TV screen.
In a time when live colour footage could be beamed directly into the minds of a democratic population, how a war looks is often more important than the actual battlefield situation. As vital as this point was in the television-dominated 1960s, its relevance in today’s internet age is perhaps even more prominent.
Up until Tet, the American public had been assured over and again, by both military commanders and civilian leaders, that they were winning the war in Vietnam. The enemy was being ground down by attrition, all that was needed was faith, trust, and patience to carry the American military to yet another victorious war.
Tet showed how wrong they were, and that the communists could strike anywhere. The Embassy itself was attacked, the ambassador roused from his bed by Viet Cong gunfire. As President Johnson himself lamented…
“Light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t even have a tunnel! We don’t know where the tunnel is!”
In the end, the argument can be made that the Tet Offensive, despite its immediate failure, convinced the American public that the Vietnam War could not be won. Militarily this wasn’t true, but Mr and Mrs John Q. Taxpayer had made up their minds. The American withdrawal from Vietnam was now only a matter of time and losses.
Vietnam In Flames Of War
by Dave Wheeler (@davebpg)
At the moment, Flames of War: Vietnam (FOWNAM) is in a state of flux. The original rulebook was published in 2011 (there was a starter book covering the battle of Ia Drang released with Wargames illustrated in 2009) with a follow-up expansion called Brown Water Navy (detailing the river battles in the south of the country) published in 2015.
There is, however, a new rulebook, being published in conjunction with Osprey, scheduled I believe for some time in 2018 which will bring the ‘Nam rules more into line with those used in Team Yankee and 4th edition Flames of War.
I’m expecting the new ‘Nam book to supersede some of the rules from the first book which I will discuss here.
The recent Team Yankee release, Stripes, has given us an insight into how Battlefront might alter the rules for transport helicopters in the new ‘Nam book so I will try to take this into account and not get bogged down into specifics which could be rendered irrelevant as soon as the new book comes out.
FOWNAM, in my opinion, does a very good job of representing the battlefield conditions the soldiers of both factions would have faced in Vietnam.
Transport helicopters, for example, are represented very well. For a start, it is impossible to buy (when list building) enough Huey’s to move all your infantry onto the table in one turn, instead they come on in waves and are deployed when and where the Allied player likes.
This holds true to real life as Huey transports where often in short supply, especially once battle damage and pilot casualties started to add up, so having to secure your LZ with your first “wave” of infantry to protect later transports is pretty accurate.
Gunships (Cobras and Huey variants) are even scarcer and are represented by the equivalent points cost. FOWNAM allows you to buy gunships as “Red Teams” and accompanying OH-6 (Loach) scout helicopters as “White Teams”, or you can mix them to make “Pink Teams” (another historically accurate point).
Loaches are able to act as spotters for the gunships whose rockets (treated as a sort of artillery in FOWNAM) can pound the enemy from a distance. With Loach pilots sometimes clipping the tops of trees with their rotors in order to accurately distinct enemy from friendly troops, you can imagine how dangerously vulnerable to ground fire they were.
In fact, I strongly recommend “Low-Level Hell” by Hugh Mills. Not just an excellent book on the subject, but a very compelling and exciting read as well.
The Allies don’t get to own the table however. The NVA and Viet Cong almost always use various hidden deployment methods, mostly consisting of tunnels. These allow NVA and VC units to deploy literally anywhere on the table that is not within a certain distance of an allied infantry unit.
Loaches acting as scouts can force the enemy to deploy further away but unprotected gunships are very vulnerable. This means it’s very easy for the NVA to encircle and pressure objectives, LZs, and allied infantry very easily. In effect, the NVA and VC “own the jungle” which is backed up by plenty of personal accounts on the subject.
The VC get all sorts of interesting rules to represent their guerrilla warfare style. As well as booby traps (punji sticks, claymores, machine gun bunkers etc.), they can also disguise themselves as civilians. Whilst in civilian disguise, they cannot be targeted, but nearby allied infantry can “question” the civilians to determine their true identity.
I’ve made reference a few times to the “Allies” in this writing, as Oriskany has pointed out there were troops in action here from many nations besides the United States. South Koreans and ANZACs (troops from Australia and New Zealand) also took part, as well as Taiwan, Laos, the Philippines, and of course South Vietnam itself.
Accordingly, FOWNAM allows you to build armies not only from the US (including armoured, air cavalry and riverine forces) but also ARVN (South Vietnamese) and ANZAC forces.
FOWNAM also has two rules sets presently not found in other FOW books, an absence which has long puzzled me. The first is the ability to keep artillery off the table. This makes perfect sense. Obviously, with the airmobile tactics of Vietnam, it would be daft to set up the artillery on the board before the infantry have even landed.
Besides, artillery nearly always operated from fixed firebases anyway. So unless the firebase itself was under attack, you’d never need put them on the table.
Instead, infantry stands above a certain rank (presumably with a radioman) can spot and call in the artillery. Why these rules haven’t found their way into regular Flames of War and especially Team Yankee is a mystery to me.
The other rule is the medevac choppers and medics that accompany the allied armies. In all honesty, they don’t make a huge difference. Wounded infantry must fall back until they meet up with a medic or medevac chopper. Once they do they roll to see if they are either okay to fight on or wounded badly enough to head back to base.
From my experience, this is rarely a game changer. It doesn’t make allied armies overpowered due to the effective “invulnerability” that a medic might offer. BUT…such enforced “casualty management” does create a fantastic narrative point to every game.
Securing your LZ to evacuate the wounded becomes such a distraction for the allied player that at times you completely forget to do important things like taking objectives, calling in air strikes etc. I suppose the screams of the wounded from your little metal and plastic figures gets too much for you!
And this leads me nicely onto the main reason why I like gaming in the jungles of ‘Nam. Every game turns into a movie, especially if you have the Rolling Stones or Credence Clear Water Revival playing in the background.
One of my favourite moments was towards the end of a game. Most of my US infantry had already left the board, leaving behind one badly mauled platoon to hold the LZ waiting for final extraction. As the Hueys tried to land under a hail of AA fire, one was chased off which didn’t leave enough room to evacuate all the infantry in one go.
With the LT wounded, the sergeant took over and ordered everyone else out, he would get the next chopper. The Hueys took off and circled overhead providing cover fire as long as possible but once the iPod shuffled from “Paint It Black” to “Adagio For Strings”…we knew it was all over.
“There are no veterans’ clubs for this war, no unit reunions, no pictures on the walls. For those who haven’t been there, or are too old to go, it’s as if it doesn’t count. For those who’ve been there, and managed to get out, it’s like it never happened. Only the eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-olds have to worry. And since no one listens to them, it doesn’t matter.”
Oriskany Wraps It Up
This concludes our look at the Tet Offensive, the bloody nation-wide assault that not only changed the course of the Vietnam War but also perhaps the way wars are fought (or at least decided) overall. They say “perception matters more than reality,” and at least within military circles, the Tet Offensive is a prime example.
Some historians call the Tet Offensive a success. I disagree. The communists failed to spark a popular uprising in South Vietnam or collapse the Saigon government, which were their stated aims. However, they inflicted massive psychological damage in a different arena, which eventually won them the war anyway (over four years later).
As always, I’d like to thank everyone at Beasts of War; firstly Ben, Tom, and Az for helping get this article series published, and Lance for the great front panel and magazine layout work. I’d also like to thank Warren and Justin for the great interviews, and of course the whole team for letting me publish on the site.
Most of all I’d like to thank the community for their continuing support!
Thanks a thousand times for taking the time to read these articles, and of course for the great comments, questions, and input in the thread below!
"In a time when live colour footage could be beamed directly into the minds of a democratic population, how a war looks is often more important than the actual battlefield situation..."
"With the LT wounded, the sergeant took over and ordered everyone else out, he would get the next chopper..."