January 22, 2018 by oriskany
They say we learn the most from our mistakes. If this holds true for nations as it does for people, then anyone with even a passing interest in military history, even a casual wargamer, should spend at least a little time looking at the Vietnam War.
What better time than now, with the 50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive upon us? Fought in January, February, and March of 1968, the “Tet Offensive” was arguably the largest and most intense series of battles of the Vietnam War…its bloody and uncertain results proving crucial to determining the conflict’s final outcome.
To commemorate this milestone, this five-part article series will present an overview of wargaming the Vietnam War, while also taking a sharper focus specifically on the Tet Offensive. We’ll sketch in plenty of background, look at both sides’ objectives, plans, and tactics, and chart the course of this earthquake moment in modern warfare.
We’ll be discussing several wargaming systems during the course of this series, switching between them as best fits the particular engagement being examined. These will include “Tour of Duty” for Flames of War, Force-on-Force, and an updated Vietnam “re-skin” of Barry S. Doyle’s Valor & Victory (originally for WWII squad combat).
We hope to present some interesting background on Vietnam, a balanced look the Tet Offensive and some of its more important battles, and examine what made it such a watershed in late 20th Century warfare. Finally, we hope to show some “features” of Vietnam wargaming, and what makes it distinct from other conflicts.
A War Nobody Wanted
The Vietnam War has become a watchword for the misapplication (and sometimes abuse) of modern military power, and what happens when the strongest nation on Earth so grievously underestimates the opposition. Cold War politics aside, all the firepower in the world might not prevail against unyielding national will.
But how did this war start? How did the Americans even get here, never mind lose? Most immediately, how do these factors manifest as object lessons, not only in the realms of modern military tactics, doctrine, and geopolitics…but also on the wargaming table?
Vietnam had been a nation at war for a long time. Formerly part of the French colony of Indochina, Vietnam had been occupied by the Japanese during World War II. The American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) helped a resistance movement fight against the Japanese, the Viet Minh, under its charismatic leader, Ho Chi Minh.
After the war, the French wanted their colonies returned. The Americans didn’t universally support such “re-colonization” but needed French support for the founding of the UN and NATO. So the French returned to Vietnam, and war immediately broke out between their colonial forces and the Viet Minh.
This conflict came to a head in 1954 at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Here, a garrison of French (and allied) troops, heavily fortified deep in the backcountry of northern Vietnam, was surrounded by a large army of the Viet Minh. French commanders were confident that superior training, artillery, and air support would win the day.
The French, however, had badly underestimated Vietnamese determination, numbers, and ability to deploy huge amounts of their own artillery (288 guns, not including rockets and mortars). The Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was also exceptional and would cause the Americans years of grief in the decades to come.
The French stood no chance. Cut off, surrounded by massive Vietnamese artillery batteries on high ground, and subjected to human wave attacks, they pleaded with the US for help. But President Eisenhower turned down “Operation Vulture” which at one point even included the possible use of nuclear weapons to extract the French.
Although they’d won the war against the French, the Communists in Vietnam were bitterly disappointed by the peace talks which only gave them the northern half of the country. The southern half would remain a western-style democracy with its capital in Saigon, bolstered by grants and military support from the United States.
Soon enough, the old war had bled into a new one, this time against the Saigon government and its American supporters. At first, very few Americans were deployed in South Vietnam, but under President Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson, more and more US troops were sent as the South Vietnamese government and army faltered.
After a controversial incident where North Vietnamese gunboats supposedly fired on US destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf, America was more or less committed to a growing anti-insurgent war in South Vietnam. Their mission was to defend and support their allies in Saigon, at least until the South Vietnamese could fight on their own.
As with most wars, the factions involved are a little more complex than “good guys” vs. the “bad guys.”
On the communist side, we have the formal army of North Vietnam, officially titled the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), often called the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Their overall objective in the war was to bring about the unification of North and South Vietnam into a single nation controlled by their communist government in Hanoi.
We also have the National Liberation Front (NLF). Often called the “Viet Cong,” this was a less formal communist insurgency in South Vietnam. These were not North Vietnamese, but South Vietnamese communist sympathizers or just people rebelling against the corrupt and ineffectual South Vietnamese government in Saigon.
This difference is an important one, for although the NVA and Viet Cong were obviously fighting on the same side, they had vastly different tactics, organization, and equipment – all of which will greatly affect any Vietnam tabletop army. They also greatly mistrusted one another, a factor fully evidenced in the bloodbath of the Tet Offensive.
For the “Free World,” we have the United States (Army and Marine Corps troops, Navy warships and carrier-based aircraft, and Air Force fighter-bombers and B-52s). Despite huge advantages in resources and firepower, US forces were hampered by policy limitations, discipline and morale problems, and even widespread drug abuse.
Also in the field is the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), basically the South Vietnamese army fighting for the Saigon government. Although widely reviled as incompetent, cowardly, and prone to desertion and even atrocities, some units in the ARVN performed much better, including during the Tet Offensive.
Nations like South Korea and Australia also had smaller units fighting in South Vietnam. These were further supported by contingents from Thailand, New Zealand, Taiwan, and the Philippines – American allies with a keen interest in curtailing the spread of communism in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Tet Offensive
A Bid To End The War?
The Tet Offensive was an all-out effort by both the NVA and the Viet Cong, aimed at nothing less than the complete destruction of the South Vietnamese army and the collapse of the Saigon government. Sudden, overpowering, and widespread, its successful execution was expected to end the war at a stroke with a communist victory.
Scheduled for January 1968, the Tet Offensive is so-named because it was timed for the Tet holiday, the Vietnamese New Year which had in previous years seen an informal cease-fire observed by all sides. Massive numbers of ARVN troops went home on leave, and even US forces relaxed their alert postures as the war took something of a break.
Tet in 1968 would be tragically different. Instead, Vo Nyguen Giap, the general who had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, had coordinated a massive series of strikes by both his NVA “main force” regiments and divisions and Viet Cong guerrillas further south.
The communists would hit everything at once – military bases, highways, infrastructure, government centres, logistics, communication, all at the same time and with lightning bolt surprise. Lulled by the holiday ceasefire, American and especially South Vietnamese forces would be overrun without a chance for effective resistance.
The idea was to ignite a panic across all of South Vietnam, implode ARVN’s morale and cohesion, and start a massive popular uprising against the hated and corrupt Saigon government. Once in power, the new pro-communist government in Saigon would demand the United States leave South Vietnam. The war would effectively be over.
Although probably the largest single battle in the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive is also the least typical in many ways. Usually, American and ARVN forces had to probe out into the countryside on “search and destroy” missions, hunting for an elusive enemy who denied pitched battle in favour or booby traps, snipers, and ambushes.
Not here. The Tet Offensive was one of the few times the NVA and especially the Viet Cong massed together and assaulted US and ARVN forces in full, frontal combat. We can almost look at it as “Vietnam in reverse,” often fought in burning city streets instead of jungles and rice paddies.
In some ways, this was exactly the kind of combat American commanders had been hoping for. But the shock of so many attacks, combined with widespread failures of many ARVN units, made this one of the bloodiest and most desperately-fought periods of the Vietnam War. American units were badly caught off-guard and paid accordingly.
In the end, the Tet Offensive would also show just how far the Americans were from “winning” this war, despite assurances the government had repeatedly made to the American public. Tet probably puts the final coffin nail in the Johnson Presidency, and fatally wounded American public support for the Vietnam War.
In a word, if you’re looking for a specific moment when the Vietnam War was actually lost, the Tet Offensive is a good place to start.
We hope you’ve found this first look into the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive informative, maybe even inspiring. After all, there are multiple game systems out there that cover the Vietnam War, this could be your excuse to fire up some Jimi Hendrix, Stones, or Doors (8-tracks only, for historical realism) and “hit the bush” yourself.
Next week, we’ll look at the plans for the Tet Offensive in more detail, as well as wargames depicting some of the opening communist attacks. We’ll have street battles, assaults on American firebases, jungle firefights, village assaults, the full gambit of the Tet Offensive engagements. So stay tuned!
Meanwhile, have you played any Vietnam-themed wargaming yourself? How about “Tour of Duty” by Battlefront, “Charlie Don’t Surf” by Too Fat Lardies, “Force on Force” by Ambush Alley Games / Osprey (which started with their “Ambush Alley” Vietnam core rules)?
Post your comments, questions, and insights, and let’s keep the conversation going!
"We’ll be discussing several wargaming systems during the course of this series, switching between them as best fits the particular engagement being examined..."
"...as with most wars, the factions involved are a little more complex than “good guys” vs. the “bad guys”"