What were Search and Destroy and Defoliation Tactics used by Americans in the the Vietnam War?

Throughout the Vietnam War, the Americans used various tactics to try and defeat their opponent, two of which were ‘Search and Destroy’ and defoliation.

What were Search and Destroy and Defoliation?

Search and destroy involved ground forces, transported by helicopter units and supported by artillery, would locate enemy forces then destroy them, and sometimes the enemy base also. The tactic was very focused on attacking the communists within Vietnam and gaining ground, rather than gaining the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Barry Romo, US army 196th INFANTRY is quoted saying “The idea was to go out and try to destroy the infrastructure and the people, of the communist movement.”

Defoliation was a totally different strategy, not involving personal encounters with the Vietnamese, or the use of any ground troops. Instead, planes dropped chemicals known as defoliants over suspected parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail, destroying the thick shrubbery and jungle areas. The particularly favoured acid was a defoliant named ‘Agent Orange’, and according to Source 1, 77million litres of it were sprayed over the country during the war. Areas of inland forest, borders of Laos and Cambodia were some of the worst hit.

Why were they used and When?

Search and destroy was used between 1965 and 1967, and was first instigated by General Westmoreland. It depended on the military capability, under the assumption that American fire power and technology was so superior that both the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam would be unable to cope with the punishment that would be delivered. It was also used to try and expand inner-country operations, covering more of the country, and touching more people. However, if the use of normal patrols rather than search and destroy were used, it would be far less effective as the Viet Cong had no uniform, and so almost invisible. Therefore, Search and Destroy was used, as the use of helicopters meant that villages were located quickly so the fighting could commence.

The Viet Cong managed to thrive as they were supplied from the North, along the Ho Chi Minh trail, of which the route was unknown to American forces. If the Americans could cut of the supply, then the communists would suffer. Therefore, they sprayed defoliants over suspected areas, making the trail visible by air. This technique was used from 1965-71.

What were the effects of these Tactics?

The use of these methods had many effects, some immediate and war related, and some still be felt to this day.

Search and Destroy often involved the murder of many innocent Vietnamese men women and children, and sometimes wiped entire communities and villages, for example the horrendous My Lai massacre. This destruction caused many people to hate the invaders, and often turn to support the Viet Cong . Therefore Americans lost what, in hind sight, was the most important thing they needed to win the war, the hearts and minds of the people.

Defoliation had more physical, and often, more devastating effects. In Vietnam, agriculture is and was the main source of income and employment in the country, and vast growth of crops was relied upon to keep the economy stable. However, when millions of litres of defoliants were dropped onto Vietnam, crops were hit and destroyed as well as the jungle areas, leading to livelihoods being destroyed, and in many cases starvation and loss of life. Furthermore, according to source 1, water supplies were badly contaminated and would remain contaminated for years to come. Finally, due to just high exposure to the acid, as it was sprayed over such vast areas, defoliation in Vietnam is responsible for over 4million deaths and disabilities, not including the generations of birth defects which are still being experienced. For example, Nguyen Quang, source 3, born with scoliosis due to his grandfather being exposed to the chemicals.

All of these things again lead to the Americans losing the hearts and minds of ordinary people, caught up in the destruction of the war.

Did the Tactics achieve Military Objectives?

The military objectives of the US were primarily to stop communists taking over South Vietnam, and in some ways search and destroy helped to achieve these objectives. Some areas of the Ho Chi Minh trail were uncovered and supplies intercepted, decreasing supplies to the South, and making taking control harder for the Viet Cong. Search and Destroy can also be argued to have achieved military objectives, as it massively increased the pedantic body count of Vietnamese that the US used to measure the success of their presence. An increase in deaths meant that there were fewer communists to take control, and it also served as a deterrent to the Vietnamese people that may be tempted to support the Viet Cong.

However, it can be argued that these tactics did not help achieve objectives at all. As previously mentioned, the destructive nature of the techniques lost the precious hearts and minds of the countries regular people, and that was arguably the only thing that would stop the spread of communism into the south. Furthermore, they did not stop the Viet Cong, as the communists simply adapted. This was especially apparent during the use of search and destroy, as the Cong learnt to ambush patrols once they were on the ground.

Therefore, in my opinion the tactics actually had a negative effect, when it comes to looking at their contribution to achieving military objectives.

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