Monthly Archives: August 2011

Intelligence Lessons Learned in Vietnam Afghanistan Iraq

The question of who is winning the war, no matter what war it is, haunts politicians, generals, and the media alike.  No one desires to loose.  History gives us information, consistently, how wars equate to lives lost, and problems as to why the wars existed and how they began.   Significant within this discussion is an explanation of the problems of gathering information for a proper estimate of enemy strength, in order to continue or discontinue the existing strategy during a war.

As crude as it sounds to a civilian population, the premise of war, whether winning it or loosing a war, and without clear territorial objectives, is generally established on a basic principle: “Evidence that shows the United States and its allies are killing more of the enemy than can be thrown into battle.”

An historical outlook of statistics and approach in gathering the intelligence from Vietnam can be cited here.  This serves as good examples of the types of information needed to establish the premise of whether or not the United States was winning the war in Vietnam, or any other war for that matter.  In reality, this is where an “honest press” comes into play, and becomes a very significant “check-and-balance” system keeping our government honest — and at the same time remaining neutral.

Information and Interpretation

History shows this to be consistent when deciding what information to base these assumptions upon, as well as garner debate as to what is acceptable as proper information.  During Vietnam the MACV, the CIA, and the NSA had different perspectives on intelligence gathering, and generating statistics from the same.  This especially when giving the information to the American public.

The question so simple, or so it seems, when one considers it is based upon adding up enemy forces, then subtracting the number killed.  This followed by determining the “cross over point” where allied forces were killing more of the enemy than could be replenished through recruitment and conscription.

Throughout history, to include Afghanistan and Iraq, it is termed the “order of battle” equation.  This is the actual breakdown of intelligence gathered as fact.  As in the current war, and as in Vietnam, this situation was fraught with problems.  The major problem was separating the soldiers from the citizens in what is to be assumed as a “People’s War.”

So the problem arises, can a twelve, or 16 yearold boy for that matter, who plants a roadside bomb, a suicide bomber, or plants a satchel charge underneath an APC, be counted as part of the enemies “combat potential” within the order of battle?  Or if another boy acts as a scout or observer for enemy troops; or this boy’s sixty year old grandmother is doing the same?  Does sheltering and feeding of enemy or guerrilla troops fit into the equation?  Does this also make “killed by attrition” an acceptable equation in assimilating enemy killed in action, evoking a presumptive percentage being the enemy?

Correct Information

But there exist more problems in assimilating correct statistics from intelligence resources.  There always exist debates, in the military and the CIA, for example, and Vietnam being no different, over the number and importance of political cadres and part-time guerrillas when estimating enemy strength.  The communist self-defense militia troops and p/t guerrillas, for example, were not listed and removed from the order of battle statistics in Vietnam, especially when the statistics distributed to the American public.  This was an attempt at political easement, for the public in general to not be quite so militant.  It also started debates between the CIA, NSA, the military, and civilian industry, thereby, one or the other no longer trusted the intelligence of the other.

This journalist, also a Vietnam Veteran, found that the old adage of our government and military always lied to us, to be in error.  It was and still is, as history shows time and time again, our government simply being confused over the facts that existed, how to segregate so much information at times, and where or how to classify and use these same facts; Although, for the sake of argument our government did lie on quite a few occasions in regard to the Vietnam War, that is without a doubt true, ironically, totally seperate from the intelligence factors.

When knowing the information that was available at that time, and is available in current wars, it becomes possible to realize there are simply no winners or losers.  War generates confusion and modern warfare is complicated and often unreasonable statistically.

As well, there is no parameter to measure or classify, in an appropriate manner and statistically, the strength or weakness of our enemy, unless extreme lopsided data available.  Most intelligence is developed by assimilating several contributing factors, followed by an estimated percentage.  This can lead to confusion as well, especially in establishing categorical parameters to develop information into a statistical data base.  For a good example consider the intelligence ratio on accurate data of the WMD situation in Iraq, and the havoc caused from the many false stories presented.

Win or Lose

In Vietnam the United States did not loose any battles and yet withdrew our troops in total in 1975.  The equation of winning or losing the war then becomes arbitrary.  Attributing a win/lose record per battle no longer exists in modern warfare, as the equation in Vietnam shows.  Some of the significant data of the Vietnam War remains unspecific and somewhat confusing at best.

Ironically, intelligence statistics show from 1970 onward, in Vietnam, the U.S.military assimilated a higher KIA ratio with fewer troops in the field.  This was due to better equipment, and then to follow-through and react to the intelligence we obtained.  A North Vietnamsource, NVA General Giap, validates this as truth when several years after the war admitted, “You’re bombing for two more weeks would have destroyed our tunnel infrastructure and system.  This killed a lot of our troops and other support elements in South Vietnam entirely.  There would not have been an invasion.”

The fact is our intelligence was not aware of how vast the tunnel systems were at that time.  Yes, some of the tunnels were confirmed and a few large tunnel situations found, for example a make shift operating room for wounded NVA or VC.  Although, the NSA does attribute speculation toward a vast array or tunnels in the Iron Triangle, but the information not acted upon by the military, considered suspecious information coming from the NSA.

Some argue, in regard to the quality of intelligence in the 70’s, that there existed fewer channels for the intelligence to pass-through, due to troop reduction; thereby, the information was passed to the actual people involved in the operation requiring the info.  The U.S.conducted strikes at “arms-length” rather than infiltrate and attack with ground troops.  Although, it is estimated more American KIA took place in 1971 than at the beginning of the war.

Our intelligence combined with modern versions of equipment used to spy on the enemy, in the 70’s, gave us an assortment of methods for attack.  “We could literally cease a battalion movement while they were still gathering their troops and preparing their equipment for battle.  Several times air strikes decimated entire battalions who were still preparing for the actual battle in their compounds,” Colonel Justin McDowell, Retired, NSA, stated.

One example developed while the NSA was monitoring an NVA company commander.  His location was at the NVA command post, while he discussed their planned attack with other commanders over the radio.  An air strike hit them; the commander’s radio went dead.  Sensor’s showing increased supplies being trucked into the area, electronic tracking capabilities, and airborne technology monitored this event from the beginning, until the actual air strike.  No American troops were placed in jeopardy as the NVA troops never left their compound, KIA..

Competent streams of intelligence existed in Vietnam, just as today in the current war theater of operation.  Often some is passed-along to unqualified or unknowledgeable people.  And just as often, due to being confused about the information, or unsure of its quality, a commander may not pass the information to the appropriate individual in charge of the operation where it would be useful.  The best example being the extensive tunnels in Vietnam and the information during the war at that time, which may still be in a file cabinet and the file marked incorrectly.

There simply exist no easy answers within the intelligence community and disbursement of data.  What obviously should be taken out of the equation is political agendas, manipulated information given to the public, and a new mind-set contrary to conflicts and wars happening at all.  This becoming a “truth” simply will not happen.  So what are the alternatives?  None the less history certainly portrays the intelligence factor to be significant in saving lives during war, at least when handled properly.


Ball, George. The Past Has Another Pattern. Norton, 1982.

Blanfarb, Douglas S. The Counterinsurgency Era. Free Pr., 1977.

Brown, Ens FC. “ThePhoenixProgram: A Postordium.” Military Intelligence (April/June 1977: 8-12.

CBS News. “The Uncounted Enemy. AVietnamDeception.” Broadcast January 23, 1982, Transcript.

______. “TheVietnamNumbers Game.” The Nation, June 26, 1982

Gravel, Senator Mike, ed. “The Pentagon Papers.” 5 vols. Beacon Press, 1971.

O’Neil, Robert J. “The Strategy of General Giap since 1964.” Australian National Univ Pr., 1971.

Summers,Col.Harry G., Jr. “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.” Presidio Pr., 1982.

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Posted by on August 12, 2011 in Uncategorized