Binh Dinh ’69: review of related book, Losing Binh Dinh

BD02

Kevin Boylan has written several books and articles on the general topic of the Central Highlands throughout the Vietnam War. I wish that I had had his work available to me when I was designing Green Beret and Binh Dinh ’69. Here is a review of a recent book by Boylan on the situation in Binh Dinh. (review originally appeared on the site H-War)

Kevin M. Boylan. Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016. 365 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2352-5.

Reviewed by Heather P. Venable (Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50993

Kevin M. Boylan’s Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971 seeks to test the revisionist claim that the United States was winning the Vietnam War through its pacification efforts after the Tet Offensive but lost anyway because policymakers did not stay the course. Boylan does this by focusing on a particular province to explore the interrelationships between pacification and Vietnamization, arguing that they worked at cross purposes, ultimately failing both to prepare South Vietnamese troops to fight independently and to eliminate the VietCong insurgency. Vietnamization, in particular, could not succeed because of poor South Vietnamese leadership, which also challenges the revisionist claim that indigenous leadership improved significantly after Tet.

Kevin Boylan draws on his dual background as a defense analyst concerned with Iraq, among other issues, and as a graduate with a PhD in military history from Temple University, where he studied under Russell Weigley. The author recently left his position as a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to support his wife’s academic career.[1]Overall, Boylan challenges revisionist approaches, claiming they rely excessively on top-down assessments made by high-ranking policymakers and overly sweeping views of South Vietnam. By contrast, Boylan takes a bottom-up view focused on the specific province of Binh Dinh in order to better understand the localized and multifaceted nature of insurgencies. While certainly not the first to take this approach, he has chosen a province that represents a geographical aberration in South Vietnam, which made it especially challenging to pacify. In particular, it had poor soil that made it difficult to sustain its overpopulated numbers. Communist ideology thus found a receptive population, becoming entrenched as early as World War II, when the Viet Minh filled a power vacuum enabled by French defeat and gained a reputation as nationalists for battling the Japanese. In short, the province could be considered the Appalachia of South Vietnam.

Ironically, early pacification efforts made significant headway, offering hope that they might be successful. From April 1969 to December 1970, the 173rd Airborne worked in Binh Dinh to “secure individual hamlets” while providing training to the Territorial Forces that ultimately would replace it (p. 8). In this way, the approach certainly represented a more population-centric method of counterinsurgency than the United States previously had attempted in Vietnam, although it would be dangerous to draw many comparisons to recent US COIN efforts in Iraq and elsewhere because this program did not attempt to win “hearts and minds”. Rather, it represented a “quick fix” designed to regain “military control of enemy-dominated communities” (p. 48). This approach rested on policymakers’ assumptions that villagers were “apolitical” (p. 287). By contrast, the VietCong had a more targeted policy of maintaining their “psychological grip” on those villagers most likely to be active in leading their communities (p. 289), which provided them with an important advantage.

If Communist morale and activity did suffer greatly in 1969, however, those gains resulted from the efforts of US rather than South Vietnamese troops. Moreover, all of the US military effectiveness in the world could not counterbalance the local government’s political shortcomings. Simultaneously, the Phoenix program failed to destroy the Vietcong infrastructure even as the Communists increasingly responded to pacification’s successes by engaging in acts of terrorism against local government officials. By 1970, policymakers problematically sought to both enlarge and consolidate pacification, effectively working at cross purposes. The exodus of US troops from the country only made this even more unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the United States hoped optimistically that more training of the Territorial Forces might turn the tide. But Boylan compellingly argues that all of the training in the world could not solve the real reason Vietnamization failed—an almost unsolvable problem with South Vietnamese leadership. He depicts Vietnamese officers who eschewed the support of their advisers, just seeking access to “stuff”—particularly the logistical and firepower support the US provided. Most of their “casualties” resulted from desertions rather than battle. Advisers bemoaned that belaboring Vietnamization just made these patterns worse, because the South Vietnamese only became more dependent on the United States. In short, the South Vietnamese simply had not “commit[ed]” themselves to winning (p. 83). In large part, though, Boylan concludes that this can be explained by the fact that the “South Vietnamese themselves were never fooled” about the depth of US commitment (p. 295). This conclusion, however, rests on the kind of sweeping generalization about South Vietnamese morale that he critiques the revisionists for making, which ultimately challenges his provincial focus. A clearer overarching roadmap to guide the reader either in the introduction or within the individual chapters themselves also might have helped to alleviate some of these problems, as one frequently arrives at the end of a chapter with only the unfolding of the narrative to guide the reader as to the author’s overarching purpose.

It is almost impossible for the reader to avoid drawing tragic comparisons between today’s current conflicts and debates about how and if victory is even possible. Ironically, the United States did make substantial short-term progress in pacifying Binh Dinh, but it failed utterly at Vietnamizing the war, which made victory unattainable. Pursuing both at the same time was impossible. As a high-ranking US official wrote in 1970, “We have gone about as far as we can go in turning this country into an armed camp” (p. 289). This work could have done more to shed light on perspectives from the Vietnamese “camp,” but it does provide an excellent exploration of how Vietnamization and pacification coexisted uneasily in a challenging province in South Vietnam.

Note

[1]. LinkedIn profile, https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevin-boylan-538835128, accessed January 22, 2018.

Citation: Heather P. Venable. Review of Boylan, Kevin M., Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50993

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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New book out – Small Wars

dwtcoincover

Released today, from John Curry’s History of Wargaming Project: Small Wars, New Perspectives on Wargaming Counterinsurgency on the Tabletop.

The book contains six sets of rules for playing out situations from 20th and 21st century irregular wars. It’s a bit unusual in that all but one of them are written to portray the action at the operational/ campaign level, where each stand of figures on the tabletop represents a large combined-arms unit. Using card-based systems, these games are particularly suitable for the solo wargamer.

  • Boots on the Ground: Company Level Actions in the early 21st Century
  • An Isolated Outpost: Six Months in the Sahara
  • Eight Years in a Distant Country: Soviet involvement in Afghanistan
  • Ovambo: Counter- insurgency in South West Africa
  • Good Morning Vietnam: LBJ’s War 1965-68
  • Flying Column: The Irish Troubles 1920-21

Oh, and I wrote the foreword, and supplied a list of readings and games on counterinsurgency! Look in the front and the back, when you are done having fun with these rules.

Buy your copy now at:
http://www.wargaming.co/recreation/details/dwtcoin.htm

Prices are quite reasonable and are printed by print-on-demand arrangement with lulu.com, so your copy doesn’t take very long to reach you.

Book video review: Zones of Control

ZOC book cover

Or maybe it’s a video book review!

Two reviews of the Zones of Control anthology on Youtube: a lengthy one by the notorious Marco Arnaudo.

https://youtu.be/rF0_YiWzlBo

And a shorter one by the Bonding with Board Games group, who also do the HAMTAG (Half As Much, Twice As Good) show

https://youtu.be/mk0UhBAhku4

By the way, MIT Press is having a sale on this and every other book they carry until Monday!

You can get a copy of this for 40% off, or just thirty Yankbucks!

https://mitpress.mit.edu/zones-control

And be sure to look elsewhere in the Game Studies area, as there are some other very good titles there.

https://mitpress.mit.edu/category/discipline/game-studies

Eight pages of stuff and like always 95% of it is about digital games and gaming, but I have bought and liked:

  • Works of Game: on the Aesthetics of Game and Art, by John Sharp
  • Uncertainty in Games, by Greg Costikyan
  • The Well Played Game: a Player’s Philosophy by Bernard de Koven
  • Critical Play: Radical Game Design by Mary Flanagan (excellent book)
  • War Games: A History of War on Paper by Philipp von Hilgers

Use promocode GIVEBOOKS40 at checkout. Hurry, offer ends at midnight 11/27/2017!  (Discount applies to website purchase only.) Service is prompt and shipping is pretty reasonable too.

Invasion Fantasies

WPC Cover 8sm

From The Walrus magazine, last month:

https://thewalrus.ca/when-america-declared-war-on-us/

In an excerpt from War is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature (McGill-Queen’s University Press) the writer Robert McGill discusses various “US invades Canada” novels, in the context of the Vietnam War – so his examples all date from that war or after, beginning with 1968’s Killing Ground by Bruce Powe (writing as Ellis Portal).

The last two paragraphs are telling:

That said, the fact that books such as The Red Wing SingsUSNA and Faultline 49 continue to be written, along with the fact that they’re so similar to their Vietnam War-era predecessors, indicates that US invasion narratives have a certain ongoing appeal. For one thing, they allow for the Canada-US relationship to be dealt with in a straightforward, plot-driven way, and they construe the actions necessary for the preservation of Canadian sovereignty as no more difficult or complex than the execution of various military manoeuvres. Rather than mucking about with the complicated details of America’s cultural and economic dominance, invasion scenarios reduce the problem to a single, totalizing danger that jeopardizes the entire Canadian population, and not just in terms of people’s incomes or choice of TV programs but in terms of their very lives.

Likewise, stories of a Canadian military resistance to the US continue to facilitate fantasies of a united Canada, in contrast with the ongoing reality of regional, political, and ethnic differences in the country. And as the allusions to the Vietnam War in the contemporary novels suggest, resistance stories permit their writers to express a nostalgia for a time when a vociferous nationalist movement was led, in part, by authors who could count on a considerable audience to listen to them.

I think, with certain variations, the last paragraph could also be applied to the generous assortment of “America invaded” fantasies that have appeared over the years, beginning in 1890. Though the genre of English-language “invasion literature” did start with the English, with The Battle of Dorking in 1871.

Anyhow, just putting this here to bounce War Plan Crimson, and to make mention of Mark Wightman’s Dorking title, also available from Tiny Battle.

 

Tactical narratives are not games

 

LT Backsight Forethought. Why does every subaltern try to grow a mustache?

Over at Rex Brynen’s great blog Paxsims is his reaction to a recent post on The Strategy Bridge website, about the first of a series of “tactical decision games” – the first is Kaliningrad Fires, about a hypothetical American force deployed in Lithuania to thwart an advance by Aggressor Fantasian Soviet Russian forces.

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/kaliningrad-fires-is-war-but-no-game/

As he points out, the piece is called a game, but it isn’t really… because it’s not adversarial, nor does it have any real cycles to it. It could be called a wargame only in the narrow sense that the US Army uses the term: when a commander is deciding on a Course of Action (COA), he is said to “wargame” out how each COA might unfold, just to see how logical and feasible it is.

There is a long tradition to these pieces. They form part of a junior officer’s training and have been called any number of names – DIs, tactical problems, TEWTs – and their purpose is not to play out a game with rules, conflict and an outcome, but to see how well the student can formulate a logical plan of action in the time allotted, with due consideration for the problem’s parameters and its likely implications. “Creativity” (or more often, buggering about with what the text of the problem didn’t say in order to try and pull a Kobayashi Maru on the Directing Staff), comes later… first show us you’re smart.

There is an equally long tradition of presentations of worked-out tactical problems with solutions and discussion, presented in books in fictional form. They are called tactical narratives (or at least that is what I will call them, for purposes of this post).

The first of these to get wide circulation was The Defence of Duffer’s Drift written in 1904 by Ernest Swinton, then a Captain but who went on to develop the concept of tanks in battle, trained the first British tank units and finished his career in 1938 as a Major General and Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps. This is a classic and has been reprinted and reproduced many times, by all English-speaking armies (and was also translated into Urdu, for the Indian Army). It describes the experience of young Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, in command of a platoon of 50 riflemen and tasked with defending a “drift” or river crossing site during the Boer War. Forethought has no prior experience, so the book is a series of six “dreams” or visions where his first attempt is a disaster, then each subsequent dream explains a different principle or set of lessons as the scenario is played through again and again and he does better each time.  (link at the bottom, for this and other pieces)

This book was probably not on the required reading list for junior British officers then, insofar as a professional officer before the First World War was encouraged to read at all. But it was widely read, and its “serial dream” structure inspired several imitators:

  • The Battle of Booby’s Bluffs, written 1921 by Brigadier General William A. Mitchell (no, not the “Billy” Mitchell of Air Force iconoclasm);
  • The Defence of Bowler Bridge (about 1930);
  • The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Emma Gees (1979 by LCol Ken Nette, PPCLI – this one is on the history and tactical employment of machine guns, and I still have a reprint of the article from when I went on my Machine Gunner’s course in 1982);
  • The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat  (1988)
  • The Defenseof Jisr al-Doreaa (2009, placed in Iraq)

The first three are all available as a collection of tactical primers at http://regimentalrogue.com/primers.htm ; the fourth is available for preview at https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Defense_of_Hill_781.html?id=zGDZ43PhWEIC&redir_esc=y and the fifth is available on the Net at http://www.benning.army.mil/mssp/security%20topics/Global%20and%20Regional%20Security/content/pdf/Defense_of_Jisr_Al_Doreaa(2008).pdf but it was and is also available for sale on Amazon, bound with Duffer’s Drift.

It’s interesting that all of these tactical narratives deal with the defensive phase of operations.

One of the older items on my bookshelf is “The Solution of Tactical Problems”, by LCOL Joseph Needham, from 1907. Subtitled “A Logical and Easy Way of Working Out the Tactical Schemes Set at Examinations”, that is exactly what it is: a series of little vignettes placing the student who wants to pass the exams to enter RMA Sandhurst or some other military school in the position of a junior officer, tasked with commanding a flank guard or setting out pickets or something… the student thinks about his disposition and the author tells him the correct answer, as set forth in whatever Field Service Regulations there were for the infantry in 1906-07. Needham would rewrite and update the book each year, adding and changing the problems, up to the end of the First World War.

https://books.google.ca/books/about/Solution_of_Tactical_Problems.html?id=XEkenQAACAAJ&redir_esc=y

There are also examples of interactive tactical primers, written in the “choose your own adventure” style. Three examples are by John F. Antal: Infantry Combat: the Rifle Platoon (1995); Armor Attacks: the Tank Platoon (1991); and Combat Team: The Captain’s War (1998). Again, this is an interesting way to present the information, and it does verge on being a game, in that progress through the lessons is influenced by decisions made by the reader and the text is somewhat adversarial.

Then there are the extended narratives that read like novels but started life as manuals. There is Kenneth Macksey’s book, First Clash, written in 1985 and which takes an operational look at how things might have played out for the 4th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in southern Germany – it was also sold commercially as a book.

In 2005, a Canadian science fiction writer named Karl Schroeder was hired by the Canadian military to write Crisis at Zefra, a conceptual book about how Canadian soldiers would deal with asymmetrical threats in a generic African city of the near future (2025). A bit too goshwow with respect to the technology for me – nano-this and nano-that – but these things are valuable just by having been written down. The whole work is available at http://www.kschroeder.com/foresight-consulting/crisis-in-zefra/Crisis-in-Zefra-e.pdf . Annex B of the work is a survey by then-Major Andrew Godefroy of fictional narratives used by and for the Canadian military, beginning with Duffer’s Drift, which kind of brings things full circle.

This post has gone on longer than I planned to make it, and my original intention was to write about two other interesting items I found recently, on the uses of wargaming as tools for professional development. That will have to wait for another day, but I put the URLs here as a reminder for me, and a curiosity for you:

https://www.cove.org.au/wargaming/article-thespian-officers-narratives-and-planning/

http://cimsec.org/interwar-period-gaming-today-conflicts-tomorrow-press-start-play-pt-2/31712

 

 

 

 

 

Namechecked on VICE Waypoint and Killscreen!

ZOC book cover

https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-gitmo-games

Over at Waypoint (the section of VICE magazine that deals with gaming and gamer culture), Muira McCammon, an academic who writes on Guantanamo Bay quotes from the essay on irregular warfare games I wrote with Volko Ruhnke for the Zones of Control anthology . She also references A Distant Plain and Labyrinth.

So, what sort of game system might be able to model the complexity of GiTMO, to give voice to the challenges that detainees, journalists, lawyers, and guards have faced in the detention facility’s history?

My answer: the wargame.

Wargames are a great way to parse asymmetrical conflict in a political system, and in many ways, GiTMO can be understood as a series of power struggles. A wargame has the potential to model the tensions between journalists, detainees, lawyers, and members of the U.S. military. It could give us an outlet to reflect on serious episodes in GiTMO’s history, like that time when Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon accused journalist Carol Rosenberg of “multiple incidents of abusive and degrading comments of an explicitly sexual nature.” It could help us examine the history of coalition building in GiTMO, like when detainees held an election to select two leaders, one who was revealed to the Americans and one who worked in the shadows.

….

What Ruhnke and Train speak to is a problem that extends beyond wargames. A lot of us with differing ideological, religious, ethnic, and other backgrounds are uncomfortable with the idea of people “playing” games about serious things like war crimes and human rights violations.   Anyone trying to make a wargame out of GiTMO would have to simplify the place, and that carries a number of inherent risks. Another problem: GiTMO is still a morphing, changing place with an uncertain future.

I can think of a few ways to do this, actually, but that will have to wait while I work on other projects. I suspect that Camp Delta will be there for a while yet.

13emeStra11Jan2014-1

Banner: Rodger MacGowan.

And a few weeks ago on a website called Killscreen, she also wrote about A Distant Plain and what did and didn’t go into the Events Deck for that game.

https://killscreen.com/articles/ghost-churchill-make-wargame/

Event cards helped me become comfortable with wargame design. The first deck I really loved and explored belonged to A Distant Plain (2013), a wargame about contemporary Afghanistan. I considered how my Afghan friends would critique the narrative put forth in the deck and the board. What would they think of this attempt to boil a segment of their nation’s history down? Omission, deletion, marginalization, and exclusion—these are issues that always bubbled up in my mind as I shuffled through the deck.

I had mentored a group of Afghan women writers, many of whom were based in Kabul, and I always wondered, if they had been taught wargame design, how might their deck have differed? Instead of having a card devoted to “Koran Burning,” would they have given a card to mark the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning a Qur’an? As wargame designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train crafted their A Distant Plain (2013), which cards had been edited out?

She does have a point and I did attempt to answer her in the comments, but I don’t know if she saw it.

A deck of 72 event cards presents only 72 different chances to alter the game as it is played, even though the number of combinations is astronomical (72 factorial, or 6.123446 to the 103rd power). As I’ve said before, a wargame is a created object, a distillation of first and second hand experience and therefore cannot be a neutral one, any more than there can be a neutral novel. Deliberately or not, there of course will be deletions, omissions, exclusions and abstractions – that’s endemic to the process of recording history itself, let alone abstracting from that history to make a model in the form of a game. The designer, through the processes of research, conceptualizing, testing and production of a game, must make a series of choices of what to include in their design, what to leave out, and how to model what’s been judged relevant enough and left in.

Volko and I were aware of this of course, and took a few online kicks in the ribs for even trying to design a game on a war that was still underway. We felt that most importantly, a designer should be prepared to “show their work” and stand behind what they have done. Therefore we tried to select events that one were based on one or more actual historical events, tactics, or tendencies that materially affected the conflict; in a couple of cases things that could have affected it and were possible but didn’t happen (e.g. a coup d’etat in the Afghan Government). In all cases we had descriptions of what is represented by that card in history in the game’s playbook, with a reference to one or more items in the game’s bibliography.

Jeremy Antley, whom McCammon also references, wrote an interesting post on this aspect in his blog concerning the “My Lai” event card in Fire in the Lake. (Unfortunately, his domain name has expired so I can’t link to it right now – it was at http://www.peasantmuse.com/. Jeremy, pay the Internet Gods!)

And in the final analysis, A Distant Plain is a manual wargame. It’s entirely possible for Muira McCammon, or anyone else, to introduce, edit or replace the cards in the game, for greater or lesser (but certainly different) effect. As Mary Flanagan points out in Critical Play, that’s just the beginning of what you can do!

Paddy Griffith’s Counterinsurgency Wargames – out now!

pgcoincover

John Curry, through his “History of Wargaming” project, has for several years now been bringing out a combination of old, long out-of-print and quite new books and material on wargaming, both hobby and professional.

Paddy Griffith was a prolific designer with a foot in both these worlds. He was a lecturer in Military History at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for many years, and created several board wargames (collected in “A Book of Sandhurst Wargames”) and many sets of miniatures wargaming rules. He also expanded the genre of “sprawling wargames”: very large-scale tabletop games played by teams of players to game out big battles.

John Curry has been rescuing a lot of Paddy Griffith’s work from potential eternal obscurity, and releasing it via the print-on-demand and ePub routes (Lulu, Amazon, Kindle, etc.).

Here is one of those items: Paddy Griffith’s Counterinsurgency Wargames, a set of three games dealing with counterinsurgency as it was then understood in the late 1970s, designed by Griffith while he was at Sandhurst. Two of the games are suitable for committee play by small groups, the third is the setup for a large exercise involving over 250 people and an entire class of Sandhurst cadets.

The Kindle edition went on sale last week, as did the paper edition. See the link below for a preview of the Kindle from Amazon ($9.95).

https://read.amazon.ca/kp/embed?asin=B01KQUCERK&asin=B01KQUCERK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_49KVxb7AHBCZX

And here is the link to order the paper product: £12.95 plus shipping.

http://www.wargaming.co/recreation/details/pgcoin.htm

Now, I am telling you all this not just because it is an interesting book and subject in its own right, but also because I got to write the foreword! This was a new experience for me and I found it challenging to write, as it deals with the development of official British doctrine over the years.

Here’s a review on the Paxsims blog:

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/review-paddy-griffiths-counter-insurgency-wargames/