By the time that the first US major combat units began field operations in 1965 some 60% of the village population of South Vietnam Was under the control of the National Liberation Front (NLF or VC) political cadres. This control is not obvious and it took several years before the Americans appreciated the scale of the problem. The NLF, on the other hand, were aware of the extent of their support and made good of it. The Government of the Republic of Vietnam introduced several measures which were designed to improve the lot of the peasant. However, the corruption of local and national government officials and the lack of willpower or effective direction from Saigon frustrated these measures and gave the peasantry even more reason to support the NLF.
The areas where the support for the NLF was at its highest were the areas where the peasants had usually suffered most at the hands of their landlords. These landlords often charged high rents and exorbitant interest rates and the peasants had to work plots of land barely large enough to provide subsistence farming, let alone pay the rents and interest on any loan. The plight of the tenant farmer had improved little since the expulsion of the French.
The Government openly favoured the wealthy and the powerful. It repressed its political opponents and it seemed adverse to adopting any form of reform that would effectively improve the lot of the poor. It did pay lip service to land reform. In this political climate, is it surprising that the NLF support increased? After all, the majority of the members of the NLF were villagers themselves and thus the NLF were seen as being 'of the people' - not a separate army or foreign ally. They understood the villagers problems and they had the answer: Unite the people, Oppose the Americans, Save the Nation!
The Government in Saigon had imposed village leaders after it had banned local elections. It had moved landless peasants to "Strategic Hamlets" in the traditional Montagnard areas of the Central Highlands - a measure that was unpopular with the peasants and the mountain tribesmen. The Government's officials, that arrived to win the hearts and minds of the people, failed because of their own corruption, the distrust of the villagers, the attitude of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and its conduct towards the villagers. These factions reinforced the communist teachings rather than fought them.
The Strategic Hamlet Programe had suffered from unpopularity and by 1965 45% were deserted. The rural pacification programes were failing. The local officials were changing over constantly. Intrigue amongst the political factions was rife. NLF incursions and monetary levies became more common, as did increased NLF recruitment and infiltration. All of these, combined with the political instability of Saigon (six governments in 18 months), lead to the US concluding in 1965 that all of the measures so far - the Counter Insurgency Operations, the village pacification. the land reforms and the complete reorganisation of the ARVN - were insufficient to stave off an imminent communist victory.
Thus, with the NLF in the ascendant, both Hanoi and Washington reacted. From the North came the regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and from over the Pacific came the US Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and all the support (and dollars) which that entailed. The military picture had widened and precious resources were diverted to support the military that should have been committed to winning over the villagers.
The ground forces of the US Marine Corps formed Combined Action Platoons in each village in the USMC controlled areas. These platoons varied in strength, but 30 ARVN and 15 USMC seems typical. They built their own forts or occupied ex-French strong points in or near the middle of the villages. The real war had come to the villages.
The NLF swung into action on the military level as well as the political. They saw the two as extensions of each other, and not separate as the Americans did. Their political cadres built on the foundations already laid, again the message was simple:
"The Americans are Imperialists just like the French were. The Americans are destroying the country." Both of these were obvious truths to the villagers. The Americans were foreigners, just like the French. The Americans, traveling in their trucks shot the water buffalo in the fields for fun. They were cruel and insensitive towards the Vietnamese way of life and culture. Their helicopters and aircraft delivered the ground troops and bombed and strafed the villages, killing and maiming the innocent with the guilty. The NLF gained support.
The Americans and the local troops (or mercenaries) of the Combined Action Platoons started to root out the communists almost as soon as they arrived. Anyone with suspected communist leanings was rounded up. Known activists were arrested and summarily executed. The platoons gave their support to those who naturally cooperated with them, usually these were the richer landowners.
Once the CAP was in the village the NLF then asked the villagers for displays of solidarity. This included the setting of booby-traps in the village; the assassination of collaborators and similar actions were favoured. Many villagers took part fairly willingly and others participated rather than face the inevitable recriminations. After all, the Americans withdrew into their camps and forts at night - and the night belonged to Charlie.
When the NLF considered that the time was right they would increase sniping and terrorist acts. American reactions often increased support and created the right political conditions. Then, after very careful planning, the NLF would launch their attacks at night on the American compounds. Before the attack the NLF would know every American position and each soldier would play his part perfectly. The soldiers of the NLF were not expected to show initiative, just to fulfil their role as planned. These raids, even if only partly successful, were great propaganda victories which could lead to increased recruitment. The villagers wanted to support and be supported by the strongest side and each victory made it obvious that the NLF were just that.
The NLF intelligence machine was of vital importance and the American policy of employing local Vietnamese to carry out menial tasks in the camps made intelligence gathering easier. The construction of the camps in cleared areas eased observation and at all times observers noted movements, timings and locations. These reports were processed to give incredibly accurate pictures of the forts. Infiltrators could be "recruited" into the platoons to provide even more information.
This background is necessary for the umpire and Vietnamese players in a wargame since it affects the reactions of the villagers and their attitude to the Americans, the mercenaries, the ARVN and the VC.
Setting the scene is important. Vietnamese villages could contain several thousand people in the areas of better land and these were usually made up of a number of small hamlets and farms dispersed over a wide area. Each of these hamlets was given a number suffix to its name by the Americans, e.g. Phuoc An 2, Con Say 4 and so on. Between the buildings and surrounding the hamlets were the rice paddies and plantations of banana and rubber trees. Most domestic animals roamed the tracks: pigs, fowl and dogs could all be encountered. The domestic water buffalo were generally found in the fields, looked after by the young and the old.
Beneath some of the villages were the now famous tunnel systems. The Americans however, were slow to find the existence of these. In the tunnels was hidden the war machinery of the NLF. The weapon and ammunition stores and factories, the headquarters, the medical facilities, the food stores and barracks were all underground. The extensive tunnels, such as were found at Cu Chi, were of a different sort altogether. The village tunnels provided the base facilities for the local units of the NLF, or the Viet Cong as they became known to the Americans.
Hamlet clearing was not only unpopular with the troops ordered to do it, it was positively dangerous. The Americans, often arrogant and frightened, would appear by helicopter or vehicle, search the village and depart with their prisoners before nightfall. Often the entire village would be "torched" - burnt to the ground. Since virtually every soldier carried his "Zippo" (a popular brand of cigarette lighter) and the huts were constructed of thatch and dried leaves, this was easy. Sometimes flame-throwers were used when available, but more commonly the flame-thrower was reserved for clearing bunkers. It was little different with the hated ARVN. Interestingly the Australians, the Thais and the Koreans, were far more successful, probably because they used more persuasive techniques.
The troops involved could be tasked with any one of a variety of missions including these five as samples:
The mission given was based on intelligence reports and did not necessarily imply that anything at all would be found in the village. The expected arrests may not be made because the communists hid in tunnels or escaped into the jungle at the first sign of approaching enemy. They could also merge easily with the population. who were unlikely to give them up. The stores may be well hidden. Can you tell the difference between communist rice and peasant rice? Any documents were certainly hidden in the tunnels and since the Americans were usually unaware that these existed, only luck or an informant would allow them to be captured. The quota of arrests had to be met, as did the body count at a later period. The relocation missions were usually successful in that the people were moved. However on many occasions. this was only accomplished with force.
WARGAMING IDEAS - VILLAGE SWEEP
The villagers should not be played by either the American or Viet Cong player. They should be played as sullen, polite and unhelpful, but not directly antagonistic to either side. The umpire may plant Viet Cong political agents, informants and as many red herrings as he wishes.
Villagers often have some grudge which needs immediate redress and/or compensation. For example:
The villagers should be quite upset about any of these or any other grievance that the headman brings to the attention of the American player. Do not overdo the grudges, but do fit one or two of them into the scenario.
In a pro-NLF village the force carrying out the sweep should become liable to either preplanned incidents or be subject to Card 4 random events. The umpire should decide how prone the sweeping force should be to the risk of being booby trapped in the same manner as outlined in In the Boonies
Card 4 Village Incidents -
Each of these locations gives a differing crop of possible traps and the umpire should make cards up for several different options for each location. These may refer to the already used booby-trap cards (see In the Boonies) or be completely new ones. It is a matter of personal taste.
1. Hooch Entrance/Air raid Shelter
Hooch entrances were seldom booby trapped because the point of entry was not well defined, except in the cool, wet weather. The walls of the hooches were made of matting and could be relatively easily removed. If such a location was to be trapped then a 'toe popper' or very small device would be used. Air raid shelters on the other hand were conical in shape and always underground. These could be booby trapped with all sorts of devices including grenades, punjis, poisonous snakes etc.
2. Log Pile
This is an ideal place for concealing caches of arms, entrances to tunnels, punji stakes, snipers or firewood. The traps that would be most likely would be of the hand grenade and tripwire variety. A sniper concealed in a log pile would have little chance of escape if he fired a badly timed shot, but be may have nowhere else to hide.
3. Rice Sacks.
These could contain rice. On the other hand they could contain any number of concealed items as well as rice. The rice itself could be destined for NLF mouths. They sacks could be booby-trapped, but this could be awkward if forgotten about!
4. Barrels or Drums.
These could be innocent water and fuel containers, or they could be concealing tunnel entrances, war or medical stores, even fugitives. They could be booby-trapped with grenades.
This is the material from which the hooch walls are constructed. There would therefore be stacks of it around or in each hooch. Some might be being repaired or in various stages of completion. The stacks could conceal tunnel entrances, caches, punjis, fugitives or snipers.
These and various cooking implements were a common sight and again would normally be innocent, but could conceal small items or a single grenade for use later.
Crates of different kinds became a common sight as the western influence spread. These empty containers of various sizes were used for a multitude of purposes from furniture to housing.
Bamboo was the prime building material. Practicalv all of the structures in a village were made from it. Therefore, piles of cut bamboo were commonplace. It could be innocent, but it could conceal air inlets to underground chambers etc.
Piles of rubbish are unhealthy places in the tropics. They could conceal many items or even contain a mine or punji stakes to discourage others.
10. Ammunition Boxes.
These became used as household stores. They were robust and usually of good quality. The villagers often kept their most precious belongings in them - as well as other things!
11. Earthenware Jars.
Jars of various sizes contained dried fish, salt or other foodstuffs. These could be booby-trapped, but this would be very uncommon. Foodstuffs were seldom trapped because of their value to the VC and the need for instant or very rapid removal.
Many other items might be hidden around the
village or in tunnels. These tunnels and their entrances should be planned and
not left to a chance card. A short list of concealed items might include:
+ captured US men, arms, ammunition and equipment.
Of the 133 species of snake encountered in Vietnam, all but two were poisonous. The most poisonous were kraits (left), cobras and bamboo vipers - unfortunately, these were also some of the most common. Bites from these snakes could kill you in a couple of hours. Thus any soldier bitten by a snake must immediately test for morale with a negative modifier at the umpire's discretion. If the results indicate a "rout" or similar result then he should panic. His immediate colleagues would attempt to restrain him and administer first aid. Others would search for and kill the snake in order to send it out with the unfortunate soldier so that the doctors could administer the correct anti-venom necessary to save his life. The bites were seldom instantly fatal, though death could be close.
Note 1: this can be treated by the
anti-venom, if carried by the soldier
Soldiers not requiring evacuation are assumed to have used their anti-venom, taking up one whole turn doing nothing else. Those who panic must be subdued first. If paralysis sets in before the soldier is injected, the anti-venom will have no effect.
To capture a snake the figure must do nothing else but chase after it for one move. If not successful, another attempt may be made, but add 1" to the starting distance. The capturing player must test to be attacked but does not count as surprised.
Using these outlines in your next village sweep scenario means that it will cease to be a battle of firepower and become a battle of wits. It also means that the US player is less sure of his situation. He would also never be quite sure exactly where or who the enemy is. The villagers who treat him indifferently or even with hostility may bear him no grudge, but the helpful youth may direct him onto a mine, that nice little girl may lob a grenade instead of her rubber ball. and so on.
A successful sweep does not end the game. The captured equipment has to be collected or destroyed, the prisoners taken away for questioning and perhaps the village burned as a demonstration of power and as a warning to others not to support the NLF. The NLF will immediately make political capital out of any civilian casualties or destruction of civilian property.
Alan AD Hamilton, The Village War in South Vietnam, Wargames Illustrated n. 24, August 1989