The role and the purpose of the US Special Forces during the Vietnam Era Essay

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What is theory? Theory is other mans experience. Otto von Bismarck put it this way: Fools say they learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others. Vietnam War taught many a new tactics to the US army in counter-guerrilla warfare. But the crusade in the jungles of Vietnam war not a happy experience for the US Army. The guerrilla warfare was not part of the US military culture. Vietnam War taught voluminous lessons to the US military.

The Special Forces branch (Special Forces, SF, or Green Berets) is an elite special operations force; a part of the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), a component of United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM).Special Forces units given many types of special responsibilities. During the Vietnam war, special forces played an important role. Among their number were the US armys 5th Special Forces Group, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) units, the Military Assistance Command”Vietnam”Studies & Observation Group (MAC-V-SOG), US navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) teams, US Marine Force Reconnaissance units and USAF Air Commandos, special operations squadrons, and combat control teams of forward air controllers. (Special Forces..)

During the Vietnam War era, some of the assigned duties to these forces were unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, counter terrorism, psychological operations, and proliferation and information operations. Vietnam War was a special type war for America.

It was the war in a small country in a big way. The war was not ending even when they wished to terminate it early. It prolonged, went beyond their control, and ultimately Vietcong emerged victorious humbling the mighty USA. Humiliation and defeat were the two words which the US Army found hard to digest, yet they had no other alternative. What were the matchless guerilla warfare skills of the Vietcong, which contributed to the defeat of the mighty military force, including the US Special Forces?

The task of fighting a war for a Western country like USA in an Asian country poses the language and communication problems. A wing of the Special Forces is trained in local language skills, familiarizes itself with the local culture and acquires special skills in working with foreign troops. The listing of their duties is fairly long and duties are added depending upon the contingencies. Some of the important duties taken care of by the US Special Forces during the Vietnam Era are peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, de-mining and counter-drug operations, combat search and rescue, coalition warfare and support etc.

Many of the operational techniques of the U.S. Special Forces are secret but doctrinal manuals are available for the common man, press and research scholars. Their official motto is De Oppresso Liber (Latin: To Liberate the Oppressed Special Forces are not under the command of the ground commanders, unless otherwise specified. While in theatre, mostly they report directly to the United Sates Central Command.

The Special Forces organized Civilian Irregular Defiance Groups (CIDG) during the Vietnam War. For most of the duration of the War, the 5th Special Forces trained and led CIDG mobile strike forces. To create such forces, minority tribes and groups from the border and mountain regions were drafted. Small-unit patrols defended their home bases in the border areas, to deter the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regular units of the army. Initially this plan succeeded and the U. S. Special Forces units encountered success after success. (U .S. Army¦)

Whats more, during 1966-67 American field commanders increasingly employed Special Forces-led Mike units in long-range reconnaissance missions or as economy-of-force security elements for regular units. Other CIDG-type forces, called mobile guerrilla forces, raided enemy base areas and employed hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against regular enemy units  (U. S. Army¦)From recruits amongst the Nung tribes, three units were formed, Dela, Sigma and Omega, which formed part of the Special Forces.

They were both reaction forces and put on duty of reconnaissance. Their contribution to the war effort was significant. The 2500 regular soldiers of the U.S Army raised and led an army of 50,000 tribal fighters. Being familiar with the local conditions and geography, they operated successfully in some of the most difficult terrains and areas of Vietnam. The CIDG patrolling of border infiltration areas provided reliable tactical intelligence, and the units secured populations in areas that might have been otherwise conceded to the enemy.  (Clarke, pp.196-207)

In short, the CIDG, CAP, and CORDS programs encountered success in pursuing the counterinsurgency in Vietnam. They contributed in greater measure to the scope and area of actionable intelligence. They provided valuable experience and lessons to the US army as to how to fight wars in Vietnam-like situations. In war situations and in an ongoing conflict, it is futile to talk about permanent victory or permanent defeat.

Only permanent efforts matter. In the initial stages, the US offensive led by the Special forces in many areas and departments of the war were successful. But soon, problems began to surface one after another. The once US solutions became the present US problems. The seeds of hostility between the South Vietnamese and the ethnic minority groups of the CIDG strike forces blocked the US efforts to Republic of Vietnam Special Forces take command of the CIDG program. The second drawback was that the villagers became habituated to the security cover provided by the Special Forces. They proved incapable of defending themselves, due to poor leadership and equipments.


In the end, even the well-trained Special Forces of USA, assisted by the Vietnamese, were no match for the grit and determination of the Vietcong. They proved capable to fight a prolonged war in their own territory, and in the unconventional war, they succeeded in conducting surprise ambushes and giving telling blows to the Special Forces. They excelled in every area, guerrilla warfare, subversion, evasion and escape and sabotage. Clear and hold counterinsurgency strategy by the American military including the Special Forces, in the concluding stages of the Vietnam War, doomed the American military might. The policy of General William Westmoreland to seek out every soldier and kill him (search and destroy) proved counter-productive.

He was replaced by General Creighton Abrams, who reversed the earlier order by another strategy”controlling and defending patches of territory and population. But even that did not work. The people began to hate Americans intensely. Tiny villages and hamlets were bombed by the American army. The civilian casualties were heavy. In a six-month operation, the US 9th Division, counted 10,000 dead, but only 751 weapons were recovered. This indicates a large number of civilian causalities. Viet Cong did suffer heavy losses from 1968-1972, but soon the US Administration realized that the Special Forces had outlived their role in Vietnam.

The debate whether the U.S. political authority  let down the war efforts or was it the  awesome ordeal of fighting the war for two decades, that contributed to the eventual defeat of the American forces  still goes on unabated. To fight a interminable guerrilla and conventional war in the enemy territory for such a long period is no ordinary job. The long run had the telling effect on the morale of the army, which was haunted by corruption and factionalism. The popular support had dwindled. At such a juncture, the Communists took to the offensive and the defeat of the American Army was round the corner.




Special Forces: Definition and Much More¦ 95k Retrieved on June 14, 2008

U.S. Army Professional Writing For much of the Vietnam War, the 5th Special Forces Group¦ 43k Cached Retrieved on June 14, 2008

Clarke, Jeffrey J:  Advice and Support: The Final Years (Washington: US Army Center of Military History, 1988), pp. 196-207.

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