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A captured NVA regular wears the characteristic Ho Chi Minh sandals and pith helmet. Heavy Tet losses among southern-born Viet Cong shifted the, war's burden to the northern regulars.

The rotation policy also had an adverse impact on the officer corps. Knowing their time was limited, many officers selfishly sought to enhance their careers during their Vietnam service. This was the infamous 'ticket punching' behaviour so criticized after the war. The officer's goal was not to win the war, but to acquire a good fitness report for his file. Furthermore, career officers strove to serve six months in a combat unit and six in a staff position. This combined experience gave them the best chance for future promotion. Yet it had a serious adverse impact on operations in the field. Just about the time an officer became experienced enough to lead effectively, he switched jobs. A new commander brought new procedures, and even- one constantly had to change, adjust and relearn all aspects of combat. This was a serious disadvantage, particularly against a foe who had fought a lifetime on the same ground.

The fundamental military challenge confronting the Americans and their allies was that, despite unprecedented mobility provided by helicopters and APCs, they infrequently contacted the enemy unless he wanted the contact. The Tet Offensive changed this. The enemy massed his forces and tried to hold his ground.

Typical soldier of the Met Cong. Illustration by Mike Chappell.

The Communists

Communist forces fell into two distinct groups: the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and the Viet Cong (VC). At the war's beginning, the southern-born Viet Cong operated in true guerrilla style without support from the NVA regulars. As the war intensified, increasing numbers of North Vietnamese made the perilous march south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join the fighting. American intelligence estimated that at the time of the offensive, about fifty per cent of the 197 mainforce enemy battalions in the south comprised NVA regulars. At all times, the Hanoi high command dominated their southern brethren. The NVAs objective was to reunify Vietnam: the Viet Cong - fighting under the banner of the National Liberation Front - had the slightly different goal of obtaining a monopoly of political power in the south. American intelligence had identified seven North Vietnamese Army divisions in South Vietnam by the beginning of 1968. They numbered about 50,000 soldiers. Additional NVA regulars served in mainforce VC units.

The AK-47 was the standard hand-held firearm on the Communist side. The Russian-designed gas- operated automatic rifle fired a 7.62mm round. It had an effective range of 400 metres and delivered 30 rounds per magazine. Ruggedly built, it was believed by many American soldiers to be greatly superior to their own M-16. In contrast to earlier wars where foot soldiers fired rifles, the AK-47 turned even enemy infantryman into a light machine-gunner. A young Met Cong soldier carries the Chinese version of the AK-47.

Until the war's end, a North Vietnamese soldier sent south returned home only in one of two circumstances. If he belonged to the small cadre held out of battle to reconstruct a battered unit (a practice similar to that used by assault troops in the First World War) he would return to escort replacements back south. A disabling wound was the only other ticket home. As the war dragged on, more and more recruits saw orders sending them south as a death sentence. Yet they went, and, in sharp contrast to American policy, the NVA soldier served for the duration. As one envious American general expressed it: 'Charlie had no DEROS.'

Compared with the Allies, the NVA lived an extremely primitive life. Their health suffered accordingly. A typical NVA prisoner reported that while everyone took malaria pills, due to their poor physical condition, 70 men in his company had contracted the disease by the time of his capture.

It was also a life lacking comfort and pleasure. While during the march south through Laos and Cambodia they occasionally met women at communications and liaison stations, once they neared the combat zone they seldom made contact with the opposite sex. Each evening a political officer harangued the men. He told of combat heroes and of great past and future successes against the APVN and Americans. Typically, a commissar might acknowledge the strength of American aircraft and guns while stressing the moral superiority of the NVA/VC. Although political indoctrination was an important component of orthodox Communist training, at least one veteran reported that it often failed to stimulate the troops for a most basic reason: the political officer did not accompany the men on combat missions and thus was discredited. Periodically travelling entertainment troops arrived to enliven the soldiers' lonely routine. While their arrival was welcome, particularly if the troop featured women, their departure only highlighted the men's isolation. The life of an NVA soldier was one of tremendous physical and emotional deprivation.

Up until the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese avoided battle except on ground of their own choosing. Usually they tried to draw the Americans into a prepared killing ground that featured well-camouflaged, deeply-dug trenches, bunkers and spider holes. Experienced American officers learned to avoid assaulting unknown numbers of enemy soldiers in prepared positions. Instead, they preferred to fall back and call in air strikes and artillery. However, the imperative to report a sizeable 'body count' drove some aggressive leaders to costly and foolish attacks. The 173rd Airborne's assault on hill 875 in 1967 and the Hamburger Hill action in 1969 were two dismal examples. A trench/tunnel complex uncovered by the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Within the Viet Cong were two levels of combatants: mainforce (called regular by the Americans) units that numbered about 60,000 men organized into regular combat units, and the paramilitary or guerrilla forces. The latter, in turn, comprised regional, or territorial, guerrillas and local guerrillas. Main force units engaged in full scale combat and were veteran, skilled fighters. The paramilitary units provided logistical support, scouts and guides, and engaged in hit and run ambushes and mine laying. While it is exceedingly difficult to reconstruct the Communist order of battle - it was a source of great debate at the time within Westmoreland's headquarters - on the eve of Tet, some 400,000 paramilitary fighters were present.

A captured VC sapper reported: 'You had lots of wire around Polei Kleng but it was easy to get through. I just don't think you have a defensive barrier that is effective against us.' At Hue, a spearheading sapper company formed four 10-man teams equipped with two B40 and one 1341 rocket launchers as well as AK and CKZ rifles with 200 rounds of ammunition. Each sapper also carried 20 explosive charges to breach fortified defences. Nearly naked, to avoid tangling in wire, a former VC sapper demonstrates infiltration technique.

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