Cast of characters and organizations

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed this tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. Operated a field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. Operated a field office in Saigon.

RAC employees:

Perry F. Narten. Geologist from the McLean office assigned as my partner in the tunnel project.

Dorothy Clark and Harry Handler. Professional staff members on long-term assignment to the Vietnam field office.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. I understand that this was a pejorative term shortened from expressions meaning “Vietnamese Communists” and “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term in peacetime is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members. It was distinct from the North Vietnamese troops who also entered the war.

Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The government of South Vietnam during the war. Its army was generally designated by the abbreviation ARVN.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)


As soon as instructions from ARPA were received, RAC began preparations for the tunnel project. The project was too large and complex for one man to handle. Perry Narten, a geologist with whom I had collaborated on many previous projects, and a good friend as well, was assigned as my partner.

Perry and I arrived in Saigon on October 9, 1966.

Known today as Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon was at that time the capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). I understand that it had once been a beautiful city of about 50,000 people.   Since then, it had undergone Japanese occupation, followed by twenty years of war involving French, American, and other allied forces opposing South Vietnamese insurgent groups and North Vietnamese troops. The city had endured war damage and the decay of buildings and infrastructure. With the addition of refugees, other displaced people, and soldiers, the population had swollen to about 2 million.

RAC maintained an apartment in a pleasant downtown neighborhood at 23 Gia Long. Perry and I joined the two occupants, Harry and Dorothy, for the length of our stay. The RAC field office, part of a larger compound of ARPA field offices, was a 15-minute walk from the apartment.

Saigon remained our base of operations, but through short trips we visited other places important to our mission, including Bien Hoa, Tay Ninh, and Cu Chi. We returned for a longer stay at Cu Chi, which became the primary focus of our field surveys. It was located about 20 miles northwest of Saigon.

Cu Chi was strategically significant because it controlled some of the principal land and water routes for infiltration of supplies from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle nearby were strongholds for the Viet Cong throughout the war. The accompanying map shows these and other nearby areas, in which were found the greatest concentrations of tunnels in all of South Vietnam.

001Map Cu Chi b 3

In January 1966, about one square mile of land was cleared for the construction of Camp Cu Chi, the headquarters of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. Apparently it was not fully known at that time that the area was infested with Viet Cong tunnels. In ensuing months, surprise attacks occurred from inside the camp’s perimeter. An eyewitness told me of seeing several VC suddenly appearing in the mess hall, firing machine guns. When Perry and I arrived at Cu Chi, this problem had finally been solved within the camp itself, but tunnels in the general area remained a hot issue. The ARPA officers urged us to concentrate on this area, and we did.

002CampCuChi copy

                    Source: Danny Driscoll


Following the events at Camp Cu Chi, American forces had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience with tunnels by late 1966. Under the standard one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, many soldiers who had experienced tunnel warfare were still in country.

The normal procedure, once a tunnel complex had been detected and pacified by a strong ground force, was to search it and then destroy it by shaped demolition charges. At first, regular infantry soldiers were assigned to the search. Many were killed during encounters with enemy soldiers and booby traps. The need for a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was soon recognized, and numerous training materials were produced. The trainees under this program, who I understood were all volunteers, have frequently been called “Tunnel Rats.” My field notes suggest that “Tunnel Runners” was the more common term in use among the people I worked with. These runners were acknowledged as major American heroes of the war.

Backing up the above sources of information, extensive intelligence files on tunnels were built up in the 25th Division and in the headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

Our ARPA project officer, navy Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Gowing, was quick and thorough in seeing that we made all the informational contacts needed for our project. Among the facts that we learned:

TunnDestryJan68 300bThe greatest concentrations of tunnels were in the III Corps Tactical Zone, extending from the sea, through Saigon and Cu Chi, on to the Cambodian border, as depicted in the accompanying map. I saw the 1966 version of this map, which gave added information on the length of each tunnel or tunnel complex. Most of these were much less than one mile long; only a few exceptions approached or exceeded a length of one mile.

These lengths should be kept in mind in view of statements, partly true but misleading, that suggest the tunnels were much longer and were intended for long-distance travel. Examples of such information are: “they stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border,” “about 200 kilometers of tunnels were built,” and “they were used to connect villages, districts, and provinces together so the fighters could move between areas undetected.”

Estimating the numbers of tunnels runs into a problem of definition: They ranged in size from major headquarters facilities to “holes in the ground,” and by this definition the number could approach 5,000. By more conventional definitions, such as squad-size tunnels and larger, the count was about 500 in late 1966, and rising each month.

In news accounts and training materials alike, chief emphasis has been placed on the larger complexes, which held such facilities as living areas, storage depots, ordinance factories, hospitals, headquarters, kitchens, and any other facility needed by an army. For these purposes, compartments were built to whatever dimensions the facility required. The largest of them required some form of lining and support.

Connecting tunnels, and those used for such purposes as scout observations, surprise sniper attacks, ambushes, and town control, did not require large dimensions. To ensure stability without lining or support, they normally ranged in width from 0.8 to 1.2 meters, and in height from 0.8 to 1.8 meters. The minimum roof thickness was 1.5 meters.

A diagram illustrating the typical layout of a major tunnel complex was presented in Part I. Another is presented here. Both are from U.S. Army training materials.

Tunnel basics1

No central entity designed the tunnels or oversaw their construction. They evolved in response to local needs and were constructed under the supervision of local Viet Cong leaders. Teams of local residents performed the labor of digging by hand. In many cases, each team worked only in a sector near its home village, and was unaware of extensions into neighboring sectors.

The early tunnels were dug as hiding places for the Viet Minh, a nationalist guerilla force that fought the Japanese during World War II and the French afterward until 1954. More tunnels were built later as pressure increased from American and South Vietnamese troops.

We learned various examples of digging rates, which varied according to the soil, the weather, and the health and skills of the labor force. Some of the rates cited were: one cubic meter per person per day; 50 meters of tunnel length per day for a team of 100 workers. There were often major delays in progress, especially during the dry season, when soils became too hard to dig by hand. I learned of one tunnel, 1,700 meters long, that was started in 1958 and required two and one-half years for completion by a force of 100 workers.

Fortitude and determination were needed not only in the construction of tunnels, but also in their use.

Soldiers had to maneuver through low, narrow passages interrupted by many twists, turns, and trap doors designed to minimize effects of underground blasts. Floors were frequently flooded during the wet season, and snakes and scorpions were also encountered. Trap door openings were tiny; those we observed measured as little as 12 by 18 inches.

Care was needed when moving around booby traps that had been placed to defend the tunnels. Booby traps were responsible for 11% of American deaths, and 17% of all wounds during the war. They ranged from simple punji stakes (sharpened bamboo, often smeared with excrement) and underfoot spike boards to various explosive devices.

Noteworthy among the explosive devices were Claymore Mines, a particularly deadly type of antipersonnel weapon. They consisted of round flat pans filled with plastic explosive, packed with nails or other small pieces of metal to serve as shrapnel.  From a mine mounted in an upright position, this shrapnel would shower a large area forward.


The goal of our project was to contribute to a multi-part study titled “A Systematic Approach to the Detection of VC Tunnels.” Part I: Strategic and Tactical Factors was in preparation by Major H.W. Newbigin of the Australian Army, assisted by Lieutenant J.D. Harden of the U.S. Navy. We would prepare Part II: Environmental Factors. The two teams cooperated closely and exchanged information freely.

In Part II, our task was to match the information we had on tunnel locations with detailed descriptions of the environment, primarily geology, soils, and subsurface moisture and ground water conditions. We had two goals. One was to seek any association between tunnels and specific environmental settings, which might then guide search efforts. The other was to compile information on the properties of the natural materials and their changing moisture conditions, as an aid in the design of detection equipment.

Tunnels in the III Corps Tactical Zone were exclusively located in certain higher terrace levels of the geologic unit known as Old Alluvium. These were old floodplain deposits formed during previous higher stages of sea level. They were now elevated to several elevations up to about 70 feet above the current sea level.

They could readily be recognized by land use patterns on the uplands, consisting either of woodlands or of cultivated fields and hedgerows.

In soil science terminology, these materials were identified and mapped as grey podzolic soils and low-humic gley soils. Tunnels could be located freely anywhere in the first type, which lay at higher elevations. In the second type, at lower elevations, tunnels could be located only at selected sites on high ground. In lower areas, the ground water table was too shallow.

The soil materials were mostly clays with some silt and fine sand. They were “lateritic,” meaning that iron content, leached from the upper layers, had accumulated in the lower layers as a cement. When thoroughly air-dried, those soils took on properties close to those of concrete, and were resistant to ever becoming soft and moist again. Finally, near the ground water table, still higher concentrations of iron produced layers of laterite pebbles and rocks, highly resistant to digging even by mechanized equipment. This set the depth limit for digging tunnels in the usual fashion, by hand. The limit typically varied between 10 and 20 meters.

TunnExpos1The soils were highly stable without lining or support, depending, of course, on the size of the excavation. After drying out, they were known to withstand 40-pound cratering charges, hand grenades, and other explosives without collapsing. Their stability is evident in these photos of a tunnel from which the roof had been removed.

Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. The south monsoon, May through September, features the single rainy season, with annual rainfall exceeding 1000mm almost everywhere. The north monsoon, October through April, brings dry and sunny weather to southern Vietnam, while rainfall is infrequent and light. In the Saigon area specifically, the rainy season tends to persist later, tapering off during the October-November period when we were there.

The rainy season was the best time for tunnel construction. During the dry season, the soils often became too dry and hard to be dug by hand. Along the interior tunnel surfaces, many areas of soil were thoroughly air-dried so that they were more or less permanently hardened and unlikely to regain moisture and softness. Trap doors in tunnels were normally built up of layers of wood and soil; even though they were exposed to seasonal rains, soldiers sometimes mistook the soil for concrete.

As our study progressTunnExpos2ed, it became clear that tunnel locations in III Corps Tactical Zone were strictly confined to certain suitable soil and geologic situations as described above. Nevertheless, we were unable to meet our first goal. The suitable conditions were so widespread that they did not provide any guidance for organizing a search effort. We did succeed with our second goal, providing detailed data about ground conditions to assist in the design of sensing systems.

These widespread conditions were not only suitable for hand-dug tunnels; they were pre-eminently suitable in comparison with other situations around the world. This suggests that tunneling may have been an established tradition of Vietnamese culture through previous centuries. It would explain the speed and skill with which they employed it in times of occupation and war.

To support this speculation, it is worth noting that China once had such a tradition, taking advantage of widespread deposits of loess (windblown silt and clay). Loess was well suited for digging artificial caves, though it lacked the cements that gave the Vietnamese soils added stability. The Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 was the deadliest earthquake in history, owing to the fact that millions of people were living in caves dug in the loess. Many of the dwellings collapsed, and the toll was estimated at 830,000 deaths.


Note: An account of this event, in a letter dated November 3. 1966, is presented in Part III: Letters from the Field. The purpose here is to summarize that account and to fill in some of the gaps.

*     *     *

Camp Cu Chi, headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division, was approximately one square mile in area. It was largely surrounded by hostile territory and was aptly termed a front-line camp. Its perimeter was lined by barbed wire, machine gun bunkers, and artillery emplacements. Every night the guns were fired repeatedly, flares were dropped, and in general sleep was frequently interrupted.

My longest visit to the camp began on October 31, when the 25th Division had scheduled an operation to check out the report by a VC prisoner about a tunnel located near Ap Cho, about 3 miles southeast of the camp. The operation would be carried out by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), under the command of Captain Blair. When I arrived, six armored personnel carriers (APCs) were lined up ready to make the trip. A helicopter waited nearby for Capt. Blair, who would lead the operation from the air.

VN Field_0001

Soon the VC prisoner was brought forward. He was a young man, neat and clean. He wore the black pajama uniform that I had heard of but had never seen. His hands were tied behind his back, and while in Camp Cu Chi he was blindfolded. He was docile. His face never showed any emotion.

VN Field_0002The prisoner was interviewed through an interpreter. At the site we would visit, he had been foreman over a work force of 100 diggers using picks and shovels. A North Vietnamese army officer had given him plans for his sector of the tunnel complex. From 1961, some digging was done each wet season, normally at a rate of 50 meters per day. The ground was too hard for digging in the dry season. The entire complex was unlined, except for the room just inside the main entry, were the roof was only about 1 foot thick. He claimed that the entire length of the tunnel complex was about 1 kilometer, which would be one of the longest on record.

Proceeding from the camp, our column crossed paddy fields (flooded fields where rice is grown). Here we avoided the small roads on the dikes because they might be mined. Instead, we plowed through the rice in a scene very similar to that shown below, which came from a picture post card. The soldiers mostly rode on the top decks of the APCs, while I chose a bench seat in the interior.

PostCdBoys_0001 1119

On the roads, a sizable group of Vietnamese civilians moved along with us, frequently cheering and waving. Soon a brisk trade was set up in refreshments for the troops, mostly soft drinks and bananas. I wasn’t sure where these people came from; a large area here had been cleared of all inhabitants the previous February.

The most comic scene occurred when we had left the crowds and moved into a deserted area. Along came a boy riding a bicycle on the cart track. He and the soldiers struck up a conversation, and it soon developed that he had a bunch of bananas hidden in his basket. So the bargaining started. For a can of C rations and 20 piastres (17 cents) he waded over and gave us the bananas. We all enjoyed them because we were parched.

Presently, I heard the sound of gunfire. As I quickly learned, we had encountered two VC in a sampan in a canal. One was killed, the other captured. The captured one was tied up and dumped unceremoniously into the APC, where he sat staring at me from about three feet away. He wore no uniform. I asked one of the officers how they knew he was a VC. “Because he tried to get away when he saw us coming.”

Meanwhile, the prisoner leading us to the tunnel was lost for a long time and we went in circles. I was beginning to wonder whether they might punish him for leading us on a wild goose chase. But finally he recognized a familiar tree and led us right to the tunnel opening.

The trap door at the entry was wide open, as were two others inside the tunnel. This indicated that we had probably surprised someone inside. The entry door closely resembled the one in the picture. When I approached it and noted the size of the opening, about 12 by 18 inches, I declared, “I’m not going in. This tunnel isn’t built for a man of my caliber.” Of course, I already knew that Capt. Blair wouldn’t allow me to go in.010TrapDoor1 copy

Those who went in were a couple of young soldiers, trained as tunnel runners,who seemed absolutely fearless. They went far into the tunnel, digging their way through a collapsed area. Movements by an APC caused a repeat of the collapse, which they protested, using their only contact with the surface – a phone on a long line. They found important items in the tunnel. At one collapsed place they found large amounts of ammunition, Claymore mines (round pan-shaped objects in the photo), and many maps and documents, which included names of VC living in a nearby village. Chances are that those people were forewarned. Little boys kept hanging around the tunnel site. When soldiers chased them, they climbed a tree to watch. The accompanying photos show the soldiers displaying their “loot.” VN Field_0004

There was an abandoned well nearby with fresh footprints on the clay walls, about 20 feet of murky water in it. The brave tunnel runners went all the way to the bottom, seeking additional tunnel entrances. No diving apparatus – fully clothed, they just took a deep breath and jumped in. They tied telephone wire around their waists so that we could pull them back up if necessary. Only one went in at a time, since the well was only about 2½ feet in diameter. Like many wells, this one was connected with chambers of the tunnel. Sometimes this presented the hazard of enemy troops in hiding, but not this time.

VN Field_0005013VN Field_0006

A couple of days after this operation, Captain Blair invited Perry and me to go out with his company on another operation, into the Iron Triangle. The area was of great interest, but we declined because (1) The operation would last 3 to 5 days. (2) The area was so infested with VC that the operation was preceded by heavy B-52 bombardment, very likely having destroyed tunnels and near-surface soils. And (3) the danger was still so great that they wanted us to work separately so that we couldn’t both get hit at the same time.

That did it! We said thanks but no thanks.


As previously mentioned, Perry and I were unable to meet the first goal of our study. The soil and geologic conditions most favorable for tunnel construction were so widespread that they offered no useful guidance for planning search efforts.

We did accomplish our second goal, to describe the properties of earth materials that would be useful in the design of detection systems. We had in mind various techniques of exploration geophysics, including seismic methods, ground-penetration radar, remote sensing, and several others.

This goal was a limited one, however, because two men without laboratory support can do only so much in two months. We had done the basic work, but we realized that more detailed follow-on surveys would be needed before final designs could be made.

On October 26, I was pleased to learn that the follow-on surveys were in the works. A team would visit the ARPA field office in December to arrange for the next phase, beginning in January 1967. The Air Force would make flights to test remote sensing techniques. A ground team from the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) of the Corps of Engineers would conduct field surveys for three months, traveling widely throughout the study area, the III Corps Tactical Zone.

I knew these people from WES. I had recently completed a year working with them in Vicksburg on a joint research program. I knew that they had the backup of a state-of –the-art soils analysis laboratory, and that they had developed brilliant techniques for mapping soils, portraying a variety of their quantitative properties. They were well qualified.

The ARPA project officer and I were much concerned about one problem, though: Traveling in the back country. Perhaps they didn’t know what they were getting into. One didn’t wander around the countryside here as they had done in Thailand. And in the hottest part of the year yet, poor fellows.

There was no further news of the project until several months later. In January, I learned that the Air Force mission was “curtailed,” and the ground mission was delayed. Some time later, I learned that the field team had arrived, had traveled to Camp Cu Chi, and then never managed to get outside the camp’s perimeter. With the failure of this work, it was clear that any design of detection systems would not move ahead. I was distressed to hear that we were moving into a new phase, called The Final Solution.


By 1969, the tunnels had made significant contributions to the communist cause. In that year, they were finally destroyed for all time by B-52 carpet bombing raids. The first photo below shows a B-52-D dropping a string of 750-pound bombs. The second view, unfortunately of poor quality, shows the crater left by the detonation of just one bomb. From these photos, one can judge the extent of environmental destruction. Carpet bombing was used in every area where there was any suspicion of tunnels.

CarpBomb1   CarpBomb2

As presented by Ramon W. Almodovar and J. David Rogers in their training materials on The Tunnels of Cu Chi, General William Westmoreland is quoted as saying “No one has ever demonstrated more ability to hide his installations than the Viet Cong; they were human moles.” And the authors conclude:

The VC demonstrated resolve by outlasting the Americans. Although no American unit of even squad size or greater ever surrendered to the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese during the entire Vietnam War, they still managed to prevail.

The training materials have been of great value in the preparation of this posting.


My thoughts about the Vietnam War are not those of a political or historical expert. I am a career geologist who, through many years in the Civil Service, tended to avoid political involvements. My work brought me into contact with American military operations in several parts of the world, including Vietnam. I believe that the Vietnam experience carries powerful lessons concerning the unilateral initiation of wars by our political leaders. These lessons had not been learned by 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq. They deserve the raising of many voices, not just those of the experts.

*     *     *

Until 1966, like many middle-class Americans, I accepted the justification for the Vietnam War that our leaders gave us: a defense of South Vietnam against aggressive expansion and control by the major communist powers. That threat seemed to be supported by the words of Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, when he hailed the development of such “Wars of National Liberation” as the new model for spreading communist doctrine and control, and for overcoming resistance by the capitalistic nations.

This justification seemed to make sense. Through the decade following World War II, the devastated countries of Eastern Europe, one by one, had fallen under Soviet control, enforced where necessary by troops and tanks. China had replaced its former government, our wartime ally, with a communist dictatorship. When forces from North Korea invaded South Korea, we rose to its defense. A victory there seemed within our grasp until Chinese forces entered the fray, ultimately producing a stalemate that persists to this day. No wonder, then, that Mr. Khrushchev sought a newer, fresher model for expansion.

I assumed that the people of South Vietnam wanted, needed, and deserved defense against communist aggression. Without defense, they would succumb to it as the North Vietnamese had already done.

Dissenters held that the major goal of the Vietnamese people, north and south, was national independence, following many years of occupation and colonial status. Communism was a distant secondary issue.

I was mindful of these issues while in Vietnam, but could not make any personal resolution of them. Nevertheless, two letters from Vietnam indicated a first significant shift in attitude:

November 22, 1966

“The people here seem to be happy with very little. The lame (very few of these in evidence), the wounded, and those who are caught in the battlefields are the ones I feel most sorry for. But the general picture is one of “life as normal”, with Americans seeming to take the war much more seriously than the Vietnamese. I suspect that most of the Vietnamese would just like to be left alone.”

November 26, 1966

“Most of the Vietnamese people are poor and have very little, but they do seem to have most of what they need. Their own leaders seem to have just about as little kindness for them as the VC does. So I often think — if we lost this war, a few big shots would suffer but the majority of the people wouldn’t care and would be at least as well off as they are now. Mostly, they need to be left alone to make their living. The only way I can justify the American involvement in my own mind is as an act of pure power politics to define our image to all Asians, an act in which the destiny of the South Vietnamese just happens to be involved.

“So small wonder that South Vietnamese soldiers fight less enthusiastically than the Americans do.”

By “pure power politics” I was referring to America’s need to demonstrate that we would react strongly to Mr. Khrushchev’s new model, the “Wars of National Liberation.” This seemed to be valid in the competition between America and the Soviet Union, but it was different and less “noble” than defending the Vietnamese people. They might well be the victims instead.

*     *     *

Like many Americans, I had a further shift of attitude in 1968, triggered by two events early in the year: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. 

The Khe Sanh operation, 21 January to 9 July 1968, was basically a siege operation against a major American combat base by an estimated force of 20,000 troops of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese army. The Americans dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs (five times the explosive power of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima), and they conducted an overland relief expedition that finally broke the siege. However, they chose to dismantle the base rather than risk similar battles in the future. It was the first time in Vietnam that we abandoned a major base because of enemy pressure.

300px-TetMapThe Tet Offensive, launched on 30 January 1968, quickly became a well-coordinated, countrywide attack by more than 80,000 communist troops against more than 100 towns and cities. The accompanying map shows some of their targets. Though this offensive was eventually defeated, Americans were shocked. They had been assured that previous defeats had rendered the communist forces incapable of launching such a massive effort.

This was more than a major failure of intelligence. It was also a failure to track the progress of the war in any realistic sense. Our military and political leaders were charged with many things, ranging from malfeasance to stupidity.

The charge that I chose was incompetence, not of persons but of institutions at the highest levels of military management. My experience at the Research Analysis Corporation (RAC), now approaching two years, had opened my eyes to entirely new techniques for planning and executing war, and for tracking its progress. The buzzwords of the time were Systems Analysis, Systems Management, and Operations Research. RAC had a front seat in this development, having originated as the Operations Research Office of Johns Hopkins University. I came to believe that these techniques had much to do with the incompetence I observed.

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had successfully developed and used the techniques during his tenure as one of the “Whiz Kids” at Ford Motor Company, and later as the firm’s president. He promoted their widespread adoption at the Pentagon. They were highly quantitative, meaning that factors could not be considered unless they could be counted, measured, or weighed. Other factors, judgmental, had to be put aside regardless of their importance.

One example of this was in a poster on the wall of the RAC field office in Saigon: It tracked progress in the program to win the hearts and minds of people in the villages. The counts of villages won increased steadily over time, seeming to indicate that victory was just around the corner. I never understood how they could deal quantitatively with such matters. Maybe they conducted opinion polls.

As a second example, a RAC analyst lectured us on how he tracked the success of a siege against a VC stronghold in the Iron Triangle. His technique was to calculate a ratio between quantities of ammunition fired into the stronghold, versus the quantities fired back at our troops. While the American firing maintained a steady high level, return fire from the VC dwindled until it became only a trickle of sniper fire. This seemed to indicate an American victory. Shortly afterward, however, prisoner-of–war interrogations revealed that the VC had not been defeated. Understandably, their troops had merely moved back to get out of the range of our guns.

Both of these examples show the types of error that led to the twin shocks of Khe Sanh and Tet.

I based my shift of attitude on the following observations:

During this reign of incompetence, we were conducting brute-force tactics, such as the bombing at Khe Sanh and the destruction of tunnels by B-52 carpet bombing. The numbers of deaths and the extent of environmental destruction were simply not justified by goals that we were unlikely to reach in any event.

Another factor: Still impressed by the magnificent, brave American soldiers I had seen in 1966, I was troubled now by reports of disillusioned soldiers and “potheads.” Were we degrading our military forces through this ill-advised campaign?

And finally: American unity was seriously threatened by controversy at home. The year 1968 saw particularly violent demonstrations in the streets. Splits were developing between social and ethnic groups, and between generations.

I now believed that, regardless of any remaining justification for the war, we needed to get out of Vietnam, the sooner the better. I still clung to one thin thread of possible justification: as a necessary strategy in our competition with the major communist powers.

*     *     *

Finally, in the very early 1970s, I began to question that one remaining thread. I attended lectures by a number of statesmen and other leaders for whom I had respect. The most memorable was probably Edward Teller, dubbed Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. I had come to expect that he would be hawkish (supportive of war) in his politics. Unanimously with all the others, he insisted that the American performance in Vietnam, from the Kennedy through the Nixon administrations, was driven solely by “domestic political considerations.”

To me this meant: Not for defense of the Vietnamese people, not for a necessary strategy in our competition with the Sino-Soviet bloc. Merely a means of getting out the vote.

I then began digging into the histories of Ho Chi Minh; of America’s relationships with various successive governments in the Republic of Vietnam; and of Vietnam’s conduct since the war – the conduct of an independent nation rather than a communist satellite. The details are readily available. Here I will summarize only that Ho Chi Minh comes through primarily as a nationalist, and only secondarily as a man of communist leanings. In fact, when seeking freedom from France, he turned first to the U.S. for aid, only later to the communist powers.

By the end of this process, I had lost every shred of belief in justification that I had clung to. One cannot overstress the importance of the lessons to be learned from this experience. When George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified mainly by a network of misinformation and outright lies, it was clear that we had not yet learned them.

This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback).






A VIETNAM EXPERIENCE: I. The Preliminaries

Cast of characters and organizations

Military Geology Branch, U.S. Geological Survey (MGB). My employer in 1954.

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed the tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. A field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer in 1966, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. A field office in Saigon.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. A pejorative name shortened from terms meaning “Vietnamese Communists” or “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)

*     *     *

Easter Bunny

My first brush with Vietnam took place during the weekend of Easter Sunday, April 18, 1954. At that time, we still spoke of the place as French Indochina. The final major engagement between French and Vietnamese Nationalist forces under Ho Chi Minh, at Dien Bien Phu, was underway. It had been going on for three months and would end on May 7 with defeat for the French. They would soon leave the region.

Good Friday was a slow day at the office. Our family was having an up-and-down year of high pressure thus far. My wife’s mother suffered a major stroke in January. Our second child, a son, was born in February. My father died in March. Now, April was bringing a beautiful spring and we were looking forward to a quiet, restful enjoyment of the weekend.

About mid-afternoon, the bosses called us together. We had a “quickie” project on our hands. We needed to produce a terrain study covering most of what we now know as Vietnam. This would consist of several sets of map overlays describing geology, soils, landforms, and water supply and drainage conditions in the region. There would also be overlays addressing military implications such as the ability of tanks and other vehicles to maneuver off roads (“cross-country movement,” we called it), and the suitability of the terrain for constructing roads and airfields.

We were members of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), U.S. Geological Survey, and this was one of the kinds of work that we did. Meanwhile, our colleagues at the Army Map Service would be adMGB EastBun_01ading studies of existing roads and airfields. In our usual whimsical fashion, we named this project “Easter Bunny.”A project like this would normally occupy at least half a dozen people for about two months. We were told on Friday afternoon that we would have to deliver final camera-ready copy by early the next Tuesday morning. Arrangements were made to keep various governmental libraries, map collections, and aerial photo collections open through the weekend, so that they could provide us with the source materials we needed.

We put about 30 people to work on the project. Even so, the schedule seemed daunting. It will suffice to say that very few of the 30 managed to go home for a night’s sleep between Friday and Tuesday. We made the deadline.

About two weeks later, we were invited to what was called a “debriefing” by a joint military team just returned from Indochina. They proceeded to make clear how our effort had fitted into the machinery of presidential decision-making.

In the waning days of Dien Bien Phu, President Eisenhower had requested a briefing on what actions the United States might be able to take that could influence the outcome of the battle. There is no doubt that he considered many factors beyond our purview, but we were kept informed on the particular role that Easter Bunny had played.

This joint military team had been assembled to examine the situation on the ground, and then to report their findings to the President. This had to be done in a few days. They requested a terrain study, among other things, to direct their attention to the principal problem areas quickly and efficiently. In a sense, they would be field-checking our results and determining their implications for national policy.

The primitive condition of the existing road net and airfields, the widespread terrain conditions that would seriously hamper road and airfield construction, and the difficulty of the terrain for any off-road movement, all led to the following conclusions during the presidential briefing: At that time, the United States could not provide the logistical support needed for large military units operating in Indochina. We could support only small units the size of one regiment or smaller.

I have no way of knowing what else the President considered, but the joint military team felt strongly that these conclusions regarding logistical support played heavily into his decision not to enter the fray in Indochina at that time. We took pride in our contribution in the form of Project Easter Bunny.

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Unconventional Warfare

Within the next ten years, research into the “art of war” as practiced in the Vietnam conflict had become a growth industry. We used various terms, such as “unconventional warfare” and “remote area conflict.” This research seemed to have a lively future. Nikita Khrushchev spoke of “wars of national liberation,” as the new model for Communist expansion, following the indecisive results of conventional warfare in Korea.

In 1964, after serving four years as Assistant Chief of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), I welcomed the opportunity for a one-year assignment with the Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. WES was involved in research important to the future of military geology, studying new applications to unconventional warfare, and developing quantitative techniques in preparation for the coming digital age. MGB, in contrast, was pursuing the same applications and techniques it had developed during World War II. It was falling behind both in funding and in attracting bright employees.

During my year in Vicksburg, the Remote Area Conflict Section of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded the research at WES. During the same year, MGB acquired a new chief (whom I’ll call George for now, and Nemesis later on), lost more funding, and underwent a major reduction in force.

I made a special trip to Washington to urge George to develop ties with ARPA, hoping to secure new research opportunities. George would have none of this.  He wanted no involvement with ARPA.  But his boss was enthused, and so the three of us went together to meet the director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. The meeting went well, and we picked up a small project for me to carry out after my assignment at WES: A feasibility study for an environmental research project on the salt deserts of Iran. Perhaps Iran was being recognized as a possible future site for a “war of national liberation.” If this feasibility study succeeded, it was expected to lead into the larger study, making MGB once again relevant to the research goals of the modern world.

After I returned to Washington, completed the feasibility study, and submitted the manuscript to George, I saw something unusual for the Geological Survey: a manager making substantive changes to the researcher’s findings. I read over these changes and accepted them. Too bad, for I completely missed the negative implications of one of his changes, to the effect that Iranian salt deserts are unique, and unlike any other deserts elsewhere in the world.  That was true, of course, but I hadn’t considered it particularly relevant to the issue at hand.

It was fully two years before that statement came back to haunt me. I was with a new employer and on assignment in the Middle East when I met one of the old-timers from ARPA. I asked whatever happened to the salt desert study. He said, “It’s your fault. The ambassador killed the project because of what you said in your feasibility study. You and I both know those deserts are unique. That’s why we needed the study so badly, because we’ve never fought in such places and we need to know a great deal about how their environment would affect military operations. But the ambassador doesn’t think a research project is worthwhile unless it applies to the whole world.”

Indeed, since then we have already found ourselves operating in those deserts, and we may not yet have seen the last of them.

In the short term, however, I stayed on with George for another 6 months, and then found employment in the fields I had been seeking – research on applications of geology in unconventional warfare. And, beyond anything I had ever wanted, the new job involved extensive field assignments in Vietnam and Iran.

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My new job was with a “think tank” named the Research Analysis Corporation, a private not-for-profit firm supported by contracts with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. I joined the Unconventional Warfare Department, where they were finding many new applications of geology and terrain science in this type of warfare.

Every new job presents unanticipated problems, but I did enjoy being rid of George. But wait! I soon learned that George and I had changed jobs at the same time. He had moved into nothing less than the position of director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. He succeeded the very man he had been unwilling to talk to several months earlier! I never did figure out the personal politics of all this.  Perhaps he foresaw his move to ARPA, and simply didn’t want any connection with the Geological Survey in his new position.  But it was clear – alas! – that he was now overseeing the contract of the department I worked in.

In me, he apparently saw possibilities for new kinds of projects, and he dealt directly with me while ignoring all the layers of bosses between us.

His first approach seemed innocuous, though unpleasant. He wanted me to evaluate a military environmental research project that had been underway for several years involving faculty and graduate students at a highly respected university. I found that its management had failed in a number of ways. The various parts of what should have been a unified approach had been studied separately, and by now were completely incompatible with each other. I explained my findings to the researchers and considered their points until we reached a conclusion that all of us considered fair. Then I dutifully presented my report to George. He used it as a basis for discontinuing the project. I knew that was his intent all along, and that I was his chosen hatchet man. Such are the humilities we sometimes endure to make a living. By now I was well along in the transition from “George” to “Nemesis.”

His next approach was a bit more troublesome. He discussed the problem of Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam, and said that a research program was underway to help in detecting  them. The project was now at the point where they needed to have a geologist – like me – look at the tunnels and observe their geologic settings. This could be useful in two ways: (1) predicting where tunneling might or might not be feasible; and (2) determining the types of soils, rocks, and moisture conditions that any detection apparatus would have to be designed for. George reminded me that our contract would soon be up for renewal, and said that I should keep this in mind if I had any problems with the assignment.









I never refused a legitimate project assignment because of reasons like fearing or disliking it. I always pointed out, however, any concerns I had as to whether its goal could actually be achieved.

The problem I saw in this case was one of security. As soon as American forces secured an area and found tunnels, they searched the tunnels and then destroyed them completely. The best opportunities to examine tunnels in detail would be in areas currently being secured or not yet secured. I knew from previous experience that no responsible commander would allow a civilian employee to get on his bicycle and move alone into such places. Military escort would be required.

Which led to a further possibility: A military commander might say to me, “Look, I’ve got a war to fight here. We’re busy, and we don’t want to add to the risks we already have. Your little geologic field trips just aren’t important enough for us to fool with. Go back home.”

I discussed this with George. He sent a cable to Saigon. They replied that I should proceed as planned. End of discussion. I went to Vietnam.

(Only after arriving in Saigon, and getting to know the military folks there, did I learn that I had been a laughing stock even before arriving. George’s cable had asked the question, “Can you guarantee the safety of this geologist?” In a war zone, yet!)

This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback).