By Paul Schmehl
This is a subject that is little known or discussed among the so-called experts on the war but had a significant impact on its outcome. While it is well known that Washington micromanaged the war (thus the famous story about LBJ boasting that the military couldn’t bomb an outhouse without his approval 1), the details of what that meant are not as well-known. When viewed through the lens of military strategy they border on the insane.
The rules of engagement were drawn from three different sources; the President and Secretary of Defense, through the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander of the Military Assistance Command and the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command. Except if you were operating in Laos. Then the State Department set the rules.2 3 4
There are two primary facets to the rules of engagement; the air war and the ground war. The following are lawful targets according to the laws of war. 5
- equipment and supplies
- industrial (war supporting/import/export)
- transportation (equipment/lines of communication/petroleum)
- civilians participating in hostilities
The targets that the US military were permitted to attack from the air per Secretary McNamara were
- Military outside of populated areas
Air War 6
- Pilots could not attack targets that were not on the approved list
- Hanoi and Haiphong had 30 mile perimeters that were no bombing zones
- A 30 mile perimeter on the northern border of North Vietnam prevented pursuit of attacking MIG fighters
- Rail yards and switching stations were off-limits
- Airfields were off-limits
- MIGs could only be shot at if they were airborne, clearly identified and displayed hostile intent
- SAM sites could only be attacked if they attacked first
- SAM sites and antiaircraft sites could not be attacked while they were under construction
- Locks, dams and dikes could never be attacked
- Hydroelectric plants could not be attacked
- Military targets could not be attacked if they were in protected zones
- Trucks in Laos and North Viet Nam could not be attacked unless they were on a road and displayed hostile intent
- Military truck parks more than 200 meters from a road could not be attacked
- Pilots had to travel routes specified by Washington and would face court-martial if they disobeyed.
- The PAVN knew these routes and placed all their antiaircraft defenses on those routes, forcing American pilots to run a gauntlet of enemy fire to complete their missions.
- They were forced to fly over targets in weather so bad they could not release their bombs but still had to face the enemy’s radar controlled ground fire.
- Pilots in South Viet Nam could not provide air support to ground troops, even if fired upon, unless they got clearance, and they first had to drop leaflets warning possible civilians to clear the area.
- The average time in Laos between the discovery of a target and permission to strike was fifteen days!
Senator John Stennis, Chairman of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated, in 1967, “That the air campaign has not achieved its objectives to a greater extent cannot be attributed to impotence or inability of air power. It attests, rather, to the fragmentation of our air might by overly restrictive controls, limitations, and the doctrine of ‘gradualism’ placed on our aviation forces which prevented them from waging the air campaign in the manner and according to the timetable which was best calculated to achieve maximum results.” 7
The Subcommittee found that Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson had “discounted the unanimous professional judgment of U.S. commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and substituted civilian judgment in the details of target selection and the timing of strikes.” 8
In 1972, President Nixon authorized all of the targets that the JCS requested with the exception of three. The results were reported by Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton at the time.
At dawn, the streets of Hanoi were absolutely silent. The usual patriotic wakeup music was missing. The familiar street sounds, the horns, all gone. In prison, interrogators and guards would inquire about our needs solicitously. Unprecedented morning coffee was delivered to our cell blocks. One look at any Vietnamese officer’s face told the whole story. It telegraphed accommodation, hopelessness, remorse, fear. The shock was there; our enemy’s will was broken. The sad thing was that we all knew what we were seeing could have been done in any 10-day period in the previous seven years and saved lives of thousands, including most of those 57,000 dead Americans. 9
Ground War 10
- Commanders in direct contact with the enemy in uninhabited areas could request direct artillery fire without prior authorization.
- Commanders in direct contact with the enemy in inhabited areas could only authorize direct fire if their mission was in jeopardy and the enemy was positively identified and only for defensive purposes.
- Indirect fire could only be utilized after approval of the Province Chief for the province where the fire would be directed.
- No artillery could be fired in areas where friendly troops were not operating without the prior use of leaflets or loudspeakers, even if enemy fire was received from the area
- Direct fire against enemy forces that were not in direct contact in inhabited areas required approval of both the Province Chief and the battalion commander
- Indirect fire missions in inhabited areas required the approval of the Province Chief, the battalion commander and the dropping of leaflets or the use of loudspeakers to warn civilians prior to commencement
- Cordon and search missions could only be conducted with the approval of the district and village chief as well as the US commander, and RVN advisors must accompany all missions
- Attacks in inhabited areas required that the commander explain to the inhabitants why the action was initiated, after the attack was over
- Fleeing enemy troops could not be engaged unless they were first ordered to halt and failed to obey. Then they must be fired upon with the intent to wound only, by firing at the lower extremities.
- The much discussed “free fire zones” had to have prior approval from RVN political authorities and were still restricted by all the other rules of engagement.
Senator Barry Goldwater was so appalled by the rules of engagement that he had them entered into the Congressional Record along with this statement.
Mr. GOLDWATER. Mr. President, I ask this because I think it 1s very, very necessary for the Members of this body. the public, the press, and media to understand fully the restrictions that were placed upon aU of our forces in South Vietnam.
It is absolutely unbelievable that any Secretary of Defense would ever place such restrictions on our forces. It Is unbelievable that any President would have allowed this to happen.
I think on the reading of these restrictions, members of this body will begin to understand in a better way just what happened to the American military power in South Vietnam. As I say, it is unbelievable.
I am ashamed of my country for having had people who would have allowed such restrictions to have been placed upon men who were trained to fight, men who were trained to make decisions to win war, and men who were risking their lives. I daresay that these restrictions had as much to do with our casualties as the enemy themselves.