Vietnam Is the Place 6

The influx of U.S. hardware at that time was tiny compared to the later vast flow of materiel into Vietnam. But the equipment paradox¬ically sapped the Diem regime. For the aid, overwhelmingly military, confirmed Diem’s conviction that he was waging a conventional con¬flict, and it stiffened his resistance to political, economic and social reforms. Moreover, his battalions became more and more reluctant to confront the Vietcong squarely, relying instead on American air strikes and artillery shells to do their job for them. This suited Diem, who instructed his officers to avoid casualties. Their primary role, in his view, was not to fight the Vietcong but to protect him against possible coups in Saigon.
The Diem army’s shortcomings became dramatically apparent in I January 1963 near Ap Bac, a village in the Mekong Delta, forty miles southwest of Saigon, where an inferior Vietcong contingent mauled j a South Vietnamese division that could have scored a victory had it not been led by pusillanimous officers. But the officers, personally picked by Diem, exemplified his regime. So their defeat was less a military catastrophe than a reflection of his convoluted priorities.
General Huynh Van Cao, the South Vietnamese commander of the Fourth Corps, which embraced the whole of the Mekong Delta, was a classic Diem loyalist whose fidelity had earned him promotion over more competent colleagues. A Catholic from Hue, he belonged to Nhu’s secret political organization, the Can Lao, and he rarely saw action, preferring instead to intrigue in Saigon, where choice appoint¬ments could be gained. He had recently turned over the Seventh Di-vision, the principal South Vietnamese unit in the area, to a protege, Colonel Bui Dinh Dam, also a Catholic high on Diem’s list of fa¬vorites. Dam theoretically exercised authority over the province chief, Major Lam Quang Tho, whose local troops were supposed to beef up the regulars. In practice, however, Tho took his orders directly from Diem, usually without Dam’s knowledge. Diem constantly played his subordinates off against each other in this way, believing that he could thus prevent conspiracies to oust him.
The American in the middle of the muddle was Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, the top U.S. adviser with the Seventh Division, a controversial figure who would soon become even more controversial after the Ap Bac debacle. Vann’s irreverent candor was a refreshing antidote to the overweening optimism of prominent American officials in both Saigon and Washington, and it endeared him to American correspondents. But Vann also patronized the Vietnamese in a manner that characterized many Americans in Vietnam, who considered it their duty to educate the “natives”—just as, in their day, French administrators were committed to the mission civilisatrice. As Vann once told David Halberstam, then a New York Times reporter: “These people may be the world’s greatest lovers, but they’re not the world’s greatest fighters. But they’re good people, and they can win a war if someone shows them how.”
Vann and other American advisers had repeatedly boasted that the elusive Vietcong guerrillas could be whipped “if they would only stand and fight.” The chance for such an encounter finally loomed in late December 1962, when reliable intelligence located three Vietcong companies reinforced by local partisans in the neighborhood of Ap Bac. Vann urged Colonel Dam to move on January 1, 1963. But Dam considerately delayed for a day so that the American chopper pilots could sleep off New Year’s Eve. The Vietcong, learning of the im¬minent operation, prepared defensive positions along a canal running for roughly a mile from Ap Bac to the next hamlet, Ap Tan Thoi. The canal, bordered by trees and shrubs, offered the Vietcong both concealment and a clear range of fire across rice fields. The French had fought the Vietminh on almost the same terrain a decade earlier— and lost.
The South Vietnamese Seventh Division and its auxiliary units, which outnumbered the Vietcong by a ratio of ten to one, planned a three-pronged pincer. An infantry regiment would be landed to the north by helicopter while two regional battalions approached by foot from the south and a rifle squadron advanced from the west aboard armored personnel carriers, which functioned as the equivalent of light tanks. Three additional South Vietnamese companies remained in re¬serve, and the entire force had artillery and air support. By any cal¬culation, the Vietcong should have been crushed. The Vietcong commander expected defeat, having written in his diary, which was later found: “Better to fight and die than run and be slaughtered.”
Patiently waiting until the government troops came into their sights, the Vietcong guerrillas held their fire as the first three waves of hel¬icopters lifted the infantry regiment into the zone. Then, as a fourth wave arrived bearing reserves, the guerrillas opened up with automatic weapons. By noon, five choppers had been downed, three of them on return trips to save the crews of two helicopters that had been crippled earlier. For the next three hours, despite pleas by his American adviser, the South Vietnamese armored commander balked at rescuing the crews. When he finally moved, he deployed the vehicles slowly and separately, so that they were easy targets for the Vietcong, which raked them mercilessly, killing fourteen of the South Vietnamese machine gunners. Three Americans, all helicopter crew members, also died.
The spectacle was equally grim to the south. Major Tho, the prov¬ince chief in charge of the two regional battalions on that flank, had abruptly halted his units after losing an officer. Colonel Vann, flying over the scene in an observation plane, radioed him to continue, but Tho refused. Nor would he heed the orders of Colonel Dam, the Seventh Division commander. He had, in effect, opted out of the battle. By early afternoon, it was clear that the Vietcong could not be overrun.

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