Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and retired Army Lt. Col. James Willbanks took part in a panel discussion on “Advisors in the Vietnam War,” along with Andrew Birtle, chief of the Military Operations Branch at the Army Center of Military History. The panel was part of the Historical Speakers Series sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office.
Birtle opened the program with an overview of the U.S. advisory effort in Vietnam. An expert on counterinsurgency operations doctrine who authored books on the subject, Birtle outlined the development of the military advisor program from the first U.S. advisors in 1950 until end of the war in the early 1970s.
“Perhaps the most common emotion advisors experienced in Vietnam was the frustration of being held responsible for something they could not control,” Birtle said. “Nothing was more frustrating than the feelings that one’s efforts were falling on fallow ground.”
Zinni spoke after Birtle, sharing his experiences as an advisor to a Vietnamese Marine unit in 1967. The general, who eventually rose through the ranks to lead U.S. Central Command, said his primary duties as an advisor in Vietnam were to help coordinate fire support, air capability and operations with U.S. units. Working, living and eating with the Vietnamese – and operating all over South Vietnam -- gave him an insight into the conflict that he said he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
“Those who saw that war from inside a U.S. unit – despite the fact that certainly they saw plenty of combat, as we did – they saw a different war than I did,” Zinni said.
“I saw the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. I saw the war through the eyes of villagers that I lived with. I saw the war through the eyes of Vietnamese soldiers and Marines there weren’t there on one-year tours, but were there for the duration,” he said. “I saw the war from the Delta to the DMZ. I saw the war from Cambodia to the coastal plains in the east. And it was a totally different perspective than I was hearing from my counterparts.”
Zinni said he saw the most benefits result from Vietnamese units that built relationships with U.S. units over time, in which U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers could get to know and trust each other over time. He said it worked well with relatively small Marine Corps units, as well as with Army airborne and Ranger units.
“One of the strengths of the advisor unit, besides the fact that we didn’t have advisory teams and we sort of immersed ourselves into their organization and culture, is that we connected to the Vietnamese Marines very closely,” Zinni said.
But Zinni said there was a price to pay for being that close to the local forces.
“The advisory effort, when you were totally immersed in the culture, took a toll on you. By the time my advisory tour was coming neat to its end… I had contracted malaria, mononucleosis, dysentery and hepatitis,” Zinni said. “I was down to 123 pounds.”
This was not an uncommon phenomenon for service members in advisory roles.
“Most of the advisors suffered health issues and very few advisors finished a whole tour without a significant health problem or eventually being evacuated because of a health problem,” Zinni said.
Despite the physical hardships, Zinni said the experience gave him “a sense of what this war was all about” and made him realize that the U.S. was failing to give the South Vietnamese people a good enough reason to put their lives on the line.
“If we didn’t capture the hearts of the people, if we couldn’t give them something to fight for, if we weren’t willing to ensure that the government was responsible to people, and we weren’t willing to cut off a base of supply that was endless, we eventually could not win that conflict, despite all the victories on the battlefield,” he said.
Zinni said he felt military leaders did not pay enough attention to knowledge gained in Vietnam, as attention shifted elsewhere after the war ended.
“Vietnam was rich in the lessons we never learned,” he said.
“The enemy beat us strategically; they didn’t beat us tactically,” Zinni said. “They didn’t beat us in terms of what we were able to develop in military capability with the South Vietnamese, but they beat us psychologically, and they beat us strategically. That lesson was never carried over.”
Willbanks spoke after Zinni. Now the director of the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Willbanks arrived in Vietnam as an advisor in 1971, when only four U.S. Army infantry battalions and a total of fewer than 125,000 U.S. troops were left in the country. He was assigned to an advisory team supporting an Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, division.
“I was a captain with two and a half years in service, on my first combat tour,” Willbanks said. “I was being asked to advise a 40-year-old ARVN battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel who had been fighting most of his adult life. “
Because of his lower rank and relative inexperience, Willbanks said he sometimes had difficulty in getting the battalion commanders to listen to his advice. His duties during the early part of his tour involved assisting and training the Vietnamese in staff operations, acting as liaison to the remaining U.S. units in the area, helping with combat operations planning and accompanying the battalions on combat operations in the field.
Willbanks said everything changed when the North Vietnamese launched the “Easter Offensive” on March 31, 1972. He volunteered to replace a wounded advisor in provincial capital city of An Loc, where a battle raged day and night for the next two and a half months.
“At this point, the focus of my efforts shifted to coordinating U.S. combat support,” Willbanks said. “I spent all my time adjusting artillery – at least in the beginning, and pretty soon we had no artillery to adjust – air strikes, and also coordinating attack helicopters and fixed-wing gunships, calling for dustoff medical evacuation and coordinating aerial resupply.”
Willbanks said being in An Lac at that time was an experience different than anything he had ever conceived.
“It was a desperate battle that seesawed back and forth as the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese forces fought each other, sometimes house to house, block to block, room to room,” he said.
The South Vietnamese forces held out, and the battle began to die down as the summer wore on, but Willbanks was wounded for a second time and evacuated from the city. Once he was released from the hospital, he spent the rest of his time helping the ARVN recover from the Easter Offensive. He said he left the country at the end of his tour “feeling pretty good” about what he’d been able to accomplish in helping the South Vietnamese forces.
Speaking generally about advisory efforts, Willbanks said there was less of an emphasis on the advisory effort and a shift away from it once U.S. ground troops started arriving in Vietnam. This eventually meant that not all advisors had the right qualifications, training or ability for the job. The advisory tours were often less than 12 months, which created turbulence hampered the ability to form a bond between Vietnamese troops and their U.S. advisors.
Eventually, the emphasis began to shift back to the advisors, as combat troops left Vietnam, but Willbanks said he thought it was too late by that point.
“From a personal perspective, I found the advisory duty very difficult. The duty required decisiveness and aggressive pursuit of the mission, but it also called for patience and restraint – a conflicted mix, to say the least,” he said. “The reality on the ground often flew in the face of the need to report progress.”
Willbanks said advisors “walked a tightrope” when it came to their duties. They had to be involved and proactive without stifling the initiative of the Vietnamese commanders. They had to be empathetic to their counterparts and understand their culture while being honest about the units and their leaders.
Perhaps most importantly, Willbanks said, advisors had to find a way to build a relationship with their counterparts without making them too dependent on the advisor and on U.S. combat and service support. This proved to be a problem when the U.S. withdrew and the Vietnamese were left on their own.
“I have to say, even with all the difficulties involved, and even knowing how it all turned out, I’m proud of what I did as an advisor in Vietnam, and I only wish we could have done more,” Willbanks said. “The South Vietnamese were good people, and they deserved better than they got.”