The Blackhorse in Vietnam
Donald Snedeker – The Blackhorse in Vietnam: The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam and Cambodia, 1966-1972 (Casemate, 313 pages)
The primary goal of The Blackhorse in Vietnam is to show that US armored cavalry forces in the Vietnam War, showcased here by the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, were highly effective from a military force-on-force perspective. The US Army initially asserted these types of units would be a hindrance in the war, not a help. Donald Snedeker is the 11th Cavalry unit historian. He served on the 11th and is a Vietnam war veteran. His career in the US Army included serving in Germany during the Cold War as a staff officer in the Pentagon. While the author writes from a position of unit historian, he also writes with authority and objectivity.
Snedeker showed how indispensable the 11th Cavalry Regiment became to the Army’s top brass and major combat operations in Vietnam. Year after year, Army leadership made more use of the 11th by removing it from its original defensive mission of road security and using it instead for offensive operations. This happened out of necessity. And the 11th Cavalry, through battle after battle, proved it could not just defend Vietnam’s roadways, but find, fix, and finish many of these units via aggressive, offensive operations. This book is a tactical, operational, and strategic military study of conventional armored cavalry maneuver forces against conventional, insurgent-supporting communist maneuver forces. It does not delve into politics or reinterpret the outcome of the conflict.
Snedeker used both US military resources and those that quoted Vietnamese communist forces. He logically lays out each strategic and operation phase of the war with clarity and expertise. Far from being a dry, operational military narrative, the author writes with color and enthusiasm. He intersperses the popular culture of the day with music and entertainment, blending them into certain chapters, so the reader gets a glimpse of the personality of the soldiers of the 11th Cavalry. It nearly reads like an adventure novel because of its stories. The format is like, “here’s a deadly military problem… what comes next”. The book’s technical military lessons, however, keep the narrative grounded in eye-opening reality.
In delving into operational level detail, the author offers an instructive look at the conventional aspect of the conflict, therefore providing a deeper understanding of the Vietnam War.
Maneuvers and Tactics of the 11th Calvary
Big offensive operations did not include the 11th because genuinely intelligent army strategists believed armored cavalry forces would be too cumbersome to apply against the Viet Cong. They said, “hunting Viet Cong with tanks is like chasing a fox with the tractor.” The US Army worried American armored forces would fall victim to what happened to the French in the central highlands in 1954, especially regarding the “death of group mobile 100” (aka, the Battle of Mang Yang Pass). British counterinsurgency success in Malaysia (1948-1960) did not use armor to any great extent and also influenced US Army thinking on this subject.
As the war went on, however, all these reasonable analyses turned out to be inaccurate. Vietnamese communist forces had well-armed, conventional maneuver forces deployed in South Vietnam, and fighting them required significant firepower and aggressiveness.
The author details maneuvers and tactics about the 11th in this book. Instead of simply riding up and down Vietnam’s highways waiting to get shot at on convoy duty, the 11th Cavalry adopted an assertive strategy of attacking their ambushers. Viet Cong (VC) or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces would set up along tree lines parallel to roads behind heavy machine guns and anti-armor weaponry, such as RPGs and recoilless rifles. When attacked, the 11th Cavalry’s tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) called for maneuvering into the ambushers using the mobility and firepower of its Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and tanks, supported by its own artillery and helicopter assault units. Their goal was to destroy their attackers, and they did in battle after battle. The effects of these TTPs eliminated heavy communist road and convoy attacks in areas where the 11th deployed. This meant freedom of maneuver for military units and civilian commerce for these particular sections of South Vietnam, easing communist pressure on the capital.
As the war progressed into 1968 and beyond, the Army’s top brass took notice of the 11th’s effective TTPs and began using the unit for search and destroy missions. Intelligence would show NVA or major force VC in a particular district, and then US planners would literally send in the cavalry. In this role, the 11th engaged in “jungle busting” operations, where its troopers drove their tracked vehicles into densely vegetated areas in both dry and wet seasons, forcing VC and NVA units to flee their base camps or engage in combat. Some of these latter operations comprised cavalry charges. Picture an old west cavalry charge on horseback across open terrain straight into the enemy, but with Vietnam, the 11th did it riding APCs and tanks against infantry-filled earthen-log bunkers and spider holes while being supported by artillery and air power.
The 11th’s performance during the 1968 Tet offensive proved beyond all doubt the value of armored cavalry in Vietnam, asserts the author. The regiment was sixty to one hundred kilometers northwest of critical military bases in and around Bien Hoa (north of Saigon), on the search and destroy operations when Tet began. Numerically superior and well-armed Vietnamese communist forces had laid siege to these Bien Hoa bases, which were in danger of being overrun. Losing them to the NVA and VC would have provided them a staging area for decisive operations against Saigon, so they had to be saved. The top brass ordered the 11th Cavalry to charge to their rescue.
In doing so, the 11th pulled over 4,000 troops and its APCs, tanks, and other vehicles out of ongoing operations. Based on spur-of-the-moment planning with minimal intelligence and few maps, drove all the way to Bien Hoa, fighting through multiple ambushes. They arrived just in time to prevent communist forces from overrunning these bases. Units like the 11th were not just necessary, but critical, for combat operations in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was about insurgency and counterinsurgency. This included propaganda and counter-propaganda, government legitimacy vs. illegitimacy, and the war in the villages. All this was core to the conflict. But the author proves the Vietnam War was also a war of maneuver between medium and large military formations armed with heavy weapons, and defeating these forces in battle required armored cavalry regiment capabilities.
Donald Snedeker writes with balance and objectivity from a military perspective. The author levies criticism and praise on the US and Vietnamese communist forces, where it was due and based on military science–effective or ineffective TTPs, good and bad operational decisions, and the outcomes of battles. The author praises the bravery of his fellow 11th Cavalry troopers and the Vietnamese communists as well.
Who should read this book? Anyone formally or informally studying the Vietnam War and Southeast Asia regional security affairs will learn something from it. It even offers a glimpse of what heavy combat in Southeast Asia might look like in the future, should a worst-case scenario unfold.
Military professionals will benefit from this book, too. One of the more obvious lessons for the military is intelligent assumptions on an enemy’s capabilities and intentions before a war, such as the top brass assuming armored cavalry would not be necessary to combat Vietnam’s guerrillas, which can prove erroneous. Strategists need to be aware and flexible enough to adapt quickly to strategic trends revealed by combat operations.
Finally, civilians involved in supporting the military will benefit from this book. This means intelligence personnel, lawmakers and their staffs, national security council personnel, and those in think tanks. In telling the story of the 11th Cavalry in Vietnam, the author lays out an easy-to-follow blueprint on how militaries prepare for war, deploy to war zones, and conduct major combat operations once in theater. That the anecdotes come from the 1960s matters not at all. This material can provide these national security civilians with a fuller comprehension of war-fighting mechanics and significantly improve their intelligence and national security decision-making processes.
Overall, this is one of the better books on the Vietnam War to come out in many years. Its penetrating insights and revelations make it a must-have on any military history or national security bookshelf.
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