Comparison of the Boer and Viet Nam Wars

Boer War (1899-1902)

A Limited War—Brits try not to use all their best stuff and don’t want the war to get larger.







A Conventional War—At first, the Boers win the conventional battles during "Black Week." Eventually, Lord Roberts is brought in to win the war and crushes Boer conventional forces.





A Guerrilla War—Boers go "commando" and begin to fight guerrilla style after regular units are crushed by the Brits. Hit and run tactics, etc. Mounted Boers are very difficult to catch on their home turf. They get food and intelligence from friendly Boers.










A Counter-insurgency War—Brits combat the guerrilla war by cutting the commandos off from the Boer population. They use concentration camps to keep an eye on Boer civilians, while creating a "free fire zone" in cleared areas. Boer civilians are removed from areas of fighting and deprive the commandos of support. Brits use a blockhouse strategy where blockhouses serve as bait for Boer attack and as tripwires for mounted, mobile British forces to know when to respond. Very effective for Brits. Eventually, Boers are ground up and give up the commando war.





A Public Relations War—Most of Europe becomes outright hateful toward Britain and sympathetic to the underdog Boers. Continental newspapers (esp. French) are very supportive of the Boer cause. Reports of atrocities by British troops are well-publicized in Europe. British MP Campbell-Bannerman refers to British tactics in SA as "methods of barbarism." After initial reports of glory and victory in the conventional beginning of the war, accounts focus on civilian deaths as the commando war begins. British public begins to lose enthusiasm for the war.


Vietnam War (US) 1964-1973

A Limited War—The US did not want to violate the borders of Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam with ground troops (though the US did bomb and send small reconnaissance groups into those countries). The US also ruled out the use of atomic weapons. The US was deathly afraid of provoking China into entering the war. China also urged a go slow approach on the part of the Communists as they didn’t want the US to go beyond South Vietnam. China was also deathly afraid of fighting the US again. Memories of Korea were strong on both sides. North Vietnam also didn’t nakedly send troops into South Vietnam. They always denied having tens of thousands of troops there. This myth was hardly believed except by anti-war groups in the US and Europe.

 A Conventional War—The US often used conventional tactics against large VC (South Vietnamese Communist) units and all NVA (North Vietnamese Army) units. The US invariably won these battles. A "victory" for the Communist forces was to inflict heavy casualties on US forces while being driven from the field of battle. In 1972 and 1975 the war turned conventional as the NVA launched blitzkrieg style assaults against South Vietnam. The attack of 1972 failed miserably due to excellent fighting by the South Vietnamese and US air support. The 1975 offensive successfully defeated the South Vietnamese. No US air support was available in 1975—Congress had prohibited the US Air Force from fulfilling the 1973 peace agreement which the US had signed.

A Guerrilla War—The Viet Cong (VC) carried out most of the guerrilla fighting in the war. By 1964 they were more effective than most South Vietnamese units and were forming into large formations for the final defeat of the Saigon Government. At that point, the NVA began to intervene massively to be there to finish the job. Hanoi was not going to let a bunch of South Vietnamese Communists get the prize of Saigon. However, the introduction of NVA troops combined with the Tonkin Gulf attack on US ships by North Vietnamese naval forces, triggered a US intervention. The US units were devastating to the VC and were clearly superior to the NVA. Soon, the VC were given orders to avoid US units at all times. VC units were now broken down into small units that wouldn’t so easily catch the eye of the constantly prowling American Army. The VC then began to restrict its activities to small scale guerilla warfare and to attacking the South Vietnamese Army. In 1968 during the Tet Offensive, the VC was mostly destroyed as they came out into the open in a massive assault that was ulitmately crushed by US and South Vietnamese forces. By 1969, the VC had lost 68,000 dead and were suffering defections at the rate of 4,000 a month. For the rest of the war, the "VC" now were made up of a majority of North Vietnamese.

A Counter-Insurgency War—The US set out to use classic counter-insurgency tactics to defeat the VC. The US succeeded overwhelmingly. By 1969, the VC were essentially crushed. The US strategy was to have Saigon move villagers away from Communist areas, protect the villagers from the VC by using South Vietnamese troops, and then to use the US troops in the Free Fire Zones to keep the Communists from using the villagers as support. A problem was many villagers would not stay "gone" and would often go back. For political reasons, there was never a particularly good removal of most of the rural population to "safe" areas. However, this wasn’t particularly crucial, as the US tactic of "Dangling the Bait" was utilized to smoke out, trap, and destroy Communist forces. The VC wouldn’t challenge large US forces, so the US sent out small groups whose job it was to find the enemy and then wait for help. The old guerrilla advantage of speed was of little use to the VC as the Americans used helicopters to move far faster than the fastest VC could go. The VC relied on jungle cover to hide, but the US began to use herbicides on major infiltration routes to take away that advantage. Except from anti-war diehards and North Vietnamese propagandists, the consensus today is that the US clearly won the guerilla war against the VC. The irony is that the NVA, not the VC, were the real enemy. And since the US did not defeat the NVA, the NVA ultimately won the war in 1975 against the South Vietnamese Army after US forces were safely out of the war.

A Public Relations War—The Communists won a decisive victory here. The US were portrayed as colonial monsters if not anti-Asian racists. This was an idea that many Americans also believed. The leader of the Communists, Ho Chi Minh, was a popular figure worldwide and even in the US. Virtually all the leaders of South Vietnam had little support from world opinion. The US media was very hostile to the war and to Johnson and Nixon as well. There is hardly an example in history of such a successful propaganda effort where a nation (the US) could not even convince its own people of its cause. By the end of the war, many Americans disbelieved their own governments version of what was happening in the war. The ignorance level of most Americans on Vietnam is staggering. They know all about Lt. Calley and My Lai, but few are even aware of the fact that the US crushed the VC in the war, or that the North Vietnamese Army, not the VC ended up winning the war. Many Americans also find the fact that the US did not lose any significant battles, much less that the US Army was never defeated on the battlefield, to be incredible. Many will simply not believe it. However, they will know all about My Lai and Kent State. In terms of PR, the US was crushed.

As an ironic aside, in the Gulf War, Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf (junior officers in Vietnam), both tried to keep the media in the dark as much as possible. Their experience in Vietnam was that reporters were not necessarily on "our" side. However, after the war, Schwarzkopf only half-jokingly told the media that he had mislead them by feeding info to them that the US would move on Kuwait once the ground war began. Iraq believed the news reports and concentrated troops in Kuwait. However, once the ground war began, the Allied forces hardly dealt with Kuwait. Most had moved west into the desert (hundreds of thousands!) to make an end run to cut off the entire Iraqi army by trapping them in Kuwait. While not directly lying to the media, the US generals mislead them in the name fooling the enemy.