Vietnam's Kill-Capture Raids

Have been dipping into Mark Moyar’s Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam in recent days. I find the Afghanistan-Vietnam comparison a bit of a non-starter (for various reasons) but the extensive use of targetted operations perhaps akin to the capture-and-kill raids being employed across Afghanistan mean it’s at least worth exploring. (One recent article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute makes that explicit connection).

What follows is an extended sequence of quotations taken from that book; I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Bracketed numbers after quotations are page references:

“The [insurgent] shadow government, it is certain, expanded greatly from 1960 to 1965, then shrank somewhat from 1965 to 1967. The most reasonable estimate of political cadre strength in 1967 probably came from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which concluded that it lay somewhere between 80,000 and 150,000.” (11)


“The CIA will not release its own statistics, but the statements of certain CIA officers strongly suggest that the CIA actually understated the numbers of VC/VCI captured or killed in the documents made available to other U.S. government organizations and to the public. The CIA did so, in all probability, to avoid negative publicity. The figures in these documents, especially the 1971 figures, have a high ratio of captured to killed. Some have stated that the PRUs consistently killed more Communists than they captured. Enders spoke of his years as regional PRU adviser in both I Corps and III Corps: “It was very hard for us to bring the number of captures above the number of kills — we tried hard to do that — because it was difficult to capture people. I’d say that the ratio of killed to captured generally was about two to one.” Jack Harrell stated, “In II Corps and III Corps, when I was in those areas, the ratio for the PRUs was probably two Communists killed to one captured. In the documents, the CIA did not wildly exaggerate the numbers of VC/VCI captured; doing so might have attracted unwanted attention. The number killed, therefore, must have been much higher than the documents state.

A number of CIA advisers have indicated explicitly that they thought the PRUs generally captured or killed more VC/VCI per month than the available documents list. [...] PRU National Director William Redel, for instance, told CIA officer Orrin DeForest at the end of 1968 that the PRUs had been responsible “for approximately seven thousand Vietcong killed per year for the past four or five years,” which averages out to 583 per month. Rear Adm. Irve LeMoyne gave a figure that suggests even larger nationwide neutralization totals: “We were capturing, in the delta, a thousand to twelve hundred VCI monthly.”

My best estimate, based on my own conversations with many PRU advisers and on other sources, is that the CIA leadership believed that the PRUs capptured or killed anywhere from 700 to 1,500 Communists during most months from 1967 to 1972.” (172-3)


There then follows two chapters which provide evidence for the “statistical falsification” which “inadvertently allowed the Allies to use seemingly impressive statistics to make misleading claims of success” (235). See chapters 16 and 17 to read those in full. Chapter 18 shows how “the Allies captured many VCI and reported them as neutralized but then released them from captivity after a short period of time. Some rejoined the shadow government, but the Allies had no way of knowing exactly how many.” (236) See Gareth Porter’s story for an Afghanistan parallel.

There’s a little bit on what I guess would be the equivalent of Afghanistan’s reintegration programme.

"The GVN’s Third Party Inducement program proved much more detrimental to statistical accuracy than these other factors. Under the terms of this program, which lasted from 1967 to 1969, the GVN offered rewards to anyone who induced a Communist to rally. The program caused the number of ralliers to mushroom. Some South Vietnamese convinced friends or relatives in the VC to rally, but others presented non-Communist friends or relatives as VC or VCI ralliers. A fraudulent rallier typically received part of the reward from the third party. GVN officials often took their cuts, as well, in return for tolerating the deceit and even encouraged people to rally fraudulently so as to increase the flow of American money into their pockets. In some places, the Americans estimated that as many as half of the people who rallied through this program did not belong to the VC. Some Communists and non-Communists also rallied in more than one province in order to collect multiple rewards, thus inflating the statistics even further. Brig. Gen. James Herbert commented: “The Vietnamese are very flexible, and they know how to beat the system. If you had a reward for becoming a Hoi Chanh [rallier], some VC would rally and collect the reward. After a period of time, they’d be fed back into the society. They might wander somewhere else and give up there. They’d give a different alias each time, and communication among the various provinces was not very good, so they could do it easily. I think a VC could almost make a living giving himself up across the country.” Considerable disagreement among the Americans over the VCI rallier numbers provides further evidence that the statistics were far from precise. A Rand Corporation study gives figures for VCI ralliers that differ sharply from those of Phoenix.” (238-9)


And something on the classification of those being killed or captured:

“Not only did the Allies report many non-VCI as VCI, they also assigned false ranks to many of the VCI whom they did neutralize. The South Vietnamese often assigned high ranks to corpses and, to a lesser extent, to prisoners and ralliers, who actually were low-ranking Communists or not Communists at all. In so doing, of course, they wanted to make their reports look better. Jack Harrell commented, “I would say that in many cases, few of the people we captured or killed were as important or as highly placed in the VCI as they were classified.”” (241)


I'm looking forward to reading some statistical studies of these kinds of operations as found in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. There are various people formerly serving in the military in both countries who are writing up their experiences as Masters or PhD theses. Please leave a comment below if you know of any related research in the works.