Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Supermoon Set


I snapped these shots of the Full Moon setting this morning just before I left for work.  I have seen many Moonsets through the years here.  I blogged about one on Thanksgiving Day 2015.  It was a bone chilling 12 degrees as I stood on my front porch facing west.  The cold weather will be with us all week.  It is part of a huge Arctic Blast that is hammering much of the U.S. today.  This was a Supermoon, glorious to behold.  January 31 will bring us a Blue Moon, Blood Moon combination, the first one of those in 150 years.  Incredibly, it will be the second Supermoon of January 2018.  Will this year be as extraordinary as this lunar cycle? 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Loose Ends 2017

I have not had the time nor the energy to blog as much these past couple of years.  Professional and family life demands more of me these days.  I worked more on my Nietzsche blog than I have in recent years.  So that took a bit of my blogging time and energy.  Here (in no particular order) is my annual rundown of various odds and ends that I didn't blog about from the past year.

I went to the movie theater twice in 2017.  You can read my review of Blade Runner 2049 here.  The other film I saw, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, was not exactly a disappointment but it wasn't one of Nolan's stronger films either.  Long-time readers know that Nolan is my favorite contemporary director and the film had several innovative and interesting qualities, particularly in its interweaving of three different narrative time scales and its use of sound effects.  But I wouldn't give it higher than a 7 on my scale.  I just didn't feel inspired to write about it even though it was a decent effort.

I read several new books throughout the year, mostly philosophy and military history.  The one work of fiction I tackled was a novel that has been on my list for years - Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  I enjoyed this novel so much.  Capote's style is impeccable, the narrative is gripping and the ending is heartrendingly nostalgic.  It is a power story, expertly woven in glorious prose  - a classic that I highly recommend, regardless of what type of reading you normally gravitate toward. 

Neil Young put out his 38th and 39th studio albums this year.  I reviewed The Visitor recently.   He released Hitchhiker earlier in the year - a previously unreleased album of songs that mostly appear on other albums by Neil.  Recorded back in 1976, this album has run through the rumor-mill among fans of Neil literally for decades.  It features a couple of previously unreleased songs that I have (in other versions) in my rather large bootleg Neil collection.  It is noteworthy that most of these songs were written as they were performed in the studio, literally all in a single day, which is rather incredible.  Otherwise, however, Hitchhiker turns out to be little more than glorified "demo" tape of Neil on solo guitar.  Even though I can appreciate the record as a document of Neil's famous spontaneous creativity, I still didn't care to purchase an acoustical recording of songs that are much more fleshed-out on other albums I own.

The Atlanta Braves sucked in 2017.  I endured a long season of steady disappointments and the prospects for 2018 don't really seem that bright at the moment, though there is some young talent to root for.  Nevertheless, I followed the team in dedicated fashion, mostly on the radio, but I never got around to seeing a game at their new stadium even though it is located much closer to my house than was Turner Field.  Maybe next year.

Our Destin vacation was wonderful and relaxing but was cut a day short by Hurricane Irma.  Jennifer and I made a wide swing through Alabama on the way home to avoid the horrific traffic jams in Atlanta.  It felt strange to leave the beauty of the Florida panhandle only to rush home to be in the path of the storm.  Irma literally petered out on my doorstep with minimal wind and rain.  We didn't even lose power, which was a surprise.  It was basically a nonevent for me but it gave us all something to worry about (not that we needed more to worry about in 2017, things were bad enough).

I watched more television (well, a lot of it was streaming on my iPad) in 2017 than I have in many years.  Although I have previously only mentioned it in passing, I am a Game of Thrones fan.  I found the seventh season to be very entertaining.  I also rummaged through Netflix and watched all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad for the first time.  It is a rather bleak story, spiced with occasional humor in earlier episodes, superbly acted, beautifully shot, and very well written.  The thing that surprised me the most about Breaking Bad was how much its style reminded me of what is probably my all-time favorite TV series, The X-Files.  With good reason since Vince Gilligan created the show and was previously involved with The X-Files.  The influence of the older series is unmistakable even though the narrative for the two shows is very different.  

Breaking Bad was an excellent series but, frankly, I didn't find it to be "the greatest TV show ever" like several of my friends have mentioned through the years.  It is an interesting story filled with complex characters; clearly superior TV but I wasn't blown away by it.

Watching it influenced me to start re-watching The X-Files, however.  I am finishing up season three as of this post.   This is probably my third or fourth time through the series, but I last watched it over a decade ago.  The dynamics between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on-screen, along with the (mostly) great writing (the series suffers in seasons 8 and 9) and high production qualities make it well-worth repeat viewings.  Sure, it's a show about alien abductions and the paranormal, but it is also about the development of the complex relationship between Mulder and Scully and the science fiction elements all serve as metaphors for modernity: abuse of power, fate versus free will, the importance of faith (or at least belief) today, the nature of evil, the interplay between friendship and attraction, etc.

Also in the mix were two very different shows, Westworld and Deadwood.   I streamed both of these via HBO through my Sling TV subscription.  I only made it through the first five episodes of Westworld before I realized, despite the work of great actors like Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, I was simply indifferent to any of the mysteries that show tried to create; boring and mostly cliche.  Deadwood, on the other hand, was recommended by a friend and I was not disappointed.  The early days of the wild west is not the type of setting I usually go for.  But this show was humorous, dramatic, surprising, and an extremely well acted period piece.  Season 3 got a bit muddled but, overall, the whole series was highly entertaining.  The show became even more interesting to me when I discovered that it was all based on what happened historically - the settlement and most of the main characters are based upon real people and events.

I'm not sure why I watched so much TV in 2017.  I will carry on with The X-Files and am excited that Season 11 will air on January 3.  But, I have no other plans to allow the "glass teat" to get its clutches around my mind in 2018.  You never know though, right?

I got a new iPad a couple of weeks ago.  Once again, Apple amazes me with how easily it is to transfer your entire app environment seamlessly over from an old iPad to a new one.  I wish things were that easy with my PC upgrades.  All my apps are faster with greater functionality and far higher resolution.  Wonderful stuff.

My primary iPad usage continues to be my tinkering with Flipboard.  Since my last Loose Ends post my little digital publishing empire has grown to 40 magazines with 3,o85 followers as of this post.  This blog and my Flipboard are as far as I wade into "social media."  I still have no desire to open a Facebook account.  I suppose if I were more active in social media, however, I might get more followers.  But I am happy where I am.

Notice Magazine and Notice: Art remain my most popular Flipboard ventures.  Although Notice Magazine is designed as "quick news," featuring articles rotated in and out over any given 3-day period, there is a section at the end of Notice Magazine where I keep a small "permanent" collection of articles I deem of special importance.  You might want to check them out:

From NPR - President Obama's eulogy on the tragic Charleston shootings.  He sings "Amazing Grace" at the end.

From The Daily Beast - "Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion"

From The New York Times - Roy Scranton's excellent article "We're Doomed, Now What?"

From The Huffington Post - "Dog Butt Looks Like Jesus Christ in a Robe"

From  Buzzfeed - "26 Pictures That Will Give You Perspective on What Really Matters"

From Business Insider - "This map shows the US really has 11 separate 'nations' with entirely different cultures"

From Gizmodo - "Half of Our Planet's Wildlife is Gone.  Here's Why."

From ThyBlackMan.com - "Stop Erasing History"

From The Atlantic - "Mass Shootings in the United States: 'This Is Who We Are'"

From The Huffington Post - "This Charlottesville Documentary is Required Viewing for Americans in 2017"

From Seeking Alpha - "You're Just Not Prepared for What's Coming"

Happy New Year!  Here's for a much better 2018!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Silver Bayonet: Gaming the Ia Drang Valley



Proof of purchase.  Silver Bayonet has outstanding components and production quality.  The map is hard-mounted, a rarity these days - almost every game is published with paper maps.  Even the box is made of heavier stock.  A great value for the price.
A section of the map as seen in the game's VASSAL module.  This is the area around Pleiku and Camp Holloway.  There are a few clear hexes but the terrain is mostly broken hills, light jungle and mountain jungle.

I have blogged before about how I enjoy combining the reading of military history with historical wargames.  The Vietnam War does not loom large in my rather robust wargame collection (a lifetime in the making) but I do own several interesting titles.  In computer wargames I have John Tiller's squad level treatments at the war, Vietnam and Tour of Duty.  These offer relatively quick playing scenarios that show how the war was fought at the tactical level.

I also own The Operational Art of War III which features campaigns and battles throughout modern history.  There are many excellent Vietnam-era scenarios to play and I have enjoyed them a lot through the years.  The scenario on the Ia Drang ’65 campaign is a blast to play, realistic, and doesn't take very long to complete.  There are also a number of "strategic" level scenarios offered on the Vietnam Combat Operations site.  These incredibly intricate scenarios cover the whole war from when the first US Marines splashed ashore at Da Nang all the way (so far) through the invasion of Cambodia.  There is a wonderful PDF accompanying each scenario which presents every combat mission during the war; an excellent historic resource and a lot of fun play.

As far as board games go, I have enjoyed the old strategic-level game Vietnam 65-75 for years.  It is a fun and reasonably accurate game to play individual military campaigns from the war.  In its campaign scenarios it adds the weight of the political side of the war, pacification and winning hearts and minds, which, though interesting, slows game play down to a slog.  No Trumpets, No Drums offers a different strategic take on the war.  It has the advantage of including Cambodia and Laos on the game map.  This allows for a wider strategic exploration of the conflict as well as reflecting the covert operations in those two countries.  I really like this game a lot and will be playing it again soon in 2018.  I also own a copy of the Against the Odds magazine game Meatgrinder which depicts the valiant stand by the South Vietnamese army at Xuan Loc in April 1975 just before the end of the war.  I have never played it but have enjoyed reading the rules and the accompanying historical articles.

But my wargame of choice at the moment is Silver Bayonet from GMT Games.  I purchased the original version of this game back in 1991 and played it frequently at the time.  Last year GMT published the 25th anniversary edition of this game, which is devoted completely to the 1965 Ia Drang Valley campaign conducted by the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) against Viet Cong elements and North Vietnamese regulars.  The game is fun to play because it offers several very short battle scenarios as well as wider looks at different aspects of the campaign, bringing it into a sharper focus which augments my reading on this important campaign.

There are short scenarios for each of the most famous Landing Zone (LZ) battles - X-Ray, Mary, and Albany.  These can be played in less than an hour and afford an interactive way to understand these battles outside of what my reading material offers.  They are created not only to reflect historic situations but also as building blocks for learning the basic mechanics of this game system.  Most everything hinges on two types of attacks: maneuver and assault.  To quote from the rule book: "At a very basic level, Maneuver Combat is used to leverage an enemy out of a particular hex or to soften the hex up for an assault.  Assault Combat is used to close with the enemy and destroy him." 

Each unit has an Efficiency Rating which allows for various tactics and functions to be performed.  On a 10-point scale, Special Force DELTA (Green Berets) and CIDG units have a rating of 8 and 7 respectively.  Most US air cavalry troops are a 6.  North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units (PAVN) are mostly 5's and 4's though there are a few NVA battalions rated at 6.  ARVN units are mostly 5's.  These ratings may be increased due to such things as having a leader or headquarters unit present.  They may be reduced due to such things as step-reductions incurred during combat.  

Defending units may attempt to refuse combat, avoiding it altogether, depending upon their efficiency rating and certain types of terrain. (This was a common problem for the US/ARVN [FWA] forces in Vietnam.  The PAVN would simply run away if the odds were not in their favor.)  But, if a unit is attacked by both maneuver and assault tactics it must stand and fight.  So a combination of tactics usually works best though there are times when only one tactic can be used due to the mixture of units involved or certain terrain effects. 

Over and above this the US has a lot of air power and artillery to bring to bear on the battlefield.  The PAVN units have mortar support which, though weak compared to the US punch, is more mobile and can be carried directly into assault combats.  This accurately reflects how the North Vietnamese used their modest but often effective artillery, particularly early on in the war when larger caliber guns had yet to make it down the Ho Chi Minh Trail system.

That reflects the bare bones of the game.  The campaign scenarios take longer to play but are worth it because they add, among other things, helicopters, hidden movement, patrols, and ambushes to the mix - which are the very things that make the Vietnam War so distinctive.
In addition to reading for my Vietnam War meditations, I played different scenarios of Silver Bayonet over the past several weeks.  This post contains some screenshots from the game's VASSAL module as well as some thoughts on the scenarios depicted and how the game allows the player to make historically accurate choices within game mechanics that capture the feel of the period.

Compared with the wide geography of the campaign scenarios, the battles at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany, the bloodiest of the campaign, seem rather small.  Silver Bayonet offers short scenarios on these battles that can be played on special cards that accompany the game and feature only a small portion of the main map.  There is even a scenario entitled “Breaking the Siege (Duc Co)” which occurs in August 1965 before the game's other scenarios, which take place in October and November.  It affords a great look at how the PAVN fought the ARVN before US troops arrived.

Beyond these battles there are several wider scenarios.  Scenario two is entitled “The Lure and the Ambush (Plei Me)” features a situation similar to “Breaking the Seige,” only this time there are plenty of US cavalry and stronger NVA troops available.  Scenario seven, “Operation Than Phong 7”, offers a view of the cleaning up operations toward the end of the campaign.  

“Operation All the Way,” Operations “Silver Bayonet I” and “Silver Bayonet II” (scenarios 8, 9, and 10 respectively) introduce helicopters to the equation and give players a look at the various search and destroy operations of the Ia Drang Valley campaign.  Finally, scenario 11 features the entire campaign from October 19 through November 26, 1965.  It is entitled “Operation Long Reach” and features all the various elements of play in one, extended, combined game.

The rest of this post will look at playing “Operation All The Way” because that scenario gets the players into the thick of action with a majority of the rules and a lot of the helicopters quickly.  If you can’t get excited about how this game models helicopters then you probably won’t appreciate Silver Bayonet.  For me, the helicopters are cool and allow the player to vividly simulate the complexities of modern asymmetrical warfare.

There is no “front line” in Silver Bayonet, everything is a “zone.”  Hidden movement and helicopters are two equally potent strategic advantages.  So the PAVN player and the FWA player have aggressive possibilities built into the fabric of the game.  The FWA player must usually disperse US forces into the “hidden zone” to increase the possibility of locating something to attack. 

That can be a tremendous advantage to the PAVN player.  When the US searches for enemy troops he usually does so in smaller company-size fashion, creating opportunities to close rapidly on a company with a full battalion with mortar support; attack quickly and withdraw before the US artillery and air support can strike back. This game is fun to play from either side.

“Operation All The Way” begins with a common tactic employed by the PAVN throughout the Vietnam War in remote regions like the Ia Drang Valley.  A Special Forces (SF) base is attacked.  The ARVN sends reinforcements along a road to assist with the defense.  The reinforcing units get ambushed along the way.  Such is the deployment at the start.  The NVA have three battalions, two of which are set up to attack around the Plei Me SF camp.  The other is hidden along the road between the camp and Pleiku, ready to pounce on anything motoring down it toward the embattled camp.  Meanwhile the Viet Cong units are in reserve around the PAVN Hospital unit near the Cambodian border. 
The terrain around SF Camp Duc Co.  The map artwork is excellent.  You can easily see the towns and villages surrounded by mostly light and heavy jungle in this area.  Each hex is equal to one mile in this game's scale. 
The ARVN have assorted mechanized and infantry units in Pleiku.  Additionally, there are six CIDG companies split between the two SF camps.  A single company of US DELTA (Green Berets) at Duc Co, but that camp is not under attack at the beginning of this scenario.   Off-board, however, there are several gunships and transport helicopters with a battalion of air cavalry units at the US base at An Khe.  Plenty more are coming as reinforcements later in the scenario, which makes the NVA attacks at the start so important for them.  After the first couple of turns they will be forced to hide from all that US artillery and air power.   
Unit placement for the beginning of the "All the Way" scenario.  All PAVN units are hidden and the markers are rather concentrated to cover the impending attacks.  You can just make out the Duc Co Special Forces Camp in the upper left.  Note the Green Beret company stacked with CIDG companies there.  Pleiku is just off this section of map, to the upper right.  The Plei Me SF Camp is surrounded as other NVA elements await an ambush opportunity along the road leading to Plei Me. 
The scenario begins with a special pre-game attack by the PAVN upon the Plei Me. For this post I chose to launch a combination Maneuver and Assault attacks against both the SF camp and the lone CIDG company that is about to set up a patrol due north of the Plei Me.  Since patrols can only be marked in the Observation Phase of the game turn, the FWA (Free World Allies – mostly the US with ARVN support) player doesn’t get a chance to declare that yet.  In terms of sheer numbers, the PAVN overwhelms the CIDG troops, but this is not an ambush since the specially trained CIDG units are immune to ambushes. 
The terrain around SF Camp Plei Me is mostly broken terrain with forested hills and a few mountain jungle hexes.
In the sequence of play, Maneuver attacks are resolved prior to Assaults.  As a general rule, it is best for the PAVN player to keep units as concentrated as possible while hiding.  This maximizes the number of “dummy” hidden movement markers and makes them more difficult to discover, but when attacking it is best for them to be dispersed.  This affords some combat advantages and also means that direct bombardment by the US will fall on only a unit or two, not an entire battalion.
This is the Plei Me Camp area with the units set up.  All the Hidden Movement markers have been removed so the units can be seen.  Each PAVN unit should be marked with either a Maneuver or an Assault marker.  In this example, such markers are set aside in order to better see the unit counters.  The 6 air points marker should be placed on top of Plei Me in order to offer defensive bombardment support.  Once again, it is just placed on the map in this example so all the attacking and defending counters can be seen.
The PAVN begins the pre-game attack with the Offensive Bombardment Phase.  Two NVA mortar units totaling 4 support points are ready for the SF camp attack.  But the camp has a defense value of “4” which makes it impossible for 4 mortar points to eliminate any CIDG steps, though there is a 20% possibility of inflicting some fatigue.  Alternatively, the PAVN mortars (unlike US artillery) can participate directly in assaults like infantry units.  The problem with that is there is a limit to how many units can assault a given hex.  The PAVN player decides to bombard now and then commit to the assault if needed later.  Each artillery unit in the game gets a “first” and “final” fire during a given turn.  In this case the final fire might be a ground attack, we’ll just have to see.  At any rate a roll of 6 fails to do anything against the base.  "First Fire" markers are placed on both mortar units.

The two CIDG companies at Plei Me can only muster 2 defensive points.  Whereas the two NVA battalions can fully surround the base with 26 total attack points plus 4 mortar support points.  But the highest odds on the Maneuver Combat Table are 6:1, so it is pointless for the PAVN player to invest more than 12 points in the Maneuver attack, this saves up to 14 points (plus the mortars) for the follow-on Assault of the base.  The two battalions are slightly mixed in a few hexes, completely surrounding the Plei Me camp, in order for the PAVN to benefit from multi-hex attacks. 

With initial odds of 6:1 it seems impossible for the CIDG player to hold the base.  But there are several game factors to take into account before jumping to that conclusion. The first is whether or not the PAVN attack will be coordinated.  Attack coordination was not a specialty of the NVA or the VC at this stage of the war.  It happened haphazardly whenever troops were not under direct higher command.  In the game only about 30% of PAVN attacks will be coordinated.  In this case, however, the attack is coordinated by the presence of the PAVN HQ unit, which bumps the coordination possibility up to 60%. The PAVN rolls against the HQ Efficiency Rating and passes.  The attack will be coordinated and will suffer no negative effects due to command issues.

In Maneuver combat each side chooses a “lead” unit with which to compare efficiency ratings from the ensuing combat.  The PAVN chooses a company with a “6” rating.  CIDG’s are highly trained, possessing a “7” so this will result in a one column shift in favor of the defenders.  The attack will be downgraded to 5:1, still favorable to the PAVN.  If casualties are taken the “lead” unit must be the first step reduction.

The FWA player is not allowed to use helicopter or artillery support in this pre-game attack.  But the player does possess 15 air points.  6 are allocated to this particular attack, saving points for other possible actions later in this phase.  The PAVN allocates nothing, saving the mortars for the Assault Phase later.  The game is played with results driven by the roll of a single 10-sided die.  The FWA rolls a 3 on the Bombardment / Support Table for a result of “3”.  In Maneuver combat the results serve as die roll modifiers (DRMs) for the upcoming attack.

Next all the various DRMs will be taken into account.  Looking at the defenders we have a +3 from the air support and +4 for the defensive terrain value of the camp for a total of +7 to the die roll.  For the attackers there is a -1 because the attack is coordinated and taking place from 3-4 different hexes. Comparing the two results gives us a +6 overall DRM for this combat.  The game has a maximum of +3 or -3 for DRMs on any given combat so the die roll will be made at +3.

Thanks to US air support a roll of 1 becomes a 4 in this case which eliminates one step from a CIDG company and fatigues both units.  The hit ordinarily requires that company to retreat, but that is impossible since the camp is surrounded.  The second company takes a hit to satisfy the inability to retreat.  The two battered, fatigued CIDG companies hang tough.
This is how the same Plei Me camp area looks after the pre-game PAVN attacks.  Some units have been reduced, fatigued, or eliminated.
Most of the remaining PAVN factors will now Assault the position.  They can be augmented further by both mortar units which (unlike US artillery) can be used for ground attack as well as combat support, an advantage to the PAVN player.  This affords a combat strength of 13 against 2 remaining defense points.  

Once again, things seem hopeless for the FWA player.  In this case, however, there are 6 more air support points thrown into the mix.  Defensive bombardment counts as hits on the attacking units during Assault attacks, not DRMs like in Maneuver.  The FWA player gets lucky a rolls a 1 on the bombardment table which inflicts 2 hits, the maximum possible damage on the assaulting units.  This dilutes the assault from 13 points to 11.  

The attack is once again coordinated thanks to the HQ with a -1 DRM for attacking from four separate hexes. But the PAVN rolls a 9 which becomes an 8 for a ‘no result.’  The lucky, yet battered and fatigued CIDG units survive, the base holds, and the PAVN has been bloodied by the assault.  But Silver Bayonet allows for the possibility of a second round with each Assault attack.  Both sides roll against their efficiency ratings and this time the PAVN fails.  This is unlucky for the PAVN.  There was a 70% chance of capturing the base if the die roll against the efficiency rating of “6” had passed. 

Meanwhile, the PAVN check for coordination against the lone CIDG company to the north of Plei Me results in an uncoordinated attack, which grants favorable column shifts and DRMs to the defender.  Terrain also assists the company since it is sitting in a forested hill hex. Since the US was busy trying to save the SF camp, however, only 3 air points remain to support the defender in this attack.  Even though uncoordinated, the Maneuver result reduces and fatigues the company.  The follow-on Assault destroys the CIDG unit.  A victory for the PAVN at no cost in terms of causalities.

The pre-game turn is now over and the first turn of the game can begin.  The Plei Me camp is in dire straits and, even though they have been bloodied, the PAVN units still have enough strength to take the base.  But the scenario designates the FWA player as the “first player” so the first game turn begins with the US response to this deadly and daring attack.

Each game turn begins with the First Observation Phase.  This is when the FWA player rolls for air points.  The results can vary wildly from 30 to just 5 points, but 15 or 20 are the most common outcomes.  This is also when the FWA fly aircraft and helicopters to various hidden movement markers in an attempt to discover more PAVN units.  Patrols are set by SF and certain cavalry units.  These are also used to probe hidden unit markers.  That sort of activity is happening elsewhere on the map during this example of play.  The FWA player rolls a 5 and receives 20 air points this turn.

This is followed by the Reinforcement and Concealment phases.  Once again, these involve actions happening elsewhere on the map, not around the Plei Me SF camp.  It is with the Movement Phase that things start happening around the camp.  Knowing that Plei Me is on the verge of falling, the US will use all their available helicopters to attack the NVA units surrounding the camp and attempt to insert elements of the 12th Cavalry Regiment into Plei Me.
The US units enter play at the start of Turn One.  Once again, they should be placed on top of the Plei Me camp but are spread across the board in this view to afford a look at them individually.  Gunship helicopters support the insertion of two companies from the 12th Cavalry into the "hot" LZ.  It takes the large CH-47 chopper unit to haul in an artillery battery because those count double the transport costs -  four steps instead of two in this case.
Checking the US assets available at the off-board An Khe military base, we find that two UH-1B gunships, two UH-1D transports, and a couple of larger CH-47 transport choppers are ready for action along with three companies of the 12th Cavalry.  There are also four batteries of US artillery.  Plei Me is a “hot” landing zone (LZ) due to being surrounded by the NVA battalions.  This means that each ground unit transported there must pass a efficiency check when landing.  If it fails it becomes fatigued.  

Moreover, any helicopter is subject to Air Defense Fire (ADF), which could eliminate US units before they can land at the camp.  Normally there is 20% chance of hitting a helicopter but those two pesky NVA mortar units each add a +1 modifier which ups the chance to 40%.  A bit risky but, once again, superior US air power plays a decisive role.  ADF for the PAVN player may only be conducted if there are more steps of ground units than there are bombardment strength points of the FWA.

In this case the US may send two gunships totaling 8 bombardment points directly to the camp.  There are a total of 14 NVA steps surrounding the camp, so the gunships by themselves are insufficient to suppress the ADF.  But when the US adds 6 more air points to the mix (leaving 14 remaining for the turn), that equals the NVA step total and thereby denies this high concentration of troops the ability to conduct ADF.      

The US lands two companies of the 12th Cavalry in the Plei Me SF camp.  Both pass their efficiency checks.  This is followed quickly by an artillery battery (which counts double the transport points) landed by the big CH-47 unit.  Since helicopters are allowed to unload/load from the same mission hex, the two weakened and fatigued CIDG companies are loaded onto the transports and lifted back to An Khe base so that they can recover from their fatigue and eventually receive replacements to bring them back up to full strength.  A “first fire” marker is placed on the artillery battery to indicate that it was transported and will therefore only be allowed one actual fire for this game turn.  All the transports are placed in the “Mission 1 (Auto)” box of the helicopter display.  A second CH-47 is available for transport mission in other, less threatened, parts of the game map.

The newly inserted units will now attempt to inflict some damage on the surrounding PAVN forces.  Each company attacks reduced NVA units using Maneuver Combat at 4:1 odds.  They will not Assault, however, as such an attack, if successful, would require the cavalry company to advance out of the camp into where the NVA unit just retreated or was eliminated.  The FWA player wants to keep everything inside the Plei Me SF camp for now in order to take advantage of its defensive terrain.
How the Plei Me camp area looks after the initial US counterattacks.  The gunships continue to offer support and would ordinarily be placed on top of the "First Fire" marker at the camp.  The artillery battery is marked "First Fire" because it was transported into the camp. 
The FWA player chooses not to use any additional air points or the artillery battery’s “final fire” in these attacks.  It is safer to save this support for the PAVN side to the turn in case of further attacks on the camp and to assist with other possible actions taking place on the game map.  Any attack involving only US troops is always coordinated.  No efficiency check is necessary.  Each attack in this case receives a two column shift in favor of the cavalry units due to their efficiency rating of "6" being three points better than each reduced NVA company's "3" rating.  There are no other modifiers for these attacks, which will now take place at 6:1.  With no favorable defensive modifiers the two NVA companies will both be eliminated.  They can be rebuilt with replacement points and return to play via the NVA Hospital unit or the HQ later in the scenario.

The PAVN player now has the choice of reinforcing the attack on Plei Me with the remaining NVA battalion that wiped out the lone CIDG company earlier or of breaking free from the US troops and be placed once again under Hidden Movement counters (at the beginning of the next turn).  Since the insertion of US forces raised the defense of the camp from its original 2 to a much stronger 8 and added 4 points of artillery to the mix, a prudent decision would be to run away and fight another day.  Perhaps more importantly, this gives the PAVN a chance to hide (and thus protect from bombardment) the precious HQ unit for future attack coordination. 

Jumping ahead to the second turn, we find the ARVN mechanized “rescue” convoy still dutifully, if slowly, making its way down to Plei Me.  We will assume for this example that the 32nd NVA Regiment was not discovered previously.  It ambushes the convoy from a pre-selected position along a secondary road leading to the SF camp.  A total 17 points conduct one-round of Assault Combat against the mechanized units which places this attack in the highest possible column. 
The results of the PAVN ambush on the ARVN mechanized units traveling down to reinforce Plei Me.  This was a fairly successful ambush with the ARVN suffering two step reductions and the PAVN suffering none.  The ambush markers have been set aside on the map so the units underneath can be seen.  In game play they would remain on top of the ambushing counters.
DRMs are as follows: -1 for each additional hidden movement marker flipped for a total of -2, -1 for the NVA mortar unit assisting, and +2 for the defensive terrain.  A roll of 6 is reduced to 5 and both ARVN mechanized units are reduced.  The ARVN then gets a chance to bombard the assaulting PAVN hexes. 6 air points are assigned to a strike against one of the NVA companies.  But an unlucky ( for the FWA player) roll of 10 means no damage is inflicted.  Then the surviving ARVN units roll on the Assault table but do no damage due to their reduced state.  The PAVN successfully ambushes the mechanized units without suffering any casualties.  

They are, however, now exposed to FWA air assets.  Game Turn Three begins with an opportunity to subject the ambushing units to helicopter, artillery, and air bombardment.  It also makes the whereabouts of the rest of the 32nd Regiment pretty much obvious which means they can be subject to possible ground attack.  As the scenario progresses there is a variable but increasing chance of the 66th NVA Regiment arriving as reinforcements from Cambodia.  This extra regiment can greatly change the character of the game and really be a boast to the PAVN player, making another large-scale offensive possible.

Most likely, however, the scenario transforms into a game of hide (PAVN) and seek (FWA).  Until (if) the 66th arrives the PAVN has limited attack opportunities after the first three game turns.  The PAVN might strike out at an isolated US cavalry company here and there but generally it does not commit itself to the fullest extent as at the scenario’s start. 
This is an example of how Hidden Movement markers might be placed later in the scenario.  They are situated such that they do not have to move in this case (although their movement is certainly allowed).  The tactic is to keep the markers in place and move the PAVN units unseen on the off-board chart from marker to marker.
Unlike the concentrated nature of the Hidden Movement markers at the start of “Operation All The Way,” things fan out during the mid-game and the endgame.  The markers can form a “grid”-like area on the map and remain in place.  Although the markers are allowed to move, it is sometimes more effective to keep them stationary as the PAVN units move from one marker to the other without the FWA seeing anything (all the "movement" takes place off-board on the PAVN Hidden Movement display).  This is especially good for marching the 66th Regiment into the Ia Drang Valley without the FWA even knowing it.  And surprise is one of the PAVN player’s biggest advantages.

The Observation Phase is always important but never more so than during the endgame.  If cleverly played by the PAVN, it becomes a lot tougher for the FWA to locate anything to attack.  That can be frustrating, but it is also reflective of exactly how this type of warfare was waged.  Helicopters, planes and patrols are the only way to find them out there in the Ia Drang Valley.  It is truly a game of "search" and destroy.

This gives you a taste of Silver Bayonet.  The 25th anniversary edition is a superbly presented boardgame.  It features a beautiful, accurately detailed hard-mounted map like the wargames of old.  Its playing pieces and components, player aids and rule book are all first-rate productions.  The game offers a wonderfully intricate yet playable and realistic representation of the challenges and choices facing both sides in this campaign.  Its depiction of helicopters is rather unique and detailed.  As I mentioned in the beginning, Silver Bayonet has broadened my understanding of my recent reading on the Vietnam War.  I have enjoyed considerable hours these past couple of months playing this game and have discovered it has a lot of replay value.  All of this makes the game a worthy addition to flesh out any wargame collection.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Neil Young: The Visitor and the Archives

On December 1, Neil Young released his 39th studio recording, The Visitor, along with opening up the complete, long-awaited Neil Young Archives project.  As of today you can stream the new album and explore the vast archives for free.  I ordered the new CD anyway because I want to support Neil's efforts.  This post takes a look (listen) to both the CD and the Archives project.

I have spent over a week listening to The Visitor off and on.  Neil continues to work with Promise of the Real, which is a plus.  The band energizes the 72 year-old rocker and Neil leverages their youthful talent to create some incredible instrumentation on the new CD.  The overall album is a mixed bag, however, not as strong as The Monsanto Years but still well worth a listen. 

Like The Monsanto Years, Neil is channeling some inner angst about the political issues and injustices of contemporary life.  Unlike the previous album, however, Neil is a bit less focused and he tends to express his rants in shotgun fashion, generalized, all over the place.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with that (lord knows there is plenty to be enraged about these days) but it does tend to give the album a wobbly feel.

"Already Great" starts us off.  The song is an obvious retort to the Donald Trump meme "Make America Great Again."  While it points out various ways this nation was great before Trump became president, as well as how it remains great today in spite of Trump, the song itself never really gets going for me.  The message is there, the lyrics are OK, the vibe is essentially passionate, but the band sounds like it is on the verge of getting it all together.  It seems to want to rock but doesn't.  Instead it comes off more like a ragged jukebox; a rough and uneven song that is, in some respects, representative of the album as a whole.

The second track, "Fly By Night Deal", is pure filler.  Not a very interesting song at all, more reminiscent of Neil's rather difficult Fork in the Road album than anything else.  The third track, "Almost Always" shifts from the electric guitar sound of the first two songs to a smooth acoustic number.  While this is a better tune, it still comes off as bit whiny and, though more accessible than the opening track, it lacks the passion needed to pull it off. 

With "Stand Tall" we are back to electric Neil, only this time in the form of an anthem.  This is an example of a Neil song that didn't strike me as particularly good to begin with but which nevertheless has grown on me.  I find myself humming this slow rock track in my head.  This song works for me and, while certainly not great, is worthy of the effort.  Some nice and crunchy guitar jamming on this one.

"Change of Heart" is the first really excellent song on the record.  This is another acoustic number and it fires on all cylinders.  The band shows superb musicianship in this folksy tune.  Great lyrics.  This easy-going song shuffles along so well featuring a mandolin, Neil's whistling, a nice melody and vocals with a surprisingly rich tapestry of instrumentation.  This one has plenty of fervor and acoustical intensity.  Maybe the strongest effort on The Visitor.

Another very strong song is "Carnival." The solid, easy drive of this tune is somewhat deceptive because the song feels macabre and surrealistic while at times sounding like something Carlos Santana might perform.  It is an intricate track, with plenty of beat changes and lighthearted, slightly deranged vocals - a wonderful parody on contemporary life as a carnival of escapism and misguided amusement.  Again, the instrumentation choices are interesting.  This one features a child's toy piano and bongos along with the electric guitars.  Neil seems to be at his most honest here.  He is an aging rocker, with his most intense riffs and grinding guitar days likely behind him.  So, he turns to the strange and twisted, likely reflective of his personal experience these days.  An oddly eccentric yet satisfying number, "Carnival" shows Neil ceaselessly tinkering with new forms of musical expression.

"Diggin' a Hole" is another piece of filler, this time in a traditional bluesy, almost gospel type sound tinged with humor.  Interesting to listen to only because, at roughly two and a half minutes, it is over with in a hurry.  The music video for "Children of Destiny" was released back in the summer.  Here Neil is in the middle of the road with an accessible, lyrical tune dealing with climate change and other environmental issues.  This one features a lot of brass and a string orchestra.  "When Bad Got Good" is the third filler song on this record.  Another somewhat humorous, bizarre, herky-jerky number that is mercifully short.

But with "Forever" we find Neil at his best during this portion of his career.  This 10-minute long acoustical ballad seems simple enough, but attentive listening reveals a sophisticated mix of sounds.  Promise of the Real is terrific on this song, which has, in spite a couple of moments of strained vocals by Neil (never known as a great vocalist), a smooth, rich, nostalgic quality about it.  The natural environment is again at the forefront of the message here.  Nice metaphors.  Though no less of a critique of our society, there is no genuine despair or rage here.  This song is more of a celebration of living in spite of our challenges, of being appreciative of what we have left, and ends the album on a hopeful note.  It resonates with me more than any other tune on The Visitor through my repeated hearings so far.  

So, as I said, the new CD is a mixed bag, but it is only part of the story for Neil these days.  Back in 2009, I purchased the first blu-ray boxed set of The Neil Young Archives.  At that time I posted about what a wonderful collection it was, and how its style and interactive design set a standard for not only presenting his musical career, but it was a innovative way to explore any historical topic.

In tandem with the release of The Visitor, Neil placed his entire Archives online for free (for a limited time).  Everything I purchased years ago is in there but that only covered his musical story through 1972.  The Archives are now complete so you can access any song from his career from 1963 - 2017.  Besides the music, there is an astonishing amount of information here.  You can view photos, lyrics, newspaper clippings, and various other forms of memorabilia while the music continues to play.  Numerous videos are sprinkled throughout as well.  It is just an incredible experience for any rock music fan.

There are essentially two ways to rummage through this vast amount of material.  The most obvious one is the "file cabinet" approach.  When you log-in to the Archives site (through your Facebook or Google account) you will see a filing drawer.  Clicking on the handle opens the long and seemingly endless drawer.  There are file folders for every song, grouped by album, starting with The Visitor and going song by song, file by file back to the early 1960's.  There are controls for picking specific dates or years to assist with keeping your oriented.  Watch Neil's tutorial on navigating his Archives here.

Click on the intentionally weathered looking tab of any given folder and it will open to a song "card" that contains the music and all the various additional material for each song.  Most songs have something extra, if it is only the lyrics.  Many songs contain the lyrics as they were originally penned in Neil's handwriting on a stray sheet of paper or, literally, a napkin, along with the aforementioned photos, high-quality scans of things like old 45 records, and other material related to that particular song or time in Neil's life.  I have spent hours browsing through the collection.  It would take far more time than I currently have available to explore everything.

The second way to experience the Archives is in "timeline" mode.  Instead of the filing cabinet, here you have an extended linear view of Neil's musical life, literally day by day in chronological order moving from the left to the right.  You can stop at any point on the timeline and magnify that section.  Doing so allows you to click on various pushpins that tell you which songs were recorded on which days.  An additional click takes you to the same song "card" as the filing system mode gives you.  The timeline is cool because it gives you a wider view of all the albums and you can see where most of the videos are rather than hunting for them haphazardly through the file drawer. 

I don't regret buying my rather expensive blu-ray set years ago.  It came with a lot of bonuses you can't get from the online service, like a nice leather-bound book of lyrics and artistic doodles in Neil's hand.  And the Archives are only free for the next few months or so.  I have no idea what he will charge as a subscription to access them later on.  Time will tell.

I cannot stress enough what a unique and amazing experience the Archives are.  This is the first time in history that a musical artist has made all of their recordings (including a bunch of previously unreleased stuff) accessible on the internet to anyone.  As far as I am concerned this sets the standard for revisiting the careers of any great rock artist or band. And the bar is set very high.

While The Visitor features a few worthy songs and is largely a mediocre album, the Archives are extraordinary in their design, scope, detail, and thoroughness.  Even if you are not a Neil Young fan I recommend you spend a few moments exploring this unique site.  If nothing else, sign in and go find Neil's only number one hit, "Heart of Gold" from 1972 and give it a listen.  I think you'll be more than impressed with what you find and can easily see how this is literally a breakthrough in how to present a large amount of information for easy research and enjoyment.

Friday, December 8, 2017

There came a big snow today

We got 7 inches, were expecting 1 or 2 or maybe just a dusting.  Wham! One of the hardest snows I've ever seen in Georgia.  It was beautiful but it was mostly a pain in the ass.  Lost power for over 3 hours.  I have a lot of chainsaw clean-up work to do now.  And my heat pump sucks when its this cold.  Merry Christmas to Winter Storm Benji.




Friday, November 17, 2017

Meditations on the Vietnam War: The Ia Drang Valley 1965


"When Robert S. McNamara became Secretary of Defense in 1961, he ushered in sweeping changes aimed at completely reorganizing the Department of the Army and its methods of warfare.  He was highly displeased with Army Secretary Elvis J. Stahr, Jr.'s, report on the status of Army aviation plans.  McNamara realized the current Army procurement program was hopelessly inadequate in every category of aircraft and considered it dangerously conservative.  Furthermore, McNamara felt that the Army failed to exert any strong, unified aviation effort and was plagued by reticence and budgetary restraint which were blocking the adaptation of necessary aircraft and equipment.  Most important, he believed that officers with progressive ideas about airmobility were not being heard.

"McNamara was convinced that a breakthrough in airmobility was possible with the new Bell helicopter models.  He was given a list of officers who also believed Army aviation needed new direction, and the substance for letters which he sent to the Secretary of the Army." (Stanton, page 14)

“By mid-1962, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, pursuing President Kennedy's vision, seized on the airmobility idea.  McNamara ordered the Army to determine if the new UH-1 Huey helicopter, the big CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, and their sisters in rotary-wing aviation made sense on the battlefield of the future.” (Moore, page 11)

Airmobility was one innovative technological approach (among many) that distinguished and defined the American military effort in the Vietnam War.  Orthodox military minds drew on the rather unsuccessful, often disastrous experience of airborne operations in World War Two.  They were stuck with the idea that deploying infantry via aerial assault was an ineffective use of combat troops.  Robert McNamara and his team not only disagreed with this assessment, they forcefully advocated the implementation of infantry airmobile tactics in Vietnam.  The earliest large-scale manifestation of airmobility was the formation of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and its use in the Ia Drang Valley campaign of October- November 1965.

This meditation looks at that campaign as it is discussed in three excellent books about the military aspects of the war.  Vietnam at War by Phillip B. Davidson is one of the best general histories of the war from a military perspective.  Shelby L. Stanton's Anatomy of a Division is a fascinating history of the airmobile First Cavalry Division's creation and deployment.  Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore's We Were Soldiers Once...And Young is a superbly written, popular narrative of his experiences commanding the 1st Battalion of the famed 7th Cavalry in Vietnam. 

The Ia Drang Valley is situated near the Cambodian border in South Vietnam's central highlands.  In 1965 it was sparsely populated with plenty of rough terrain and jungle cover.  It had been controlled by Viet Cong (VC) units for years, which often used it as a staging area for attacks throughout the region.  In October two independent North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments entered the area from Cambodia.  The valley was supposedly secured by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units stationed in Pleiku.  Special Forces camps were situated at Duc Co and Plei Me to protect the roads winding through Gia Lai Province.  

The war's first large-scale search-and-destroy mission would be undertaken on this terrain.  At the time, it was a test of several things.  Would US airmobility work?  Were expectations for "search-and-destroy" operations realistic?  General William C. Westmoreland wanted to prove some things.  Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese had strategic and tactical questions of their own.  What tactics should be used against the helicopters?  How would VC and NVA troops hold up against the massive firepower potential of the US forces?  The Ia Drang Valley would provide answers to both sides, though the opponents probably would have disagreed on the lessons learned.  

"As Westmoreland developed his strategic concepts through the summer and early fall of 1965, a basic question disturbed the United States military professionals running the war.  Put bluntly, that question was: how would American soldiers do against the veteran NVA Main Force units in the difficult terrain and weather of South Vietnam?  The answer was soon forthcoming, and it would come, ironically, from the only unit in the American army which traditionally celebrates its own massacre - the 7th United States Cavalry.  This was the regiment which had ridden to death and glory in the Valley of the Little Big Horn under George Armstrong Custer.  These modern 7th Cavalrymen rode helicopters, not horses, but they cherished the regimental history and sang the old regimental song, "Garry Owen."  The 7th was part of the First United States Cavalry Division (Airmobile), a unique unit, and by training, equipment, and motivation, the elite division of the American army.

"The stage for this first test was to be the Ia Drang Valley in the Western Highlands of South Vietnam.  The actors were two regiments of the NVA Main Forces and the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, later reinforced by other elements of the 1st Cavalry Division.   Both sides were looking for a fight.  The cavalry division wanted to seize the initiative from the NVA, which had been attacking isolated Special Forces camps in the area.  The NVA commander, Gen. Chu Huy Man, an old friend of Giap's, wanted to win a victory over the newly arrived American troops.  In the Ia Drang Valley, they collided." (Davidson, page 360)

Delivering troops via helicopter to the mountains and jungles of Vietnam required certain areas be cleared (or that existing clearings be enlarged) so that the choppers (preferably several at once) could safely land and so reinforcements and supplies could be readily inserted even after combat started.  Landing Zones (LZs) cut or bombed out of the elephant grass or jungle served as flexible operational and logistical bases that were created on-the-fly as the military situation evolved.  But they also served as a huge red flag to nearby VC and NVA units, signaling where the Americans were located.  The communists, who knew the terrain far better than the Americans, could then maneuver to the best location for attacking US ground troops.  One of the first LZs established in the Ia Drang Valley was called X-Ray.
  
"On November 14, the 1st Cavalry Division threw the first punch by helicopter-lifting the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry into a remote landing area (named X-Ray) which was the middle of a suspected NVA base area in the valley.  General Man responded by rushing three NVA battalions to X-Ray to annihilate the cavalry troopers.  By late afternoon, the American position had become desperate.  Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore, the battalion commander, radioed his superior, Col. Thomas W. Brown, the 3rd Brigade commander, for reinforcements.  Brown responded immediately by sending in one company from another battalion by helicopter and alerted another whole battalion to reinforce Moore by foot.

"On the morning of 15 November, General Man launched a violent and coordinated three-battalion attack on X-Ray.  Here some of the fiercest fighting in American history took place, some of it hand-to-hand, almost all of it within the length of a football field.  The United States Army's official account of the action reports graphically the closeness in intensity of the combat." (Davidson, pp. 360-361)

"Several perimeter sectors were under simultaneous attack, and the entire situation became chaotic.  Supporting fires and airstrikes were brought in as close as possible and ordinance spilled into friendly lines.  In many instances combatants were intermixed and any distinguishable edge of battle ceased to exist.  The array of colored marking smoke mixed with thick clouds of powder and haze drifting over the battlefield.

"Lieutenant Colonel Moore exerted a forceful, professional coolness in the midst of the confusion and near panic. One A1E Skyraider misdropped napalm close by his command post, setting all the stacked rifle ammunition and grenade reserves on fire.  Air Force F4C Phantoms and F100 fighter-bombers streaked in low on the horizon to hurl bomb clusters into the midst of massing North Vietnamese infantry.  The NVA attack waves disintegrated under this prompt air support, enabling the fatigued and hard-pressed cavalrymen to hold their positions during the most critical hours." (Stanton, pp. 60-61)

American air power would make a decisive difference on the battle fields of South Vietnam from 1965 - 1973.  The battle at LZ X-Ray saw such power used in novel ways.  “...shortly after noon on November 15 the Air Force's high-flying B-52 bombers out of Guam placed the first of six days of “ARC LIGHT” strikes on the Chu Pong massif.  For the first time ever, the B-52 strategy bombers were being employed in a tactical role in support of American ground troops.” (Moore, page 203)

The American army also vastly exceeded the NVA army in terms of artillery throughout the American presence in the war.  "By midmorning the vast firepower available to the American troopers began to take a murderous toll.  A total of over 33,000 rounds of 105mm artillery was fired.  United States Air Force fighter-bombers furnished constant air support, and even the 'big birds,' the B-52's, pounded the area with their 500-pound bombs.  By the morning of the next day, General Man had had enough.  He rounded up what was left of his force and headed for the nearby Cambodian border.

"The first major United States/NVA encounter had resulted in a major victory for the Americans.  The 1st Cavalry Division lost 79 men killed and 121 wounded.  The NVA had 634 known dead, at least the same number of dead dragged away, plus an unknown number of wounded.  The two NVA regiments which had tangled with the 'Garry Owens' had been destroyed." (Davidson, page 362)

It is overstating the case that two NVA regiments were “destroyed” at LZ X-Ray.  One of them, the 33rd, though badly understrengthed, was still strong enough to attack again, and did so just two days later, this time at LZ Albany.  Located just 2 miles northeast of X-Ray, LZ Albany was infiltrated by the remains of the NVA 33rd and the fresh 66th Regiment, which had just arrived from Cambodia.  These NVA elements set an ambush for the American troops, which were marching overland toward LZ Albany.  What followed was an even bloodier battle that caught the Americans off guard.

“The most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War has just begun.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had walked into a hornet's nest. The North Vietnamese reserve force, the 550-man 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, had been bivouacked in the woods off to the northeast of McDade's column.  The understrengthed 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, coordinating its movement and actions with the 8th Battalion, was aiming its men toward the head of the American column.  And the point men of Lieutenant Payne's recon platoon had marched within two hundred yards of the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 33rd Regiment.  A senior lieutenant grabbed up the 3rd battalion cooks and clerks and joined the attack.  Lieutenant Colonel Phuong says other North Vietnamese soldiers in the vicinity on rice carrying or outpost duty 'came running to join the battle.'

“While many of Colonel McDade's troopers lay in the grass resting, North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed toward them by the hundreds.  A deadly ordeal by fire was beginning in the tall elephant grass around Albany and along the column of American troops strung out through the jungle, waiting for orders to move.  It was 1:15 p,m,, Wednesday, November 17.  By the time the battle ended, in the predawn darkness of the next morning, 155 American soldiers would be dead and another 124 wounded.  Those who survived would never forget the savagery, the brutality, the butchery of those sixteen hours.” (Moore, pp. 267-268)

"The first elements had already reached LZ Albany when the 8th Battalion, 66th NVA Regiment, attacked the length of the column.  The ferocity and scale of the ambush split the battalion in two.  Machine gun, grenade, and automatic rifle fire raked the cavalry ranks as snipers shot down leaders and radio men.  The middle of the column caved in under the force of the attack as North Vietnamese soldiers charged completely through the cavalry lines in several places.  As the column was shattered, the battle disintegrated into a largely leaderless gel of individual melds and skirmishes between splintered groups." (Stanton, page 62) 

"For hours the amorphous battle prevented artillery and tactical air support, but by midafternoon two large, ragged pockets of American resistance had formed.  The stunned remnants of Company C joined McDade's command group, which combined to fight west toward the clearing where both Company A and the recon platoon were making their stands.  Company D and the 5th Cavalry's Company A were separated and pushed to the east by the flow of battle.  This gave enough semblance to the battlefield to enable rocket-firing helicopters to sweep across the front, followed by close-range napalm bombing.  The roaring fireballs spewed across the burning grass and through onrushing NVA riflemen, although some Americans trapped outside the tree line were also burned to death." (Stanton, page 63)

Lt. Col. Moore was impressed with the NVA soldiers that attacked his command at LZs X-Ray and Albany. “They were damned good soldiers, used cover and concealment to perfection, and were deadly shots: Most of my dead and wounded soldiers had been shot in the head or upper body.  The North Vietnamese paid particular attention to radio operators and leaders.  They did not appear to have radios themselves; they controlled their men by shouts, waves, pointing, whistles, and sometimes bugle calls.” (Moore, page 120)

Moore quotes Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huy An, the NVA commander, regarding the battle at LZ Albany: “I think this fight of November seventeenth was the most important of the campaign.  I gave the order to my battalions: When you meet the Americans divide yourself into many groups and attack the column from all directions and divide the column into many pieces.  Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from artillery and air.  We had some advantages.  We attacked your column from the sides and, at the moment of the attack, we were waiting for you.  This was our reserve battalion and they were just waiting for their turn.  The 8th Battalion has not been used in the fighting in this campaign.  They were fresh.” (Moore, pp. 269-270)

“I will tell you frankly, your soldiers fought valiantly.  They had no choice.  You are dead or you are not.  It was hand-to-hand fighting. Afterward, when we policed the battlefield, when we picked up our wounded, the bodies of your men and our men were neck and neck, lying alongside each other.  It was most fierce.” (Moore, page 293)

Other battles would be fought in the Ia Drang Valley, as the campaign lasted for a little over a month.  During that time an ARVN airborne brigade was brought in to support the Americas.  The brigade was choppered in to the Duc Co Special Forces camp and then humped it through the rough terrain to position themselves behind the NVA units as they retreated from the vigorous and persistent US attacks.  In this manner, the NVA were herded into the pre-positioned ARVN units, who managed to surprise the remnants of the North Vietnamese throwing them into further disorder.  Yet, the NVA did not panic nor completely lose cohesion.  Though decimated, they were able to reform in their Cambodian sanctuary in a few weeks, but the new troops were inexperienced, of course.  Afterward, the opposing sides assessed the campaign from differing perspectives.

“In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, and his principle deputy General William DePuy, looked at the statistics of the thirty-four day Ia Drang campaign – 3,561 North Vietnamese estimated killed versus 305 American dead – and saw a kill ratio of twelve North Vietnamese to one American.  What that said to the two officers who had learned their trade in the meat-grinder campaigns in World War II was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.

“In Hanoi, President Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident.  Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw.  By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of victory.  In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.” (Moore, page 399)

While, in total, one VC and three NVA battalions were rendered ineffective, the campaign took a large toll on the First Cavalry Division as well.  "Unexpected levels of combat outstripped division capability to reinforce adverse situations, especially in the Battles of LZs X-Ray and Albany, where the lack of properly assembled reserves almost resulted in disaster.  The inability to aerial firepower alone to effectively stop NVA close assaults was manifested in the Battle of LZ Albany and a number of other firefights.  The October division logistical crises produced severe shortages of essential supply stocks, such as aviation fuel, during the entire period.  There were initial difficulties maintaining radio communications over the long distances involved, although orbiting CV2 radio relay aircraft offered a partial solution.  The division spent the month of December rebuilding its logistical posture, extensively overhauling its overworked helicopters and equipment, and replacing personnel.

"The frightful casualty levels seriously eroded division strength.  In the two months of October and November the division suffered 334 killed, 736 wounded, 364 nonbattle injuries, and 2,828 cases of malaria, scrub typhus, and other serious diseases. This total represented more than 25 percent of the division's authorized strength (15,955).  Even though many men were eventually returned to their units, the division used 5,211 replacements to complete rebuilding by the end of the year.  Division assigned strength thus stood at 16,732 in December, but nearly a third (31 percent) were newly assigned.  Such a high turnover rate invariably crated turmoil and reduced overall efficiency." (Stanton, page 65)

"In the final analysis the Ia Drang Valley campaign was military history's first division-scale air assault victory.  The 1st Cavalry Division accomplished all of its assigned objectives.  Airmobile reinforcement insured the survival of a remote but critical outpost; cavalry surveillance followed and found the enemy, and Cavalry air assault brought the enemy into battle and pinpointed his strongpoints.  Major General Kinnard resorted to strategic B52 bombing to shatter these jungle redoubts once they were identified, as in Chu Pong after LZ X-Ray.  In the process two regular North Vietnamese Army regiments were largely annihilated and had to be completely reformed in Cambodia." (Stanton, page 66)  

"The North Vietnamese disaster in the Ia Drang Valley intensified and broadened the strategic dispute which had been raging for at least a year between Giap and Nguyen Chi Thanh." (Davidson, page 362)  Davidson is overstating his case that the Ia Drang Valley campaign was a "disaster" for the NVA.  Though they were redeployed to other areas of the war, the NVA regiments would fight again, even more fiercely, while the Ia Drang Valley itself was never fully under either American or South Vietnamese control.  America’s big tactical victories on the battle fields amounted to a strategic draw, hardly a disaster at all.  But he is insightful in detailing the strategic debate in the North that resulted from the campaign.  

"...the strategic problem of combating the United States troops in South Vietnam evoked a stormy, high-level controversy between the old adversaries.  On the one side there was Nguyen Chi Thanh, commander of the South, and Le Duan, and opposing them were Giap and Truong Chinh.  The gist of the debate turned around the tactics and forces to be used in South Vietnam now that they Americans had arrived in strength.  Thanh and Le Duan argued for a largely conventional war of Main Force units, while Giap's concept emphasized small-unit and guerrilla tactics while holding the Main Force in reserve.

“Thanh held that the Viet Cong and the NVA units almost won the war in late 1964 against ARVN, and that the entrance of the Americans called not for retrenchment, but for a continuation of large-scale attacks by which Thanh would keep the initiative and generate psychological momentum against the arriving Americans….In truth, however, the Communist troops lost the initiative in late 1965, in part due to the heavy casualties of such battles as in the Ia Drang Valley.  It was this battle that brought Giap charging into the conceptual fray.

"The dispute between Giap and Thanh turned fundamentally on their wildly differing estimates of the combat effectiveness of American ground troops and their supporting air power....If Thanh was correct - that American ground forces could be defeated in set-piece battles involving large, conventional units - then his strategy of attacking United States units made sense.  By this means, Thanh could seize the initiative and frustrate Westmoreland's search and destroy strategy.  In addition, such attacks would produce heavy American casualties - 'coffins going home' - which would erode support for the war in the United States.  On the other side of the argument, Giap built his concept of a 'Southern strategy' on the somber premise that NVA and Viet Cong units could not defeat American troops without taking excessive, and unacceptable, casualties.  If Giap's basic assumption was correct, the only sensible Communist strategy was to avoid large, Main Force battles and shift to a more elusive, less costly, mode of operation - guerrilla warfare." (Davidson, pp. 364 - 365)

"Giap based his concept not only on what he saw as unfavorable disparity of forces, but on an even more fundamental set of factors.  First, be believed that Hanoi had to view the war against the Americans as a test of wills, not of military might.  The essential element of any such strategy was time.  Protract the war, prolong the killing, and sooner or later the United States would give up and agree to conditions acceptable to the Communists.  This strategy, Giap reasoned, would be particularly effective against the Americans, the most impatient of peoples, who in 1965 were already beginning to show some of the divisive rents in the national fabric resulting from the war.  Conversely, Giap's concept of the protracted guerrilla war made the most of the one factor which the Communists had in greatest abundance - perseverance, the ability to continue the war for 'five, ten, or twenty years,' to use Giap's words." (pp. 365-366)

So, as a result, the Ia Drang Valley campaign served as the basis for Westmoreland ramping up his strategy of attrition against the VC and NVA.  Theoretically it "proved" that if the US could consistently deliver kill ratios of 12-1 it would eventually reach a "cross-over point" where the North Vietnamese could neither recruit nor replace their losses faster than the US could destroy their units in the field.  From the NVA perspective, despite their internal strategic disagreements over how to conduct the war, the campaign "proved" that their infantry could withstand the punishment of US firepower without disintegrating.  If the NVA could not outright win a major campaign against the US forces, it could at least absorb the losses, retreat, and rebuild to fight another day - essentially transforming any tactical or operational defeat into a strategic draw.  In a long war, with time on their side, the NVA believed such resilience would wear the Americans down.  In a nutshell, each side concluded that the projection of its willpower would bring victory over the other - the Americans via highly concentrated firepower, the North Vietnamese through sheer, unrelenting persistence.

After the Ia Drang Valley, the First Cavalry Division recuperated for a few weeks at its An Khe base.  Its next deployment was the Battle of Bon Song in late January 1966.  Lt. Col. Moore's troops were again successful in delivering punishing attacks against more NVA/VC infantry.  But, Moore noted that, despite his division's military success after weeks of fighting, there was a problem regarding the newly cleared area. 

“Within one week after we pulled out, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Main Force units had returned to the villages of the Bong Son.  My brigade would be sent back in a show of force in April and again in May when we lost many more men killed and wounded.  After the May operation it was clear to me, a battlefield commander not involved in politics at all, that the American Mission and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam had not succeeded in coordinating American and South Vietnamese military operations with follow-on Vietnamese government programs to reestablish control in the newly cleared areas.  If they couldn't make it work in Bong Son – where the most powerful American division available had cleared enemy forces from the countryside – how could they possibly hope to reestablish South Vietnamese control in other contested regions where the American military presence was much weaker.” (Moore, page 404)

Moore's question exposes the underlying issue in the Vietnam War that transcends the military pursuit of victory on the battlefield.  For various (mostly cultural) reasons, the South Vietnamese government could not effectively compete with the communists anywhere outside of the immediate scope of America's military presence.  As shown in the previous meditation, this was what McNamara and his policy-makers feared all along.  The battle for the "hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese people was being lost and, as we will see in a future meditation, it ultimately made the American military effort and all of its successes irrelevant.  America was now committed to defeating the enemy without any effective means of winning over the population it supposedly defended - the central absurdity of the war.

The Battle for LZ Albany, “the most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War,” was fought 52 years ago today.