Search and Destroy

zippo mission

Search and Destroy, Seek and Destroy, or even simply S&D, refers to a military strategy that became a large component of the Vietnam War. The idea was to insert ground forces into hostile territory, search out the enemy, destroy them, and withdraw immediately afterward. The strategy was the result of a new technology, the helicopter, which resulted in a new form of warfare, air cavalry, and was thought to be ideally suited to counter-guerrilla jungle warfare.

The complementary conventional strategy, which entailed attacking and conquering an enemy position, then fortifying and holding it indefinitely, was known as ‘clear and hold’ or ‘clear and secure.’ In theory, the traditional methods of ‘taking ground’ could not be used in this war. Therefore the U.S. pursued a war of attrition instead, in which raw ‘body count’ would be the measuring tool to determine the success of a strategy.

It became an offensive tool, crucial to General William Westmoreland’s second phase. In his three phase strategy: first, slowing down the Viet Cong Forces; second, resuming the offensive and destroying the enemy; and third, restoring South Vietnamese government control. The Zippo missions (hut/village burning) were mainly assigned to the second phase around 1966 and 1967, along with operations ‘Clear and Secure.’ Search and destroy missions entailed sending out platoons, companies, or larger detachments of US troops from a fortified position to locate and destroy Vietcong or NVA units in the countryside. These missions most commonly involved hiking out into the ‘boonies’ and setting an ambush in the brush, near a suspected VC trail. The ambush typically involved the use of fixed Claymore Antipersonnel Mines, crossing lines of small arms fire, mortar support, and possibly additional artillery support called in via radio from a nearby firebase.

In February 1967, some of the largest Zippo missions was operated in the Iron Triangle, located near Saigon. The area sheltered a mass of Viet Cong logistics and headquarters, with some of the most high-ranking NLF officials stationed there. The offensive began with ‘Operation Junction City,’ where the American units destroyed hundreds of tons of rice, killed 720 guerrillas, and captured 213 prisoners. However, the Iron Triangle area’s defenders were thought to be over 10,000. The offensive failed to destroy the NLF’s headquarter or capture any high-ranking officer. Both Search and Destroy and Clearing missions stretched into the third phase beginning in 1968. The number of missions mounted, especially after the Tet offensive in 1968. As the war grew more aggressive, so did the missions, to the point where there was lack of distinction between ‘Search and Destroy,’ and ‘Clear and Secure’ operations.

Search and destroy missions had many flaws. First, there was lack of distinction between ‘clearing’ and s&d. Thus ‘clearing’ missions, which were less aggressive, eventually morphed into a more violent and brutal form of tactic just as search and destroy missions were. With the lack of distinction between the two missions, pacification was not pushed. Guenter Lewey, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, argued that the generals and war planners severely underestimated the enemy’s abilities to match and exceed U.S. forces. Large numbers of Viet Cong troops would be killed or captured, but they were quickly replaced. Although enemy forces were initially pushed out of certain territories, as soon as the American forces left the areas, they simply returned with more reinforcements and weapons.

The effectiveness of the missions are also doubtful. In one of the first Search and Destroy missions northwest of Dau Tieng, named ‘Operation Attleboro,’ US report states that 155 U.S. soldiers were killed, while the North Vietnamese lost 1,106. In ‘Operation Junction City,’ the report also states that 282 U.S. soldiers were killed while the Viet Cong lost 1,728 guerrillas. These figures, however, should be considered in light of the methods by which they were obtained. The estimates were almost exclusively gathered by indirect means: sensor readings, sightings of secondary explosions, reports of defectors or POWs, and inference or extrapolation.

In modern day use, it is common practice among military forces to enforce strict rules on a search and destroy mission.

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