During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong acted as the military arm of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a communist-leaning political organization created to overthrow the democratic government of South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong were outnumbered by and lacked the fire and air power of the South Vietnamese and their U.S. supporters, they had several tactical advantages. U.S. troops ultimately found themselves fighting a style of war they could not adapt to against an enemy they often could not find.
An Alien Environment
The rain forests, mountains and swampland of Vietnam provided the Viet Cong with an unlimited amount of well-concealed staging areas impenetrable by U.S. ground forces. The jungle canopy also allowed North Vietnam to continually supply the Viet Cong with reinforcements and supplies along routes -- particularly the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- that could not be detected by U.S. air power. The rainy, hot and insect-laden tropical climate was one the Viet Cong were used to, while many U.S. servicemen found it almost unbearable.
The Enemy Within
Because the South and North Vietnamese were of the same ethnicity, U.S. soldiers had no way of knowing whether a Vietnamese person was from the communist North or the democratic South. Viet Cong guerrilla fighters were not in uniform and typically wore the same clothes as the common working man. This made it impossible for U.S. soldiers to distinguish between villagers and Viet Cong guerrillas. Even civilians who were not Viet Cong were often sympathetic to the ideologies of the NLF and would not assist or cooperate with U.S. soldiers.
Playing Mine Games
The Viet Cong were skilled in setting lethal booby traps. They would string tripwires attached to grenades across known infantry patrol routes. They also planted "Bouncing Bettys" -- land mines that detonated several feet above ground after being pressured and released -- along these routes. The Viet Cong often dug "punji pits" in open areas where they expected U.S. soldiers to patrol. These traps were deep holes lined with sharp spikes that would kill or seriously maim anyone who fell in. Because these traps were undetectable, U.S. soldiers experienced psychological pressure while patrolling, which was as much a part of the Viet Cong's tactical strategy as the traps themselves.
No Tunnel Vision
Complex tunnel systems were key to the success of Viet Cong guerilla warfare. Tunnel networks stretched from Cu Chi, an area near Saigon, to the Cambodian border. After battling U.S. infantry forces, the Viet Cong disappeared into their tunnels to reorganize, care for their wounded and replenish supplies. Even though the tunnels were hand-dug, they were sophisticated and well-secured. Specially trained South Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers known as "tunnel rats" were sent in to clear tunnels when they were discovered, but the work was extremely dangerous and booby traps were a constant threat.
Win or Die Trying
The Vietnamese people were used to war, having experienced some type of conflict during most of their 2,000-year history. Although many Viet Cong were young, inexperienced soldiers, they learned be resilient, to live with few materials comforts and sacrifice for their ideals. This gave them a mental advantage over their opponents. Most importantly, they were fighting for their own country. The NLF made sure training for the Viet Cong included political instruction to remind them they were fighting for freedom from foreign influence and for the unification of their country.
- PBS.org: Battlefield Vietnam: Guerrilla Tactics: An Overview
- eHistory: Ohio State University: Know Your Enemy: The Viet Cong
- Marquette University: History Department: Asian Studies: The Ho Chi Minh Trail: North Vietnam's Clandestine Key to Triumph
- HistoryLearningSite: War in Vietnam
- History.com: Cu Chi Tunnels
- Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte/Getty Images