Into the Iron Triangle: Operation Attleboro and the Battle of North Saigon, 1966

Reviewed by LTC Stephen A. Tribble, Ph.D., USA

Common perceptions of the Vietnam War include visions of guerrilla warfare, airmobile infantry, strategic bombing, tactical air support, and unprepared American draftee replacements heading off to a foreign land to fight an enduring war against an unrelenting enemy. In Into the Iron Triangle: Operation Attleboro and the Battle of North Saigon, 1966 (Asia @ War Series No. 19), author Dr. Arrigo Velicogna seeks to dispel the myth that the Vietnam War was a series of infrequent and minor counterinsurgency battles fought by poorly trained and equipped United States (U.S.) conscripts on the ground supported by overwhelming indirect fire in the form of artillery and air support. He states that, while the insurgency that characterized the earlier years of the war never disappeared, by 1964, the war transformed to include large-scale, divisional level, large unit-on-unit conventional war. Additionally, Velicogna suggests that his book fills a void in Vietnam War literature related to the III Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ) between 1965 and 1966. III CTZ was a designated military operational area of Vietnam surrounding Saigon that Velicogna suggests is incorrectly perceived as characterized by inconsequential U.S. military actions and ill-equipped peasant enemy forces.

This is the first book by Velicogna, a British lecturer, defense professional, conflict simulation designer, and defense consultant knowledgeable in military history, operations, and naval warfare. At 88 pages this book is a quick read, incorporating extensive photos and maps in addition to a table illustrating total losses on each side. Velicogna takes the reader on a virtual staff ride of Operation ATTLEBORO. He provides detailed descriptions of both the North Vietnamese military formations and the U.S. Army units and leaders operating in III CTZ from 1965 to 1966, including each major unit and several key leaders. Color photos with detailed descriptions of the U.S. armor, fixed-wing, and rotary-wing assets used in the fighting illustrate the conventional nature of the war, while illustrations and descriptions of the regular forces involved in the fighting detail the typical U.S., Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) (South Vietnam), and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) (North Vietnam) Soldiers, hinting at the human and cultural aspects of the operation.

Additionally, Into the Iron Triangle provides comprehensive context for specific operations, facilitating an enhanced appreciation for the war overall. Studying a single battle in isolation typically bears little meaningful insight but an understanding of the finer details of individual battles within operational and strategic context helps illuminate the broader significance. In an excellent precursor to the discussion of Operation ATTLEBORO, the first half of the book offers a concise but thorough summary of the South Vietnamese internal political struggles, the overall regional breakdown, and the escalating American military actions. Velicogna describes the leading players on all sides and provides some insights into their decisions and motivations. Of particular interest is his description of the development of the U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, the dismal state of the ARVN, and General Westmoreland’s assumption that Vietnam would be a long-term war of attrition. Velicogna’s methodical examination of the circumstances leading up to Operation ATTLEBORO presents a broad overview of the situation with some thoughtful insights into its complexity.

Still, the heart of the book is the detailed account of Operation ATTLEBORO, a Corps level 72-day long Allied operation designed to keep the enemy off balance strategically and destroy the 9th Division of the PAVN, a key enemy unit. Whether intentional or by accident, Operation ATTLEBORO and III CTZ served as a proving ground for the large-scale operations that would follow. Seen as a tactical failure and strategically contributing to nothing more than maintaining the ongoing strategic stalemate, Operation ATTLEBORO validated many operational aspects of Allied tactics and leadership. However, the importance of Operation ATTLEBORO is less about the success and failures of the actual operation than it is about the changing character of Allied warfare in Vietnam. Operation ATTLEBORO served as a precursor to how General Westmoreland, Commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), would increase the presence of Allied combat troops, units, and capabilities to fuel an increased offensive operational tempo characterized by the employment of division and corps level operations.

The Vietnam War offers limitless opportunities to learn about strategy, geopolitics, leadership, war, and warfare. Velicogna’s detailed account of Operation ATTLEBORO contributes to that learning by expanding the contextual understanding of the character of warfare waged during the Vietnam War. For such a short book, Velicogna provides an impressively comprehensive overview of the geopolitical events leading up to Operation ATTLEBORO and a highly detailed description of the operation itself. He delivers extensive details related to the operational environment and detailed information about the specific friendly and enemy units and personnel that participated in the battles, including the equipment used. He includes detailed accounts of large friendly and enemy operational movements and individual battles. He describes individual leaders and describes the impactful decisions they made, when they made them, and why. While this level of detail makes the book an excellent choice for historians, it is also likely to appeal to the general public.

LTC Stephen Tribble, USA, is an Assistant Professor at the Joint Forces Staff College.

Into the Iron Triangle: Operation Attleboro and the Battle of North Saigon, 1966 (Arrigo Velicogna, Helion & Company, Warwick, Great Britain, 2021).

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