We Can’t Be Overrun: The Legacy of Khe Sanh

On July 9th, 1968, Viet Cong troops occupied the remnants of a US Marine base that crowned the Khe Sanh plateau in Quang Tri province. After months of trying to overrun the base, communist forces could only capture it after the Americans decided to leave. It was a face-saving move. From January through April, the communists poured in artillery, tanks, and thousands of troops, but American forces fought them off through logistics and firepower delivered principally from the air. Khe Sanh became a moment in American military history where, in real time, the battle for the narrative eclipsed the battle for terrain. We can’t be overrun took on a strategic and tactical meaning at Khe Sanh, and became an important lesson for developing military capabilities decades later.

Khe Sanh would consequently become the largest effort to defend an American outpost in history.

As North Vietnamese forces massed near the base in January 1968, word of the impending siege reached President Johnson and the press. The humiliating French defeat 14 years before at Dien Bien Phu was on everyone’s mind as Khe Sanh became cut off from ground resupply and reinforcement. As Americans watched the Tet Offensive unfold from their living rooms, U.S. military leaders knew a retreat from Khe Sanh would have disastrous implications for the Vietnam and broader Cold War. General Westmoreland, who had the backing of the Pentagon, believed Khe Sanh could and must be defended. We can’t be overrun because the strategic costs, they believed, would be too great. Khe Sanh would consequently become the largest effort to defend an American outpost in history.

The American effort to defend the base became a remarkable (and uncommon) joint operation. Navy SEABEES kept the runway operating, while airlift operations continued day and night, in practically any weather and under constant hostile fire. Marines kept maneuvering and fighting outside the wire, while airmen and soldiers rained bombs and artillery on enemy positions. All four services provided vital close air support, but the most devastating came from the heavy bombers. An advanced radar network called “Skyspot,” enabled B-52s to drop their bombs as close as a kilometer from friendly forces. In early April, a relief force finally reached Khe Sanh, ending a siege that resembled a great battle from a Tolkien novel.

U.S. Aircraft left behind at Khe Sanh, now part of the small museum at the location of the former U.S. Marine base. Photo taken by the author in 2008.

We have since heard the echoes of Khe Sanh many times, perhaps most famously in 2009 when the Taliban attempted to overrun COP Keating, a combat outpost in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. The battle told a familiar tale of troops fighting like hell on the ground, with airpower swooping in to break the enemy’s back.

But if history is any guide to the future, we will once again find ourselves holding ground from a determined enemy attempting to make a strategic point.

Outpost strategies (a.k.a. lily pads, oil spots, or ink blots) are certainly fair game for scrutiny. But if history is any guide to the future, we will once again find ourselves holding ground from a determined enemy attempting to make a strategic point. Time and again our forces had to be the immovable rock upon which the waves of our enemy crashed. Bastogne, Chosin, Khafji, Quang Tri, and Nuristan injected American capability and defiance into the strategic narrative of conflict.

We can count the times enemies tried to overrun U.S. forces, but we can never know how often the U.S. military deterred them from attacking, because “Americans can’t be overrun” was drilled into the enemy’s mind. More importantly, we can’t be overrun became a belief among our ground forces that no matter how bad the fighting became, we always had the capability to give them a chance. These beliefs are rooted in the right mix of airpower capabilities that came to their aid time and again.

Remnants of munitions at the Khe Sanh museum. Photo taken by the author.

The debate over which of those capabilities to invest or divest is once again famously underway. Unfortunately, we continue to frame the debate in either/or terms, and miss the lessons of investing in the right force mixture. Special operations aside, it’s hard to see a scenario where we’d place troops in danger without the benefit of air superiority…but air superiority is worthless if our troops are overrun. Throughout our warfighting history, the ability to make a stand has mattered as much as achieving freedom of action in the air.

We can argue in hindsight Khe Sanh and Keating are situations we should have never found ourselves. We can argue that modern military capabilities increasingly lead to adventurism and strategic blunders. But carrying those arguments out won’t acknowledge we can’t be overrun in Korea…we can’t be overrun in Europe…we can’t be overrun in Baghdad…we can’t be overrun in Kabul…and just as importantly, we can’t let our allies be overrun.

Khe Sanh taught we can’t be overrun as an enduring strategic narrative, a belief, and a guide.

The French troops at Dien Bien Phu were some of the bravest and best-trained in history. In the end, they were overrun because they lacked the right capabilities. It’s easy to point to the bad decisions on the part of the French, but are we any wiser? As we invest in future capabilities, we should never assume our strategic and operational decisions will prevent another siege from playing out. Recent history proves otherwise.

Khe Sanh taught we can’t be overrun as an enduring strategic narrative, a belief, and a guide. The great battle provides an important litmus test for force planning and a lesson that is often obscured by a selective understanding of U.S. military history. That is, what ground we choose to fight for is insignificant in relation to why and how we fight for it.

Jason M. Brown is an officer in the U.S. Air Force and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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