The withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam was seen as one of the most humiliating moments for the country. A huge, capable, and powerful nation with a defense budget even bigger than the entire gross domestic product of other small countries did not manage to defeat the guerrillas of Vietnam. It’s easy to blame the capabilities of the GIs in fighting in the jungles of Vietnam or the ineffectiveness of the tactics and weapons given and implemented. However, one of the biggest factors not known to many was the vast and wide-range list of rules that the soldiers had to follow while fighting for their lives, known as the rules of engagement (ROE.)

Rules of Engagement

When the US decided to enter the Vietnam War to try and stop the spread of communism, it wasn’t as simple as sending the American troops to the country to help fight Viet Cong. Foreign policy, economic interests, national fears, and geopolitical strategies all played major roles upon their entrance.

And so, to protect the civilians and at the same time prevent friendly fire incidents, the rules of engagement were set in place. The intention of the rules was good if you’re going to think about it, but things evolved as time went by, and it became confusing that many of the US soldiers got confused in trying to abide by the rules.

Basically, the ROE dictated when the soldiers could and could not fight the enemy. Different rules are applied to different people and could also change based on your location and then change again after a few days. These rules would often contradict the SOPs taught during military training. This, in turn, would often give the enemy better chances to attack or run away.

Attack Only After Being Attacked

One of the rules given was the troops could only attack after they had been attacked first, regardless if it was obvious that the enemies were planning and preparing to assault them. This gave the enemies plenty of time to strategically position themselves and operate without worrying that the Americans would attack them until they were ready to engage. As a result, and unsurprisingly so, many American troops died.

These rules were established after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin operations, stating that the US vessels could “defend, pursue and destroy attacking vessels up to 11 miles from NVN coast and 4 miles from offshore islands.” At the same time, the American aircraft could “pursue and destroy attacking vessels while operating in airspace up to 3 miles from NVN coast.”

This, however, changed when a hostile aircraft was involved, but there are only very specific criteria on what is considered hostile.

Tay Ninh, South Vietnam: A trooper of the U.S. 1st Cavalry charges between rubber trees during an assault on a Viet Cong bunker complex inside the Michelin rubber plantation, five miles east of Dau Thieng. (Bettmann / Getty Images via warhistoryonline.com)

Don’t Shoot the Rubber Trees!

Perhaps it was an order that you would not expect to receive after being sent to a foreign country to try to help them. Michelin’s rubber tree plantation was one of the locations fought over during the war. Yep, Michelin as in the tire company. In Vietnam, one of the major livelihoods of the people came from rubber. Plantations stretched for miles and miles, and thousands of rubber trees were planted. Workers would collect rubber sap from each of these trees before being sent to the processing plant.

Men of “B” Company, 1st Battalion, 5th (Mechanized) Infantry, 25th Infantry Division set fire to one of the huts used by the Viet Cong as a supply hut during a search and destroy mission in the Michelin Rubber Plantation near Cu Chi. (NARA photo 111-CCV-609-CC34255 by SFC James K. F. Dung, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This became a major headache and annoyance for the US troops because they could not call in artillery on enemies inside these plantations. Artillery happened to be useful for the GIs in neutralizing Viet Cong without compromising their safety. However, the Michelin company decided to continue manufacturing tires throughout the war, as it made large sums of money. The trees were not allowed to be damaged in the skirmishes as any form of harm done to the trees would be repaid by the US government to Michelin. The artillery would obviously damage the trees. The North Vietnamese soon figured out the restrictions of the soldiers, so they started setting up on the plantation, knowing that the American soldiers could not use their artillery in the area. The US forces had no choice but to clear these positions by hand while being careful to not shoot any of the trees with their rifles.

Perhaps one of the lessons that this ROE taught us was that money talks, even (or perhaps, especially) in times of war.

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