The inspiration to write this came from a picture that appeared on my newsfeed on Facebook and comments under said picture.
This sums up my thought on gun ownership quite nicely. Despite claims that gun ownership (especially semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15) is necessary to protect citizens from government-imposed tyranny (claims that are becoming increasingly common among conservative politicians and the National Rifle Association), the unfortunate fact is that the weapons wielded by the potentially-tyrannical government are far more powerful. What this means is that the citizenry which is armed with semi-automatic rifles stands absolutely no chance against a professional military force armed with tanks, attack helicopters, fighter jets, and a myriad of other pieces of high-tech weaponry.
However, many of the comments that I have read on social media attempt to debunk the claim of the above picture. Here are some examples of those comments.
“And that’s exactly why the Vietnam war, the Soviet-Afghan War. the US-Afghan war and the Syrian civil war all lasted less than three wee… oh, wait a minute…”
“Can someone please explain that to the Taliban? I spent a couple years trying to do so myself, and they just don’t seem to get it.”
About a week after seeing that picture, another one appeared on my newsfeed.
The basic gist of these comment and opinions is as such. Contrary to my claim and the claims of others, a civilian population armed with nothing but rifles can fight and defeat the world’s most powerful military, and the Vietnam War is proof of this. However, I’m am now going to debunk this debunk by explaining a very large misconception and a very inconvenient truth.
VERY LARGE MISCONCEPTION – The Vietnamese were just rice farmers who were armed with rifles.
Like many misconceptions, there is actually a large element of truth to this. Indeed, farmers made up a large percentage of Việt Cộng forces. According to former CIA station chief William E. Colby in 1970
“… [the Việt Cộng] organized the farmers into farmers’ groups, womens’ organizations and youth groups and began to recruit and train and establish bases for guerrilla groups.”
A December 1967 report from RAND Corporation also stated that
“Given the chronic land hunger in many rural areas, for example, the young peasant responds readily to the promise of more equitable land distribution, and the fact that the Viet Minh [Vietnamese nationalist forces who successfully fought the French during the First Indochina War of 1946 – 1954] is widely credited with instances of successful land reform tends to strengthen people’s faith in the Viet Cong’s promise.”
Not only were Việt Cộng fighters mostly drawn from Vietnam’s largely uneducated peasantry, but their equipment was also somewhat antique compared to that being weilded by the United States and her allies. According to a CIA report from November 1968
“Before 1965, weapons of Free World origin accounted for almost 60 percent of those captured in South Vietnam. Most of these were older French models, holdovers from the French-Indochina War, as well as captured US equipment.”
Despite the fact that the Việt Cộng largely consisted of peasants armed with out-of-date equipment, they managed to spend nearly 20 years successfully fighting, and eventually defeating, the most powerful military force on earth, that of The United States of America.
Or did they?
This is where the very large misconception comes into play. While the poorly-trained and poorly-equipped Việt Cộng fighters did fight the Americans with some success, it was in fact the People’s Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese army), i.e. a nation’s standing army, who did the most amount of damage to America’s military might.
To begin with, that same CIA report that described the Việt Cộng’s out-of-date equipment goes on to state that
“Communist regular forces in North and South Vietnam are now equipped primarily with modern infantry weapons. Almost all of the weapons observed in South Vietnam since 1965 that originated in Communist countries have been of post-Korean War vintage.”
The list of weapons that were supplied to the People’s Army of Vietnam include 12.7mm and 14.5mm heavy anti-aircraft machineguns, 85mm antitank field guns, and 152mm howitzers, all supplied by the Soviet Union, China, and other communist states. But the list of heavy weaponry doesn’t end there. During the war, the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) was primarily equipped with the Soviet-designed Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 and MiG-21. Coming into service with the Soviet Union in 1959, the MiG-21 was not only one of the most advanced Soviet fighter jets of the era, but it was more than a match for the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, arguably the United States’ best fighter jet during the Vietnam War. As a testament to the NVAF’s success with the MiG-17 and MiG-21, only five American pilots and weapon system officers became aces (meaning five or more enemy kills), while sixteen NVAF pilots achieved this status.
The North Vietnamese military’s ability to inflict serious losses upon United States aircraft didn’t end there. An even more deadly threat to American airpower was the S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile system, the equipment and training being supplied by the Soviet Union.
Prior to the start of major hostilities in Vietnam, the S-75 had been responsible for shooting down American spy planes that had been flying at the edge of space both over the Soviet Union (Francis Gary Powers in 1960) and Cuba (Major Rudolph Anderson during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962). During the Vietnam War, S-75 missiles were responsible for downing between 68 and 105 fighter jets and 15 B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers. Though these numbers might not seem that high, it should be noted that the mere presence of these state-of-the-art weapons forced American pilots to change their tactics. This involved flying closer to the ground where the S-75’s radar was ineffective, meaning that over 1,000 American aircraft were then brought down by conventional anti-aircraft guns.
Contrary to popular belief, the United States did not loose the war to a rag-tag group of peasant fighters armed only with rifles and other light weapons. Rather, the U.S. military was dealt a heavy blow by a nation-state’s standing, regular military (the People’s Army of Vietnam) which was equipped with some of the most sophisticated and advanced weaponry that the communist bloc had produced at the time.
Now, I should add that the point of this blog post is not to make light of the Việt Cộng’s fighting efforts. Though they lacked the advanced weaponry of their comrades in the Vietnamese People’s Army, they were still able to hold their own against the forces of the United States, South Vietnam, and their foreign allies. Perhaps the best example of this is the Tet Offensive of 1968. Despite losing 40,000 fighters over the month-long and tactically unsuccessful offensive, the Việt Cộng’s actions (which were broadcast on television all around the world) caused the American people to begin doubting their government’ ability to win the war and question whether it was indeed a war worth fighting. However, the Việt Cộng’s fighting ability brings me to my next and final point as to why the Vietnam War is not proof that a heavily armed American public can defend itself from tyranny.
VERY INCONVENIENT TRUTH – People from rich countries are not as tough as people from poor countries.
What many people fail to understand is that being able to fight in a war isn’t just about having access to weaponry that can be used to shoot and kill one’s enemies. This is the reason why boot camp is such an intense experience for recruits; the whole process is designed to take civilians (usually around 18 years of age) and physically and mentally prepare them for war. U.S. Marine Corps solider and Iraq veteran Jon Davis explains this as such.
“There will always be the need for young men and women who are willing and able to run to the sound of imminent danger and many, to their death… To do this, however, we need a form of psychological training that is able to forge individuals who can do this. That is why boot camp has evolved to become such a potent tool in today’s military machine.”
In the context of the Vietnam War, it is important to understand that the Vietnamese fighters weren’t just equipped with the tools of war, they had a physical and mental toughness that took the American forces completely by surprise. Preferring not to confront American forces directly, the Việt Cộng would engage in sporadic ambushes and use the jungle to hide from the enemy. They would also use unconventional tactics such as placing booby traps and land mines. On the open plains and closer to Vietnam’s cities, the Việt Cộng built large networks of tunnels to provide their own method of concealment where they could not use the jungle. The biggest of these was in the Chu Chi district close to Saigon. The network of tunnels at Chu Chi ran for 120kms and each civilian in these areas was required to dig three feet of tunnel per day.
The relentlessness of the Vietnamese people was also proven when they did engage American forces. One example of this comes from former U.S. Army Colonel David Hackworth who served in Vietnam. When recalling his encounters with the Việt Cộng, he explains,
“[the Việt Cộng] were hidden in the jungle that was alongside the waterways, which tended to be very thick and well booby-trapped out in front. They were hidden by the people. They hid in the waterways — they would get underwater and take a reed and put it above the water and breathe through that, then surround themselves with a bit of floating Nipa grass. They would dig in caves under the waterways, and then put a bit of reed up to the top and breathe through that. They were very, very cunning fighters.
“If we saw a bit of Nipa floating down a waterway, a bit of jungle debris, we fired at it and invariably, it would turn red. That meant that below was a Vietcong hanging on to the roots of the debris with a reed going up to get air, and we’d killed one enemy.
“They were simply the most skillful, the most dedicated, the best opponent I’ve struck in almost fifty years of being around soldiers; they’re the best.”
Not only did the Việt Cộng go through intense physical hardships to fight their enemies, but they were able to do so even when they were under-supplied and malnourished. Vo Minh Triet was a commander in the 1st Việt Cộng Regiment. He recalls one particular battle in 1967 when his unit of 1,200 men were looking for food in the countryside. While searching in one particular area, their network of scouts alerted them to an American patrol which the Việt Cộng successfully fought off. Once the battle was over, the Việt Cộng realised that they had successfully repelled an American force that was much larger than they were. This was despite the fact that the unit had gone several days without food.
It’s also important to understand that the toughness of the Vietnamese people largely stems from the fact that they have a very long history of fighting foreign invaders. Before the Vietnam War, they fought the French during the First Indochina War, the Japanese during their occupation of Vietnam in the Second World War (and much of that during a famine), the French during their conquest of Indochina, and the Chinese for over 1,000 years before that. By the time American troops were deployed to Vietnam, the Vietnamese people were very accustomed to war and its hardships. This is in stark contrast to the present-day United States.
To understand the huge difference between the Vietnamese and American peoples, one only has to look at the United States’ obesity epidemic. In October 2017, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that 40% of American adults were obese. Coupled with this is the fact that the obesity rate is 20% in adolescents and 10% in preschoolers. Now, keep in mind that these are the statistics just for obesity. In terms of generally being overweight, the total figure is an alarming 70.7%. This means that non-overweight people are the minority in the United States. Why is this the case? According to experts, the rise in the percentage of obese people is directly related to the lifestyles that Westerners live. According to Dr Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health,
“There’s still a huge amount of cheap, accessible, highly processed food available everywhere almost anytime… despite people doing more recreational activity these days, the overall activity level, household activity and occupational activity has decreased in recent years.”
Though most people do realise that being obese is inherently unhealthy, the sale of junk food continues to rise in concordance with the percentage of the population with obesity. However, as Dr Hu points out, it’s not just unhealthy eating which is causing the obesity epidemic.
Lack of physical activity also has repercussions on the population’s health and fitness. As the consumption of junk food over the years has increased, the level of physical activity has decreased. According to PublicHealth.org, 20% of jobs today require “at least moderate physical activity”. In 1960, this figure was 50%. To add to this, in 2013 the CDC stated that 80% of American adults were not getting enough exercise. The general decline in the American public’s fitness can also be seen in the fact that in December 2017, the U.S. Navy lowered its physical fitness requirements in order to allow more sailors in.
How does this relate to American civilians not being able to use their guns to fight against government tyranny? Among a myriad of other physical impairments, the CDC states that “body pain and difficulty with physical functioning” is a consequence of obesity. When you go back and read accounts of the hardships that Việt Cộng fighters willingly put themselves through, you then realise that this would literally be impossible if 40% of them were obese and 70% of them were generally overweight. “Body pain and difficulty with physical functioning” is the exact opposite of what is required when fighting in war, guerrilla or otherwise. The simple fact is that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and greater consumption of junk food means that hardly anybody living in the United States (or many other Western countries for that matter) is in a physical state to wage a resistance war akin to that fought by the Việt Cộng.
The idea that an American population armed to the teeth with AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons can violently and successfully defend themselves against a tyrannical regime is a very glamorous and romantic one. So too is the idea that the actions of peasant guerrillas during the Vietnam War are proof of this. However, this idea overlooks the the fact that the People’s Army of Vietnam was actually equipped with not just rifles, but some of the most advanced technology that the Soviet Union had developed at the time (technology not possessed by American civilians). It also overlooks the fact that the ‘peasant rice farmers’ that pro-gun activists look to as proof of their argument were much tougher and thus much more capable of waging guerrilla warfare than the overwhelming majority of American civilians. With all this in mind, my views on semi-automatic weapons can be summed up as such. These weapons, coupled with the average physicality of their owners, are not capable of fighting off the U.S. military in an armed uprising. For this purpose, they are completely useless. Meanwhile, what these weapons are being used for is killing schoolchildren, church attendees, and concert-goers en masse. Therefore, the question must be asked – is it really worth having these weapons owned by civilians?