All the Shah’s Men: The Imperial Iranian Brigade Group in the Dhofar War

The King’s College Research Centre for the History of Conflict will be hosting a symposium, ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War: Operations and Legacies’, at the JSCSC in the Tedder Lecture Theatre on 13th July 2016. All staff and students are warmly invited to attend.


In the autumn of 1972 Shah Reza Pahlavi, the Emperor of Iran, send 150 special forces soldiers from his armed forces (the Artesh) to Oman, commencing an intervention that culminated in the deployment of a brigade group to assist the British-led Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) in their counterinsurgency campaign in Dhofar against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). At least 15,000 Iranian soldiers, sailors and airmen were deployed to Oman between 1972 and 1979, with over 700 being reportedly killed in combat. Few historians have written about the Imperial Iranian Brigade Group (IIBG) and its interaction with the British-trained SAF, and this subject will be addressed in a paper that I will present to the symposium on ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War’ convened by the Research Centre for the History of Conflict on 13th July 2016.

At a time when the UK and other Western powers favour a ‘light footprint’ in military interventions, the prospects are that British military trainers and advisors will be working with allies like the Artesh – with armed forces with little if any record of alliance interaction with the UK, and with specific weaknesses such as those originating from the coup-proofing of militaries by regimes. In Dhofar, the Iranians could provide the mass and manpower that the British – with their NATO commitments and the worsening crisis in Northern Ireland – could not deploy. They played an important role in winning the war against the PFLO, although the partnership between them, the Omanis and their British allies was not trouble-free.

In the late 1960s-early 1970s the Shah oversaw a massive expansion of Iran’s military might, his intention being to make his realm a regional superpower, filling the power vacuum left in the Persian Gulf by Britain’s ‘East of Suez’ withdrawals between 1968 and 1971. Reza Pahlavi also saw himself as a bulwark against revolution in the region, and was as determined as the governments of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson to save Sultan Qaboos bin Said from being overthrown by the Marxist-Leninist PFLO.

On paper, the Artesh was a powerful force, lavishly equipped as a result of US and (to a lesser extent) British military aid. However, Iran’s military expansion was constrained by several factors. The Shah’s armed forces had an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure, officers were appointed and promoted on the basis of loyalty to the imperial regime rather than professional competence, and the military and defence ministry was hampered by a shortage of key personnel – senior NCOs, trained staff officers, and also civil servants specialising in procurement.

There were also specific factors which made the Iranians awkward partners in Dhofar. Arab-Persian animosities, and the Shah’s territorial claims in the Gulf, meant that the IIBG’s presence was politically controversial as far as regional opinion was concerned. Traditional Anglophobia – deriving from Britain’s legacy of imperial meddling in Iran’s affairs – meant that British officers seconded to serve with the SAF faced the suspicion and mistrust of their Artesh allies.

Initially, the Iranians were also of questionable quality. The Shah’s special forces contingent attracted the ridicule of their counterparts from the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS), who had been deployed to Dhofar to organise the firqat forces (tribal militias). In December 1973 Iran sent a battalion of paratroopers to open up the Midway Road that linked Dhofar with the rest of the Sultanate; the road was quickly secured, but as the Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (CSAF), Major-General Timothy Creasey, observed, the Iranian airborne soldiers were trigger-happy and quick to open fire on Dhofari nomads and their herds. While the Iranian Chief of the Army, General Golam Reza Azhari, wanted to confine his forces to Eastern Dhofar, Creasey feared that Iranian troops would antagonise Dhofari civilians with their heavy-handedness, and wanted the IIBG to be deployed in the less-populated West of the province, where the PFLO had its strongest presence. The CSAF was able to persuade Qaboos (and through him the Shah) that the Artesh should fight in the West, which meant that between December 1974 and December 1975 the IIBG became involved in a series of offensives that eventually swept the insurgents out of Dhofar.

The Iranians had a steep learning curve to climb. Their initial performance in combat showed that their soldiers often lacked basic infantry skills. They did not patrol, they did not site their defensive positions with interlocking fields of fire (a challenge in its own right because of the tough terrain) they were unable to fire and manoeuvre in battle, and under fire their troops tended to bunch, rather than disperse. However, their commitment to operations in the West played to their favour. The Artesh had been trained by its US advisors to fight ‘conventional warfare’, and the last year of the war against the PFLO was very much a ‘conventional’ fight. The final offensive in October-December 1975 (Operation Hadaf) involved two brigades of Iranian and Oman forces fighting pitched battles against the insurgents, and required artillery, naval gunfire support and rotary wing manoeuvre to work.

Creasey’s successor as CSAF, Major-General Ken Perkins, noted in December 1976 that ‘without Iranian assistance we would not have won the war’. The IIBG were awkward partners. British liaison officers found it difficult to get even basic information from their allies (such as the location of friendly units), and often felt that they got the blame for Iranian mistakes and incompetence. But the Artesh’s contribution demonstrated the adage, attributed to Josif Stalin, that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’. The IIBG augmented an overstretched SAF, its helicopters supplemented the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (which was constantly short of both machines and RAF-seconded pilots), its naval task force helped blockade the PFLO, and both the air base built at Manston (now Thumrait) and the air defence units Iran sent to Dhofar provided both a deterrent – and a potential counter – to any overt intervention by the insurgency’s sponsor, South Yemen.

However, thanks to the Islamic Revolution Iran’s intervention in Oman was to become a forgotten war. After the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979 the officer corps of the Artesh was purged and the Islamic Republic withdrew the limited contingent left in Oman after the PFLO’s defeat. Reportedly some Dhofar veterans saw action in the war against Iraq (1980-1988), but their actual contribution to that particular war, and their effect on operations, is difficult to determine.

Nonetheless, the IIBG’s involvement in combat operations in Dhofar remains worthy of attention, not least because of the parallels between the conflict against the PFLO, and the involvement of Coalition advisors, special forces and air power assisting the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga against Daesh. Furthermore, and in spite its own pronouncements on non-intervention, the Islamic Republic has sent its Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors to bolster both the Iraqi government and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In this respect, the mullahs in Tehran are following in the Shah’s footsteps, using Iran’s military muscle both to protect clients, and to bolster the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and prestige.

I would like to thank Ian Buttenshaw, Ian Gordon and Mike Lobb for their sharing their knowledge and insights on Dhofar, and the Iranian role in that conflict.

Featured image: Iranian troops prepare to deploy on Operation Nader, Christmas 1974. Photograph provided courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WKhM.


Palestine 1945-48: the Information Campaign and the Limits of Influence


In the past information, influence or non-kinetic psychological aspects of conflict had a supporting function to the physical, kinetic aspects; today it is seen as central. Militaries have done ‘influence’ for years, but there is a dominant view that in the current information environment all actions, deeds and words are scrutinised in a way that was not the case in previous epochs. Tactical level incidents have the potential to create negative strategic effects, vulnerabilities which adversaries exploit. The information environment is a significant shaper of the conflict space, acting as a force enabler or multiplier. As contemporary adversaries seem to understand, information can be an effective tool in the hands of the weak, even acting as a force equaliser, as a principal means of affecting the strategic centre of gravity: the will to fight.

The inherent political and psychological nature of fighting and countering insurgency means that information and strategic communications aspects are critical. Bard O’Neill argues insurgency is a political legitimacy crisis, ‘a struggle between non-ruling group and ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources … and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics’. The identification and remedy of the sources of insurgent discontent and persuading the people that they would gain more by supporting the ruling authorities than they could obtain from the insurgents becomes pivotal to achieving success. The information campaign therefore becomes central to countering insurgency. None of this is new. My examination of how the British government used an information campaign to support its counter-insurgency efforts and to reach a solution to the problem of Palestine can offer insights that may be relevant today.

Palestine 1945-48

Historical examples and analogies should always be used with care, yet this case study offers insights into the challenges of conducting a strategic information campaign to support both a political process and counter-insurgency in the context of an international struggle for legitimacy that was on the front page of newspapers during this period.

Britain had been granted the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922 which allowed Britain to fulfil her strategic aims of access to the Suez Canal, the creation of a land bridge from the Mediterranean to Iraqi oilfields and to prevent French ambitions drifting south from their position in Syria and Lebanon. Britain was responsible for creating ‘such political, administrative, and economic condition as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home … and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion’. As Mandatory power in inter-war Palestine, Britain strove to accomplish institution building and attempted to square the circle between two communities who each believed Palestine belonged to them. Britain was accused of being pro-Arab and pro-Jew simultaneously and faced growing inter-communal violence, which culminated in the Arab Revolt (1936-9) against Jewish immigration and land purchases. By the end of the Second World War the Palestine Mandate had become costly politically, militarily and economically. In the 1944 US election both Republican and Democratic candidates supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The impact of the Holocaust and the refugee situation in Europe also gained the support of international opinion for a Jewish state. Within Palestine, British security forces had to deal with an increasingly perilous situation: a Jewish uprising against the British and widespread inter-communal violence.

In Palestine the competing strategic narratives pitted the victims of the Holocaust who had no alternative than to take up an insurgency against the country that stood in the path of saving the remnant of European Jewry, versus a Britain which was doing its best to achieve a political settlement in the interests of all the inhabitants of Palestine and in accordance with its international responsibilities.

Between 1945 and 1948 the British government tried to implement a long-term policy over Palestine which would preserve British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, while influencing day-to-day decisions over the future of the Mandate. The government favoured an agreed solution to create an independent Palestine as a unitary state, which would guarantee British military facilities and maintain Arab goodwill, on which Britain’s general position in the Middle East was predicated. But there was no clear plan. Instead there were broad policy assumptions – that any settlement leading to independence had to be agreed, and agreed not just between Britain and the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine, but also a settlement that would be supported by the United States and states in the Middle East.

Domestic and International Opinion

Domestic opinion in Britain had to be convinced not to oppose the government’s efforts to reach a solution and that the sacrifices were worth it, but the main target audiences of British information efforts were abroad. British policy in Palestine had to reconcile the differing objectives and opinions of three constituencies: Arab, Jewish and American. Optimally, the information campaign sought to persuade each constituency to consider compromise rather than rigidly holding to its goals. Failing that, it tried to maintain Anglo-Arab and Anglo-American friendship by a damage limitation exercise. The prosecution of counter-insurgency on the ground therefore involved the security forces trying to hold the ring until a political settlement could be achieved.

The Political aim

Most counter-insurgency doctrine stresses the primacy of the political aim. In Palestine the British had a clear political aim: a settlement that was compatible with wider British strategic interests, the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, and Britain’s position in the Middle East. This was not a clear political aim in narrative terms that could be articulated in a way that could have undermined the insurgency. Britain consistently presented herself as the ‘neutral’ arbiter and honest broker in dealing with this unwanted international responsibility. In reality Britain pursued its own national self-interest. It was not just having a clear political aim, but having one that was credible, that could be translated into a meaningful outcome and set of activities on the ground.

The government was conscious of the ingredients of a successful information campaign and attempted to conduct one, albeit with mixed results. Officials correctly understood both the insurgents’ aims and how they would exploit British vulnerabilities. British persuasion efforts urged the merits of compromise – that Palestine alone was not the answer to the problem of Jewish Displaced Persons, that Britain had responsibilities to two communities in Palestine, not just one, and that there should be a peaceful settlement of the issue rather than terrorist violence or criminal illegal immigration.

The problem was of the policy, not the information campaign. The tempo of the events on the ground was greater than the British ability to deal with them in a way that would ensure the British version of events dominated in the perceptions of what was occurring. Thus the British information effort was often on the defensive, reacting to events rather than proactively controlling how they would be received.

In terms of the battle for the dominant strategic narrative, Zionist ‘legitimacy’ beat the British honest broker. The insurgents made any British attempt to hold on to Palestine morally and economically unacceptable and it was impossible for the British to look good in the process.

Target audiences and agendas

Countering insurgency requires an end state that can be clearly articulated to all audiences and that can also be translated into a campaign on the ground. As Palestine shows us, this is made almost impossible if both or all the protagonists are of equal importance and have what are in effect zero-sum aims.

In Palestine the British identified key target audiences correctly. The regional audience was crucial. It was believed that British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East depended on the maintenance of Arab goodwill and the compatibility of British and Arab interests, particularly in the context of growing Arab nationalism across the region.

The Jewish audience in Palestine represented a population of nearly 600,000 and the active membership of insurgent underground organisations was approximately 45,000 in the Haganah, 1500 in the Irgun, and 300 in the Lehi. These numbers belie the real challenge that faced Britain. While the British information campaign sought to marginalise the insurgent extremists and build an alternative moderate majority, in practice for most of this period the distinction did not exist. This is not to say that all Jews supported the terror campaign, and indeed at times it was seen as counter-productive by the Jewish Agency. However, the British never really understood the nature of political Zionism and the general support for illegal immigration, the one thing that united the Jewish community. Again, the audience was correctly identified, but its agenda was misunderstood.

British public opinion was a less critical audience and no British election would ever be decided in the merits of the Government’s handling of Palestine. Where British press, public and parliamentary opinion did play an important role was as pressure on Britain to withdraw from Palestine because expectations raised by the information campaign were not met and the sacrifices made were questioned.

Again it was correctly identified that the US was the most important audience because it was the power broker with the power to either help or hinder Zionist aims. Britain tried to persuade the US to use its influence to get the Zionists to compromise. But Britain was vulnerable to American policy as she was dependent upon American economic aid.

Maintaining Legitimacy

If an insurgency is primarily a battle for legitimacy, an information campaign can only work if the legitimacy of the counter-insurgents can be successfully demonstrated and defended. This is why tactical mistakes such as acting outside the law or civilian casualties are own goals and a free gift to the insurgent’s information campaign, reinforcing perceptions of illegitimacy. Today it is recognised that a counter-terrorist strategy needs to be holistic, addressing both the causes and the symptoms of terrorism. But how do you address very real grievances without ‘delegitimising’ your own counter-insurgency strategy? In Palestine, denying Jews a state was not perceived to be internationally legitimate.


Information campaigns, influence and narratives are not new areas of activity. But they are difficult areas and even more challenging today because of the proliferation and immediacy of the media, sources of information and opinion. The limits of the information and strategic narratives need to be understood. A strategic narrative is not a substitute for policy. It will not succeed unless it is credible and supported by action and political will. While strong enough to withstand a temporary setback, it is not a panacea or an alternative to a strategy which is ill-conceived.

The target audiences for the counter-insurgent’s information efforts need to be thought through carefully, identifying whose perceptions count in the battle for legitimacy and who can materially affect the success or failure of the insurgency. An information campaign needs to be coherent, ideally a simple and credible ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ based on facts that can be transmitted and reinforced to all target audiences. It should support the wider political process, which in turn should reinforce the government’s credibility and reputation as the legal government, while the campaign should also undermine the insurgents by representing them as a criminal minority. Moreover, the campaign should persuade the wider international community that the state’s political aims are legitimate; its methods are both legal and moral; and that it is intent on promoting a political settlement that addresses the expectations of the moderate majority. This is the ideal, but information alone cannot deliver success. As the case study of Palestine shows, it is also easier said than done.

For more detail see the author’s, ‘Palestine 1945-48: Policy, Propaganda and the Limits of Influence’, in Greg Kennedy & Chris Tuck, British Propaganda and Wars of Empire: Influencing Friend and Foe 1900-2010 (Ashgate, 2014), pp.71-95

Image: British paratroopers enforce curfew in Tel Aviv following the King David Hotel bombing, July 1946 via wikimedia commons.



As Dr Huw Davies suggested in this post, how successfully the British armed forces incorporate their recent experience of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq into doctrine and planning is likely to shape future perceptions of those campaigns. The fight against the Taliban has not ended, even for the West, because some advisory work by core NATO partners is ongoing. However, the main point is that the Afghans have taken ownership of the counter-insurgency effort, and there is some optimism for the future. But victory will not come quickly or cheaply.

The issue of how host nations build up capacity and continue the fight after the withdrawal of intervening international forces is an area which merits far greater study, and is the subject of my current research. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of books focusing the inherent obstacles in counter-insurgency. While it is preferable for scholars and practitioners to be honest about the challenges, there has been an unhealthy appetite for books such as Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale, 2011). But, worse, is the fact that the reading of such works has been superficial and selective. Several dangerous orthodoxies have arisen as a result: that there is no such thing as outright victory in counter-insurgency; ‘hearts and minds’ is just about soft power; and that if the population is the ‘prize’ in counter-insurgency, kinetic effect has no place in a COIN campaign. The latter point is a view which gained traction in both the US and the UK after the publication in 2007 of the US Army and Marine Corps’ capstone counter-insurgency manual, FM3-24, which was championed by General David Petraeus. Its primary focus on a ‘population centric’ model seemed to be vindicated by the success of the US engagement strategy in Iraq (for which the British Army’s Lt Gen Graeme Lamb should receive greater acknowledgement because of his input). The difficulty which has arisen is that a false dichotomy has been drawn between ‘population centric’ and ‘enemy centric’ strategies, and the use of kinetics is portrayed by many as unsophisticated and destined to cause campaign failure. Not helping is the odd statement from senior military levels, such as General Sir David Richard’s proclamation back in 2008 at a IISS conference in Geneva: ‘in wars among the people, if you are using a lot of firepower, you are almost certainly losing’.

With the current discourse now running perilously close to arguing that any type of kinetic use in counter-insurgency warfare is not merely counter-productive but unwarranted, it is worth making a number of quick observations about the role of kinetics in COIN. The main point, though, is that it depends upon the nature of the conflict that you are waging; a high proportion of kinetics may be required. This is, in fact, acknowledged in FM 3-24: ‘Sometimes lethal responses are counter-productive. At other times, they are essential’ (FM 3-24, 7-24). Several successful counter-insurgency campaigns can be classed as ‘enemy centric’, simply because the insurgents wielded a level of military capability which had to be dealt with by military means (the Greek Civil War, second and third rounds, 1944-45 and 1946-49; Oman, 1957-59; Angola, 1975-2002; Mozambique, 1976-1995; Turkey, 1984-1999). However, even in ‘enemy centric’ scenarios, there will be ‘hearts and minds’ elements. For example, during the ‘second round’ of the Greek Civil War, while air power, tanks, artillery and naval gunfire support were used against Communist insurgent strongholds in Athens, British paratroopers were feeding the local population. In other words, coercion and influence were being achieved through both soft and hard power. A second observation is that almost all COIN campaigns begin with a kinetic-heavy approach. This is because of an almost inevitable lack of intelligence at the start of a campaign; intelligence support to a specific campaign takes time to develop, and initial targeting may not be as precise or proportionate as military commanders may desire. But it is also worth noting that successful COIN campaigns are often those that kill or capture hardline insurgents early on, before the insurgency has had time to gain ground. If an insurgency is allowed to survive beyond a certain point, it will often develop capabilities which are indistinguishable from conventional forces and may even morph into a regular fighting force (the Viet Minh in Indochina and the Greek Democratic Army are good examples of this). Finally, while it is usual for the use of kinetic force to diminish as a COIN campaign progresses, there will always be spikes of insurgent violence which need to be answered with some level of kinetic force. Ironically, heightened insurgent violence is often a sign that a counter-insurgency force is winning, because insurgents will want to make the point that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Even when insurgencies feel that they are in the ascendant, the employment of violent ‘spectaculars’ is common in the lead up to negotiated settlements as insurgents try to gain extra leverage.

Of 71 recognised counter-insurgency cases since the end of the Second World War, half were successful, and of those, about one-third could be classed as ‘enemy centric’. It is also worth noting that of those ‘enemy centric’ COIN examples, most of them resulted in long-term peace and stability. Furthermore, several involved the host nation taking responsibility for a COIN effort before intervening Western forces departed. One of the host nation victories to have had little exposure is the Greek Civil War (1946-49). The orthodoxy among most Anglo-American historians is that the only reason the Greek armed forces were successful against a Communist insurgency was purely because of training and material assistance provided by the US and Britain. While it is true that financial and material aid under the Marshall Plan proved vital to defeating the Communist insurgency, the Greek armed forces learned while fighting and ultimately developed an indigenous strategy for victory. Indeed, on many occasions, advice provided by the Americans and British was politely disregarded because it bore little relation to Greek realities.

Between 1943 and 1949, Greek Communists made three attempts to take power, and what is generally referred to as the ‘Greek Civil War’ comprised the third round between 1946-1949. The first and second bids were prevented mainly because of British intervention, but the third round was characterised by the steady development of the host nation’s capability. After the Second World War, most of the Greek forces had to be rebuilt. The greatest obstacle facing the Greek National Army (GNA) initially was a chronic lack of manpower. By mid-1947, the GNA had 115,000 personnel, but these were spread very thinly throughout Greece. As a consequence, it had difficulty exploiting battles and holding territory gained.

In the meantime, the Communist insurgency was morphing into a regular army (DSE) after its senior leadership concluded that guerrilla tactics were not working. However, the Communists’ desire to create a regular army sowed the seeds of their ultimate downfall. A regular army called for a large support infrastructure and logistics footprint, and although manpower was always a significant constraint on the GNA’s ability to operate, recruitment was a far more serious problem for the DSE. Even at its height in April 1948, the DSE’s strength was no more than 26,000. Voluntary recruitment gave way to forcible recruitment. Women and children were not spared from frontline duty, and this proved to be a public relations disaster for the Communists. So, while the Communists benefitted from sympathetic northern neighbours (Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria), through which a steady stream of Soviet weaponry flowed, they were never able to replace the losses they increasingly sustained.

By 1948, the government’s forces totalled 168,000 personnel, with equipment supplied by Britain and the United States. The tide had turned, both militarily and economically, for the Greek state, but it is important to acknowledge that success against the DSE from 1948 onwards was also due to the GNA’s own conceptual work. Prior to this point, planning and execution of operations largely reflected Anglo-American doctrine, with a focus on traditional schemes of manoeuvre. From the beginning of 1948, the GNA started to apply what would be recognised today as a ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy throughout the country, starting in the south of Greece. The first step involved dismantling the Communist ‘eyes and ears’, followed by the destruction or capture of Communist forces. The final function included robust policing, to prevent the regrowth of Communist infrastructure, and the re-education of DSE prisoners and their eventual reintroduction to Greek society. This strategy was underpinned by Marshall aid totalling $273.2 million during the last year of the conflict, but the strategy itself was indigenous in conception.

British and American training missions remained in Greece for several years after the recognised end of the Civil War as an added insurance policy, but the Communists concluded that they could not match a reformed and re-energised Greek Army. The Greek government had taken ownership of the anti-Communist effort, and succeeded in the long-term.

For a full discussion of the counter-insurgency campaign in Greece, see Goulter, C. ‘The Greek Civil War: a National Army’s Counter-Insurgency Triumph’, Journal of Military History, Vol 78, July 2014, pp. 1017-1055. Moncado prize winner, 2015.

See also: Goulter, C. ‘Irregular Warfare: the Regular in the Irregular’, in A Century of Military Aviation, 1914-2014 (Air Power Development Centre, Canberra, 2014), pp.129-154.

Image: ELAS Guerrillas in the Greek countryside during the Second World War, via wikimedia commons.

Film Portrayals of Counterinsurgency and Nation-building in Vietnam


In a recent article in a special issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, we considered the contribution Hollywood has made to our understanding of counterinsurgency and nation-building during the Vietnam War.

The war has been the subject of so many blockbuster films that it is inevitable that they play a leading role in shaping perceptions of the conflict. Students who have never lifted up a copy of classic Vietnam books such as Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An or Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie can be sure to have sat through Platoon or Apocalypse Now. But are these films educational as well as entertaining?

In considering this question, we split films on the Vietnam War into three broad chronological categories. The first are those dealing with the earliest period of US involvement, when the focus was on CIA-led ‘political action’. The second is the advisory period, when US forces began to be deployed to advise and support the South Vietnamese military. Finally, we looked at films that deal with the full ferocity of the Americanized war of post-1965. Put another way, the films we looked at have three main groups of protagonists – spies, advisors, and grunts.

The first set of films deal with ‘CIA covert action’ and their attempt to carry out ‘democratic nation building’ – a pair of phrases that it appears odd to have in the same sentence.  Apart from the seemingly obvious contradiction of an outside power engineering a democracy by employing underhand means, the example of Vietnam provides a useful illustration of the limits of covert action and the corruption of idealism.


The New York Times Vietnam correspondent Neil Sheehan referred to South Vietnam as ‘the creation’ of Edward Lansdale, a US Air Force officer detailed to the CIA, who was instrumental in supporting the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem at a time when his hold on power was tenuous.  Although not based on Lansdale’s experience, the British author and ex-intelligence officer Graham Greene created a similar, albeit fictional, CIA operative working in Vietnam, named Alden Pyle, in his classic book The Quiet American.

Pyle is an idealist who arrives in Vietnam in the early 1950s whilst it is still under French control, and amidst the struggle with the Vietnamese communists.  His goal, inspired by a political theorist called York Harding, is to build up an anti-communist ‘Third Force’ consisting of Vietnamese nationalists that are opposed to both the communists and the French.  The 2002 film The Quiet American, based on Greene’s novel, demonstrates how this goes wrong. Though an idealist, Pyle employs sinister methods to promote his cause, methods that ultimately backfire. He promotes the Vietnamese nationalist General Thé by providing his forces lethal aid and arranging publicity stunts to boost his popularity.  In effect, Thé is a stage-managed puppet, and though he may be a nationalist, he is a brutal warlord rather than a democrat.

In attempting to justify his support, Pyle explains, ‘In a war you use the tools you’ve got and right now he’s the best we have’. To arouse American interest in this far-off conflict, Pyle arranges for Thé to conduct a terrorist bombing in Saigon that will then be falsely blamed on the communists. In the end though, Pyle’s covert activities result in a ‘catastrophic success’ for the Americans, and the conflict becomes a quagmire. A key reason for this, as Greene described, is that there is no gratitude in politics. Rather than being an American puppet, Thé, similar to Diem, could not be controlled. Diem’s corruption and autocratic rule, highlighted by his persecution of Vietnam’s Buddhist majority, would precipitate his downfall in 1963, setting off a train of events that would culminate in a large-scale US intervention beginning in 1965.


The period beginning with John F. Kennedy’s 1961 assumption of the US presidency through to the 1965 Americanization of the Vietnam War is often described as the ‘advisory period’, even though a US Military Advisory and Assistance Group had been present in Indochina since 1950.

As of the early-to-mid 1960s, US ‘advisors’ consisted of two groups: Special Forces working with South Vietnamese irregular formations and Montagnard tribesmen based mainly on the borders with Laos and Cambodia, and regular Army personnel attached to South Vietnamese military units. The term ‘advisors’ is typically placed in quotes as they were often engaged in combat. Two films that capture this period are the propagandistic The Green Berets, and the cynical Go Tell the Spartans.

Although glorifying the Special Forces, The Green Berets avoids providing any explanation of why their ‘winning hearts and minds’ activities were insufficient to stop the spread of the Viet Cong insurgency. By contrast, Go Tell the Spartans explores the failures of the advisors through its rich character portrayals. For example, the senior South Vietnamese officer shown in the film, Colonel ‘Lardass’ Minh, is corrupt and requires American bribes to fight, whereas Corporal Nguyen ‘Cowboy’ is militarily effective but is seen torturing and beheading Viet Cong prisoners.

The Americans fare little better. The naive Second Lieutenant Hamilton attempts to motivate the South Vietnamese by giving a speech in which he says their goal is to ‘establish a fortress for liberty and justice’. The Vietnamese laugh at this. Hamilton’s idealism is contrasted by Captain Olivetti. Rather than being in Vietnam for idealistic reasons, Olivetti is an upwardly mobile career officer who is simply using his job as an advisor in Vietnam to obtain a Combat Infantryman Badge, which will help facilitate future promotions. Another character is the bespectacled Lieutenant Wattsberg, who is more a systems analyst than a warrior, and his key job is to operate the Incident Flow Priority Indicator. Wattsberg represents the future of the US military and its emerging managerial and quantitative approach to waging war.  The film shows the advisors as having little positive impact, with Vietnam portrayed as a war that is ‘going nowhere, just around and around in circles’.


This theme also runs through the final group of films we considered – those dealing with the period of US combat operations which ran from 1965 to 1973. The futility of American strategy is most clearly illustrated in the pair of films We Were Soldiers and Hamburger Hill. The two films deal with major clashes between US forces and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1965 and 1969 respectively – in fact, given the quick pace of US withdrawals from 1969 onwards, some US generals considered the battle depicted in Hamburger Hill to be the last major US engagement of the war. The events of the two films hence bookend the conflict.

In both films, the US appears to win victories – albeit costly ones – but is incapable of translating them into long-term strategic gains. The US wins control of its objectives in both films, but then abandons them shortly afterwards – the real US goal was the attrition of NVA forces, not the capture of territory. After his forces take a beating in We Were Soldiers, a melancholy NVA commander dwells on the true tragedy of what has just transpired in the Ia Drang valley. Believing themselves to have won a great victory, he explains, the US will send more forces – but this will only mean that there is further delay and bloodshed before the ultimate Communist victory. That the US was still in the position of trading lives for temporary gains – and no closer to attriting the enemy – by the time of the events in Hamburger Hill seems to prove the NVA commander right.

The most sophisticated treatment of counterinsurgency method in Vietnam cinema is contained in Apocalypse Now. In this film, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue Special Forces officer, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Kurtz is accused by the Army hierarchy of practicing “unsound methods” and transgressing the moral and legal rules of warfare.

Kurtz believes that the key to the success of the Viet Cong is their superior willpower and commitment to their cause, and has set out to create a guerrilla force which shares these characteristics. But in so doing he explicitly collapses the moral distinction between the Viet Cong and their opponents and uses his force to commit atrocities. As Willard travels across the country and witnesses the absurdities and moral depravities of the way the regular Army fights the war, he begins to question whether the only difference between the approach of the regular Army and Kurtz is that the latter operates without hypocrisy.

After finally meeting Kurtz, Willard eventually decides the Army hierarchy is right – the rogue colonel has indeed gone insane. Willard pronounces Kurtz to have “no method at all” and kills him, then refuses to take his place as the commander of the guerrilla force. Unable to accept either the hypocrisy of the regular Army or the brutality of Kurtz, Willard’s disillusionment with the war is complete.

Platoon takes a much closer look at the futility of search and destroy operations. The soldiers involved are mostly kids who were conscripted into service – they have no desire to be in Vietnam and plainly lack the commitment and willpower of the Viet Cong. The grunts wreak havoc on the civilian population, take drugs in their spare time, and eventually turn on each other. Platoon makes clear that a conscript Army will struggle to muster the personnel necessary for the sophistication of counterinsurgency. Instead, many of the troops involved face psychological and moral collapse.

It is in illustrating these emotional and psychological issues that cinema provides its greatest service in the study of the Vietnam War. Even the most engaging historical tomes struggle to render the absurdity of war as starkly as Apocalypse Now, or the corruption of idealism as humanly as The Quiet American. Even though education inevitably yields somewhat to entertainment when Hollywood goes to war, the results are still instructive – for students and scholars alike.

Image: Participants of the inter-agency counterinsurgency Operation PHOENIX administered by the CIA and activated under Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support Program in South Vietnam in 1967-1971 with the goal to break Viet Cong support in the countryside, July 1968. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.