Street Without Joy is an account of France's military operations in Indochina, specifically northern Vietnam, during the late 1940's-early 50's. The author is a French student, Bernard Fall, who studied in both Europe and the United States and traveled to Indochina multiple times in the 50's and 60's. Due to his French citizenship he was allowed to accompany French troops on patrols and into Viet-Minh territory. The book is an excellent history of the major events from an outsiders (non-military) point of view. It also has some pretty good quotes, "We need reinforcements, not citations!" and a short but intriguing chapter on the fall of Laos (the French and U.S. did the right thing by bringing in the local tribes to fight the Laotian communists, but used the wrong tribes).
"Here kitty, kitty, kitty..." ("Où êtes-vous chaton, chaton, chaton...")
Looking back, I should have read "Street Without Joy" before I read "Pacification in Algeria" primarily because France's debacle in Vietnam came before the French "oh damn, we won in Algeria but ended up losing anyway" situation, but also due to the depressing nature of "Street Without Joy".
The French attempted to deal with the Viet-Minh in the same military fashion as the Allies dealth with the Germans: fire and maneuver, trap your enemy and destroy him in the open, etc. This of course did not work and time and time again the French sent regiment after regiment into communist held territory attempting to bring the Viet-Minh into a European style fight only to see those regiments mauled, chewed up, and spit out. Operations culminated in the battle at Dien Bien Phu as well as the destruction of Groupement Mobile No. 100 in the battle of Mang Yang Pass.
The interesting thing that I find, however, is not so much France's futile attempts to bring the Viet-Minh to battle, but their use of fortified strongpoints throughout the country, often manned by only a dozen or so soldiers, and often placed in the vicinity of villages. This is one of the key tenements of counterinsurgency operations: small groups of soldiers in among the population to remove the ocean (population) from the fish (insurgents) thus depriving the insurgents of the supplies, reinforcements, information, hiding spots, etc, necessary to fight an insurgency.
Which brings me to an interesting conclusion that I've been rolling around in my head for the past several months. The French established these outposts and they did not have the effect they were supposed to have (preventing Viet-Minh infilitration into "rear" areas). It can be argued that these outposts/strongpoints were placed poorly for counterinsurgency (which they were) and instead of focusing on population centers, were instead placed on strategic points (key terrain in military speak). While the "key terrain" chosen for these defensive outposts would have made sense in a conventional fight, they were useless in a counter insurgency and while they occasionally were near population centers, the soldiers in those outposts did not interact with the population often other than to flirt with the local girls or have their laundry washed. The Viet-Minh were thus able to attack and wipe out these posts one by one with overwhelming force thus forcing the French to slowly withdrawn into a tighter and tighter circle around Hanoi and attempt useless "penetration" operations into communist territory.
So, what the hell am I getting on about?
Any conflict in Vietnam, due to the tactics used by the Viet-Minh...later to become the North Vietnamese Army, and the Viet Cong, would be likely unwinable for intervening powers and the South Vietnamese.
Let's pretend for a moment that the United States actually paid attention to what happened to the French from 1946-1954 as well as took the lessons learned by the British in Malaysia from 1948-60 to heart. In this scenario the United States does not attempt to fight Vietnam like it fought Korea and WWII but instead utilizes proper counter insurgency tactics and techniques; or essentially what the Marines did with their Combined Action Program. If done properly, the Viet Cong would have been cut off from the population and would have eventually been eliminated.
Problem is there were still close to 300,000 NVA regulars running around causing problems. All those CAPs could have been easily overwhelmed by NVA forces even with battalion or brigade level quick reaction forces and air force close air support. I realize that American forces defeated the NVA in virtually every conventional type battle fought, however, the NVA's ability to withdraw back into the jungle and highlands prior to any large engagement would have negated any American attempt to destroy those NVA units responsible for attacking the CAPs, thus allowing for attacks in other areas or future operations against CAPs that were replaced.