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Operation Igloo White
May 22, 2006 10:37 PM   Subscribe

"We wired the Ho Chi Minh Trail like a drugstore pinball machine and plugged into it every night." From 1965 to 1975, telemetry from thousands of microphones hidden in remote Vietnam jungles were fed to a massive data processing center in Thailand, where an IBM System/360 [wiki] mapped real-time Vietcong movements to display terminals. The details of Project Igloo White remained compartmentalized and highly classified until only several years ago.
posted by rolypolyman (33 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, I'm glad all that gold-plating worked out so well for ya.
posted by bouncebounce at 10:46 PM on May 22, 2006


April 29, 1975 — In the end, all that extra intelligence data didn't seem to help very much...
posted by cenoxo at 10:47 PM on May 22, 2006


"We didn't lose Vietnam, it was a TIE!"
posted by Operation Afterglow at 10:49 PM on May 22, 2006


One such notion was to train pigeons to carry munitions, land on North Vietnamese trucks, and explode on touchdown. Among other difficulties, the pigeons couldn’t tell a communist truck from a noncommunist one.

Hah!
posted by freebird at 10:52 PM on May 22, 2006


Awesome post, thanks rolypolyman.
posted by fake at 11:19 PM on May 22, 2006


That's pretty interesting. (I also wonder what the "Black Crow" device was. Detecting ignition RFI?)
posted by hattifattener at 11:20 PM on May 22, 2006


I think this underscores the fact--lost time and again by invading superior armies--that all the technology and know-how in the world is usually not enough to defeat a committed (though militarily weaker) insurgency.
posted by John of Michigan at 11:31 PM on May 22, 2006


Well, that's an intresting idea. But I guess it didn't work out all that well.
posted by Paris Hilton at 12:07 AM on May 23, 2006



I think this underscores the fact--lost time and again by invading superior armies--that all the technology and know-how in the world is usually not enough to defeat a committed (though militarily weaker) insurgency.


Not so sure about that. Usually insurgencies have a significant advantage from familiarity with indigenous terrain and the experience employing optimal tactics for said terrain. Invading armies typically don't have all the know how in the world: sure you may have drilled in altitude/climate/terrain/whatever, but the guys on the other side were born there.
posted by juv3nal at 12:54 AM on May 23, 2006


The details of Project Igloo White remained compartmentalized and highly classified until only several years ago.

This sentence just bugs me. "[U]ntil only several years ago" sounds like it's trying to say it was only recently declassified, except for the "several years ago" part.

umm... sorry. /derail
posted by antifuse at 2:00 AM on May 23, 2006


Great post, thanks.
posted by the cuban at 2:13 AM on May 23, 2006


all the technology and know-how in the world is usually not enough to defeat a committed (though militarily weaker) insurgency.

It wasn't just that.
The campaign was a “measured and limited air action” to signal US “determination and commitment” to Hanoi. Administration officials did not want to provoke “a wider war.” They feared that stronger use of force might lead to a confrontation with the Soviet Union or China.
So the Americans were also fighting the technology of Russia and China, who obviously had all the technology they needed to scare the Americans.

It is the reluctance of superior forces to wage absolute war, for whatever reason, that usually saves insurgents. If a technologically superior force decided to destroy an enemy society -- kill everyone (including all noncombatants), burn and pave over everything, annex the country, and move in -- an insurgency would not last long, not unless an outside force helped them.
posted by pracowity at 3:20 AM on May 23, 2006


If a technologically superior force decided to destroy an enemy society -- kill everyone

How is that even the least bit relevant? Yeah, we could've just nuked all of SE Asia. Then we would've won!!!
posted by rxrfrx at 3:54 AM on May 23, 2006


I saw a documentary on the Ho Chi Minh trail on Discovery which talked about this. They mentioned that the Viet Cong managed to make parts of it useless by finding the microphones and sensors and either moving them off the trails or leaving old motors running for hours at differeing points which would feed garbage data into the system.
posted by PenDevil at 3:56 AM on May 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Administration officials did not want to provoke “a wider war.”
Ah. So that Cambodia thing must've been a few bad apples, huh?
posted by Thorzdad at 4:20 AM on May 23, 2006


dministration officials did not want to provoke “a wider war.”
Ah. So that Cambodia thing must've been a few bad apples, huh?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM EST on May 23 [+fave] [!]


I don't think they were talking about Cambodia.
posted by caddis at 5:10 AM on May 23, 2006


Perhaps not. However, the silliness of their statement stands. If you aren't wanting to provoke a wider war, you certainly don't go into neighboring countries either. Provocation is provocation.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:38 AM on May 23, 2006


“If DCPG said it needed 10,000 chocolate cream pies from the Army by noon the next day, it would get them and without any questions,” said a project member quoted by Paul Dickson in The Electronic Battlefield.

Hilarious. Glad to see things have changed since that time.
posted by basicchannel at 5:46 AM on May 23, 2006



Perhaps not. However, the silliness of their statement stands. If you aren't wanting to provoke a wider war, you certainly don't go into neighboring countries either. Provocation is provocation.


I think you're confused over the chronology of the Indo China Wars. The article refers to the US position in Spring '66 - three years and an administration change before Kissinger and Nixon expanded the war into Cambodia.
posted by the cuban at 6:53 AM on May 23, 2006


The Use and Abuse of Technology In Insurgent Warfare:
Despite the many analyses of the Vietnam war produced by the military, none has adequately considered the fundamental question of how the U.S. could so completely dominate the battlefield and yet lose the war.
...
A clue to understanding the Vietnam paradox lies in the term "military science." No one can doubt the importance of military science to the success of military operations in today's world. The firepower provided by today's weapons dominates the modern battlefield. The procurement of those same systems is a complex science in itself. However, successful military operations are a combination of the application of military science and military art.
...
Successful military campaigns are the result of some sort of balance between the two. The balance may, in fact, depend on the status of the opposing forces--their equality. Reasonable equality may not exist between opposing forces. The weaker side must then depend on superior military art to achieve victory.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were forced to depend on the use of military art because of the overwhelming resources and superior technology of the U.S. The Communist confused the Americans with a package of political, psychological, economic and military warfare.
There's a profound difference between making tools and knowing how to skillfully use them.

Has the turnover rate of science and technology become so rapid that we never really learn what to do with it, and must resort to continuous reinvention to overcome its shortcomings?
posted by cenoxo at 7:15 AM on May 23, 2006


Interesting comment towards the end of the article (sorry for the big excerpt, I tried to cut it down as much as possible):

It is politically incorrect in academic circles - and not much acceptable elsewhere - to recognize or acknowledge the benefit derived by millions of people strongly employed and heavily invested here. Like it or not, our wealth derives from the blood of others. No nation is imune from this, and none can point fingers with impunity.

Warfare and Commerce are brother and sister to our house, and whether or not the human prediliction to warfare is natural or unnatural is a philosophical discussion best left to others. [...]

Commerce has historically developed out of a perceived need for war-fighting technology, and once declassified, transfers to the marketplace. [...]

The schizophrenia in academic thinking between the immense cultural and financial benefits derived from Government-funded research and development versus the dire warnings of a burgeoning Big Brother atmosphere must be considered either unreasoning paranoia or pure Kant: publishing polemics by poorly-researched academics looking for tenure.

If there is a misuse of power, it will develop due to efforts on the part of Little Brother - the commercial marketplace itself. Viewed from either perspective, the historical facts do not seem to square with the recrudecence of neo-Luddite behaviour and it's doctrine of Political Correctness, which commands obeyance - not analysis - in the finest of didactic traditions.

Eric Blair (George Orwell) would have loved it.
posted by bhouston at 7:49 AM on May 23, 2006


It is possible to beat an insurgency militarily, you just have to be really brutal about it. The French had largely defeated the Algerian insurgents in the Algerian war for independence using tactics much worse than what the US did in Vietnam (e.g. intentional bombing of purely civilian targets, setting up concentration camps, reprisal killings).

However, "war is the continuation of politics by other means," so even though the French were successful militarily, the politics of the situation were against them and Algeria still gained it's independence a few years after it looked like the French had won militarily.
posted by afu at 8:05 AM on May 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Great article. Reveals how serious the divisions over Vietnam still are, in US military circles. Trying to prove the effectiveness of one tool or another 30 years too late.. And, as I read it, always minimizing the accomplishment of the North Vietnamese (am I wrong here?).

afu, I know virtually nothing about Algeria, but from wikipedia:
The French army shifted its tactics at the end of 1958 from dependence on quadrillage to the use of mobile forces deployed on massive search-and-destroy missions against ALN strongholds. Within the next year, Salan's successor, General Maurice Challe, appeared to have suppressed major rebel resistance. But political developments had already overtaken the French army's successes.
The new tactic worked, as new tactics often do. Nobody knows what would have happened if the enemy had a thorough opportunity to respond to it.

Sounds like a classic strategy to me - declare victory and go home!
posted by Chuckles at 8:41 AM on May 23, 2006


Sounds like a classic strategy to me - declare victory and go home!

My father does this occasionally when he beats me at darts.
posted by NationalKato at 9:52 AM on May 23, 2006


Good article, though not news. James William Gibson's excellent The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam covers the same ground. As I recall, none of the technology proved very effective, it either broke down too quickly, or required the intelligence to be processed at such length it was no longer relevent when the results came in, or the Vietnamese learned how to game it. But the technological hubris of the Americans was huge. Gibson has a quote from Kissinger where he says that technology has removed all limits from the excercise of American power.

Damn, we didn't learn a thing, did we?
posted by LarryC at 9:57 AM on May 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


Much of this was reported in the mid 1980s. I have a couple of popular encylopedias of the war that go into detail
posted by A189Nut at 11:24 AM on May 23, 2006


The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were forced to depend on the use of military art because of the overwhelming resources and superior technology of the U.S. The Communist confused the Americans with a package of political, psychological, economic and military warfare.

It's in block quotes so must be some really special type of pooh.

There's a profound difference between making tools and knowing how to skillfully use them.


Not how. Why and when.
posted by srboisvert at 1:46 PM on May 23, 2006


LarryC, a great many people learned a great many things from Vietnam. It's just that the lessons were deliberately forgotten in the mean time.
posted by Grimgrin at 1:55 PM on May 23, 2006


A189 nut: The actual method by which the United States and its Allies accomplished that is however, less detailed because of its previously highly Classified status. Thirty years after the fact, this material is now being declassified.

Just sayin'. I saw bits of it too in the 80s.
posted by rolypolyman at 4:14 PM on May 23, 2006




Weren't the Brits confident that their superior military (technologically and every other way), despite their long supply lines and the fact that the insurgency had greater familiarity with the terrain...weren't they confident of defeating the Colonist Rabble?

What goes around comes around...
posted by taosbat at 9:33 PM on May 23, 2006


afu: It is possible to beat an insurgency militarily, you just have to be really brutal about it. The French had largely defeated the Algerian insurgents in the Algerian war for independence using tactics much worse than what the US did in Vietnam (e.g. intentional bombing of purely civilian targets, setting up concentration camps, reprisal killings).

I am no expert in either conflict, and I don't doubt for a moment the general notion of significant differences between the two, but this particular statement is at least arguable. I would cite the strategic hamlet program and Project Phoenix as examples of similar tactics practiced by the U.S. in Vietnam.

I'm also a bit astonished by the implication that the U.S.'s counterinsurgency efforts weren't "really brutal."
posted by cobra libre at 12:20 PM on May 25, 2006


I seemed to remember absorbing the fact that the French still tend to feel a sense of shame in connection with the Algerian war, which this research project seems to substantiate:

Repression stems from the official reluctance to recognise the war, which has lent substance to the notion of a sale guerre, of French guilt and a sense that this period is one of French shame over which a veil must be drawn.

There's no point in defeating an insurgency if you're going to view it as a national embarrassment.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 12:31 PM on May 25, 2006


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