Introduction To Jungle Warfare History Essay

Jungle warfare is a military term used to define combinations of special techniques that are aimed in areas that are or similar to jungle terrains. Categorically considered as one of the most dangerous forms of warfare, the training for jungle warfare is usually specialized and separated from the traditional military education because of the differences in the approaches and tactics used. Initially, the United States was not too keen on having jungle warfare training for the military troops as they viewed jungles, as impenetrable and unsuitable for military operations.

However, because of the successful attack of the Japanese Army to the British forces in 1942 through the Malaysian Jungles, this line of thinking was slowly erased, and jungle training was placed as an important form of military warfare training. Nevertheless, in a jungle environment, the combat operations of the US Army have met limited success and continue to be challenged. As evident in the 1965 to 1975 Vietnam War, the US Army faced significant challenges and struggles to be victorious. Highlighting on the Vietnam War, this paper will attempt to identify the challenges faced by the US Army. The paper will also discuss the kind of training needed for jungle warfare to address these challenges.

Background on Jungle Warfare Training

One of the most famous and successful jungle warfare training grounds of the United States military troops was found in Fort Sherman in Panama. Called the Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC), it produced about 19,845 graduates from the year 1953 to its last year of operation in 1999. It was considered as the most grueling training grounds and as John Smit, one of the products of the JWTC in 1967 put it, this training was so crucial to the military’s ability to wage war in Vietnam and short of going into actual combat situation, it was the best training warfare facility that could be established (Abel, 1999).

The origins of JWTC can be traced back to April 1951, when then Commanding General received Training Memorandum 9, which later on established the Jungle Warfare Training Board (JWTB). The primary mission of the JWTB was to “research, analyze and report on findings and recommend changes and additions to the established United States Army doctrine and techniques of jungle warfare and equipment designed for operations” (Hudnall, 2004, p.58). JWTB emphasized and kept alive the spirit of jungle warfare in the military.

The essentiality of the trainings being done in Fort Sherman was highlighted during the Vietnam War, because it was during this time that the need and importance for jungle warfare training was parallel to that of the army troops’ survival and victory. The results of the participation of the United States in the Vietnam War could not be thoroughly discussed without going into the condition of the troops’ jungle warfare training. Therefore, with this point in mind, this paper will be dealing with the results of the combat operations of the US Army in the jungle environment during the 1965 to 1975 Vietnam War, on why it has met limited success and continues to be challenged, and on the significant challenges and struggles for victory. In addition, this paper will also discuss the kind and quality of jungle warfare training, which the soldiers received in preparation for the Vietnam War and its impact to the problems encountered.

The Vietnam War and the Challenges of Jungle Warfare

The jungle warfare training of the United States Army in Panama held a significant but insufficient experience to the trainees especially during the onset of the Vietnam War. Swatrzlander (2002) noted that one of the biggest mistake that contributed to the loss of the United States during the war was not the type and quality of training they had to undergo before being sent off for war, although it plays a certain factor, but it was more on the sending off of “sheltered” American boys to fight in the guerilla or jungle war, which is by definition is an extremely strategic and deadly kind of warfare, and as such cannot be fully taught at only limited periods of time. The three-week training — grueling and extensive as it may be — was simply insufficient as compared to the experience and “training” of their Vietnamese counterparts, with the latter holding quite an advantage in jungle wars as they were practically raised in this type of environment and at young ages they were already trained to be hateful and merciless killers.

It must also be pointed out that not all American soldiers who were on duty for the Vietnam War were born, trained and even liked to be soldiers. In fact, a considerable number of them were only into this situation because of the draft being put into play by the US government. All males during this time were required to sign up for the draft once they turned 18 and if they were drawn from the list, they were forced to join the military, and quite possibly be sent to a conflict or war zone with duties like that of the Vietnam War lasting for about a year. The Americans were given only a few weeks training to fight tough, experienced, hardcore guerilla fighters.

The educational package provided by the JWTC included the use of weapons and tactical skills, through rigid trainings and exercises. It ran for ten three-week cycles annually, with reinforcement training exercises also occurring in addition to the ten regular cycles being promoted. The training cycle is usually composed of three steps: the training for individual soldier skills, small unit and company. Other trainings to help military troops prepare for the jungle wars and the survival in such environment included several patrols to the jungle terrains of Panama. This allowed them to experience the overall condition of being thrown into a jungle in preparation for Vietnam War. Individuals were exposed to different animals and vegetation, edible, non-edible, poisonous and non-poisonous. During this time, instructors repeatedly emphasized and stressed the various diseases and viruses which they may come in contact with in this type of environment. Shots like Gamma Globulin, a vaccine to prevent contact of yellow fever which was quite common in central and South America, were given to the trainees (Protsch, 2004).

Lindsay-Poland (2003) described the training for jungle warfare as one that “served to test soldiers’ masculinity against savage nature and toughen them for the task of fighting civilization’s Asian and Latin American enemies” (p.196). Instructors taught the would-be fighters counterrevolutionary warfare with high specialized and complex tactics. Techniques designed to trap and smash enemy forces, as well as how to stage and repel ambush attacks, were just some of those items integrated into the curriculum. Afternoons were spent in the center’s prized possession—the zoo, where trainees hold and wrestle wild animals including the much-dreaded boa constrictors, just to practice dealing with the inhabitants of the jungle.

Together with the curriculum being set out by the JWTC, the Jungle Operations Committee (JOC) also took certain initiatives to improve their mode and quality of instruction. Aside from conducting courses, the committee gathered questionnaires to officers and other military personnel who were assigned in Vietnam and asked for the reappraisal of the curriculum based on their experiences (Hudnall, 2004). This approach allowed them to acquire a more accurate detail on what is to be expected and therefore what is needed by the troops to prepare and survive in the jungle. It permitted the school to view its weaknesses and strengths especially in the improvement of their subjects making students more realistic to see the actual scenario in which they were about to face.

A more concrete example of the improvements done through this practice can be traced back to October 1965, where instructors were able to observe a jungle-operations course in Hawaii, which was actually quite similar as to that in Panama but this time with an extra twist. The addition of the scene for a cordon and the search mock Vietnamese village was one point which the JWTC did not cover during their training. This theoretical enactment of possible scenes in Vietnam created a slight disadvantage to their trainees as compared to that of the other training. Such approach may help the trainees physically and mentally prepare more for the situation and believing in this as quite important to the students in training, the cadre or instructor added it into their curriculum.

The condition in Vietnam was also a contributing reason why US military received minimal success. The environment was very harsh to the United States military; diseases like Dysentery, Malaria and Jungle Rot were very common and affected a lot of the soldiers. Jungles provide very little visibility with a few yards at most. Monsoon condition was also a factor as it rained straight for three to four months, making the troops wet, no matter how hard they try to keep themselves dry. Animal attacks, tigers and snakes were also situations which although were expected from the onset of their trainings were significantly different as compared to that in their training in Panama (Swartzlander, 2005). No experience in training would compensate for the actual scenario, especially when training and combat grounds differ in climatic conditions and natural resources and bounties.

Aside from the lack of experience of the United States Army to jungle warfare, another item which may have caused the struggles and limited success during the Vietnam War was the training and actual stocks for the artillery. The United States and other Western countries depended on superior technology to defeat their opponents. However, in jungle warfare, the jungles erode to this blanket of superiority, making them more vulnerable (Kemp, Withington & Keggler, 2008).

Thick jungles can limit the use of vehicles and helicopters, which made surprise attacks, especially by those well-versed in the jungle terrain, easier. The close range battles and the barrier of trees and plants also made it more difficult to use support weapons and precision-guided ammunitions. Most of the weapons, uniforms and military ammunition used for training and actual combat during the Vietnam War were quite ill-suited for the type of fights and the tropical environment. Military issued uniforms were heavy and hot, and quite easily destroyed in the jungle environment. They were cheap, and they rot easily especially due to changes in weather condition.

The high technology equipment and artillery used by the US army during the height of the Vietnam War also caused several problems for the troops on the ground. Take for example the M-14 rifle which was actually the type of armament used by the first batch of soldiers sent to Vietnam. With a weight of a little over eight pounds, it added to the sixty-five-pound weight survival kit brought by the soldier while away from camp. Furthermore, even if troops were trained in handling this equipment in jungle training centers, with shots either set to single or semi-automatic, they were not prepared for the different problems the weapons would actually pose during the actual encounter.

Both the M-14 and its replacement the M-16, which although is much lighter at six pounds as compared to the former, jammed easily under wet and dry field conditions (Westheider, 2007). Grenades, which were also included in the individuals set of weapons, were still considered quite risky in the jungle environment. Fuse pins can be caught and removed by trees, shrubs, and some undergrowth resulting to possible unwarranted and unintentional deadly explosions.

Another important point of jungle warfare, which added to the loss of the US to the Vietnam War, is their new strategy, which they used during the latter part of the war. Instead of following the search and destroy mission tactics to defeat the Viet Cong — the more accurate name of their opponents — they shifted their focus to also eliminating those that are supplying provisions to their enemy. However, with this new focus, new complications arose. Compared to US soldiers, the Viet Cong did not wear uniforms, and it was impossible to detect and identify them amongst the general public, especially together with the innocents. While US troops may have the best weapons and artillery or jungle warfare training, they were still unsuccessful because they had a difficult time identifying their opponents (Levy, 2004). This problem proved to be one of the strongest points of the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War.

The US, in its desperation to end the dominance of the Viet Cong, resulted to two major search and destroy missions, the Operation Cedar Falls and the Operation Junction City, whose primary aim was to destroy the major strongholds and headquarters of the opponent. Nevertheless, in both occasions, the enemy left the targets before the American soldiers could attack and destroy the area. However, once the US military left these areas, the Viet Cong would make their way back and re-occupy the place. This was a continuous pattern all throughout the Vietnam War, resulting to difficulties for the US Army to concretely win the battles in Vietnam.

The US government may have concluded these two missions as a success since they were able to take up the area but overall, it was still a negligible triumph because the degree of loss to the Vietnamese side was very small. The failure of the two major missions can also be credited to the different techniques and strategies that the Viet Cong used: they built underground tunnels to escape confrontation, questioning, and capture and with their knowledge of the jungle area; they also prepared plans, whether it was hiding behind trees and or shooting enemies from on-top.


The US army encountered many challenges during the Vietnam War. First was the lack of training and experience in jungle warfare. The three week period was simply not enough to instill the techniques and skills necessary for having a full-pledged jungle fighter. Second were the significant differences in climate and environmental conditions. Although initial training before the actual deployment to Vietnam was in a jungle terrain, the differences in seasons as well as climate, between Vietnam and Panama still held a big effect to the primary condition of the troops. Third, the weapons and equipment handed out to troops were unsuitable for jungle warfare conditions. Lastly, the tactics used by the troops were inappropriate for jungle wars. The fact that the enemies of the US during the Vietnam War were well-versed in jungle operations or warfare and that they had the support of local community was already a large challenge posed, as these are coupled together with the other four items presented above.

It can be argued that the training, considering the limited time and resources, at the jungle warfare training school, was the best it had to offer. In terms of teaching basic information and letting soldiers initially feel the conditions of conducting wars, inside the terrain, the JWTC is assumed to have sufficiently and credibly spread the available information. Nevertheless, this still proved insufficient in the type of war that the US troops battled in Vietnam.

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