The Battle of Hamburger Hill was a highly controversial military engagement between American and allied South Vietnamese forces and the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War in 1969. As well as been later immortalized in the film Hamburger Hill, the battle and its aftermath served to dramatically drive home to the U.S. public and politicians the futile nature of American military operations in Vietnam. While not dramatically different in nature from many previous operations, the battle came to symbolize a failed strategy and contributed to the decision by Richard Nixon to disengage from the war.
The scene of the battle of the A Shau Valley, a mile-wide depression that ran along the Vietnamese border with Laos just to the west of Hue, the old Vietnamese imperial capital. Until 1966, the Americans had maintained a special forces base in the valley which - like so many of the bases that they scattered along the border, the most famous of which was Khe Sanh - had been designed to keep an eye on the infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam by the Communists. In 1966, the camp had been overrun, and by 1968 the valley had become a major staging area for Communist troops who engaged in the Tet offensive. The Communists had turned the valley into a major base and logistical terminus for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the scattered network of roads and trails by which they infiltrated from North Vietnam. This was Charlie's country, and they were determined to defend it.
In 1968, after the Tet offensive, the Americans had taught the Communists a hard lesson in the valley. Capitalizing on the reeling blows dealt to the Communists during Tet, the 1st Cav, 101st Airborne Division and South Vietnamese allies air-assaulted into the A Shau to find mostly engineering and logistical troops defending the terminus. Unable to stand up to the elite American forces, the North Vietnamese were routed and lost hundreds of thousands of tons of food and ammunition, along with nearly a thousand lives and a tank (far from being the windy jungle trails of myth, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was by this point motorized and perfectly capable of carrying armour). Unable to spare the men to permanently hold the valley, the allies soon withdrew. The Communists were back in weeks, and they built up the logistical hub again. They also built up its defences.
A year later, the Americans launched Operation Apache Snow, which was basically designed to be a rerun of the earlier operation. Officially dubbed a "reconaissance in force", the operation aimed to sweep the A Shau of men and supplies and then leave it again. Just as after the 1968 operation, it was clear that after the American withdrawal, the Communists would be able to build up their logistical base in the A Shau once again. These operations were essentially designed to be raids against the enemy's forces which could deal him no more than temporary setbacks. Hence they highlighted the main flaw of American strategy in Vietnam: however much they hurt the Communists and killed their forces, new men just kept on coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Unlike in previous wars, which had focused on taking and holding territory, American strategy in the Vietnam War depended on killing the enemy until he gave up. The problem was that he never did.
Although virtually every other major military operation of the war could be understood in the same way, the Battle of Hamburger Hill really drove the message home. The enemy refused to do as he was expected in more ways than one. Military engagements with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army usually followed a set pattern. American forces would be surprised by a Communist force, and take casualties. They would then fix the location of the enemy, call in massive air and artillery support, and watch as the Communists slipped back into the jungle or mountains to escape their withering fire. While this pattern rarely allowed for a pitched battle in which heavy casualties could be inflicted on the enemy, it did at least make sweeps of fixed terrain relatively easy. But the Battle of Hamburger Hill wasn't easy, because instead the Communists stood and fought.
The North Vietnamese were masters of fixed defences and of camouflage, and hence the Americans had little idea of what to expect in the A Shau. It transpired that the North Vietnamese had heavily fortified Hill 937, and they intended to hold it. An intricate series of bunkers and strong points had been constructed on the hill, and U.S. forces were funnelled by narrow trails into areas where they could be easily attacked and where the enemy was too close for them to call in air or artillery support. Nearly 100 U.S. soldiers died and nearly 500 were injured in wave after wave of infantry assaults on the hill, although the soldiers also extracted a high price - put at 630 dead - from the defenders. Then, when it was over and the hill had been taken, the U.S. forces hoisted its casualties onto helicopters and went home. As per usual, the North Vietnamese would soon be back.
What made the Battle of Hamburger Hill so galling to a U.S. public and to politicians who were already tired of the Vietnam War was how futile it all seemed: after hundreds of U.S. casualties, so little had been achieved. The North Vietnamese were soon back in the A Shau, rebuilding their defences and their logistical capability so that they could once again threaten South Vietnam's population centres. The U.S. had proven that they could best the Communists in a stand-up fight, even if at a high cost to themselves, but they had once again demonstrated their inability to translate successes in battle into strategic success in the war. The Communists would just keep on coming. But the Americans would eventually go home, not just from the A Shau but from all of south-east Asia.