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US soldiers search Vietnamese homes for Vietcong guerrillas.

Search and Destroy, Seek and Destroy, or even simply S&D, refers to a military strategy that became a large component of the Vietnam War. The idea was to insert ground forces into hostile territory, search out the enemy, destroy them, and withdraw immediately afterward. The strategy was the result of a new technology, the helicopter, which resulted in a new form of warfare, the fielding of air cavalry,[1] and was thought to be ideally suited to counter-guerrilla jungle warfare. The complementary conventional strategy, which entailed attacking and conquering an enemy position, then fortifying and holding it indefinitely, was known as "clear and hold" or "clear and secure." In theory, since the traditional methods of "taking ground" could not be used in this war, a war of attrition would be used, eliminating the enemy by the use of "searching" for them, then "destroying" them, and the "body count" would be the measuring tool to determine the success of the strategy of "search and destroy." It is common practice among military forces to enforce strict rules on a search and destroy mission.

It became an offensive tool, crucial to General William Westmoreland’s second phase. In his three phase strategy, the first consisted of slowing down the Viet Cong Forces; the second was to resume the offensive and destroy the enemy; the third was to restore the area under South Vietnamese government control. The Zippo missions were mainly assigned to the second phase around 1966 and 1967, along with operations “Clear and Secure.”

Search and destroy missions entailed sending out platoons, companies, or larger detachments of US troops from a fortified position to locate and destroy Vietcong or NVA units in the countryside. These missions most commonly involved hiking out into the "boonies" and setting an ambush in the brush, near a suspected VC trail. The ambush typically involved the use of fixed Claymore Antipersonnel Mines, crossing lines of small arms fire, mortar support, and possibly additional artillery support called in via radio from a nearby firebase.

In February 1967, some of the largest Zippo missions was operated in the Iron Triangle, located between Saigon and Routes 13 and 25. The area consisted of a mass centre of Viet Cong logistics and headquarters, with some of the most high-ranking NLF officials stationed there. The offensive began with Operation Junction City, where the American units assigned had destroyed hundreds of tons of rice, killed 720 guerrillas, and captured 213 prisoners. However, the Iron Triangle area's defenders was thought to be over 10,000. The offensive failed to destroy the NLF's headquarter nor capture any high-ranking officer, therefore having little effect toward Hanoi's plan. Both Search and Destroy and Clearing missions stretched into the third phase beginning in 1968. The number of missions mounted, especially after the U.S. was hit by General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Tet offensive attack of 1968. As the war grew more aggressive, so did the missions, to the point where there was lack of distinction between Search and Destroy, and Clear and Secure operations.

Search and destroy missions had many flaws. First, there was lack of distinction between “clearing” and search and destroy missions. Thus “clearing” missions, which were less aggressive, eventually morphed into a more violent and brutal form of tactic just as search and destroy missions were. With the lack of distinction between “clearing” and search and destroy missions, pacification was not pushed. Guenter Lewey, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, argued that the generals and war planners severely underestimated the enemy’s abilities to match and exceed U.S. forces.[2] Large numbers of Viet Cong troops would be killed or captured, but they were quickly replaced. Although enemy forces were initially pushed out of certain territories, as soon as the American forces left the areas, they simply returned with more reinforcements and weapons.

The effectiveness of the missions are also doubtful. In one of the first Search and Destroy missions northwest of Dau Tieng, named Operation Attleboro, US report states that 155 U.S. soldiers were killed, while the North Vietnamese lost 1,106. In Operation Junction City, the report also states that 282 U.S. soldiers were killed while the Viet Cong lost 1,728 guerrillas. These figures, however, should be considered in light of the methods by which they were obtained. The estimates were almost exclusively gathered by indirect means: sensor readings, sightings of secondary explosions, reports of defectors or POWs, and inference or extrapolation.[3]


  1. Starry, p. 221
  2. George C. Herring, American Strategy in Vietnam: The Postwar Debate.
  3. Dougan and Weiss, p. 55.
  • Starry, Donn A. GEN. Mounted Combat In Vietnam; Vietnam Studies. Department of the Army, 1978.

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