Jungle Warfare

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Jungle Warfare. War in the jungle is the province of the infantry. In a tropical or semitropical environment of triple canopy forests, swamps, marshes, or densely forested mountains, tanks, aircraft, and even artillery are of little use. The dense vegetation and general lack of infrastructure, along with reduced visibility and engagement ranges, make it extremely difficult to locate and engage enemy forces. These factors also tend to militate against the use of armored and mechanized forces and reduce the effectiveness of aircraft designed to provide intelligence and close air support to ground combat units. Further, the environment of extreme heat, virulent diseases, and frequently dangerous flora and fauna requires that units are carefully trained, equipped, and acclimated before deployment. Today, a typical operation employs Special Operations Forces conducting long‐range reconnaissance to locate concentrations of enemy forces and critical targets. Light infantry or air‐mobile units then “fix” the enemy in position while air and artillery are used to complete the destruction of the hostile force.

The American military's expertise in jungle warfare has been hard won. First exposed to the phenomenon in the Spanish‐American War (1898) and the subsequent Philippine War (1899–1902), the U.S. Army was slow to develop a doctrine for such operations. But the U.S. Marine Corps began compiling data from after‐action reports of its operations in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1920s and incorporated lessons learned into its Small Wars Manual (1940). During World War II, both the army and the Marine Corps main forces fought a series of fierce battles in the jungles of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and the Philippines. These main forces were augmented in the China‐Burma‐India theater with smaller, fast‐moving organizations. The army's “Merrill's Marauders” and the Marines' “Carlson's Raiders,” along with OSS (Office of Strategic Services) Detachment 101, were specially trained in irregular warfare and employed in jungle operations deep in Japanese‐held territory. Other specially trained and equipped forces such as the navy's Seabees (derived from the designation “CB” for Construction Battalion) were organized to prepare and improve beach landing sites and, later, cut airstrips out of the jungles. The medical services, faced with a bewildering array of exotic tropical maladies, were especially challenged by jungle operations.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the United States had to relearn the lessons of jungle warfare in Vietnam. The army especially, trained and equipped for a conventional, mechanized war in Europe, was almost wholly unprepared for guerrilla warfare in Vietnam's jungles. For a considerable portion of the war the American military employed large mechanized and air‐mobile formations in “search and destroy” operations, hoping to force the enemy into a setpiece battle. To this end, much of the war was conducted in a fairly conventional manner but using newly developed technology and techniques such as ground surveillance radar and remote sensors to locate enemy forces, and defoliants and napalm (jellied gasoline munitions) to expose and destroy those forces. North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regular forces occasionally committed to conventional battle, but in accepting battle on U.S. terms almost invariably fared badly. Thus the bulk of the conflict was characterized by ambuscades and hit‐and‐run assaults by small units of Viet Cong irregulars, and it was not until the period of “Vietnamization” and the withdrawal of U.S. main forces that the NVA regular forces began to reappear in strength. Throughout the conflict, U.S. Army Special Forces detachments worked at raising, equipping, training, and advising Vietnamese auxiliary troops composed of the Hmong and Montagnard tribes of the highlands. These native forces were later abandoned, but many carried on the war for years after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The U.S. Marine Corps, having experienced some significant successes with their CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) program, which assigned small units to patrol and administer specific villages and environs, abandoned that program after the Tet Offensive (1968) and embraced a policy almost indistinguishable from the army's.

Jungle warfare techniques, informed by the Vietnam experience, were being taught in the 1990s at the U.S. Army's John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (Fort Bragg, North Carolina) and Ranger School (Fort Benning, Georgia). It should be noted that the Vietnam War proved such a traumatic experience for the U.S. Army that until the 1980s virtually no aspect of that war was addressed in its formal schooling programs (i.e., at the Basic and Advanced Officer Training Courses and at the Command and General Staff and War Colleges).
[See also Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Disease, Tropical; Low‐Intensity Conflict; Vietnam War: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War Against Japan; World War II, U.S. Naval Operations in: The Pacific.]


U.S. Marine Corps , Small Wars Manual, 1940.
Bryan Perret , Canopy of War, 1990.

Frederick J. Chiaventone