Given contradictory perceptions about the war's nature and the lack of clear U.S. objectives, advice on strategy followed suit: contradictory and conflicting strategy prescriptions became routine. Moreover, the United States confused strategy with tactics. The best articulated strategy confrontation was between the conventional war strategists and the unconventional war—counterinsurgency advocates. Their differences were fundamental: The first focused on the threat from the North and wanted to smash North Vietnamese units operating against the South. The second focused on the internal problems of South Vietnam, advocating a strong ARVN defense effort, a population protection strategy, and a political-economic reform.
The debate over alternative strategies began before U.S. regular units entered combat in 1965. As Colonel Harry Summers points out in his essay “A Strategic Perception of the Vietnam War, ” early British and American advisors to the Diem government saw the problems in South Vietnam as fundamentally political and advocated measures similar to those used in Malaya. However, once regular NVA units appeared in South Vietnam, the U.S. military response became almost wholly conventional. Still, in Colonel Summers's view, that response was misplaced because it missed the heart of the problem—North Vietnam's ability to wage war.
Nevertheless, for all the “other war” rhetoric, in terms of resources, counterinsurgency and revolutionary warfare were never given serious attention. Robert Komer's vigorous integration of U.S. pacification advisory efforts in the late 1960s focused some U.S. (and GVN) attention on the problem, but the U.S. pacification advisory effort never got more than 10 percent of the U.S. resources spent in South Vietnam.
As the main-force war intensified, and the grim human damage mounted in South Vietnam—with more than twice as many civilians dying as soldiers—proposals kept surfacing to reorient U.S. strategy toward population protection