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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Building Schools in Vietnam in 1968

The Legend of Task Force Builder:

John Paul Vann was a visionary and legendary official in the US State Department during the US involvement in Vietnam. A New York Times bestseller book, “A Bright and Shining Lie” tells of his heroic struggles to change the US strategy in Vietnam into a winnable approach. One of his ideas was to build schools for rural Vietnamese villages to show the Vietnamese that the United States was there as a friend, and to counter the enemy propaganda that we were just there as a foreign invader.

John Paul Vann was an expert in oriental affairs. He knew the Vietnamese culture intimately. He realized how important their children were to Vietnamese families, and he knew that schools in the rural villages were a rarity. Most of the rural school buildings had been destroyed during the Japanese occupation of WWII. He knew that poor rural Vietnamese were desperate to improve the lot of their children, and that by building new schools, we could have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the war.

But his ideas were rejected by the higher US military commanders who were only schooled in the traditional “kill the enemy” strategy. General William Westmoreland focused his efforts into drawing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army into traditional battles where his superior arms and forces could stage traditional WWII maneuvers. He was not interested in John Paul Vann’s ideas.

So John Paul Vann got nowhere with his ideas. Then one day in 1967 he was introduced to Lt. Colonel George B. Gray, the battalion commander of a US Army Corps of Engineers construction battalion. He explained his ideas. George Gray was a bit of a maverick. He was also a true patriot. As a veteran of the Korean War, George realized that John Paul Vann’s ideas were valid. So Lt. Colonel George Gray approached his bosses with a program to build schools in the Mekong Delta area as an experimental program to show the feasibility of building schools for the rural Vietnamese as part of a program to win the hearts and minds of the local villagers. George got permission to begin a small school-building program. The higher levels of the US Army central command were not aware of any of this.

George Gray and John Paul Vann knew that most enemy soldiers were not communists. For the most part, they were simple farmers and villagers who had been told that a “foreign invader had returned”. So they grabbed their rifles to repel this foreign invader, just as they had been doing for a thousand years. As George Gray put it, “When the American soldiers have built a school that is educating your children, it is much less likely you will want to shoot at them”. His soldiers later discovered that George was right, as time-after-time Mekong Delta villagers risked their lives to protect the schools that George’s men had built. And the bond of friendship that George’s men developed with the local Vietnamese was awesome, all the more spectacular as heavy fighting with murderous casualties raged all around the villages.

George Gray and John Paul Vann’s experimental program built a total of eighteen schools, three village hospitals and three village marketplaces. The program was widely heralded as a success. But the success of the program was ignored by the military command. Thus a great opportunity was lost. But perhaps there were lessons learned that can be of use now and in the future as the United States now engages in other wars in third-world countries.

As we now know, a strategy of just “killing the enemy” did not work in Vietnam. Had the military command combined their traditional military tactics with an ambitious program to build schools and take other bold steps to show the people of the country that we were there as friends, not a “just another foreign invader”, the outcome of the Vietnam war could have been different.

Somewhere today, a young man from a poor isolated mountain village in rural Afghanistan is being approached by propaganda cadres to join force to fight the American aggressor. His decision can be greatly affected if he knows that the Americans are going to build a school to educate his younger brothers and sisters.

It was recently proposed that twenty schools could be built in Afghanistan for the cost of maintaining one US soldier in Afghanistan for one year. General Stanley McChrystal was exploring the feasibility of building schools to influence the attitude of the Afghans toward his American forces. Hopefully the new commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue with his ideas.

As we found in Vietnam, winning their hearts and minds is much better than killing them. And has a longer lasting effect. Our eighteen schools in Vietnam are still there today, cranking out thousand of graduates who know that, long ago, some Americans tried to help them.

The lessons that we showed about winning third-world wars by winning over the hearts and minds of the local people should not be forgotten.


This article was written by Michael D. Miller, who as a captain, commanded Task Force Builder, the US Army force that in 1967 and 1968 built eighteen schools in Vietnam for Lt. Colonel George B. Gray and John Paul Vann. Mike is a 1964 graduate of West Point and he has a Masters degree in business from Harvard University.

A book has been written about Task Force Builder and we are now searching for a publisher. Mike can be reached at Our website is