When the MAAG Group was upgraded to Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) under General Paul D. Harkins in February of 1962, seemingly favorable portents obscured serious underlying problems. The most basic of these was the communist determination to pursue the war to a victorious outcome, a determination which Americans invariably underestimated. The Viet Cong might be hurt by new American weapons and tactics, but they would learn and come back, backed, if need be, by cadres and regular units from the north. Of more immediate concern were the endemie weaknesses of the Diem regime which were just becoming apparent to the more perceptive American military advisors and reporters. These manifested themselves in a reluctance on the part of ARVN units to engage the communist foe aggressively, a product of Diem's practice of appointing commanders for political reliability rather than military competence and of deploying units as coup insurance rather than according to the dictates of the counterinsurgent war.
General Harkins and MACV maintained the position that the war was going well, and official deputations were taken to showpiece hamlets and treated to displays of ARVN determination and efficiency that had little to do with operational reality. Fissures began to appear in relations between the military in the field and the Pentagon. Distrustful of overly optimistic reports of progress in pacification, Secretary of Defense McNamara introduced an unequivocal standard: body count. measured by the tally of enemy dead, and when it became evident that body counts were being inflated by the inclusion of civilian casualties, a count of captured weapons was required as well. But rathe rthan introduce analytical rigor into the strategic calculus as McNamara had hoped, body count became a powerful corrupting influence. ARVN commanders quickly learned that high body counts were needed to make the Americans happy and U.S. advisors learned that they were necessary for promotion. Blatant abuses such as holding back weapons found in VC caches so that they could later be paired with civilian dead were no unknown; worse, body count became an end in itself, overriding the sophisticated political and operational calculations on which any successful counterinsurgency campaign must be based. In addition, Diem's near paranoid fear of a coup caused him to husband the strength of loyal units jealously; these were withheld from operations as coup insurance, and commanders quickly learned that the surest way to incur Diem's wrath was to sustain casualties. The result was operational stasis.
By mid-1962, perceptive U.S. advisors in the field were aware of deliberate ARVN foot-dragging and of its roots in Diem's political machinations, but they were unsuccessful in focusing MACV attention on the problem. The issues came dramatically to a head on 2 January, 1963, in the Battle of Ap Bac. Starting with an attack in seemingly overwhelming strength by the 7th ARVN Division on Viet Cong forces in the small hamlet of Bac on the eastern edge of the Plain of Reeds, the operation was orchestrated by the Senior U.S. Army Advisorto the 7th ARVN Division, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. Planned to take advantage of helicopter mobility and the combat power of the APCs, it achieved surprise, catching a larger than expected communist force in its net. More importantly, the Viet Cong, hurt by the success of new government weapons and tactics, had decided to stand and fight to retain their credibility; for once the elusive guerrillas were in a position where they could be destroyed. But what should have been a major government victory turned into a fiasco through Diem's commanders' ineptitude, obstructionism and double-dealing. At the climax of the battle, Viet Cong machine gunners drove off the hitherto invincible M-113 APCs with hand grenades, in a desperate counterattack. Even then, an ARVN victory was in prospect, for the Viet Cong were surrounded on three sides and unable to retreat in daylight across open rice paddies in the face of air attack. But that prospect was dashed by the ARVN Division commander who, over Vann's livid protests, ordered the paratroop battalion held in reserve for just such a contingency to be dropped on the wrong side of the village, leaving the Viet Cong an open escape route. Vann decided to take his case discreetly but directly to the press; nor was he alone in this Correspondents such as Malcolm Browne, Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam began to question official MACV optimism; it was the beginning of the credibility gap.
The adverse effects of the Diems' ineptitude and miscalculation did not end with military failure against the Viet Cong. Suspicious of all who did not share their Catholic faith, and having enjoyed success in suppressing the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, they embarked on an anti-Buddhist campaign. They were egged on by extremist elements within the Buddhist community, perhaps encouraged by communist agents provocateurs, but Buddhist grievances were real enough and the Diems needed little provocation. In May, troops in Hue opened fire on a crowd celebrating the birth of the Buddha, and Army units were shortly raiding pagodas across the country. The response was as dramatic as it was unexpected: on 11 June, 1963, Buddhist monk Quang Due calmly assumed the lotus position at a busy Saigon intersection, prayed as an assistant poured gasoline Over him, and calmly struck a match. Hisself-immolation before press photographers, who had been tipped off to be present, was the first of several. Madam Nhu's outrageous statements lent dignity to the suicides.