I found the following anecdote in some business notes from years ago:

Colin Powell tells a story from his Vietnam War experiences. An Army outpost was stationed in a very vulnerable location, but the resulting casualties were deemed necessary in order to provide defence for an essential airfield nearby.

Meanwhile, the Air Force's planes were continually under attack every time they landed or took off, but the resulting casualties were deemed necessary in order to provide supplies for an essential army base nearby.

And of course, no one knows why, other than to defend and supply each other, either the base or the airfield were needed in the first place. It sounds like a sick joke, but is apparently true.

There's of course no attribution of source.

Did General Powell tell such a story, and if so, is it actually true?

I've done quite a few searches for various keywords for this and have always found nothing. That makes it easy to dismiss, but I'd like to know for sure it's not a real thing.


@justCal found this:

He soon went north to join a 400-man battalion of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). Hieu, the Vietnamese officer who was his counterpart, was a good and capable man, but with shaky English. Colin asked him why the compound where they were staying was at the foot of a mountain, where it was vulnerable to enemy attack. Hieu said this outpost was very important. Colin pressed him: Why is it located here? Hieu said to protect the local airfield. Colin asked why the airfield was important, and Hieu said it was needed to resupply the outpost. It was a kind of circular reasoning Colin met repeatedly in Vietnam.
Colin Powell: The Son of Jamaican Immigrants Made Good | by Andrew Szanton

This version differs slightly in that some people are aware of the situation.

But again, it's anecdotal and without reference to a source.


2 Answers 2


The anecdote is directly from Colin Powell's memoirs, pg. 81 of My American Journey.

I won't repeat the details, but will follow up with Powell's summary of the situation:

From my training at Fort Bragg, I knew our formal role here. We were to establish a "presence", a word with a nice sophisticated ring. More specifically, we were supposed to engage the Viet Cong to keep them from moving through the A Shau Valley and fomenting their insurgency in the populated coastal provinces. But Hieu's words were the immediate reality. The base camp at A Shau was there to protect an airstrip that was there to supply the outpost.

So the situation existed, and is part of Colin Powell's memoirs concerning his time in Viet Nam.

A couple of points usually seem to get glossed over when this is brought up. An earlier paragraph on the same page cited above points out the location of this base (emphasis mine):

Directly behind A Shau, a mountain loomed over us. I pointed toward it, and Hieu said with a grin, "Laos." From that mountainside, the enemy could almost roll rocks down on us.

So it may seem strange to establish an outpost on some mountainside, but if that mountainside is the border to another country, a country through which troops and supplies were known to pass, its location seems somewhat more logical.

Another point is can be seen by looking into to history of the Vietnamese officer Powell is speaking with, Nguyễn Văn Hiếu Looking over this officers command, a pattern of the use of fast strikes using Rangers and Airborne and other Special Forces troops is notable. Having remote bases in remote locations from which to strike in a war known for its guerilla tactics, seems again somewhat logical to me.

(There is an interview on historynet.com where Collins admits the airfield allows further operations, but I am cut off on that web site now without subscribing, so can't properly cite that interview)

But I am far from an expert on military behavior, and bottom line is that the question was did Powell make a certain statement concerning this base, which he certainly did. The rest is for, well, historians to debate...

  • As you say and as I say in my answer, there are reasons for such an outpost to be established and for an airstrip to be used for something else than just supplying it Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 16:58

There are some elements that make this quote sounds imaginary.

First, the fact that only two elements are involved: ONE outpost and ONE airfield: of course, one outpost is not enough to cover an entire airfield from ennemy's approach. An entire circle of defense is needed to defend an airfield. Outpost would not be isolated.

Second element, the lack of usefulness: the only case in Vietnam I could think about for such an isolated outpost to exist would be:

  • The isolated outpost defends a loyal civilian settlement from the Viet-Cong guerilla
  • The isolated outpost is an artillery "firebase", a tactic that indeed extensively used air supply, but was not used to defend airfields

So overall there must be a reason for the isolated outpost to exist.

However, there could be case in which an airfield is established and is only there to supply the circle of defense made up to defend it, with no interest for the zone in which they are because no patrolling is done around the airfield. This was the case for the French airfield at Dien Bien Phu

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