The Amazing Story of Task Force Builder

Building Schools in the Vietnam War conflict

"Doing Good in a Bad War"

"Vietnam was not a military failure, it was a marketing failure"



Excerpts from the book
"A Terrible Beauty"

"My colonel had always been serious and stern. Now, as he signed off from our radio transmission, his voice choked up.  "Aha, he does care," I thought, smiling to myself. Then I also signed off, "Builder Six Out." I realized that my colonel thought he was saying goodbye to me and my men. He was sixty miles away. My sixty-man unit was surrounded by five thousand North Vietnamese regulars. Darkness was approaching, and with it would come the attack.

I hustled off. I had work to do. We were going to put up one hell of a fight. And somehow, way deep within myself, I knew that we would survive. I just didn't know how."


"The tragedy of the Vietnam War was that it was the Good Guys fighting the Good Guys"


"Vietnam was a mystical experience. What we experienced transcended the normal experience of life. My soldiers and I were forever transformed."


"There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come." 

Victor Hugo

From the book:  "Therefore what we were doing was important, not only to our country, but for these wonderful rural Vietnamese who deserved a better life. For them, building schools so that their children could be educated was a dream-come-true. My soldier's willingness to endure many daily hardships and dangers reflected their belief in the incredible importance of what we were doing."


The Legend of Task Force Builder


 John Paul Vann was a visionary and legendary official of the US State Department during the US involvement in Vietnam. A New York Times bestseller, "A Bright and Shining Lie" tells of his heroic struggles to change the US strategy in Vietnam. 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. This would counter the enemy propaganda that we were just there as foreign invaders.

John Paul Vann was an expert in Oriental affairs. He knew the Vietnamese culture intimately. He realized how important 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. Vann 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.

Unfortunately, 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 better-armed forces could stage traditional WWII maneuvers. He was not interested in Vann’s ideas.

So John Paul Vann got nowhere. 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, but he was also a true patriot. As a veteran of the Korean War, George realized the validity of Vann’s concepts. So Lt. Colonel George Gray approached his bosses and proposed building schools in the Mekong Delta area as an experimental program, hoping ultimately to expand the idea 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. Moreover, 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.

Under this experimental program, soldiers built a total of eighteen schools, three village hospitals and three village marketplaces. Though widely heralded as a success, the program was ignored by the military command, and 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, the strategy of just “killing the enemy” did not work in Vietnam. Had the military command combined their traditional military tactics with Vann’s ambitious program, the outcome of the Vietnam War could have been quite different.

Somewhere today, a young man from a poor, isolated mountain village in rural Afghanistan is being approached by propaganda cadres who want him to help fight the “American aggressors”. If he knows that the Americans are going to build a school to educate his younger brothers and sisters, they’ll have a much harder job convincing him to join them.

It was recently determined 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. Today, some forty-years later, our schools still stand as mute testimony to the nobility of our actions. And we are remembered.


This article was prepared by Michael D. Miller, who as a captain, commanded Task Force Builder, the US Army force that built eighteen schools in Vietnam for Lt. Colonel George B. Gray and John Paul Vann during one year (1967-1968). A Terrible Beauty: The Story of Task Force Builder gives new insight into the Vietnam War. Mike is a 1964 graduate of West Point. He was awarded the Legion of Merit in Vietnam, and at that time he was the only captain in the US Army to be so honored. He also has a Masters degree in business from Harvard University.

A book has been written about Task Force Builder. Mike can be reached at Our website is Mike's author bio is here: Author Bio

A Terrible Beauty; ISBN: 978-1-4675-1183-4





SGT Gadberry starts a wall

Everybody pitches in



         My puppy Builder

Almost-finished School



ISBN 978-1-4675-1183-4


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Quote from Sun Yat-sen:

"If you are going to swim in foreign waters, make friends with the fishes in those waters."



Quote from von Clausewitz:

"If you are going to war with a foreign people, you must make friends with them or you will be defeated."



Quote from Niccolo Machiavelli's book The Prince:

"No matter how powerful one's armies, in order to enter a country one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants."



Links    Tags: best books about the vietnam war stories, the vietnam war books, vietnam war novels, military adventure, war and military, greatest adventure, third 3d world education, schools in third world countries. ISBN: 978-1-4675-1183-4


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