According to a 1939 U.S. Army Field Manual, the ultimate objective of all military operations is the destruction of the enemy's armed forces in battle. Decisive defeat in battle breaks the enemy's will to continue fighting and forces him to sue for peace. This doctrine served the U.S. well in World War II, but by the 1960's the teachings of Mao Tse-Tung, Lin Piao and Che Guevara became relevant to an understanding of the nature of "people's wars" or "wars of national liberation." The most effective strategy for opposing communism in wars of this type was of a dual nature. The destructive phase would address the conventional military threat, while the constructive phase was concerned with the political, economic, social, and ideological aspects of the struggle.
The Marines understood this duality well. According to British counterinsurgency expert Robert Thompson, "Of all the United States forces [in Vietnam] the Marine Corps alone made a serious attempt to achieve permanent and lasting results in their tactical area of responsibility by seeking to protect the rural population."
This appreciation of the value of pacification was part of the historical baggage that the Marines brought with them to Vietnam.
The Americans and South Vietnamese seemed to understand the importance of the relationship between the government and the civilian population, but were unsuccessful in translating this understanding into practice. With the Communists, their self-interest demanded that they impose severe controls on the use of violence toward the population. Robert Thompson claimed that,
"Normally communist behaviour towards the mass of the population is irreproachable and the use of terror is highly selective." To a much greater degree than the American and South Vietnamese (GVN) troops, the Communists depended on the goodwill of the Vietnamese rural population.
In February, 1965, the U.S. began Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Many of the USAF and South Vietnamese aircraft making those attacks were based at Da Nang, whose airfield was considered vulnerable to retaliatory attacks by the Communists. With an insufficient logistical base in place to support the arrival of heavily armed U.S. Army units, it was decided to dispatch Marine Corps forces. The Marines were able to go ashore where no port facilities or airfields were available, and it was not necessary to stockpile supplies ahead of landing. By mid-1965 there were 51,000 U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. 16,500 Marines and 3,500 Army troopers were in defensive missions while the rest functioned in an advisory capacity to the ARVN and as airman flying and supporting combat missions. The Marines were assigned responsibility for I Corps, the military region of South Vietnam comprising the five northern-most provinces. The remaining three military regions were the responsibility of the U.S. Army.
By 1966 Westmoreland had completed the construction of the necessary logistical infrastructure. The Army, denied the opportunity to invade North Vietnam, applied the doctrine of conventional operations that had worked against the Japanese and Germans in World War II and against the Chinese in Korea: the efficient application of massive firepower. The goal of this search and destroy strategy was the attrition of insurgent forces and their support systems at a rate faster than the enemy could replace them, either by infiltration from North Vietnam or by recruitment internally. The strategy of attrition offered the prospect of winning the war more quickly than with traditional counterinsurgency operations.
Westmoreland's strategy notwithstanding, the Communists were largely successful in controlling the fighting during the war. General Lewis Walt, commander of the Marines in Vietnam, noted,
"The fact is that every enlargement of U.S. military action has been a specific and measured response to escalation by the enemy."
Whether one sees the U.S. as leading this escalation or merely responding to it, as with the strategic, so too was the tactical; over 80 percent of the firefights were initiated by the Communists.
The U.S. government seemed aware of the relative value of pacification efforts - programs designed to bring security and government control and services to the countryside. In 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offered the following evaluation of the situation in Vietnam:
“The large-unit operations war, which we know best how to fight and where we have had our successes, is largely irrelevant to pacification as long as we do not have it. Success in pacification depends on the interrelated functions of providing physical security, destroying the VC apparatus, motivating the people to cooperate and establishing responsive local government.”
Both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps understood that the war in Vietnam could not be won solely by defeating the large units of the enemy. Attention to counterinsurgency operations would be necessary to remove the political influence of the National Liberation Front, particularly in the rural areas of South Vietnam. The Army remained convinced throughout that the emphasis should properly remain focused on conventional warfare and the interdiction of the enemy's external supply mechanisms. For the Army, large unit operations were felt to be the key to victory, and small unit operations were largely ignored.
The U.S. Marine Corps had adopted a strategic approach the emphasised pacification over large-unit battles almost from the outset of their arrival in Vietnam. Previous Marine deployments in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and especially Nicaragua had elements of civil development and an emphasis upon the training of local militia.
Marine General Walt, himself trained by Marines active in these Caribbean campaigns, held that many of the lessons learned in the "Banana Wars" were applicable to Vietnam. These lessons were spelled out in the U.S. Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940):
“In regular warfare, the responsible officers simply strive to attain a method of producing the maximum physical effect with the force at their disposal. In small wars, the goal is to gain decisive results with the least application of force and the consequent minimum loss of life. The end aim is the social, economic, and political development of the people subsequent to the military defeat of the enemy insurgent forces. In small wars, tolerance, sympathy, and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.”
This was not merely a humanitarian policy; one Marine general noted that there were 100,000 Vietnamese within 81mm mortar range of the Danang airfield. Anything that would instill a friendly attitude toward Marines among the civilian population would clearly help carry out the more conventional mission of the Marines.
Shortly after the arrival in force of the Marines in 1965, a program called Combined Action Platoon was initiated. Each CAP unit consisted of a fifteen-man rifle squad assigned to a particular hamlet in the Marine tactical area of responsibility. CAP units worked with platoons of local Vietnamese militia (Popular Forces, or PFs). CAP Marines were volunteers with combat experience who were given basic instruction on Vietnamese culture and customs. These combined units conducted night patrols and ambushes, gradually making the local Vietnamese forces assume a greater share of responsibility for village security. Their mission was the destruction of the NLF infrastructure, organisation of local intelligence networks, and the military training of the PFs. CAPs were immediately successful. General Walt described the results as being "far beyond our most optimistic hopes."
Two years after the initiation of CAP a Department of Defense report noted that the Hamlet Evaluation System security score gave CAP-protected villages a rating of 2.95 out of a possible 5.0 maximum, compared with an average of 1.6 for all I Corps villages. There was a direct correlation between the time a CAP stayed in a village and the degree of security achieved, with CAP-protected villages progressing twice as fast as those occupied by the Popular Forces militia alone.
The casualty rate for CAP units was lower than that of units conducting search-and-destroy missions. British general Richard Clutterbuck noted that although Marine casualties were high, they were only 50% of the casualties of the normal infantry battalions being manoeuvred by helicopters on large scale operations. The extension rate of Marine participants in CAP exceeded 60%, and there were no recorded desertions of Popular Force soldiers from CAP units. The NLF never regained control of a hamlet which was protected by a CAP unit.
By the end of 1968 there were 114 CAP units in I Corps, providing security for 400,000 Vietnamese people, or 15% of the population of I Corps.
One of the superior combat narratives of the Vietnam War, The Village, by F. J. West, Jr., describes the history of one CAP unit in a typical Vietnamese village:
General Lewis Walt, commander of the III Marine Amphibious Force, was in the habit of asking his district advisors to comment on the effectiveness of Marine battalions in I Corps. In June, 1966, Walt visited Major Richard Braun, advisor to the Binh Son district chief in Quang Ngai Province. Braun told Walt that the Marines would be more effective if they worked with the Vietnamese rather than searching for Viet Cong on their own. When Walt asked for specific recommendations, Braun suggested sending a platoon of Marines to the village of Binh Nghia.
The ARVN had been chased out of Binh Nghia two years previously. A platoon of the Viet Cong lived there regularly, and often a company or more would come in to resupply or rest. Binh Nghia belonged to the NLF, and was the full-time government of five of the seven hamlets in the region and controlled the boat traffic moving on the Tra Bong River.
On 10 June, 1966, Corporal William Beebe led a group of Marine volunteers from their base camp to the Vietnamese village of Binh Nghia. All the Marines were seasoned combat veterans who had been chosen on their ability to get along with the villagers.
With the arrival of the Marines, the village police chief felt strong enough to move his security forces into the village proper from a nearby outpost. Chief Ap Thanh Lam called a meeting of the villagers, explained that the Americans and his men had to come to stay, and asked for volunteers to construct a new fortified headquarters. Forty civilians joined the Marines, policemen, and Popular Forces in constructing a fort. Work progressed on the fort by day, and by night combined Marine-PF patrols went hunting for the enemy. Beebe later commented on his early experiences in Binh Nghia: "I still get shaky thinking of those first few nights....It was nothing [previous experiences in combat] compared to that ville. That was the most scared I've ever been in my life."
Initially, the Marines and PFs were distrustful of each other, but over time came to respect one another's particular strengths. The Marines used the PFs as "eyes and ears" because they could not always depend on them to advance with the Marines. But the PFs were valuable at point due to "the belief that a Vietnamese soldier could spot a Viet Cong at night before an American could." From the beginning the Marines could shoot better than the Viet Cong; "Long hours on the ranges of boot camp....had seen to that. And after hundreds of patrols in the village the Marines were learning to move as well as the Viet Cong."
The Marines liked duty in the village. They enjoyed the admiration of the PFs who were unwilling to challenge the Viet Cong alone. They were pleased that the villagers were impressed because the Marines hunted the Viet Cong as the Viet Cong for years had hunted the PFs and village officials. The Marines were aware that the village children did not avoid them, and that the childrens' parents were more than polite. The Marines "had accepted too many invitations to too many meals in too many homes to believe they were not liked by many and tolerated by most." Their conduct had won them admiration and status within the Vietnamese village society in which they were working. This combined action platoon would pay a high price for their success, for most of them would die at Binh Nghia.
In September, 1966, the NLF attempted to force the Marines out of the village. Eighty local Viet Cong joined with sixty North Vietnamese Army in an attack on the fort, which was defended by six Marines (the others were away from the fort on patrol) and twelve PFs. Five Americans and six PFs were killed, but the position held. The day after the fight the commander of the 1st Marine Division entered the smouldering fort to speak to the Marines. General Lowell English remarked that perhaps the combined platoon was too light for the job, too exposed, and overmatched from the start. He was considering pulling them out; they could stay at the fort, or go.
One Marine stated the position of the group:
“The general was a nice guy. He was trying to give us an out. But we couldn't leave. What would we have said to the PFs after the way we pushed them to fight the Cong? We had to stay, There wasn't one of us who wanted to leave.”
Once during a fight the Marines called in an artillery strike on thirty Viet Cong. The single round fell three hundred yards short, destroying a thatched hut and killing two civilians. Even though the combined unit Marines were not responsible for the error, they saw too much of the villagers and lived too closely with them not to be affected by personal grief. Rifles and grenades were to be the weapons of the Americans at Binh Nghia. The village stayed intact throughout some of the heaviest fighting in Vietnam - there was never an airstrike called for Binh Nghia during the war. Although the region was marked as "VC" on military operational maps, they were also marked in red as "out of bounds" for harassment and interdiction artillery fire because American ground forces patrolled the area.
By March, 1967, it appeared that the enemy had modified their strategy toward Binh Son district in general and toward Binh Nghia in particular. The VC previously had sought out contact with the combined unit, but now avoided the patrols. Vietnamese military intelligence reported that the NLF political cadres had attended a conference in January, where it had been decided to no longer fight the spreading pacification efforts with local troops. Rather, the guerrillas were to gather intelligence and act as guides and reinforcements for the main forces. At the January conference the Binh Nghia combined unit had been denounced more bitterly than any other U.S. or GVN program. The unit was hurting the NLF militarily; its patrols and ambushes prevented NLF use of the Tra Bong River and blocked one route to the air base at Chu Lai. Its presence impeded food collection, taxation, and recruitment. NLF attempts to re-establish control over the area after the attack on the fort in September were a failure.
By October, 1967, it was felt by District and Marine Headquarters that the job of the combined unit at Binh Nghia was finished. The village was pacified and the Marines were needed elsewhere. In December, 1967, U.S. Army and Korean Marines moved into the area while the U.S. Marines moved further north toward the DMZ. A captain from District Headquarters felt that security in the area had not improved, as the Army troops were too far in the hills and the Koreans were behind a massive defensive barrier.
By 1971 the war had passed by Binh Nghia. The Americans were gone. The Viet Cong guerrillas and local force soldiers were gone. The fort constructed by the combined unit and the Vietnamese was gone. But the village was intact, and had survived the fighting.
The Marines knew they held no inherent right to a perpetual existence within the U.S. armed forces. The Corps had remained a separate service because of its performance in previous conflicts. For the Marines, a reading of the primers for Marxist guerrilla warfare and revolution provided evidence that wars of national liberation would be the principle means of exerting Communist political and military influence. As a consequence, a comprehensive counterinsurgency program must include a serious commitment to civic action-style pacification.
CAP units were felt to be an efficient allocation of Marine assets:
“When the guns are quiet, destructive combat power is dormant; the commander limited to only this dimension of warfare is hobbled. Here civic action, the constructive aspect of combat power, gains increased significance.
Marine civic action was not limited to the utilisation of military assets in Vietnam. Organised Marine Corps Reserve units in the United States also made contributions. Marine reserves spent $80,000 on elementary school "kits" containing pencils, notebooks, erasers, scissors, and other essential school items. $33,800 was spent on brick-making machines, $7,200 on rice threshers, $3,100 toward the construction of dams to increase agricultural production through irrigation, $32,095 for civilian hospital construction, and over $3,000 for the purchase of water pumps to provide drinking water. Money from the Marine Corps Reserve Civic Action Fund also bought emergency food, toys for children, and supported the Vietnamese 4-T Program, an organisation similar to the 4-H Program in the United States.
Marine civic action included the provision of medical care for Vietnamese civilians. U.S. Navy doctors and corpsmen working with the Marines provided over four million medical treatments and trained about 9,000 Vietnamese nationals in nursing skills. Marine helicopters and land vehicles evacuated 19,000 sick or injured civilians to civilian and U.S. military treatment facilities. Marines assisted the Vietnamese in the construction of schools and additional classrooms. Thirteen million meals were provided to refugees, and over 400,000 pounds of clothing were distributed by Marines. Other aspects of civic action in the Marine area of responsibility included the construction of wells, bridge building, repair of irrigation facilities, animal husbandry projects and agricultural seed purchases, and the distribution of carpentry and blacksmith tools to the civilian population.
For the Army, pacification remained an added duty, and not a primary one. Resources committed to civic action were resources not available for the accomplishment of the military's major mission. The Army's aggressive approach to pacification is reflected in the Strategic Hamlet Program, the forcible relocation of Vietnamese peasants into armed refugee camps around the district towns. Having drained Mao Tse-tung's "sea of people" in which the guerrilla "fish" swam, massive firepower would destroy the remaining enemy inhabitants in these free-fire zones. For the Army, the strategic hamlet program "represented the last, best hope for a . . . civic-action- oriented solution; if it failed, the decks would have been cleared for the implementation of the military approach." Given that the Strategic Hamlet Program was a demonstrated failure even before U.S. Army ground units arrived in Vietnam, it is not surprising that the Army put but minimal faith in the efficacy of civic action.
Army leadership was united in their disapproval of the Marine CAP program. Westmoreland felt that pacification should be primarily a South Vietnamese task. "I simply did not have enough numbers to put a squad of Americans in every village and hamlet; that would have been fragmenting resources and exposing them to defeat in detail." Westmoreland felt Marine tactics were insufficiently aggressive, that their practices "left the enemy free to come and go as he pleased throughout the bulk of the region and, when and where he chose, to attack the periphery of the [Marine] beachheads." General Harry Kinnard, Commander of the Army 1st Cavalry, was "absolutely disgusted" with the Marines. "I did everything I could to drag them out and get them to fight. . . . They just wouldn't play. They just would not play. They don't know how to fight on land, particularly against guerrillas." Westmoreland's operations officer, General William Depuy, observed that "the Marines came in and just sat down and didn't do anything. They were involved in counterinsurgency of the deliberate, mild sort."
Marine General Victor Krulak was the most articulate spokesman of pacification. Krulak was a former special assistant for counterinsurgency to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and, by 1965, the Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. He felt that Westmoreland's strategy of attrition would fail because it was Hanoi's game. The Communists' strategy in Krulak's view was to seek "to attrite U.S. forces through the process of violent, close-quarters combat which tends to diminish the effectiveness of our supporting arms." By killing and wounding enough American soldiers over time they would "erode our national will and cause us to cease our support of the GVN." For Krulak, a strategy of pacification was the only way to succeed, and in 1966 presented his views to Secretary of Defense NcNamara in an attempt to force Westmoreland to adopt a pacification strategy for the whole of South Vietnam. In the summer of 1966 a meeting was arranged between Krulak and President Johnson. After hearing Krulak describe his plan for winning the war in Vietnam, Johnson "got to his feet, put his arm around my shoulder, and propelled me firmly toward the door."
In the test of wills between Westmoreland and Krulak, the Army general possessed a formidable weapon - a general's fourth star. Westmoreland was popular with the press, the public, and especially with President Johnson. Eventually the Marines gave up their attempts to more widely implement their pacification strategy and fell in line with the Army.
It is ironic that the Marines, who favoured a long-term, small-unit approach to combat in Vietnam were ordered by the Army to implement DYE MARKER. This plan called for the construction of a barrier along the DMZ employing minefields, sensors, and barbed wire to reduce NVA infiltration from North Vietnam. Marines and Navy Seabees provided the manpower to strip a 600-meter belt, or "trace," of its vegetation, taking large numbers of casualties in the progress. Eventually the project would be abandoned after the investment of 757,520 man-days and 114,519 equipment-hours because Westmoreland felt that "To have gone through with constructing the barrier, even in modified form that I proposed, would have been to invite enormous casualties."
In many ways, Marine Corps strategy and tactics were more appropriate to the reality of the Vietnam battlefield than those of the U.S. Army. Civic action might have made a difference had it been instituted on a wider scale. The CAPs were not uniformly successful and were too scattered to have a maximum impact. Several months after the CAP program was instituted the U.S. noted a large enemy buildup in the Demilitarized Zone. Westmoreland decided this area should receive the focus of the U.S. effort in I Corps, which obligated the Marines to move northward. Civic action remained a side-show to U.S. efforts to wage conventional war. To acknowledge the effectiveness of pacification would deny the appropriateness of U.S. military doctrine and ignore the historical successes of the U.S. Army. Civic action was a time-consuming process, and time was a precious commodity in an industrial society.
Civic action had promise. Had it been adopted on a wide scale the war would have been different, but it is a matter of speculation as to whether it would have ultimately affected the outcome. Less speculative is the applicability of the strategy and tactics that prevailed:
“It was never clearly understood by the American administration, and certainly not by the Army, that the whole American effort, civilian and military, had to be directed towards the establishment of a viable and stable South Vietnamese government and state, i.e., the creation of an acceptable alternative political solution to the reunification with North Vietnam under a communist government. Instead, through the bombing of the North and a war of attrition within the South, the whole effort was directed to the military defeat of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese divisions infiltrated into South Vietnam. Even if such a military defeat had been possible, it would not have achieved victory without a political solution.”
The U.S. Army in Vietnam was a force configured to wage warfare in Europe. Its insistence on waging large-unit battles ensured that the enemy would avoid the deployment of its forces in large units when it was to its advantage to do so. The utilisation of massive firepower to inflict large numbers of casualties on the enemy resulted in civilian casualties and social disruption. The U.S. was seen as an ally of the GVN; neither government was seen as an ally by the civilian population. The more the U.S. took control of the war to avoid the defeat of the ARVN by the Communists, the greater the ability of Hanoi to portray the U.S. as neo-colonialists and the GVN as a puppet regime.
With the end of the Cold War the humanitarian functions of the U.S. military will assume increased importance in low-intensity conflicts. Recent troop deployments to Iraqi Kurdistan, Bangladesh, and Haiti are testimony to the utility of civic action. The non-traditional use of military force represents a fusion of political and military assets that can further the foreign policy goals of the United States.
NOTE: An edited version of this article appeared in the February 1997 issue of Vietnam magazine. In the editorial in that issue, Colonel Summers said, "Although I would take issue with his conclusions, ignoring as they do the last seven years of the war during which guerrillas played an insignificant part, Marine Corps veteran Peter Brush's examination of the Marine Corps approach to counterinsurgency is a valuable addition to an understanding of the war." (p. 6) -- Peter Brush.
Copyright © 1997 Peter Brush. Non-commercial distribution for educational purposes permitted if document is unaltered. Any commercial use, or storage in any commercial BBS is strictly prohibited without written consent.
Courtesy of Pete Jones - - the SOTCW Vietnam War Study Group