Civic Action: The Marine Corps Experience in Vietnam, Part I
Peter Brush, Library Science, University of Kentucky
According to a 1939 US 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. 1 This early Clausewitzian doctrine served the US 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 force threat, while the constructive phase was concerned with the political, economic, social, and ideological aspects of the struggle.
The Marines understood this duality best. According to British counterinsurgency expert Sir 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." 2 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. Sir Robert Thompson wrote, "Normally communist behaviour towards the mass of the population is irreproachable and the use of terror is highly selective." 3 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 US began Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Many of the USAF and SVNAF fighter-bombers making those attacks were based at Danang, whose airfield was considered vulnerable to retaliatory attacks by the PLAF (the military forces of the National Liberation Front). With an insufficient logistical base in place to support the arrival of heavily armed US 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 US servicemen in Vietnam, some 16,500 Marines and 3,500 Army troopers in defensive missions; the rest functioned in an advisory capacity to the ARVN 4 and as airmen flying and supporting combat missions. The Marines would be 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 US Army.
By 1966 Westmoreland had completed the construction of the requisite support infrastructure. The Army, denied the opportunity to invade North Vietnam, applied the doctrine of conventional operations and force structure 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." 5 Whether one sees the US 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. 6
The US government seemed cognizant 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:
Both the US 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 8 would be necessary to remove the political influence of the NLF, 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 support mechanisms. For the Army, large unit operations were felt to be the key to victory, and small unit operations were largely ignored.
The US Marine Corps had adopted a strategic approach that emphasized pacification over large-unit battles almost from the outset of their arrival in Vietnam. Previous Marine deployment as colonial infantry 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. 9 These lessons were spelled out in the U.S. Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940):
This was not merely a policy of altruism; one Marine general noted that there were 100,000 Vietnamese within 81mm mortar range of the Da Nang 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. 11
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, organization 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." 12 Two years after the initiation of CAP a US Department of Defense report noted that the Hamlet Evaluation System security score gave CAP-protected villages a score 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. 13
The casualty rate for CAP units was lower than that of units conducting search-and-destroy missions. British counterinsurgency expert Gen. Richard Clutterbuck noted that although Marine casualties were high, they were only fifty percent of the casualties of the normal infantry battalions being maneuvered by helicopters on large scale operations. 14 The extension rate of Marine participants in CAP exceeded sixty percent, and there were no recorded desertions of Popular Force soldiers from CAP units. 15 The NLF never regained control of a hamlet which was protected by a CAP unit.16 By the end of 1968 there were 114 CAP units in I Corps, providing security for 400,000 Vietnamese people, or fifteen percent of the population of I Corps.17
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. 18
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. 19
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."
The activities of the combined unit settled into a regular pattern. The police left combat to the Marines and PFs. Chief Lam considered his police to be highly trained specialists and concentrated on intelligence matters, leaving night patrols and ambushes to the others. Initially, the Marines and PFs were distrustful of each other, but over time came to respect each others' 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 children's 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." 20 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-force Viet Cong joined with sixty soldiers from the 5th Company of the 409th NVA Battalion in an attack on the fort, which was defended by six Marines (the others were away from the fort on patrol) and twelve PFs. 21 Five Americans and six PFs were killed, 22 but the position held. The day after the fight the commander of the 1st Marine Division entered the smoldering 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:
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. 24 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. 25 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 PLAF 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 US 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 rice collection, taxation, proselytizing, and recruitment. NLF attempts to reestablish 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. By December, 1967, the US Army and ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines moved into the area while the 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, the wind and rain having caused the sand bags and punji stakes to cave in and wash away. But the village was intact, and survived the fighting.
The Marines knew they held no inherent right to institutional perpetuity within the US 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:
Marine civic action was not limited to the utilization of military assets in Vietnam. Organized Marine Corps Reserve units in the United States also made significant 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 organization similar to the 4-H Program in the United States. 27