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PF troops and Marine Corporal Gilbert J. Davis practice ambush techniques outside the compound of Mobile Training Team 1 near Tam Ky on July 28, 1968. The Vietnamese received two weeks of Marine training from the CAPs (National Archives).

Search-and-destroy operations in Vietnam failed as a working doctrine, and the strategy of attrition cost the needless deaths of thousands of American service personnel. That policy was based on principles the United States had employed in previous conventional wars, using superior American mobility and firepower to seize the initiative and inflict heavy losses on enemy units. The American policy and strategy during the Vietnam War should have been the pacification of the villages and hamlets, resulting in the destruction of the Viet Cong and their infrastructure. That could have been accomplished by the ‘clear-and-hold’ tactics that the Marine Corps favored, using combined action platoons (CAPs). In his book Strange War, Strange Strategy, Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt argued, ‘The struggle was in the rice paddies — in and among the people, not passing through, but living among them night and day — a journey with them toward a better life long overdue.’

As a military plan, attrition required wearing down the enemy’s personnel and materiel until he lost the capacity to sustain his military effort or his will to fight. There are two principal reasons for the failure of the attrition strategy in Vietnam. First, the NVA and the VC could control the pace and intensity of the battle and therefore manage their own attrition. They initiated approximately 80 percent of all platoon- and company-size engagements. When any one of those battles started to turn against them, they simply pulled back to safe areas. Second, North Vietnam was willing to absorb large losses and still continue the war almost indefinitely. As it turned out, it was the United States that was not willing to absorb losses. Ho Chi Minh had taunted the French with his own version of attrition when he told them, ‘You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours but you will lose and I will win.’ For Hanoi, the struggle was a test of wills rather than a test of strength, and the end justified any means.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earl Wheeler and the staff of MACV failed to understand the revolutionary character of the war and the value of the key concept of nation building. The United States placed little importance on the establishment of a democratic form of government in South Vietnam or the pacification of the populace. A memorandum sent in 1965 by General Wheeler to the members of his staff emphasized that the problems in Southeast Asia were not political but military. In contrast, retired French General Andr Beaufre, who had lived and served in Indochina, told the French high command in 1950 that the war could not be won militarily because it stemmed from political causes and could only be resolved by political means. Beaufre also said that he had discussed his views with General William C. Westmoreland and advised him to stop the ‘large offensive operations and to come back to the more modest strategy of the defense of the rice fields of South Vietnam.’

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, took the American military leadership to task for its performance in Vietnam, especially for the operational focus on destroying enemy troops rather than protecting the friendly population. Sir Robert Thompson, the noted British counterinsurgency expert, stated in his book No Exit From Vietnam that in his judgment ‘the American military leadership, failing to understand the nature of war, failed to adopt the correct counter strategy toward the VC and North Vietnamese, who, for their part succeeded in making the war a test of will rather than of strength.’

Some American military critics also had reservations about the effectiveness of the conventional, offensive approach to the war. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Marine Generals Victor Krulak and Wallace Greene, and retired Army Lt. Gen. James Gavin all thought it was imperative to build up the ARVN and protect American installations rather than pursue a war of attrition. They believed American troops should have been deployed in coastal enclaves rather than conducting search-and-destroy and other types of missions that would actively engage the VC. The U.S. military, however, approached Vietnam as it did World War II and Korea, neglecting the political and social side of the conflict and never fully understanding that it was engaged in a people’s war that involved all segments of Vietnamese society.

After President Johnson approved Westmoreland’s March 1965 request for combat troops, 3,500 Marines landed on Vietnamese soil. The Marines hit the beach in the tradition of Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Inchon — but instead of being met by machine gun and mortar fire, they were met by the mayor of Da Nang, photographers and girls who placed flower leis around their necks. One month later there were 5,000 Marines in Vietnam, the majority from two infantry battalions and two helicopter squadrons. The deployment of Marines to the Da Nang area marked a crucial change in America’s role in Vietnam from adviser to combatant.

The specific role of the American troops and the exact tactics they would use had not been defined prior to their arrival in Vietnam. Would they assume static defensive positions, creating secure areas for the population? Or would they pursue the VC and the NVA forces in the countryside? H.R. McMasters, in his book Dereliction of Duty, wrote, ‘American soldiers, airmen, and Marines went to war in Vietnam without strategy or direction.’ It soon became apparent that MACV intended to conduct large-scale search-and-destroy type operations in what they termed ‘free-fire zones.’ There was, however, another approach: the Marine Corps’ strategy of combined action platoons.

Michael Peterson, in his book Combined Action Platoons: The Marines’ Other War in Vietnam, stated, ‘The CAP Marines waged war in the hamlets while the main force Army and Marine units all too often waged war on the hamlets.’ According to Peterson, the failure of the search-and-destroy and the free-fire zone approaches was implicit in a statement Westmoreland made to reporters as early as 1965. The MACV commander had said that the U.S. strategy gave the Vietnamese peasant three basic choices: He could stay close to his land, which was usually in a free-fire zone; he could join the VC, who were the targets in the free-fire zones; or he could move to an area under South Vietnamese control and become a refugee. One journalist inquired, ‘Doesn’t that give the villager only the choice of becoming a refugee?’

Westmoreland responded, ‘I expect a tremendous increase in the number of refugees.’ In effect, the United States had declared war against the peasant population of Vietnam.

The Marines, following MACV orders, conducted some search-and-destroy operations while at the same time experimenting with their ‘ink-blot,’ or clear-and-hold tactics in the northern provinces of South Vietnam. From that experience, the concept of combined action emerged and developed into a viable alternative to the large-unit battles and the attrition strategy. The Marines used past experience to build a base of trust with the local population, helping them defend their hamlets and villages, borrowing ideas from standard Communist insurgency doctrine — work with, eat with and sleep with the people. As Sir Robert Thompson commented in No Exit From Vietnam, ‘Of all the U.S. 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. Realizing that the support of the Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) in those villages was essential to the control over the area, the Marines devised the concept of ‘Combined Action Companies’ (later called platoons).’
A patrol from CAP D-5 passes through the village of Tan Than on September 12, 1967. In 1970 the Combined Action Program reached its peak, with 1,750 U.S. Marines and 3,000 PFs participating (National Archives).

A standard definition of military strategy is that it is the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure objectives of national policy by the application of force or the threat of force. More than 150 years ago Karl von Clausewitz wrote in On War, ‘The ends of strategy, in the final analysis, are those objectives that will finally lead to peace.’ To understand why, by these definitions, the United States failed to employ properly its forces in Vietnam, we must first look at the experience that influenced the strategies of search and destroy and of attrition.

American operations based on conventional methods made little real progress in defeating the VC or the NVA during the period from 1965 to 1968. MACV, nevertheless, continued to stand by the strategy of attrition as the only way to fight the war and win it quickly. The strategy of counterinsurgency and pacification operations would take too long and become too drawn out. Thus, America continued to try to replicate the massive firepower approach that had proved so successful in World War II, and to a lesser extent in Korea. But as Westmoreland argued in his book A Soldier Reports: ‘Critics presumably saw some alternative, for the essence of constructive criticism is alternative. Yet to my knowledge, nobody ever advanced a viable alternative that conformed to the American policy of confining the war within South Vietnam.’

But the commandant of the Marine Corps, General David M. Shoup, and General Krulak both offered constructive criticism and on more than one occasion presented alternatives directly to Westmoreland and McNamara. Their recommendations included the enclave strategy, the clear-and-hold or ink-blot strategy, and the Combined Action Program. These were all viable alternatives that conformed to the overall American policy of confining the ground war to South Vietnam.

The growth of the three enclaves in the north — Phu Bai, Da Nang and Chu Lai — produced the opportunity for the Marines to work among the population, seek out the Viet Cong guerrillas and bring a little stability to rich and populous areas, some of which had been under Communist control for a decade. From the Marine perspective, a pacification strategy had to complement a combat strategy. As Krulak said: ‘It is our conviction that if we can destroy the guerrilla fabric among the people, we will automatically deny the larger units the food, taxes, intelligence, and other support they need. At the same time, if the big units want to sortie out of the mountains and come down to where they can be cut up by supporting arms, the Marines are glad to take them on, but the real war is among the people and not among the mountains.’

General Walt stressed that one of the objectives of the war was to win the loyalty of the populace for the government, and the only way to achieve that objective was to eradicate the VC in the villages and hamlets. Getting to the point of actually initiating the controversial pacification concept of CAPs would not be easy. The path was one of interservice rivalry, politics and heated debates between the Marines and the MACV staff. Krulak personally went to McNamara and Johnson to request their backing for the strategy of pacification and counterinsurgency that would evolve into the Combined Action Program. Krulak had earlier stated in a memo to McNamara, ‘If killing is accompanied by the devastation of friendly areas, we may end up having done more harm than good.’

As William Corson stated it in The Betrayal, MACV’s response to CAP and the Marine pacification program was: ‘If you want to play around with such foolishness, you’ll have to eat the personnel spaces out of your own hide. No additional Marines will be made available to support combined action…we’ll starve you out.’

Despite MACV’s attitude, Marine CAPs steadily expanded and by 1967 had evolved into a separate organization with its own commanding officer and chain of command. This was not, of course, the first time Marines had conducted counterinsurgency and pacification by supporting local forces. The basis of the combined action approach had worked during the 1920s in Haiti, in Nicaragua and, probably most effectively, in Santo Domingo in what became known in Marine Corps history as the ‘Banana Wars.’ In Vietnam, half a century later, a similar approach again validated the concept, proving that the effectiveness of such units far exceeded what might be expected from their small numbers. In 1940 the Marine Corps issued a document called The Small Wars Manual, which stated, ‘In small wars the goal is to gain decisive results with the least application of force…the end aim is the social, economic, and political development of the people subsequent to the military defeat of the enemy insurgent.’

In August 1965, General Walt directed the commanding officer at Phu Bai to initiate a program that would place Marines in a few selected hamlets, each of which already had a platoon of local Vietnamese PF militia. As the Marines moved into these hamlets, they established rapport with the Vietnamese and started training the PFs in basic infantry skills. Generally, the PFs were poorly trained and had been ineffective against the VC.

The key to the CAP concept was a firm U.S. commitment to the Vietnamese people. Other American units stayed in their own combat bases, coming out against the VC units in company- and battalion-size operations that would often sweep through villages, disrupting life and destroying homes and property. The VC, if they were pushed out at all, would almost always come right back as soon as the Americans left. The security and confidence created by a Marine CAP established an entirely different dynamic on the ground. With Americans living in a village, the chances of indiscriminate bombing, artillery or mortars being fired on the village by American or Vietnamese units decreased. The platoons also consolidated intelligence-gathering activities, strengthened local institutions and promoted the government of South Vietnam. The CAP Marines were told, ‘Work yourselves out of a job’ by training the PFs to eventually operate on their own.

The most important Marine in a CAP was the squad leader, the sole local authority for the Marines. He usually was a corporal, but never higher than a sergeant. The average age of a CAP squad leader was 20.4. Since officers infrequently visited the units, the squad leader was responsible for all aspects of daily operations. Officially, a CAP was a PF unit with U.S. troops and their support. In almost all the units, however, the Marine squad leader was the commander, while the PF trung-si (sergeant) was considered the second-in-command. The human element was critical, and the individual Marines, because of their training and discipline, made the difference between success and failure.

Low strength was a major problem facing CAPs, as it was with most American military units during that period. The average CAP squad was at 60 percent strength, which meant it had seven Marines, one Navy corpsman and 22 PFs. Often the actual strength was even lower. MACV had ordered that no official slots be created to fill the CAP billets. As a result, the Marines were forced to take the men out of their infantry battalions. General Walt ordered that these men would be volunteers and would have to come from the top 10 percent. Infantry battalion commanders were understandably reluctant to transfer their best men into the program, since they seemingly received nothing in return.

Operational control of the individual platoons still rested with the nearest Marine battalion. Recognizing the potential of the combined action concept, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman, the commanding general of III Marine Amphibious Force, took over the program in October 1967 and assigned Lt. Col. William Corson as its first director.

At a 1999 Vietnam War symposium held at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, I asked Lt. Gen. Nguyen Dinh Uoc, a former NVA division commander and then a professor at the Vietnam Military History Institute, if he had ever encountered or heard about Marines who lived in the villages, assisting the people and teaching the PFs to fight. Uoc replied that he had, and that in his opinion the hamlets where Marines lived were of little help to his troops when they needed food, men or intelligence. He also stated that the NVA and the VC would attack the Marine hamlets only if they were an objective of a larger operation, such as the Tet Offensive, or if the villages disrupted their plans in any other way.

General Uoc further commented that the Americans and local forces always fought bravely, and said the local VC had told him that in most of these hamlets the Marines ‘had won the hearts of the people which is most important in a people’s war. The larger American forces did not win the hearts of the people. Just the opposite, they destroyed their land. If the Americans and government of Vietnam had won the hearts of the people, the war would have been more difficult for us.’

After the 1968 Tet Offensive, the CAPs started to adopt mobile tactics. Up to that point, such units had patrolled from a fixed compound in or near a hamlet. But now the platoons started to move constantly throughout their assigned tactical areas of responsibility. Within a year some 90 percent of the units switched to mobile operations. Life in a mobile CAP was much more rigorous, since the men had to carry everything they needed on their backs. Even so, most Marines were enthusiastic about the change because greater mobility meant increased safety and effectiveness.

During 1970 the Combined Action Program reached its peak strength of 1,750 enlisted Marines and 3,000 PFs. Francis McNamara, American consul in Vietnam and political adviser to the XXIV Corps, stated that the effectiveness of PF performance slipped dramatically once the CAP Marines pulled out as part of the overall drawdown of the III Marine Amphibious Force. The reduction in combat effectiveness occurred for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that American forces were reluctant to provide fire support to a Vietnamese calling on the radio. The danger was just too great of a VC calling in mortars or artillery on a friendly position. Also, without Marines present, the PFs tended to remain within the village, thereby limiting their operational effectiveness. As Maj. Gen. Leo J. Dulacki said in the fall of 1970: ‘One of the things that the Vietnamese generals are worried about are the CAPs. This is going to be a trauma to them….one of the final words General [Ngo Quang] Troung spoke to me was, ‘I don’t care what else you do, but please don’t take the CAPs.’ I believe that if the Vietnamese had their way, the CAPs would probably have stayed indefinitely.’

In May 1971 the CAP program was deactivated, bringing to a close one of the most successful American programs of the Vietnam War. The Combined Action Program was never more than the size of two battalions, as compared to the two Marine and two Army divisions operating in the I Corps sector. The results those small units achieved, however, far exceeded expectations. Historian and critic Guenter Lewy, in America in Vietnam, called the program ‘one of the most imaginative approaches to pacification in Vietnam.’

From August 1965 until September 1970, CAP units claimed 2,381 VC killed, 811 captured and 576 weapons captured. The broader impact of the program remains debatable, but the available statistics and personal testimony suggest that the program made the PF platoons more effective than their non-CAP-affiliated counterparts.

The U.S. military did not lose the war in Vietnam, but neither could it claim a victory. No one single factor produced this outcome. It is in that context that the Combined Action Program must be judged. Did the CAPs lose their war, or was this combined concept a lost opportunity for an alternative to MACV’s attrition strategy?

Against large, organized, conventional threats, it seems unlikely that the combined action strategy would have worked. Large-unit operations were needed for the clearing phase of the Marines’ clear-and-hold strategy. But once the clearing was accomplished, a combined action approach could have been the key to restoring and stabilizing the situation for the long term. The Combined Action Program could not have won the war in Vietnam, but it did change the dynamics of U.S. involvement, and on the village level it strengthened the South Vietnamese government.

If the strategic goal in Vietnam was to strengthen the South Vietnamese government, then search and destroy, as executed by major Army and Marine units, failed to bring about the conditions necessary to achieve that goal. Or as Lewis Walt wrote in Strange War, Strange Strategy, ‘Of all our innovations in Vietnam none were as successful, as lasting in effect, or as useful for the future as the Combined Action Program.’

James Donovan served in Vietnam as a Marine CAP squad leader, and later served in and retired from the U.S. Army Reserve. He is an instructor at Weatherford College. For additional reading, see: Strange War, Strange Strategy, by Lewis Walt; and No Exit From Vietnam, by Robert Thompson.

This article was originally published in the August 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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