Civic Action: The Marine Corps Experience in Vietnam, Part II
Peter Brush, Library Science, University of Kentucky
Marine civic action included the provision of medical care for Vietnamese civilians. US Navy doctors and corpsmen working with the Marines provided over four million medical treatments and trained about 9,000 Vietnamese nationals in nursing-type skills. Marine helicopters and land vehicles evacuated 19,000 sick or injured civilians to civilian and US 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.28
Marine civic action necessitated a partial resource allocation away from more conventional modern fighting techniques, and this could provide a benefit to the Marines as well as to their Vietnamese allies. In warfare soldiers are obligated to find justifications for their actions on personal levels. The standard rhetoric of "fighting communism" and "making the world safe for democracy" often prove inadequate, and the constructive aspects of civic action can assist in solving the social problems that soldiers will face in the future. All wars end and all soldiers who survive must return to more peaceful pursuits. Their personal conduct at home will reflect their wartime behaviors.29
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."30 Given that the Strategic Hamlet Program was a demonstrated failure even before US 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.31 "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."32 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."33 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."34 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."35
Marine General Victor Krulak was the most articulate spokesman of pacification. Krulak was a former special assistant for counterinsurgency to the US 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."36 For Krulak, a strategy of pacification was the only way to succeed. Krulak went over Westmoreland's head and in 1966 presented his views to Secretary of Defense McNamara 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."37
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 favored 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 PAVN (Peoples Army of Vietnam) 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.38 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."39
Marine Corps strategy and tactics were more appropriate to the reality of the Vietnam battlefield than those of the US 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 US noted a large enemy buildup in the Demilitarized Zone. Westmoreland decided this area should receive the focus of the US effort in I Corps, which obligated the Marines to move northward. Civic action remained a sideshow to US efforts to wage conventional war. To acknowledge the efficacy of pacification would deny the appropriateness of US military doctrine and ignore the historical successes of the US 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:
The U.S. Army in Vietnam was a force configured to wage conventional and nuclear 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 utilization of massive firepower to inflict large numbers of casualties on the enemy resulted in civilian casualties and social disruption. The U.S. was perceived as the 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.
The Vietnam War is not merely history. It is history that must be understood. Its lessons must be applied to the present. With the end of the Cold War the humanitarian functions of the US military will assume increased importance in low-intensity conflicts. Recent troop deployments to Iraqi Kurdistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia are testimony to the utility of civic action. The nontraditional use of military force represents a fusion of political and military assets that can further the foreign policy goals of the United States.
1 Department of the Army FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations: Operations, (Washington, DC: DA, 1939): 27, quoted in Larry Cable, Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine in the Vietnam War, (NY, NY: New York University Press, 1986): 114.
2 Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam, (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986): 172.
3 Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown): 232. As Mao Tse-tung adapted the strategic and tactical concepts of Lenin to fit the Chinese situation (p. 51), so too was the basic strategy of the NLF and DRV derived from Mao's notions of "People's War" (Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers, (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1977): 64. But given the similarity of strategy and tactics between the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam, perhaps the most effective way to resist reliance on the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population is to not have them available.
4 BrigGen Edward H. Simmons, "Marine Corps Operations in Vietnam, 1965-1966," in The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973 (Washington, DC, 1974): 38.
5 Lewis W. Walt, Strange War, Strange Strategy, (NY, NY: Funk, 1970): 187.
6 James Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, (Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986): 11.
7 "Actions Recommended for Vietnam," Draft memorandum for President Lyndon B. Johnson from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, October 14, 1966, The Pentagon Papers, (Boston, MA: Bantam Books, 1971), vol 4: 348-353, quoted in Steven Cohen, Vietnam, (NY, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1983): 140.
8 Counterinsurgency operations refers to such US programs as Revolutionary Development, civic action, and pacification and may be loosely defined as the employment of military resources for purposes other than conventional warfare.
9 Walt, Strange War: 29. Cable, Conflict: 96, posits that the lessons from these earlier pacification interventions were not effectively institutionalized by the Marine Corps. According to Cable, the transmittal of these experiences to Vietnam was effected by the tribal character of the Marine Corps.
10 USMC, Small Wars Manual, (Washington, D.C.: HQMC, 1940): I-9-15, quoted in Krepinevich, The Army: 172. Marine Corps experience in stabilizing governments and fighting guerrillas was formalized in lecture form at the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia, in 1920. These lectures evolved into Small Wars Manual, 1930, which was revised and adopted as an official publication in 1940, "a fifteen-chapter compendium of everything the Corps had learned in its Caribbean experience." Victor Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
11 MajGen J. M. Platt, "Military Civic Action," in Marine Corps Gazette 54, 9 (September, 1970): 24.
13 Krepinevich, The Army: 174.
14 Krepinevich, The Army: 174.
15 LtCol David H. Wagner, "A Handful of Marines," in Marine Corps Gazette 52, 3 (March, 1968): 45.
16 LtCol D. L. Evans, Jr., "USMC Civil Affairs in Vietnam: A Philosophical History," in Marine Corps Gazette 52, 3 (March, 1968): 24. The PAVN did overrun the Marine CAP unit at Khe Sanh village during Tet in 1969. See John Prados and Ray Stubbe, Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991): 264.
17 LtCol David H. Wagner, "A Handful of Marines," in Marine Corps Gazette 52, 3 (March, 1968) 46.
18 F. J. West, Jr., The Village, (NY: Harper and Row, 1972).
20 West, The Village: 19, 52, 72, 102.
23 Interview with PFC Sidney Fleming who subsequently died fighting with the combined unit. West, The Village: 131. Later, when the combined unit was ordered to leave by higher headquarters on the eve of another enemy attack, they again refused. West, The Village: 193-194.
26 Maj William Holmberg, "Civic Action," in Marine Corps Gazette 50, 6 (June, 1966): 28.
27 Capt H. G. Lyles, "Civic Action Progress Report," in Marine Corps Gazette 53,9 (September, 1969): 52.
28 MajGen J. M. Platt, "Military Civic Action," in Marine Corps Gazette 54, 9 (September, 1970): 24-25.
29 There are no studies that compare PTSD rates between Marines involved in civic action with those involved in more traditional infantry roles of which I am aware. However, it seems obvious to me that CAP Marines speak more positively of their wartime experiences in their narratives than do their conventional infantry brothers.
30 Cable, Conflict: 198. And fail it did: Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (NY, NY: Penguin Books, 1991): 340, notes that in early December, 1963, in Long An province, "three-quarters of the two hundred strategic hamlets had been destroyed since the summer, either by the Vietcong or by their own occupants, or by a combination of both." Vietcong attacks in the province declined primarily because there were no longer any strategic hamlets worth attacking.
31 Westmoreland's first combat experience with the infantry was in Korea. Gen William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976): 26. In Korea the US view was that internal security was the role of the Republic of Korea; the role of US forces in Korea was the protection of that country from external attack. Summers, On Strategy, 112.
32 Westmoreland, A Soldier: 166. In truth, Westmoreland did have the numbers. There were 11,000 hamlets (Simmons, "Marine Corps Operations": 34) in South Vietnam and a 15-man platoon of US soldiers in each would have required 165,000 men.
33 Westmoreland, A Soldier: 165.
34 Krepinevich interview with Kinnard, June 21, 1982. Krepinevich, The Army: 175.
35 Krepinevich interview with Depuy, March 26, 1979. Krepinevich, The Army: 175.
36 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, ( NY: Random House, 1988): 630.
38 Otto Lehrack, No Shining Armor, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992): 181.
39 See Prados, Valley: 146, for both statistics on Dye Marker resource utilization and quotation on Westmoreland's rational for its discontinuance.
40 Robert Thompson, Revolutionary War in World Strategy, 1945- 1969, (N.Y., N.Y.: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1970): 130.
Return to Contents page