As U.S. Marines Leave Vietnam
— A Close-Up Of One War Zone
From U.S. News & World Report, April 20, 1970
(It’s disappointing this magazine article doesn’t name any of the CAP Marines interviewed, but it does cast a critical eye on the “Vietnamization” program many of us thought would never work — RT)
By James N. Wallace
DA NANG — Visit Marine outposts on the edge of Communist territory and a disquieting conclusion emerges: America’s first and most successful attempt to “Vietnamize” the war is in danger of sliding backwards.
A close look at the Marines’ program of Combined Action Platoons — commonly known as CAP — discloses some significant shortcomings:
- Vietnamese military units, while greatly improved over the past year, still are not ready to take over the full combat load from U.S. troops.
- American withdrawals — even in their initial stages — are cutting deeper into combat efficiency than official announcements indicate.
- Vietnamese civilians in the countryside are increasingly worried over their fate once U.S. troops leave.The CAP program, started in 1965, works like this: A squad of 12 to 15 Marines merges with a Vietnamese “Popular Force” platoon of about 40 villagers. This combined unit lives, works and fights together in the home village of its Popular Force — or PF — members. In addition to strengthening local defense, the Marines train these civilian militiamen to protect their homes with no outside help.When the job is done, in a year or more, the Marines move on to another village and repeat the process.
There now are 114 CAP units operating in about 450 hamlets, a political subdivision roughly similar to a U.S. precinct or township. There are two to five hamlets in each village.
So far, Marines have left more than 90 hamlets after training local PF platoons. Not one hamlet, including some in traditionally strong Viet Cong areas, has reverted to Communist control.
Officers say, however, that the real test is yet to come. In the past, Marines normally moved only a few miles from one village to another. More important, the PF militiamen always have operated under protection of a main Marine force not too far distant.
Now, the U.S. withdrawals rapidly are thinning this Marine shield. Through most of 1968 and 1969, about 85,000 Marines were in Vietnam. By mid-April this number is expected to drop to around 42,000 and to continue decreasing sharply in the months ahead. Some U.S. officers believe this reduction will be an open invitation to the Communists to launch reprisal attacks against PF villages.
The Cam Chau story
To see how CAP works and what could happen when Americans leave, first tour a cluster of hamlets around Cam Chau, a village 25 miles south of Da Nang in Northern South Vietnam. Next visit Landing Zone Baldy, a Marine outpost on the edge of “Indian country” — the Marine name for Communist-held territory — near the Que Son hills.
Here Communist troops operate out of sanctuaries Allied forces have never permanently penetrated. Long-established Viet Cong political networks still exist in many hamlets. A farmer planting rice seedlings by day could be a Viet Cong fighter by night. Despite some impressive victories by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in the region, there is real concern over consequences of the American departure.
One major Marine worry: How aggressively will villagers fight on their own? A recent incident at Landing Zone Baldy reveals a still-common shortcoming of South Vietnamese: unwillingness to keep pushing against the enemy, even when backed by superior firepower.
Not far from Baldy, a heavy artillery barrage was laid onto an area where Communist soldiers had been spotted. After the shelling, a combined Marine-PF unit was ordered to engage the Reds. But the Vietnamese stopped about 300 yards from the Communists and refused to move on.
A Marine officer explains:
“There are two things you can do when this situation comes up. You can have your own Marines keep on moving ahead — sometimes the PF will follow. Or you can go up through the Vietnamese chain of command until you find someone with enough rank who is willing to go back down through the chain and order the PF to move.”
Marines wonder what would happen if there were no Marine squad present to move ahead on its own, nor any U.S. officer ready to prod the Vietnamese chain of command into action.
Repeated often enough, Marines say, such incidents could be dangerous, as local units assume village defense and regular Army troops take over from Americans who face “main force” Communist units.
Often there is a marked difference between the report a Marine noncommissioned officer gives his superiors on PF performance and the complaints he voices to his combat buddies.
A sergeant tells an inquiring officer: “Yes, sir. This PF unit is really coming along. They’re training on the M-16 rifle in great shape.”
Later, this same sergeant makes this comment privately:
“Sure, the PF is improving. They don’t have anywhere to go except up. But it’s a long, slow process. You have to teach them the same thing a dozen times.”
Best plan yet?
Despite its shortcomings, many military and civilian officials rate the CAP program the most effective local-level training plan the U.S. has devised in Vietnam.
Says a top-ranking U.S. civilian:
“Popular Force platoons in the Northern Provinces where the Marines operate are better than anyplace else in Vietnam. They are better because they have had individual, man-to-man working relationships with the Marines in small units.
“The CAP program succeeds because it goes to a small place, works it over intensively and stays there until a hamlet can take care of itself.”
Officially, it is explained that withdrawals will not affect the CAP because it is a command separate from any Marine division or regiment heading home.
But officers who run CAP in the field say they already have suffered manpower cuts, and more are coming.
According to a Marine colonel:
“Last October, when the first unit withdrawals were made, I lost one man out of every 13. This time it will be double that.”
The good record of CAP hamlets is not a complete guide to what will happen in the future.
Many CAP-protected hamlets even now are visited at night by Viet Cong, who want to keep their feet in the door. Many Marines are convinced that once CAP units and main Marine forces are withdrawn, some hamlets almost certainly will come under Communist control or severe Red harassment. At best, it would confirm a Communist claim that the Saigon Government’s presence in rural Vietnam is only temporary.
There is growing worry among the villagers over possible Communist revenge. For example, a Vietnamese-speaking Marine officer says:
“People are very conscious of the pullout. Every time I go into a village, the first things people ask me are: ‘When are the Americans going?’ ‘How many?’ ‘Why?’ They don’t often express any idea that they are being abandoned, or that the U.S. is bugging out. But they clearly are concerned.”
Lessons for guerrilla war
Whatever happens to CAP, officers say the experiment has provided these basic lessons in how to fight a guerrilla or “people’s war”:
- People’s wars are won or lost in the villages. If widespread village-level security efforts such as CAP had been started soon enough, the war might never have reached the big-battle stage.
- Viet Cong tactics are effective. A few rifleman moving quietly at night on foot often are more useful than an entire company of troops lumbering across the countryside by day in armored personnel carriers.
- Villages cannot be defended from inside bunkers and walled compounds, a tactic that is favored by the South Vietnamese. There must be complete troop mobility.Marine officers concede that CAP is a small program. They admit there is a vast difference between training a 40-man village unit and working with a Vietnamese Army division with responsibility for beating back large-scale Communist attacks.But, these Marines insist, CAP’s basic purpose, early successes, current problems and future uncertainties are in many ways a mirror — or a crystal ball — in which is reflected the entire Vietnamization program and its chances of success or failure.
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