The Marine Corps Experience in Vietnam
University of Kentucky
Vietnam Generation JournalNobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4
This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1993 by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.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:
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 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 Viet Nam. Even if such a military defeat had been possible, it would not have achieved victory without a political solution.(40)
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.