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UNITED STATES GUERILLA WARFARE TACTICS IN VIETNAM
Within the military itself there were many who questioned the conventional wisdom, and there were significant efforts to change the pattern. The one which came closest to answering the need involved the marines, who throughout their heavy combat commitment in the northern part of the country set aside a small group of men to work integrally with Vietnamese paramilitary units at hamlet level, performing the basic security tasks in communities undergoing pacification. These Combined Action Platoons came into existence in 1965, not long after marine combat units arrived in force. The marines operated in I Corps, the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam, in areas where the countryside had long been dominated by the enemy. They early discov- ered that the Viet Cong controlled villages on the margins of their bases and that local security forces were unable to dig them out. An experiment was launched to determine whether American soldiers assigned to selected hamlets to work with the local Popular Force militia could bring about a significant improvement. The results of the early experiments were encouraging, and a slow expansion of the program took place, reaching eventually a total of 114 Combined Action Platoons.(13) This small effort is nevertheless worth exploring in some detail for it represents the only sustained effort to fight guerrillas with guerrillas undertaken by any part of the United States armed forces in Vietnam. The experiment thus demonstrated the problems and the potential of such an attempt.
Each unit consisted of a squad of marines (fourteen men) under command of a sergeant, assigned to live and work with a Popular Force platoon of thirty-four Vietnamese. One navy corpsman was also included in the American component. The marines were volunteers and were required to have had previous combat experience in Vietnam. They were screened before acceptance with emphasis on eliminating those who disliked or were unable to work with Vietnamese. They received several weeks’ training which tended to emphasize the basics of small-unit combat with a limited amount of attention to civic action. The trainees were then assigned to their locations which were usually selected because of proximity to an important military objective such as a base or a major road. The formal mission of the platoon was the same as that of the Popular Forces they worked with except that they had the additional task of improving the performance of the PF units themselves. That mission included-besides the obvious tasks of destroying the VC organization, protecting the government organization and installations, and enforcing law and order-the formation of “people’s intelligence nets” and civic action and propaganda.(14)
Regardless of the formal goals, the marines focused on patrolling the hamlets at night, on setting up ambushes, and, in whatever other way they could, preventing the enemy from moving in and out, collecting taxes, recruiting, or gathering information. They brought a higher degree of professionalism to the PFs as well as better weapons and support, particularly medical evacuation by helicopter. One of the superior combat narratives of the war, The Village, by F. J. West, Jr.,(15)gives a vivid account of the work of a single CAP assigned to the village of Binh Nghia in Quang Ngai province. It is very largely the story of a series of night patrols, many of them ending in no contact, during which marines and PF, in groups of six or eight, stalked an elusive enemy through the pathways and backyards of a handful of adjacent hamlets, finally forcing him to abandon the village which, thanks to persistent night patrolling by the CAP, had become exceedingly hazardous to him. This success took over a year to accomplish and was costly in American lives relative to the size of the unit. During the entire year, the village was not once bombed from the air, and only once did the CAP request artillery support. On that occasion, a single shell was fired, well off target, destroying a house and killing two villagers. Artillery was never again called in by the marines in Binh Nghia. Moreover, neighboring regular American units were instructed to leave Binh Nghia alone and only occasionally lapsed. On one occasion, an Army battalion attempted a sweep, using tanks, one of which slipped off the dike road into a rice field, where it stuck. That ended the sweep.
After seventeen months, the marines at Binh Nghia reported that the local PF platoon, with which they had worked so closely, was fully capable of maintaining security without their help. The village officials were staying in the area at night, VC contacts occurred very seldom, and there was little left for the marines to do. They were transferred to a neighboring village and the militia was left to do the job on its own. The PF unit had difficulties at first which, its leaders claimed, were due to their inability to get quick reaction support from the Americans now that no American soldiers were stationed in the village. They dealt with that problem by organizing and arming a People’s Self-Defense Force to supplement their own firepower. Under the leadership of the battle-tested PF, this solution worked and Binh Nghia remained secure.
The Village is a superb case history of the kind of tactics which, if used on a wider scale, could have made a vast difference in the war for the countryside. There were problems and weaknesses, of course, even in the small program that was actually carried out. The CAPs were not uniformly successful. Their lack of language capability was a serious handicap, training was inadequate, and confusion often existed about the purpose and mission of each unit-a matter the marines usually solved by focusing on combat as their raison d’etre and letting the rest go. More serious was the failure of the command to link the various CAPs together into an interlocking and mutually supporting network. They were too scattered and isolated to have maximum impact. (16)Small as they were, the CAPs drew considerable command attention. Generals often dropped in by helicopter to be briefed by the units, for the experiment intrigued and puzzled the command levels. The combat record, the “kill ratios,” and the fact that American soldiers were living and fighting in intimate contact with Vietnamese, all suggested an interesting phenomenon, but, despite this interest and its achievements, the program was kept small. The commanders were unable or unwilling to accept the conclusion implicit in the success of the CAPS, which was that their vast resources, equipment, and technology were essentially irrelevant to the kind of war they faced. Some months after the CAP program was launched, the marines noted a growing enemy buildup in the Demilitarized Zone, the northern frontier of South Vietnam. They shifted the axis of their effort to dealing with that threat and from then on the CAPs were considered a limited sideshow to the main-force war. What would have happened if the army had also adopted the experiment and if it were given a priority call on manpower up to, but not beyond, the point where the combat divisions could no longer shield the CAP areas from heavy-unit attacks? All that remains a matter of speculation.
14. M. Doan Havron, William W. Chenault, James W. Dodson, and A. Terry Rambo, Constabulary Capabilities for Low-level Conflict, HSR-RR-69/1-Se, Human Sciences Research, McLean, Va., April 1969, p. 83.