War in the Villages
The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War
Ted N. Easterling
University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2021, 272 pages
Book Review published on: April 8, 2022
War in the Villages: The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War, by Ted N. Easterling, is an analysis of the counterinsurgency approach employed by the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. Combined action platoons (CAPs) were mixed units of marines and South Vietnamese Popular Force (PF) militia who lived and worked in South Vietnamese villages, supporting the villagers with civic projects while simultaneously defending them against National Liberation Front (NLF) guerillas. Each CAP was made up of a squad of fourteen marines and a PF platoon with command of the unit spread jointly between marines and the PF. Easterling describes the CAP program in detail and sets out to assess its effectiveness.
Easterling sets the stage for the discussion of CAPs by first explaining Mao Tse-tung’s theory of revolutionary warfare and applying it the situation in Vietnam in 1965. He discusses Gen. William Westmoreland’s analysis of the insurgency and his selection of an attrition strategy to combat it. Westmoreland’s approach is juxtaposed with the views of senior Marine Corps leaders, Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak and Maj. Gen. Lewis Walt, who favored an enclave-based strategy aimed at securing key population centers and gradually expanding control outward. This approach focused principally on gaining the support of the Vietnamese population, while the attrition approach focused on directly destroying North Vietnamese regular forces and the NLF. Walt commanded III Marine Amphibious Force, which was integrated into I Corps of the South Vietnamese Army, controlling the five northern-most provinces in South Vietnam. This alignment with I Corps gave the marines some freedom to deviate from the attrition policy and employ an enclave strategy focused on population centers of Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Phu Bai. The formation of CAPs became the mechanism for executing this strategy as part of pacifying the countryside and expanding the control necessary to separate the insurgents from the people
The first combined action company (originally called a joint action company) was established at Phu Bai with four CAPs under the command of Lt. Paul R. Ek. The combined Marine and PF units lived in the villages and patrolled the surrounding countryside while interacting with the local Vietnamese. CAP marines received specialized training in insurgent tactics, weapons, and Vietnamese culture. While the primary role of CAPs was to secure the villages, they also gathered intelligence and conducted civic action projects and economic develop to improve quality of life. The CAP program peaked in 1969 with 114 operational platoons in the I Corps area. However, the policy of Vietnamization and the withdrawal of III Marine Amphibious Force back to Okinawa, Japan, in July 1969 spelled the end of the program after only four years.
Easterling gives a mixed assessment of the overall success of CAPs, with many of their shortcomings coming from external factors beyond their control. They were successful in protecting the villages from which they operated. They effectively gathered intelligence on the NLF and North Vietnamese Army. They also were successful in civic action projects improving the lives of South Vietnamese villagers. A lack of Vietnamese language capability held back their overall success. They also never received the support of the government of South Vietnam or the South Vietnamese Army for their pacification efforts, a necessary component of counterinsurgency. Finally, they never received the support in personnel and materiel to expand the enclaves to the point that they were connected. This negligence left sanctuaries for insurgents in the uncontrolled areas in between.
While one might expect a book about counterinsurgency platoons in Vietnam to focus on the day-to-day tactical operations of the men in these platoons, the focus is generally at the operational level, describing the senior leaders supporting the CAP concept and the changes to the program based on the evolving nature of the conflict. Much of the discussion in the book is about the competing counterinsurgency strategies between the Army and the Marine Corps. While this is important in providing context to the employment of CAPs, it sometimes seems to dominate the conversation, with the book becoming an assessment of these strategies rather than an evaluation of CAPs.
Overall, Easterling accomplishes his goal of assessing the effectiveness of the CAP program. He describes how the program came to be, how it operated and evolved over time, as well as its successes and shortcomings. This book provides another perspective on counterinsurgent operations that looks eerily like some of the actions and programs conducted by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan forty years later. War in the Villages provides a comprehensive description and candid assessment of the U.S. approach to pacification in Vietnam and is a solid addition to the body of work on counterinsurgency and the history of the Vietnam War.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. David S. Pierson, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas