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Defend and Befriend

Defend and Befriend: The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam

John Southard
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Defend and Befriend
    Book Description:

    After relatively successful military interventions in Iraq in 1992 and Yugoslavia in 1998, many American strategists believed that airpower and remote technology were the future of U.S. military action. But America's most recent wars in the Middle East have reinforced the importance of counterinsurgency, with its imperative to "win hearts and minds" on the ground in foreign lands. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has studied and experimented with the combined action platoon (CAP) concept used from 1965 to 1971 by the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

    Consisting of twelve Marines, a medic, and dozens of inexperienced local militiamen, the American contingent of CAPs lived in South Vietnamese villages where they provided twenty-four-hour security and daily medical support for civilians, and fostered social interaction through civic action projects, such as building schools, offices, and wells. Defend and Befriend is the first comprehensive study of the evolution of these platoons, emphasizing how and why the U.S. Marine Corps attempted to overcome the inherent military, social, and cultural obstacles on the ground in Vietnam. Basing his analysis on Marine records and numerous interviews with CAP veterans, author John Southard illustrates how thousands of soldiers tasked with counterinsurgency duties came to perceive the Vietnamese people and their mission.

    This unique study counters prevailing stereotypes and provides a new perspective on the American infantryman in the Vietnam War. Illuminating the fear felt by many Americans as they served among groups of understandably suspicious civilians, Defend and Befriend offers important insights into the future development of counterinsurgency doctrine.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4527-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Maps
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Thus Tom Morton, a former U.S. Marine corporal in the Vietnam War, succinctly expressed how his perception of the Vietnamese people changed during his tenure in a combined action platoon (CAP). Morton, a squad of his fellow Marines, and a U.S. Navy corpsman lived in a South Vietnamese village for months, training the local militia, conducting twenty-four-hour patrols, and rendering civil and medical aid to civilians, all to keep the area free of enemy influence and control. Morton’s statement may come as a surprise to students of the Vietnam War who have read some of the countless published memoirs and...

  7. CHAPTER ONE The Evolution of Combined Action Platoons
    (pp. 13-32)

    The practice of embedding U.S. Marines among an indigenous population did not originate in Vietnam. The World War I–era Marine Corps first combined the military and political components of a counterinsurgency in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. In all three engagements, Marines organized and commanded small units of indigenous military personnel. Alongside the local forces, the Marines conducted patrols against insurgents while providing aid to civilians. The Marines’ experiences in these conflicts spawned doctrinal developments in the Marine Corps during the early 1930s that spoke to counterinsurgency and counterguerrilla warfare. However, the later wars against the empire of...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Combined Action Platoons, Green Berets, and Mobile Advisory Teams
    (pp. 33-48)

    On the surface, U.S. Army Special Forces A-teams and mobile advisory teams shared characteristics with CAPs. SF A-teams and MATs lived near the civilian population, interacted with villagers, instituted civic action, and trained the local indigenous military forces. Living in or near South Vietnamese villages guarded by inexperienced local forces, American soldiers in SF and MATs had to overcome the same general military and cultural barriers as CAP Marines. Yet digging below the surface of SF, MATs, and CAPs reveals numerous differences between the three, most notably in the arenas of length of tenure in Vietnam, the overall purpose of...

  9. CHAPTER THREE Becoming a Combined Action Platoon Marine
    (pp. 49-70)

    Until 1967, Marines entering CAPs did not have any formal schooling in Vietnam on the distinct military and cultural environment they would encounter in the villages. Early in the war, Marine commanders at IIIMAF and FMFPAC headquarters had become concerned about the rising number of physical altercations between American GIs and South Vietnamese civilians in I Corps. Facing a versatile and elusive enemy often disguised as civilians, American GIs began to perceive all South Vietnamese as potentially allied with the enemy. Combined with an ignorance of Vietnamese culture, American GIs’ general disdain for the South Vietnamese population confronted program leaders...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Life in a Combined Action Platoon
    (pp. 71-104)

    American infantrymen roaming the countryside of South Vietnam had seen and heard the sights and sounds in the villages, but usually only in passing. Americans in the program had to realize that their assignment necessitated living with the Vietnamese and, to ensure success, adapting to their way of life. Americans arriving in a newly designated CAP village faced a population either suspicious of their intentions or petrified of the possible reprisals from the VC for interacting with U.S. troops. At least several weeks passed before the uncertainty and suspicion on both the South Vietnamese and the American side had subsided...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER FIVE Popular Forces in Combined Action Platoons
    (pp. 105-122)

    As John Nagl’s quote above suggests, the PF ultimately had to win the war themselves. The CAP Marines had to provide the conditions that would allow the local forces to win the war once the United States departed. The program’s standard operating procedure assigned the Marines to “motivate, and instill pride, patriotism and aggressiveness in the PF soldier.”¹ Yet from the perspective of the Marines in the villages, the PF did not always display the desired qualities as established by the program. After months of training by the Marines, many PF continued to show signs of indifference and a general...

  13. CHAPTER SIX The Combined Action Program and U.S. Military Strategy in Vietnam
    (pp. 123-144)

    During the war, Westmoreland told the FMFPAC commander Victor “Brute” Krulak that fighting with CAPs “will take too long.” The quick-witted Krulak, the most vocal Marine opponent of the U.S. Army during the war, quickly responded, “Your way will take forever.”¹ This brief but direct exchange between Westmoreland and Krulak epitomized the blame game that took place between the U.S. Army and Marine Corps over which service was applying the correct strategy in Vietnam. Caught in the middle of the interservice debate was the Combined Action Program.

    CAPs undermined the army’s institutional obsession with conventional war, which Andrew Krepinevich has...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 145-152)

    The U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia, has produced numerous studies of the program, most of which offer fervid appraisals of CAPs in Vietnam. In 2002, Maj. Curtis L. Williamson’s study argued that the dispersal of CAPs throughout South Vietnam would likely have preserved the country’s sovereignty. His revisionist approach estimates that placing a CAP in every village of South Vietnam would have required a “reasonable sum” of thirty-two thousand Americans and seventy thousand PF.¹ Overall, scholars examining the “what ifs” of military history can make countless estimates and predictions about the Vietnam War. In the...

  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 153-156)
  16. Appendix: Historiographical Essay
    (pp. 157-160)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 161-178)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-196)
  19. Index
    (pp. 197-208)