Successes of the United States Marine Corps Combined Action Program in South Vietnam

Length: 942 words

Explain the role of US Marines in the CAP. What was their unit organization and daily life like? Cite a specific patrol as an example of how CAP worked with indigenous force personnel. Identify three key strengths of the CAP and demonstrate three examples and their overall effectiveness in the war in South Vietnam. Give two examples of how the basic idea of CAP is in use today.

The Combined Action Program was a strategic military formation that was first devised to address a particular problem during the Vietnam War. An infantry battalion faced challenges with an expanding Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR). A squad of Marines is combined with locally recruited Popular Forces (PFs), which is collectively assigned a village to protect. This strategy worked out very effectively during Vietnam War operations and proved to be a force multiplier.

The configuration of a village defense platoon is arrived upon combining a Marine squad with indigenous forces. This proved very effective in thwarting enemy forces security at the village level. CAP, which was first implemented during operations in South Vietnam, has withstood the test of time. Although there is no comprehensive statistical evidence to prove its effectiveness, first

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hand observations of military officers and subjective evaluations have assented to its utility. The successes met by American troops in later wars in regions such as Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, etc, underscore CAP-style organization’s relevance and usefulness.

The CAP was a natural extension of the martial traditions that the US Marines excelled in. The US Marines have long understood how pacification of locals and subsequent co-option to their cause drastically improves chances of success. A robust training program for the local recruits and provisions for their security greatly helped with administration of localities. The validity of the CAP concept is attested by its successful implementation in war experiences in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, etc during the last two centuries. CAP-style organization is especially applicable in regions where the opposition employs guerrilla warfare tactics. In this sense, the CAP concept can be construed as counter-guerrilla warfare. The CAP organized the hamlet defense and lived in the hamlet on a 24-hour basis. Besides hamlet security,

“CAP teams provided the villagers medical care and assistance with hygiene and disease related problems. CAP teams also built simple structures and roads and conducted a variety of other civic projects aimed at helping the people. The Marine pacification program was successful in screening the people from the VC and in large part insulating them from some of the corruption and abuses of the GVN.” (Clark, 1990, p. 115)

One of the early demonstrations of CAP’s organization and operation was witnessed in August of 1965 in the Vietnam theatre. The unit assembled from 3rd Battalion of 4th Marines is a case in point. Led by Lt. Col. William W. Taylor in the Phu Bai area, the unit’s Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) covered half a dozen villages plus an airfield. Under pressure from enemy retaliation and realizing how thinly spread his personnel are across the terrain, the Colonel’s executive officer forwarded a plan to include members of the local militia into the 3/4 unit’s operations. After going up the ranks for evaluation and approval, the suggestion was finally assented by major General Lew Walt and Lieutenant General Victor Krulak. They foresaw how this concept could prove to be a force multiplier. It was upon their approval that General Nguyen Van Chuan of the local militia (Army of the Republic of Vietnam – ARVN) agreed to the co-operative arrangement. General Chuan gave General Walt control of local platoons in the Phu Bai jurisdiction.

The results of the Phu Bai experiment encouraged further trials. The Marines instilled a combative, offensive spirit in their counterparts and gave the militia a strong leadership – something that it never had before. The Marines

“also learned from the Vietnamese, gaining knowledge of local terrain and learning Vietnamese customs and courtesies. Winning fights against local enemy guerrillas, Ek’s combined unit upset the status quo by driving the communists out of the villages. Walt seized on the success of Ek’s unique company in Phu Bai and approached Vietnamese General Nguyen Chanh Thi, his counterpart, with a proposal to expand the program to include Da Nang and Chu Lai.” (Kopets, 2002)

In one of the first implementations of the CAP concept, Lt. Col. Taylor combined four American squads with local militia units in August 1965. The unit had one commander (Lt. Paul Ek) under whom select Marines from 3/4 were assembled. Maj Zimmerman acted as the executive officer in charge of picking Marines, as he had prior experience with British Army. This formation proved very potent in defending territory from low level Viet Cong threats. The Marines and the local PF platoon complemented each other’s skills. The Marines were a rigorously trained and aggressive military force. The PFs, on the other hand, are low on training, but brought knowledge of local people and terrain to the table. Thus the two groups complemented each other perfectly and optimally. (Hemingway, 2001) This equation was the key to the enduring success of the CAP-style organization in South Vietnam and beyond.

The following two testimonies from highly respected military personnel give an illustration of the effectiveness of CAP in Vietnam. U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Lieutenant General Lewis Walt notes in his biography that “Of all our innovations in Vietnam none was as successful, as lasting in effect, or as useful for the future as the Combined Action Program [CAP]”. Similarly British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson said CAP was “the best idea I have seen in Vietnam.” (Kopets, 2002) The essence of the strategy is that

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