Marine Corps CAP

Sometimes, similar military organizations in the same country, even given the same strategic objective, formulate different missions to achieve that objective and select different indicators to measure success. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps were both assigned the objective of maintaining a noncommunist South Vietnam. The two organizations, however, chose to translate this objective into different missions and measured success by different indicators.

Although it had fought in such global wars as World War I, World War II, and Korea, the Marine Corps had a traditional interest in fighting much smaller wars. Indeed, by 1940 the marines had developed a Small War Manual. The key theme of the manual was that in

small wars, the goal is to gain decisive results with the least application of force and the consequent minimum loss of life. The end aim is the social, economic, and political development of the people subsequent to the military defeat of the enemy insurgent.

During the 1950s, the Marine Corps became increasingly disenchanted with the army’s strategies and tactics. The marines had historically seen their organizational essence as that of a small, mobile force that could react and adapt quickly. The Corps realized that the army design for a potential war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in central Europe emphasized large units of heavy, armored forces, thus marginalizing the marines. Dissatisfied with this role in the army’s scenario, the marines oriented their mission toward smaller conflicts in developing nations. As a result, during the late 1950s and early 1960s the Corps further developed its counterinsurgency strategy, training, and contingency planning. When marines arrived in Vietnam, the Corps had a well-articulated counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized local pacification.

As we saw earlier, the army’s attachment to the search-and-destroy strategy was intensified by its focus on preparing for a massive, modern military battle in central Europe. ‘The ground combat forces, in particular the Army, had developed a doctrine, a theory of victory, appropriate to combating the presumed major threat, a Warsaw Pact invasion of western Europe.’ Thus, when the army arrived in Vietnam, it emphasized the physical destruction of the enemy and continued its Korean War policy of measuring success through enemy body counts.

As stated in the 1940 Small War Manual, the Marine Corps was interested in social, political, and economic development. In Vietnam the Corps employed a strategy called ‘combined action platoons’ (CAP) rather than the army’s search-and-destroy policy. In the CAP strategy, the Corps dispersed small units of from ten to twelve marines to villages, where they would remain for long periods. In this, the marines were attempting to emulate some of the Viet Cong’s strategies. Their idea was to foster local stability. Marine Corps captain Jim Cooper summed up this strategy when he told a Vietnamese village that ‘henceforth the people would be protected from the VC, for he had come to stay.’

By using the CAP strategy, the marines attempted to convince Vietnamese peasants to stand up to V.C. threats. The peasants could challenge the V.C. because they would be confident that the U.S. military would have a continuous presence. Vietnamese hamlet leaders could ignore V.C. demands to provide soldiers, food, and supplies because the V.C. would be unable to terrorize the villagers. Previously, V.C. threats had been potent because the American presence was always temporary. Villagers knew that as soon as U.S. forces left, the V.C. would return and punish them for cooperating with the Americans or for not cooperating with the V.C. By maintaining a continual presence, the CAP strategy greatly increased the confidence of village leaders to stand up to the V.C.

Combined action platoons and search-and-destroy strategies could not be more different. The CAP strategy focuses on creating a permanent village presence, while the search-and-destroy strategy emphasizes movement: to find, fix, and destroy enemy forces. Not surprisingly, given these disparate objectives, the marines chose different indicators of performance from those employed by the army. The marines measured success by looking at indicators of village stability, like rice production. If the villagers felt secure enough to buy rice seed, harvest it, and not turn it over to the V.C., then the Marine Corps interpreted this as a sign of success. Furthermore, as Marine Corps General Lewis Walt points out, ‘Each catty of rice…not going into Viet Cong bins meant that another catty had to be grown in North Vietnam and brought over the hundreds of miles of mountain trails by human bearers.’ In addition, the Marin Corps’s strategy resulted in an American casualty rate lower than that resulting from the army’s search-and-destroy strategy. General Richard Clutterbuck wrote that while marine ‘casualties are high, they are only 50% of the casualties of the normal infantry or Marine battalions being flown around by helicopters on large scale operations.’

The object of the marines’ strategy was for them to become a stable presence in the villages and thus deter communist attacks and village support of the V.C. The V.C. would thus either stay in the jungle (losing the support of the village) or be forced to fight the marines on prepared, defended terrain. Since the V.C. preferred ambush tactics and generally avoided attacking entrenched American positions, they would avoid protected villages. Thus, if the strategy was successful, the V.C. and marines were unlikely either to meet or to fight. Not surprisingly, a strategy that emphasized deterring V.C. attacks did not result in a high enemy body count. As a result, the army considered the CAP strategy a failure.

Army officers argued that the marine strategy was a failure and that the marines were afraid to fight. Army General Harry Kinnard stated that he was ‘absolutely disgusted’ with the marines. He claimed they did not want to fight. ‘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 guerillas.’ Major General William Depuy noted that ‘the marines came in and just at down and didn’t do anything. They were involved in counterinsurgency of the deliberate, mild sort.’ These officers’ critical assessments were consistent with the army’s official organizational evaluation of the marines’ effectiveness. At the same time the Marine Corps was deciding that their strategy was increasingly successful (rice production went up dramatically in CAP villages), the army was assessing it as a failure (Marine Corps body counts declined steeply).

In the fall of 1965, the army, which had command of the theater, forced the marines to alter their strategy and operate its way, practicing search-and-destroy missions. The declining body count and army indifference to such economic and political measures as rice production were the critical factors in this decision. As Deborah Avant writes, the marines’ program was canceled ‘because of its low success rate—it did not kill enough Communists.’ Douglas Kinnard notes: ‘Certain members of the MACV staff, though not objecting to pacification activities, felt nevertheless that Marines should give greater attention to search-and-destroy operations. Westermoreland was persuaded in November, 1965 to end the commander of the Marine Amphibious Force a letter which in effect requested that he conduct offensive operations of the search-and-destroy type with greater frequency.’ The marines had failed to demonstrate success through the army’s dominant indicators. This provides a demonstration of the power of those indicators in determining how organizations measure success. The marines’ ‘efforts were not recognized as successful by the army. The army’s dominance of the planning and implementation was also dominance over expertise, especially measures of success.’

Although it would be impossible to prove that the employment of the marines’ approach by the army would have changed the outcome of the war, it is clear that the two strategies and means of assessment dramatically influenced how the war was fought. The marines’ pacification mission emphasized political, social, and economic development, while the army’s attrition mission emphasize killing as many of the enemy as possible. Because the V.C. was a political group—and virtually impossible to separate from the population at large—the strategy of search and destroy frequently facilitated indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese civilians. ‘When asked if the bombing did not sometimes kill civilians, an American sergeant responded with a laugh: What does it matter? They’re all Vietnamese.’ This is not to say that all army soldiers were capricious killers or that marines were sensitive social workers. It does suggest, however, that both the callous accidental killing of civilians in battle and the significantly rarer, deliberate massacre of civilians—such as occurred at My Lai—had roots in the incentive structure created by the army’s mission of attrition. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that either the wanton destruction of civilians or the callous attitude toward Vietnamese deaths would have developed had most military units employed the CAP strategy and adopted marine dominant indicators. On the other hand, had the marine strategy dominated U.S. military action, the V.C. might have altered their strategy in a way that would have made CAP less effective.

Even within the same country, then, similar types of organizations (here, military) given identical strategic goals (stop a communist takeover of South Vietnam) can develop different operational missions. Furthermore, the development of different missions can lead these organizations to rely on different indicators to evaluate success. Reliance on different indicators could lead two or more military organizations to the same types of disagreements that can occur between military and civilian organizations.

Although the distinction between offensive and defensive is frequently difficult to make, I do not think one could argue that CAP was an offensive strategy.

Strategic Assessment in War, Scott Sigmund Gartner (p. 148-52)

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