Preventing the Barbarization of Warfare: The USMC CAP Program in Vietnam

Preventing the Barbarization of Warfare: The USMC CAP Program in Vietnam

Alex Calvo[i]

Orginally published by Small Wars Journal on 15 December 2013.

Vietnam is often cited as an example of the "barbarization of warfare," that is the trend towards more horrific forms of armed struggle both among nations and non-state actors, with actions such as mass bombings or incidents such as My Lai being referred to.[ii] Although not so much discussed, Communist actions were probably even more barbaric.[iii]

The Second Indochina War was very complex, among other reasons because as noted by a number of observers, it actually consisted of two wars.[iv] One against the Vietcong, that is an insurgency, who melted into the population using a mixture of threats[v] and inducements to secure its cooperation in the form of intelligence, supplies, and all sorts of support, making it difficult for the government and the Republic of Vietnam and Free World Forces to root out its "infrastructure" or parallel local government structures[vi] (which actually ruled large swathes of the countryside for most of the war). The other a conventional army.

Leaving aside the controversy over whether it was correct to concentrate on the threat posed by the NVA (one of the main points emphasized by Westmoreland's detractors, while his defenders note that it was conventional, not irregular forces, which finally entered Saigon 1975 since no large scale revolt ever materialized and the 1968 Tet offensive resulted in the destruction of a large portion of the Vietcong forces), we can note how many of the reasons why some observers have referred to "barbarization" in connection to Vietnam stem from the basic dilemma before counterinsurgents intervening in another country.

Basically, the problem can be summarized as follows: allied troops are better trained and equipped, while local forces enjoy a much greater familiarity with the terrain, including above all the population.[vii] When allied troops are unable to clearly tell civilian from insurgent (and we should note that the two categories are not always clearly set apart, since many civilians will either sit on the fence until they see who is winning or be forced to cooperate with the enemy regardless of their ideology[viii]) the road is open to "barbarization".[ix] This can take different forms, among them:

            * Overreliance on air and artillery support. This can cause excessive civilian casualties while not significantly damaging the insurgents' infrastructure[x]. Furthermore, it can be employed by the enemy for propaganda purposes.[xi]

            * Indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. Either when confused with insurgents, or out of frustration. If shot from a village, for example, a patrol may return fire and harm civilians.[xii]

A soldier in a foreign land, ignorant of customs and language, harassed by an enemy which seems to disappear into the landscape[xiii], be it physical or human, can easily fall prey to the temptation of seeing any local as a threat. Just like vegetation and the night[xiv] can come to be seen part of the enemy, a similar view can emerge concerning civilians. Once classified as part of “them”, instead of the “us” he is supposed to protect (this being the ultimate rationale for intervention in the first place), the door is open to an excessive or even indiscriminate use of force, descending into “barbarization”.[xv]

What is the Solution?

Some proponents of COIN have emphasized the use of local forces[xvi], leaving the allies in a supporting and training role[xvii]. Although attractive, this may sometimes not be sufficient, on account of the practical and political realities on the ground, or the time necessary to develop strong local forces may not be available. It may be necessary to otherwise gain some breathing space while local forces develop.

A compromise solution, employed by the USMC in Vietnam was to combine the deployment of a small detachment of troops in a single village with the organization there of local part-time militias. This was called the Combined Action Program.[xviii] Both the Marine platoons and the local forces served in a single village[xix], patrolling only its environs, and operating together for long periods of time. The Marines integrated into the village's social structure, developing friendships in most cases.[xx] This is usually considered to have been a success, with none of these population centres having been overrun by the enemy[xxi], and had a number of advantages from the point of view of preventing the "barbarization" of warfare, including:.

            * Avoiding air and artillery strikes on populated areas. Since the Marines were living in the towns themselves, they could not call for them to be bombed.[xxii]

            * Good knowledge of local conditions, including the local population. Long periods living among the people meant that the Marines knew them, and were able to tell the local inhabitants from strangers, likely to be members of the Vietcong.[xxiii]

            * Deep cooperation with local forces, which furthermore were truly local (that is from the same village, not just from Vietnam. We must remember that one of the problems of the RV Army was the reluctance of conscripts to serve far away from their place of birth, a common problem in many other countries).[xxiv] This reinforced the previous point and meant that interaction with the local population was much easier and less likely to result in misunderstandings or abuse.

            * From a psychological perspective, acting in familiar environs makes it less likely for military personnel to "dehumanize" civilians, a prerequisite for many people to commit abuses against them. Unable to distinguish civilian from guerrilla[xxv], it is otherwise easy to imagine any local to be an enemy, and view him not only with suspicion but fear, thus justifying the use of force. It has been noted that most US personnel “passed through Vietnam but were really never in Vietnam”, whereas CAP Marines “associated intimately with Vietnamese for long periods of time in a Vietnamese setting”.[xxvi]

Therefore, we could perhaps conclude that the experience was positive not just from a purely military perspective, but also from a political one (keeping those villages under effective RV control) and from a humanitarian point of view, that is avoiding the "barbarization" with which the Vietnam War is often associated. Closely integrating US forces, their Vietnamese counterparts, and villagers, meant not only that no resort would be made to brute force in the shape of, among others, artillery and air strikes, but that civilians would clearly be seen as such, part of the “us” to be protected, and not as part of a hostile landscape, a hostile “them” to be fought.

End Notes

[i]  The author would like to thank Aimeé Fox-Godden, lecturer at Birmingham University, for having prompted the completion of this paper, and his former students at the OSCE Academy (Bishkek) for the class discussions which originally led to it.

[ii]  For a discussion whether warfare can be other than barbaric, and the role that warriors' honor plays in guaranteeing respect for non-combatants, see George Kassimeris, “The Barbarisation of Warfare: a User's Manual”, in George Kassimeris ed., The Barbarisation of Warfare, (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 1-18.

[iii] Not just their actions against enemy combatants and pro-government civilians, one also has to consider their share of responsibility for blurring the lines between civilians and combatants, by often coercing or persuading the former to act in manners incompatible with their status. “Those who covertly militarize civilian status in this way are responsible for a breach of trust. In the old language of the laws of war, they are guilty of perfidy. As such they must take an appropriate part of the responsibility for any subsequent civilian suffering that follows from their abuse of civilian status”  Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 267

[iv] “The Marines were fighting two wars. They agreed that Westmoreland's search and destroy had some merit, but believed that Westmoreland's priorities were misplaced with pacifying the villages. The Marines' war of pacification grew from practical experience. The Marines struggled to convince Westmoreland that the strategy of attrition was wrong.” Brooks R. Brewington, Combined Action Platoons: A Strategy for Peace Enforcement, CSC 1996, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Wargaming Division, Small Wars Center of Excellence, available at‎, p. 8-9.

[v] “The villagers were neutral, not disposed toward the Viet Cong – but afraid of them.  Based on years of patrolling with Combined Action Platoons whose membership included village militias (mostly farmers), West became convinced that the villagers would stand up against the Viet Cong if the Government created a system of security linkages” , Dave Dilegge “Area Security During COIN: Flashback 1969”, Small Wars Journal Blog, 5 August 2011, available at

[vi] “the enemy's shadow government, its infrastructure within the villages and hamlets of rural South Vietnam” Lewis Sorley, A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 1999), p. 5.

[vii]  An additional advantage may be the greater tolerance to casualties by the host country, in comparison with mature democracies where they may have a deeper impact on public opinion. “As early as the XIX Century, Alexis de Tocqueville had observed that democracies – America’s in particular – were better suited for ‘a sudden effort of of remarkable vigor, than for the prolonged endurance of the great storms that beset the political existence of nations’, …, Vietnam validated the observations of De Tocqueville and Marshall in a dramatic fashion”, David Howell Petraeus, The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A study of military influence and the use of force in the post-Vietnam era, Princeton University, 1987, p. 105-106, available at .

[viii] See "The Wrong War" for a good account of the phenomenon.  “For years, soldiers like Cahir had projected goodwill and brought resources. In return, the villagers were expected to reject the insurgents, or to risk death by informing against them. Instead, people like the mullah accepted the aid and remained neutral, waiting to see, waiting to see who would win on the field of battle.” Bing West, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, (New York: Random House, 2011), p. xii.

[ix] Current doctrine stresses the need to protect civilians, for a mixture of reasons, even to the point of precedence over other goals. “Focused attention on CIVCAS mitigation is an important investment to maintain legitimacy and ensure eventual success. Failure to prevent CIVCASs will undermine national policy objectives as well as the mission of Army units, while assisting adversaries. Adversaries will exploit CIVCAS incidents. CIVCASs are likely to incite increased opposition to Army units. Army units face particular challenges when civilians take part in hostilities, such as the farmer by day and fighter by night. An Army leader must balance the need to defeat an ill-defined enemy with the need to protect civilians and minimize their casualties, while at the same time preserving the force. Persons engaging in hostilities during armed conflict lose their legal status as protected civilians even if they are not members of a nation’s armed forces, and Army units do conduct operations against such persons. However, protecting civilians and resolving the underlying drivers of conflict may have higher priority” , Civilian Casualty Mitigation, Headquarters, Department of the Army, ATTP 3-37.31, July 2012, available at

[x] Note the criticism of "harassment and interdiction fire", and the failure to measure its negative impact on civilians, by Jeffrey Race in his study of Long An Province. “A second important aspect of the government's violence program was the heavy use of 'harassment and interdiction fires', consisting of air raids and artillery, against suspected enemy concentrations or lines of communications. … American and Vietnamese officers considered harassing fires to be an appropriate use of the technological advantages they enjoyed … They justified this program by citing the serious impact it had on enemy morale. Defectors almost universally confirmed this government claim, but they went on to report what government officials did not: that the use of air and artillery attacks had a far more devastating impact on noncombatants than on combatants.” Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 236.

[xi] “Our enemy in Vietnam hoped to win his war with propaganda. It was his main weapon. Our captors told us they never expected to defeat us on the battlefield, bud did believe they could defeat us on the propaganda front.”, James B. Stockdale, Ten Years of Reflection: a Vietnam Experience, (Stanford: Hoover Press, 1984), p. 7.

[xii] In Afghanistan's Kunduz Province, Soviet Captain Zakharov was careful not to fall into that trap, while cultivating good relations with the local peasants. “Then the rascal thought of something else. As a way of forcing the peasants to leave Afghanistan, he began to fire at my position straight from the neighboring kishlaks [villages] in an effort to draw our return fire. The provocations were repeated every day, but our guns remained silent. I refused to fire on peaceful civilians” Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, (New York: Grove Press, 2001), p. 30-31.

[xiii]  “Lieutenant Calley's unit had been bled steadily, often in actions against half-seen enemies who seemed to melt back amongst the population” Holmes's quotation is from Richard Holmes, Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle, (New York: Free Press, 1989), p. 391.

[xiv] It is common for conventional units to see certain features, time periods, or meteorological phenomena, as intrinsically favoring the enemy, be it irregular or equally conventional but better trained and at ease in those conditions. Changing this mind set is a major, yet indispensable, challenge, as clear in the British effort to retrain its forces to reconquer Burma in the Second World War. General Slim finally succeeded in getting his troops to view the jungle not as their enemy but as their friend, giving them concealment and cover. Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945, (London: Cooper Square Press, 1956), p. 142-143. 

[xv] Tim O'Brien refers to “cultural distance”, while Richard Holmes concludes that “The road to My Lai was paved, first and foremost, first and foremost, by the dehumanization of the Vietnamese and the 'mere gook rule' which declared that killing a Vietnamese civilian did not really count” Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), p. 190. Holmes's quotation is from Richard Holmes, Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle, (New York: Free Press, 1989), p. 391

[xvi]  “The effort to raise, train, and equip these forces is likely to take much time and energy, but it could not be more important. The British forces in Malaya had earlier and better success with this process than did the Americans in Vietnam, with the possible exception of the Marines’ Combined Action Platoon program in I Corps. Some of the lessons of the British and Marine experiences may be of use today as the United States increasingly turns its attention to the task of creating Iraqi security forces that can defend Iraq against both internal and external threats. Their success is the key to unlocking victory in Iraq – victory for, and by, the Iraqis.” John A., Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. xiv-xv.

[xvii] “Observation Number 1 is 'Do not try to do too much with your own hands.' T.E. Lawrence offered this wise counsel in an article published in The Arab Bulletin in August 1917. Continuing, he wrote: 'Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is. It may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better.'” "Observations on Soldiering in Iraq" by General Petraeus. PETRAEUS David H., “Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq”, Military Review, January-February 2006, p. 3, available at Original quotation from T. E. Lawrence available at

[xviii] An account can be found at West Bing, Area Security, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1969), available at

[xix] “Unlike other ground combat forces in South Vietnam CAP platoons lived among the peasants and alongside their PF counterparts. Their cohabitation assured the villagers of their security, allowing relations between these two diverse cultures to thrive. The resulting benefit derived from the relationship meant Marines were empowered with intelligence of their enemy, intelligence that kept them alive. As such, CAP Marines contested the insurgents for rights to the populace”, although “Differences of language and culture plagued the program throughout its duration.” Curtis L. Williamson III, The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Program (CAP): A Proposed Alternative Strategy for the Vietnam War, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), p. 2-3. 

[xx] A number of reasons have been put forward for those instances where this did not happen, or happened only to a limited extent. These include villagers having children in the Vietcong or NVA, problems with establishing credible security, apathy, and reluctance to inform foreigners about fellow Vietnamese. Robert A. Klyman, “THE COMBINED ACTION PROGRAM: An Alternative Not Taken”, Honors Thesis, University of Michigan, 1986, available at

[xxi] Note though that his does not necessarily imply criticism of General Westmoreland, since one of the reasons was the enemy's inability to mass sizeable forces against such villages, thanks to conventional operations by US Army units. The dual nature of the Vietnam War makes it difficult to defend pure COIN approaches, ineffective in the face of conventional NVA units. For a positive view of Westmoreland's strategy, see Dale Andrade, “Westmoreland was right: learning the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2008, p. 145–181. 

[xxii]The Village is a description, as best as I could relate as a participant, of what war is like when you fight guerrillas, and of how Americans behaved when the volunteered to fight among the people. It was a bloody and intensely personal war. The Marines fought well while they were there; the village remained intact, out of bonds both to American air and artillery strikes and to North Vietnamese force and rule.” Bing West, The Village, (New York: Pocket Books, 2003), p. xiv.

[xxiii] This facilitated the gathering of intelligence and good relations with local forces. In terms of preventing barbarization, frequent social exchanges meant civilians were not just anonymous faceless bystanders, but people with a name, a personality, distinctive traits, in other words, with an identity, thus raising the costs of employing indiscriminate violence. Social interaction included participation in village events, conversation with villagers, and attendance at family meals. Bing West, The Village, (New York: Pocket Books, 2003), p. 184-185.

[xxiv] “The General Mobilization Law of June 1968 included an important provision favoring those territorial forces, the Regional Forces and the Popular Forces. Men thirty-one to thirty-eight years old could volunteer to serve in the RF or PF rather than be inducted in the regular armed forces. The incentive remaining close to home motivated many to do so, allowing the greatly expanded RF and PF authorizations to be met”, Ngo Quang Truong, Territorial Forces, p. 49-50, opus Lewis Sorley, A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 1999), p. 15.

[xxv]  “Dressed in peasant clothing, the guerrilla, except when he carried a weapon, was undistinguishable from the peasant populace.” Curtis L. Williamson III, The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Program (CAP): A Proposed Alternative Strategy for the Vietnam War, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), p. 3.

[xxvi]  Michael Peterson, The Combined Action Platoons: The U.S. Marines' Other War in Vietnam, (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1989), p. 2.

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