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SWJ Book Review: “The Village” by Bing West
With a handful of exceptions, there is very little climactic action in Bing West’s The Village. Instead, there are a series of endless small-unit skirmishes, blending and bleeding into each other like the notes of a song. Where West shines most as a writer is the impression created by the accumulation of small details: How to arrange your uniform so that the rustle of cloth doesn’t alert the enemy to your presence. How to peel back the strands of barbed wire silently, rather than cutting noisily through it. The feeling of lying for hour hours in ambush, unable to slap at the mosquitos relentlessly pricking your skin, fighting to stay alert and staring into the shadows.
The Village is West’s account of a Marine Corps experiment in close quarters counterinsurgency. For two years, a squad of Marines lived, slept, ate, fought, and died alongside indigenous Vietnamese forces in a Combined Action Platoon in the village of Binh Nghia. The village lay directly across the river from a key NVA supply route, and at the start of the experiment, was firmly in Viet Cong hands. Almost anyone who had even a faint association with the United States or the government in Saigon was forced to sleep several miles down the road, in a walled compound[i] for fear of being killed in their beds by guerillas. Yet slowly – and at great cost in blood – the Marines and the indigenous Popular Forces militia pushed back the VC. Today, the Combined Action Platoon remains one of the Vietnam War’s great “what-if?” questions. If more such units had been created elsewhere, could they have turned the tide? More to the point for modern day defense practitioners, could the experiment be replicated today?
Like most questions worth asking, these questions have no clear-cut answer. A close examination suggests a highly qualified “maybe.”
Bingh Nhia was a small community of roughly five thousand Vietnamese, on the floodplain of the Tra Bong river, not far from the South China Sea. The main occupations of the populace were fishing and farming[ii]. Like many other scenes of low-intensity conflict in comparatively underdeveloped nations, West portrays a society in which national level politics are not quite irrelevant but are far from the most important factor in the population’s daily lives. The Viet Cong had a well-developed underground government infrastructure and enjoyed the fear, if not the loyalty, of the populace[iii]. At the opposite pole, a few died-hard government militiamen occupied a fortified hilltop just outside the village[iv]. The majority of the villagers drifted somewhere between these two extremes, not fully committed to either side, though many leaned one way or the other, providing information or assistance to their preferred side when they could do so with minimal risk to themselves and their families. Both the Viet Cong and the Popular Forces soldiers were from Binh Nghia, and to some extent, these local ties may have acted to keep the violence from escalating beyond certain bounds. Neither the guerillas nor the militiamen were willing to employ extreme violence against anyone who was not a direct combatant, for fear of arousing retaliation against their own family members[v].
West does not delve very deeply into the social or cultural divisions which factored into village politics. Probably these divisions were largely opaque to the Marines of the Combined Action Platoon. A few details do emerge over the course of his narrative. One key fault-line was geography. The Phu Longs region, directly across the Tra Bong river, was a major support area for the North Vietnamese Army, as mentioned earlier. The people of Phu Longs and Bing Nhia had a long-standing feud over fishing rights, predating the war. Thus, many of the villagers were by default, suspicious of Communism, simply due to regional rivalries[vi]. Another major fault-line was religion. A number of the most intensely anti-communist families in the village were Catholics. Not coincidentally, Catholic families tended to be favorite targets for Viet Cong harassment, occasionally being conscripted into forced labor projects in the Phu Longs[vii]. By the same token, the militia forces tended to be hostile towards any families with known Viet Cong fighters, harassing them in turn[viii]. For the most part, however, West passes lightly over these issues.
The Village begins with Ap Thanh Lam, a Vietnamese policeman, conducting a one-man kill/capture raid on the home of a Viet Cong soldier[ix]. It soon becomes clear that although Lam may be effective and capable, he is not loved by his political and bureaucratic superiors[x], a small example of the intrastate friction which is so endemic to low-intensity conflicts. It was Lam who was first detailed to work with the Combined Action Platoon, and who rapidly established a rapport with them by way of his competence and personal courage. Unfortunately, not very long after the Marines’ arrival, Lam was assassinated by Viet Cong operatives[xi]. Death-related personnel turnover is all too frequent over the course of the story.
West confines himself to the role of narrator, commenting on the action but never appearing on stage. Those who do appear are mix of American servicemen, Vietnamese Soldiers and Police, villagers, and of course, the Viet Cong. The Village is not a character study. Although West gives thumbnail sketches of people who could probably have whole chapters devoted to them, he gives few details. For the most part, individuals are less important to the story West wishes to tell than the group overall.
The Marines selected for the program shared several key characteristics. Most obviously, they were tactically proficient infantrymen. More than that though, they had interpersonal skills which enabled them to pass on their proficiency to their Vietnamese counterparts – a much rarer quality[xii]. They had the discipline and the maturity to operate with minimal oversight from higher headquarters for long periods of time.
Good leaders and soldiers are a precious commodity in every unit, and commanders conditioned to fight conventionally are reluctant to give up their best and brightest for anything they perceive as a secondary mission. On several occasions, Marines lacking the right qualifications were sent home. At one point, the CAP Marine NCOIC flatly rejected the attempts of higher headquarters to unload some low-performance troops onto his organization[xiii] – an all too familiar experience for many leaders on an unpopular detail.
The Popular Forces militia and the Vietnamese police who fight alongside them were a more mixed bag. The Vietnamese police are depicted as competent counter-insurgency intelligence specialists. The deceased Lam was soon replaced by Nguyen Thang Thanh, a “fanatical”[xiv] man with a “Sat Cong” – Vietnamese for “Kill Communists” – tattoo across his chest and reportedly deep personal reasons for opposition to the communists[xv]. Whatever Thanh’s motives, he knew his work, gradually compiling thick files on the local VC support network. It would be intriguing to compare the targeting process as practiced by the CAP with the targeting process as it practiced today; unfortunately, West only skims the surface of this topic.
The Popular Forces, on the other hand, embodied the institutional weakness common to third-world states. Underpaid[xvi] and poorly disciplined, they couldn’t always be relied upon to show up for work, let alone to perform in combat. When on patrol, they would frequently make as much noise as possible, thereby alerting the Viet Cong to the presence of a numerically superior force and avoiding combat[xvii]. In the absence of institutional professionalism, the Americans came to rely on the handful of competent and dedicated fighters to motivate and lead their comrades.
From the beginning, the CAP stuck to a relentlessly aggressive patrol schedule, and took contact frequently. Over their first hundred days in the village, they conducted roughly four hundred patrols and engaged the enemy in approximately two hundred separate skirmishes[xviii]. Clearly, the war for hearts and minds was just that. The notion that Americans could mentor and develop indigenous forces while remaining out of action themselves would have been laughable to West’s protagonists.
The majority of the text is an endless parade of small incidents, minor in and of themselves, that gain significance by accretion. By night, the CAP and the Viet Cong stalked each other through the streams and rice paddies. By day, the CAP moved amongst the farmers and fishermen, exchanging rumors and gossip, buying food and liquor. Over time, they established relationships with individual villagers, and were occasionally invited into their homes. These relationships at times became closer than the chain of command would have liked[xix]. The platoon even unofficially adopted a local orphan, who soon began living within their compound[xx].
This closeness carried risks, for not all of the villagers were as friendly as they appeared. On at least one occasion, a local farmer considered reliably sympathetic to the CAP tried to lay a trap for them with the Viet Cong[xxi]. But weighed in the balance, the closeness to the villagers was worth it; the CAP clearly could not have been effective otherwise. Without this familiarity, they would have lost all situational awareness. The Popular Forces would have been reluctant to patrol alone, and the Viet Cong, who had no such hesitation, would have enjoyed total freedom of maneuver in Binh Nghia.
The CAP’s tactical aggression entailed casualties, and not only among the combatants. Inevitably, there were occasional tragedies[xxii]. Nor were all the casualties physical. Months of sustained combat operations took their toll, and several soldiers were removed from the unit after one trauma or another left them unfit for duty[xxiii]. But through it all, the CAP persisted. Gradually, the skills of the Popular Forces improved[xxiv] and the influence of the Viet Cong on local affairs waned.
One of the few climactic moments in The Village occurs just as the Combined Action Platoon has begun to shift the tide of the struggle in their favor. After several tactical successes and a period of reduced enemy activity, they allow themselves to grow complacent. When they do, a company of NVA sappers launches a full-scale assault, killing eleven members of the platoon and nearly overrunning the fort[xxv]. In the aftermath of the attack, the division commander nearly withdraws the platoon. The surviving Marines refuse. One way or another, they would make their stand in Binh Nghia.
The common thread that runs through all these episodes is commitment. Through every setback, the CAP held their ground. They accepted the costs and the risks, to themselves and the villagers. The campaign for Binh Nghia was not cheap, quick, or clean. But it was successful. After roughly seventeen months, Binh Nghia was declared a pacified hamlet. The Marines were transferred elsewhere[xxvi]. The remaining Popular Forces were left to stand and fight on their own. The struggle continued for a time. But four years after the Marines had left, the Popular Forces repelled a final company-size attack[xxvii]. The Viet Cong had lost the village.
In time, of course, the Republic of Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Army. The villagers adapted to this change in the political winds as they had adapted to so many before. In the epilogue, West returns to Binh Nghia in 2002. He noted that though the surviving Popular Forces soldiers had endured years of rough treatment after the war, they lived there now as respected elders[xxviii]. Most striking of all, a cement well, bearing a Vietnamese inscription to the Marines, remains where it was first erected, an enduring testament to the valor of the Combined Action Platoon. Though defeated, surely no one will say they fought and died in vain.
This brings us back to the questions asked at the beginning of this review. Could more Combined Action Platoons have changed the outcome of the war? Probably not. As I write this review, there is a banner at of the Small Wars Journal quoting LTG. McMaster – “The Vietnam war…was lost in Washington D.C.”. Expanding the CAP program would probably have been a necessary but insufficient prerequisite to victory. The success the CAP enjoyed was product of the commitment of its soldiers. Over time, they came to think of Binh Nghia as their village. But their commitment was not shared by everyone – certainly not by policymakers, the voting public, or the government in Saigon. Without equal commitment from these stakeholders, victory would have been impossible. As West observes in his epilogue, the Viet Cong were prepared for “sacrifice without end.”[xxix] The Americans and their allies were not.
Could the experiment be repeated today? As it happens, it was. Colonel West’s son, himself a Marine officer, wrote his own book about a similar combined unit, The Snake Eaters, this time in Iraq. Again, the unit enjoyed a significant measure of tactical success. And again, tactical success was undermined by operational and strategic setbacks compounded by steadily eroding political will to continue the fight. This second adviser team suffered nothing so catastrophic as the massed assault conducted on the CAP’s compound. One imagines that today, the 24-hour news cycle would be filled with photos of the dead, the breached fortress wall in the backdrop glaring like an open wound. Members of congress would demand an investigation and the Marine’s would be withdrawn in short order. The institutional appetite for risk is simply not what it was. West acknowledges as much in his epilogue[xxx]. A repeat of the CAP’s successes would not be impossible today. But it would be more challenging than ever.
[i] Page 11
[ii] Page 11
[iii] Page 25
[iv] Page 13
[v] Page 75
[vi] Page 176
[vii] Page 264
[viii] Page 263
[ix] Page 5
[x] Page 7
[xi] Page 54
[xii] Page 13
[xiii] Page 217
[xiv] Page 283
[xv] Page 67
[xvi] Page 40
[xvii] Page 53
[xviii][xviii] Page 128
[xix] Page 80
[xx] Page 175
[xxi] Page 165
[xxii] Page 178
[xxiii] Page 181
[xxiv] Page 250
[xxv] Page 157
[xxvi] Page 320
[xxvii] Page 347
[xxviii] Page 357
[xxix] Page 357
[xxx] Page 353