Small Wars Journal

Marines in Afghanistan Take 'The Village' to Heart

Fri, 01/08/2010 - 5:17am
Marines in Afghanistan Take 'The Village' to Heart - Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times.

In political terms, any rhetoric linking the Afghan conflict and the Vietnam War is usually meant to be poisonous - like the charge that Afghanistan has become President Obama's Vietnam. But for the Marines in this former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, a book about the war in Vietnam has become a guide for how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign on a small scale. Though the overall U.S. effort in Southeast Asia ultimately failed, the Marines believe that lessons learned there could help in Afghanistan.

"The Village," by Bing West, first published in 1972, is the story of 15 Marines who spend two years in the remote hamlet of Binh Nghia, protecting villagers and joining with local security forces in trying to thwart a violent insurgency. Seven of the 15 were killed in action. Although the geopolitical ramifications may be widely different, the missions given those long-ago Marines and the Marines assigned here are roughly similar: Live amid the populace, partner with local forces and together drive a wedge between the populace and the enemy.

Marine Gen. James Mattis, who led Marines into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and now heads the U.S. Joint Forces Command, says "The Village" is a must-read for troops "to understand the role of the small unit in the sort of war we're fighting in Afghanistan." ...

More at The Los Angeles Times.

The Village - Bing West. "This is the way Vietnam should have been fought - by tough volunteers who lived alongside the Vietnamese.... It will take the sternest ideologue to remain unmoved by West's perceptive and human treatment of the men who fought it."



Mon, 02/08/2010 - 4:20am

Colonel Bing West's "The Village" is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what living with and fighting alongside a group of "people" is all about. It matters very little who the ones are who do the fighting, or where the fighting is taking place. It is a timeless classic about sacrifice, mutual respect, and a way to wage war at the small unit level that can succeed if given enough time, resources and if there are enough soldiers willing to do it. There are only a handful of books that will be required reading for those would attempt "tribal engagement" in Afghanistan. "The Village" would be at the top of that list.


Jim Gant


Fri, 01/08/2010 - 10:37am

<em>the assessment of the effects of that CAP platoon that come out of Trullinger's book suggests that just because we can put an excellent combat platoon on the ground in a village "amongst the people," led by first rate lieutenants and sergeants, who do things generally correct and "get it" doesnt necessarily mean that pacification and victory will be automatic.</em>

What??! But the dominant narrative has suggested to me so clearly that all I have to do is apply the COIN template (isn't there a worksheet in the back of 3-24?) and victory is assured!

Seriously, is there anyone who thinks like this? You're raging against a ghost, COL Gentile. You've arrived at your conclusion already and are cherry-picking sources to support it, as revealed in your closing:

<em>In fact in a perfect intellectual world in todays Army and Marine Corps a given leader should have the intellectual freedom--and not bounded by a dogmatic straightjacket--to read books like Wests and then say, that technique of population centric counterinsurgency which demands living "amongst the people" will not work and we shouldnt even try it.</em>

Perfect intellectual freedom and a lack of dogmatism will result in the un-dogmatic, freely-arrived-at conclusion that COIN is stupid, right? Well, duh.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 01/08/2010 - 7:41am

To be sure folks heading for combat duty in Afghanistan should have Colonel West's classic "The Village" by their side.

But so too should they consult works that present the local Vietnamese side of the equation.

Three that come to mind are:

Race's "War Comes to Long An"
Trullinger's "Village at War"
Elliot's "The Vietnamese War."

All three of these works come at the problem from the angle of the Vietnamese people because they are based on Vietnamese primary sources. For example, Trullinger's "Village at War" actually mentions through the voices of Vietnamese rural folk a marine corps CAP platoon that was positioned in the middle of their village, yet the assessment of the effects of that CAP platoon that come out of Trullinger's book suggests that just because we can put an excellent combat platoon on the ground in a village "amongst the people," led by first rate lieutenants and sergeants, who do things generally correct and "get it" doesnt necessarily mean that pacification and victory will be automatic. In fact reading West's classic alongside any of the above three actually suggest the very real limits that even the best trained and practiced tactical military force can accomplish in the middle of a civil war.

The wrong way to read West is to read it and say, well, if I do things similar to the way Colonel West did back in his village in Vietnam and I draw the right lessons today from it I will succeed. History should not be approached that way, but instead as a form of reenactment of historical events and military problems where leaders can put themselves in similar-historical situations through reenactment and gain insights and wisdom. In fact in a perfect intellectual world in todays Army and Marine Corps a given leader should have the intellectual freedom--and not bounded by a dogmatic straightjacket--to read books like Wests and then say, that technique of population centric counterinsurgency which demands living "amongst the people" will not work and we shouldnt even try it.


Of course no one should limit their reading to one source on a very complex subject. That said, we should acknowledge that these young Marines dont have a say in the debate on whether we should be conducting pop-centric COIN in Afghanistan or anywhere else for that matter. They are doing the mission they have been assigned to do and Bings book (I read it when it was first published and it remains at the top of my COIN list) adds some context to that mission with a bit of history thrown in - written by a Marine about Marines, enlisted Marines in bad guy territory . I think in that sense it gets them to think a bit about COIN and what they are doing in Afghanistan - more so than a doctrine pub or PowerPoint presentation.

Hell, I think many can relate to the fact that not only did Bing serve in Vietnam they may well meet him say in a remote base or even in the middle of a fire fight in his many travels in theater. The point being - better to read The Village and think about the issues it raises than to read nothing at all - or to blankly look at someones "must read COIN and anti-COIN" reading list of say 20- to 30 titles.

Everything is not a COINista conspiracy - there are young Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen who simply need some context in the who, what, when, where and why in consideration of their assigned mission. Nothing more and nothing less.

Dave D.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 01/09/2010 - 12:00am

Probably right, Schmed, I have tried to quit before too. It is a vice, but at least most of the time a very constructive one.

talk to you soon



Reading "The Village" will help the Marines do their job, now. That is its first and best use. Whether it gives a full historical academic understanding of the Vietnam war is beside the point. (though I think it gives a darn good intuitive feel for it)

Reading that book is easy and all the things that must be done in that kind of fight-not pissing off the people, using only the firepower that is absolutely needed, killing only those that need it, staying the night, knowing names that go with faces that go with relatives that go with personalities, constant ambushing and patrolling-are learned without even knowing they were learned. It ain't for nothing that this book is at the top of Dave's list.

I think it helps too for the guys now to know that guys face the same problems in a different place 40 years ago, part of the context Dave mentioned.

And I dispute that the book did not present the Vietnamese side of the equation. Well, maybe not the Vietnamese side, but the side of the Vietnamese living in Binh Nghia was pretty well covered. I still remember the names of those people.


Fri, 01/08/2010 - 11:57pm

<blockquote><em>My blogging days are pretty much over.</em></blockquote>

Good luck with that. It's like trying to quit smoking, except there's no patch or gum to assist you. Most people need to try several times. You'll be back.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 01/08/2010 - 11:22pm

What was the first sentence in my post?

That combat troops heading to Afghanistan should have "The Village" by their side. I meant that as a supreme compliment to Colonel West's classic account of his time as a cap leader in Vietnam.

A number of officers who I work with recently deployed to Iraq as Mitt team chiefs and two of the books I told them that were must reads were "The Village" and "The Strongest Tribe." I did not mean for my post to be taken as a criticism of Bing's longstanding excellent work. If it came across that way, it was not what I wanted.

My only point was that there are different angles from which to view the effects of Coin. And there is a danger in the American military especially the Army to view current action through "lessons learned." That if something worked back then it can therefore work today. The truth about pacification efforts and the Vietnam War is that pacification in fact did not work as certain accounts describe it.

Gulliver, the American Army whether you want to accept it or not is doing the same thing it did in the 80s with airland battle and the 90s with network centric warfare; it is taking a set of tactics underpinned by certain theories and allowing them to permeate itself to the point where it has become dogmatic, can only think about tactics, and has no fundamental grasp of war. Not Coin, not Hic, but war in general. It is the same old problem albeit in slightly different skins.

Whatever I say, you attack with condescension. You remind me of some anonymous cat of a few months ago who essentially did the same thing. So be it. I am not interested in this kind of dialogue anymore. My blogging days are pretty much over. As Exum did a few months ago I am signing off.

take care



Sat, 01/09/2010 - 3:16pm

Never take internet posts to heart Gian - it's like getting mad at some guy fingering you on the freeway!

I enjoyed Bing West's the village and reread it prior to going to Afghanistan. The important take away in my opinion was that the Marines and the RF/PF undertook a "share of the security burden". Obviously, Afghan villages are unique and require their own "village approach" to garnering that burden, but the end result is the same - locals start looking to "their" security forces as opposed to roving military units that make a mess and then leave (with the obvious insurgent return....).


MAJ Gregory Mi… (not verified)

Sat, 01/09/2010 - 7:59pm

I disagree with the author about the strategy of Soldiers/Marines having a constant presence with the local Afghanistan population because of numerous different reasons. The war in Afghanistan has escalated in violence in 2009 surpassing the United States military casualty rates of Iraq for this year. Afghanistan has increased in violence with more frequent and complex attacks, which will eventually test the fortitude of the American people through a physically and emotionally draining war. With an eighty percent rural population over rugged mountainous terrain, Afghanistan presents complicated factors such as the geographical, cultural, ethnical, and economic situations at the tactical, strategic, and operational level. Additionally the issue of regional languages, transportation to remote areas, and villages with no law enforcement, creates numerous dilemmas for establishing order for tactical units.
The old saying "one must know the path once taken, to know where your going", is very applicable to identifying a clear path. The U.S.S.R. invasion of Afghanistan, showed that the Russians made the mistake of controlling the urban areas, but failing to occupy and hold the rural areas. Given the fact that Afghanistan has hundreds of remote areas whose people do not know or care about the government in Kabul, the Afghanistan government and the U.S. military has the daunting task of expanding the governments sphere of influence to these remote areas. Is it truly feasible to have a platoon of Soldiers or Marines in each village? No it is not. The solution to this dilemma does not include more United States Soldiers or Marines to take the fight to the enemy, but to declare martial law in specified rural areas within Afghanistan. The U.S. military along with the Afghanistan government could hire local civilians to become marshals for their villages augmented with a small units of Afghanistan Army or National Guard, creating a 24/7 presence. Local security forces cannot exactly replicate the capabilities of the United States Army or the Afghanistan military, but can function as the "eyes and ears" in specified rural areas. The demand for more Afghanistan military and security forces would increase drastically, which is a feasible solution, because the U.S. military could shift some of the combat power from a combat role to a training/advisement role. The U.S. military could place military elements in centralized rural locations to act as a quick reaction force to support the Afghanistan security forces and local marshals. With Afghanistan personnel acting as the law enforcement, this creates jobs and limits the ability of the Taliban to operate in areas identified as vital to the U.S. interest. The Afghanistan government would increase its sphere of influence, because the modified command and control architecture with the small Afghanistan military elements would report to a higher command with civilian Afghanistan oversight, which would act as the liaison to the central government.
Therefore, it is not the role or responsibility of the U.S. military to create a stable environment at the local level, but the Afghanistan local governments. This would drastically decrease casualties, increase local Afghanistan support, and turn the country around quicker than the current small unit tactical presence strategy.

MAJ Gregory M. Ohman
Command and General Staff College Satellite
Fort Belvoir, VA

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this "Blog" are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Sun, 01/10/2010 - 9:59pm

For those who are scholars researching the military's internal questions about metrics, how well we understood the peoples of Vietnam and other aspects of how MACV tried to decipher the murky COIN war, in his day Bing West produced amazingly lucid, brilliant tracts for the generals.

Much of this is now being or has been declassified. This has allowed us to become even more impressed with Bing's outstanding career. Typically, when we think of the truly lasting literature from Vietnam, we consider the great novels, a few films confected later or the journalism of a relatively few US and foreign reporters, usually long form works.

"The VIllage" is one of those rare nonfiction pieces that has stood the test of time, and I don't believe Bing has ever allowed himself to be lauded as some "warrior scholar" for penning it.

Because I know Gian personally, I vouchsafe that he holds West almost in as high of regard as I do. The only difference is that as a former Marine, I have an even greater affection for the man and what he has meant to the Corps.

Dilegge probably does, too.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 01/12/2010 - 2:07pm

Col Gentile,

operor retineo non forensis liberi attero vos

Now Anonymous, if you go to the trouble to post "operor retineo non forensis liberi attero vos" you should go to the trouble to translate it so us poorly educated plebs can understand it.

I like the English version. It rolls off the tongue better.