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SWJ Book Review - The Village by Bing West
Walker D. Mills
New York, NY
Pocket Books, 2003
Price: $5.39 (Paperback, Amazon)
382 Pages with Black and White Illustrations
“On June 10, 1966, a dozen Marines left an American base camp with its thick barbed wire, canvas cots, solid bunkers, soupy ice cream and endless guard rosters, and went to live with some Vietnamese in the Vietnamese village of Bihn Nghia.”
-- The Village
It has been over fifty years since the Marines of Combined Action Platoon (CAP) Lima-One left the wire to live in the village. Much has changed; Vietnam is now a bustling country popular with backpackers and adventurous tourists. It boasts a strong economy and has been visited by the last three US Presidents. Recently a US aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson made a port visit in Da Nang, the first since the war. Today most Vietnamese were born after the war and hard feelings are hard to come by in the country today.
In some ways the Vietnam War seems to be fading from our cultural memory, after fifty years our politicians and leaders are as likely to have been too young to serve as to have experienced it from the rice paddies or from their campus. Young Americans may have an easier time finding Vietnam on their clothing labels than finding it on a map. We’ve fought two major counterinsurgencies still lingering in Iraq and Afghanistan since, and Vietnam can no longer claim the title of America’s longest war. But yet Bing West’s The Village is as important as ever, perhaps more important because of our recent conflicts and distance from the Vietnam War.
The Village is perhaps the best single book on counterinsurgency written by an American since Vietnam. Its style is somewhat unique in the genre, it is not a manual or a treatise, and it is more parable than argument. West largely leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions from the story, though his own arguments are never hard to discern. While instilling a firm belief that success is possible over time he also gives the reader a heavy dose of the absurdity and intractable nature of the war - families who have sons fighting for Saigon but transport rice for the Viet Cong and government officials who make money letting POWs run free.
A squad of hand-selected Marines paired with a platoon of local militia, the Popular Forces or PFs and local policemen was the first Combined Action Platoon or CAP, a joint Marine program to pacify the Vietnamese countryside. Over 485 days of nearly continuous combat the Marines and Vietnamese dramatically increased their proficiency and earned one another’s trust, night after night in their own private piece of the war. Fifteen Marines walked into the village and as the book jacket declares, “Eight walked out.”
West captures the essence of the insurgency at the small unit level. No one who has not lived it and fought it day after day can offer such an intimate portrait. He’s not writing about generals or civilians working in the Pentagon - The Village is the story of a squad. Because of the contradictions inherent to the Vietnam War West is able to offer depictions of multiple models of counterinsurgency throughout the book. The village of Bihn Nghia is only a few miles from the major US airbase at Chu Lai, home to several squadrons of Marine aircraft - a showcase of American military firepower guarded by hundreds of Marines behind kilometers of barbed wire and sandbags. A few miles in the other direction are the paddies and huts of My Lai – a name that still stands for the moral failures of the war. But the story is intimate enough that we also see the effects of individual men in the fight, the impact of small unit leaders – Trao, Suong, McGowan, Brannon. West, through this intimate view paints some of the best portraits of small unit leaders in the genre; only rarely are non-fiction writers able to do this so well.
The CAP program is West’s counterinsurgency philosophy in a nutshell. Their objective is hearts and minds but their methods are violent; leveraging US Marines for a posture of constant patrolling and contact with the enemy where a patrol never leaves the wire without the addition of PFs or police. They didn’t need to go far to find the Viet Cong, often setting their ambushes only a few hundred meters from their fort but slowly they won control of the village. It is attrition warfare at the small unit level, the CAP fought with rifles and grenades because they were denied air support and artillery for fear of hitting the village. The local policemen assisting them were essential allies; they helped navigate the complicated loyalties of the villagers and the politics of the local district headquarters. To a large degree the local Vietnamese were calling the shots, but Marines provided the firepower and were both bold enough and maybe naïve enough to challenge the power of the local Viet Cong cadre. Ultimately the West lauds the work of the CAP as a success, revisiting the Bihn Nghia in 1967 and 1968 however we now know that regardless of how these small actions played out in 1968 popular support for the war was eroded by the Tet Offensive and the American strategy shifted to one of ‘Vietnamization’ and withdrawal.
The Village is Bing West’s second book, prior he wrote a series of vignettes covering different types small unit combat complete with maps and analysis, which was so popular it made the jump from the military to the civilian press. Small Unit Action is in many ways the predecessor of The Village. It is the younger brother, just as intimate and approachably written, but purely a tactical primer. The Village remains tactical in content but with operational and strategic implications. West drew on his significant time in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, and observer for both Small Unit Action and The Village. But in both books West excuses himself completely from the story – an interesting choice considering that the presence of a captain, especially one with such bona fide infantry credentials as West would have be considerable. He went on to work as both the Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for International Security Affairs as a civilian. West continued his counterinsurgency writing authoring books about Afghanistan and Iraq where he spent considerable time as an observer. While continuing to refine his style in these later works he also explicitly outlined his counterinsurgency philosophy in The Strongest Tribe, a population centric model that with a staunchly kinetic approach, the same model from The Village.
The Village is a classic, probably the only book that has been on the Commandant of the Marine Corps Professional Reading List for over forty years, it is still taught as part of the curriculum at The Basic School for Marine officers in Quantico, VA. It is a book about a little piece of the Vietnam War that offers lessons for every counterinsurgency since. It’s a book for everyone in the military or in the business of counterinsurgency, over fifty years after the establishment of the CAP program we’re still struggling to replicate its successes.