Defend and Befriend by John Southard

In Defend and Befriend: The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 232 pp., $40, hardcover) John Southard brings a scholarly perspective to a Vietnam War Marine counterinsurgency program that hitherto has been discussed primarily by Marine Corps historians.

Combined Action Platoons, or CAPS, consisted of a Marine squad, a Navy Corpsman, and an equivalent contingent of Popular Force (PF) fighters from the village in which the CAP operated. CAPs might field fifteen-to-twenty-five men, but also could call upon Army fire support.

They were visible troops, and vulnerable. To be effective, they had to operate in areas under at least nominal South Vietnamese government control. CAP commanders were often twenty-year-old lance corporals with no language training. But over time, the training improved. At its peak, there were 114 CAP units providing a kinder, gentler imprint than Marines were historically known for.

The Marines arrived in South Vietnam in 1965 as an amphibious force designed, a la World War II, for assaults. General Lewis Walt, the commander, soon divined that that was the wrong strategy for the jungles, swamps, and mountains of I Corps. By trial and error, he and his field officers devised the CAP concept to defend villages near the coast while fighting units penetrated the Highlands.

Walt’s Marines were under the overall command of General William Westmoreland, whom Walt and other Marine officers felt did not fully endorse the CAP philosophy. Westmoreland believed that the way to win the war was through attrition—that is, the body count. Corollary to that belief, tieing down Marines in CAPs meant that fewer infantrymen were available to fight in the Highlands.

After reaching 114 villages, the CAP program stalled. In the book’s cogent conclusion, Southard quotes the Marine historian Curtis Williamson, who estimates that placing a CAP in every South Vietnamese village would have required 32,000 Marines (or soldiers), and 70,000 PF personnel. Williamson feels that with such an approach the communists would not have defeated South Vietnam.

Southard, a visiting lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University,.is dry and somewhat repetitive. But his account is valuable for reporting on a program not everyone is aware of. With the long view of history, the CAP program was at least a qualified success, and it has contributed to military thinking both in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

– John Mort