War in the Villages by Ted N. Easterling

Men of the U.S Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam volunteered to live with and protect South Vietnamese villagers in I Corps. Ideally a CAP was made up of fifty men—14 Marines, one Navy corpsman, and 35 South Vietnamese Popular Forces troops, although in reality the teams often fell below those numbers. The program, designed to fight guerrillas during the night and help villagers during the day, was in place in Vietnam from 1965-71, and was the subject of controversies between upper echelon Marine and U.S. Army commanders. In essence, the Army favored the search-and-destroy strategy, and the Marines wanted to emphasize hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency programs.

In War in the Villages: The U.S. Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons in the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 247 pp. $29.95, hardcover;  $23.95, Kindle) Marine Vietnam War veteran Ted Easterling tells the story of the effectiveness of CAPs against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Easterling holds a doctorate from the University of Akron where he taught history. Relying primarily on secondary sources in his book, Easterling concludes that CAP never realized its potential.

The book’s lengthy introduction details the principles of guerrilla warfare, communist ideology, and revolutionary warfare to show the formidable military challenge posed by the communist forces in Vietnam. Easterling also explains a range of counterinsurgency tactics designed to meet the challenge, the core of which fostered disagreement between Marine Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak and his boss, U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland.

Easterling conscientiously takes the reader through all the stages of CAP’s existence, a struggle intensified by the program’s limited size and insufficient support from the South Vietnamese government. Even when CAP became a separate command, a lack of supplies hampered progress.

A Combined Action Program unit near Dai Loc, Nov. 5, 1970

Several recently released books about the CAP have reached conclusions similar to Easterling’s. In Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ, for example, the British military historian David Strachan-Morris rates CAP as successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless successful. For him, counterinsurgency is an effective way to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.

A more personalized view of CAP comes from Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a former CAP Marine who lived with villagers between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers south of the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.”

What’s more, he says that the South Vietnamese Popular Forces avoided taking risks, and the U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”

Regardless of the degree of CAP effectiveness, War in the Villages provides an in-depth study of a controversial program that once again shows the high degree of commitment by the U.S. Marine Corps.

—Henry Zeybel