Spreading Ink Blots by David Strachan-Morris

During the Vietnam War the United States Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency program was successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless, still successful. David Strachan-Morris reaches that conclusion in Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ: The Origins and Implementation of U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Strategy in Vietnam, March 1965 to November 1968 (Helion, 158 pp. $49.95, hardcover).

This book takes on the heavyweight challenge of explaining the deeply felt conflict between the Marine Corps and U.S. Army early in the war. That battle matched the Marines’ emphasis on counterinsurgency practices against the Army’s preference for conventional strategies, primarily search-and-destroy missions.

The book originated as Strachan-Morris’ PhD thesis at the University of Wolverhampton. In expanding his study, he had full cooperation from Marine archivists, which resulted in a wealth of footnotes and a potent bibliography. Over the past decade, Strachan-Morris has written three other books on warfare and lectured at the University of Leicester School of History.  

The Marine concept of counterinsurgency, Strachan-Morris says, aims at uniting civil and military efforts in partnership with local indigenous forces to use economic and political means to pacify local areas. The idea is that these areas (“ink blots”) will gradually expand and link up until a whole region, or nation, is brought under government control.

These civil-military economic and political efforts are as important as the use of force. In other words, for some strategists, pacification and winning the hearts and minds of a citizenry are the most appropriate countermeasures for defeating insurgents such as the Viet Cong, Strachan-Morris says. 

The 1st and 3rd Divisions of the III Marine Amphibious Force operated under these principles in I Corps of Vietnam, the area of responsibility under Gen. Lewis Walt. Primarily, the Marines’ job was to secure and defend their bases at Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, and to conduct clearing operations in areas contiguous to those bases.

In 1965, Walt placed great faith in Combined Action Platoons, small Marine units that lived, worked, and trained alongside local Regional and Popular Forces in their villages. The CAP Marines sought to win the people’s support by patrolling the area, defending the villages, and carrying out small-scale civil projects to raise living standards for villagers. One platoon soon grew to a company of ten teams in the Phu Bia area. An immediate highlight of CAP was Operation Golden Fleece, which prevented the Viet Cong from extorting their biannual rice taxes from the villagers’ harvests.

Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded all U.S. forces in-country, judged the Marine approach as simply a smaller version of conventional war and largely unnecessary in the Vietnam War, Strachan-Morris says. Westmoreland preferred the search-and-destroy strategy to buttress President Lyndon Johnson’s overriding exhortations to kill more Viet Cong. Army leaders fomented animosity between the two services by accusing the Marines of “sitting back and waiting for the enemy,” according to Strachan-Morris.

Spreading Ink Blots examines the opposing viewpoints by providing a history of worldwide counterinsurgency efforts from well before the Vietnam War. Strachan-Morris cites successes and failures of the most influential thinkers and doers. He then discusses the development of strategy and the measurement of progress of pacification efforts in Vietnam in 1966-67. He explains how conditions fluctuated significantly and inter-service tensions deepened at the same time that the South Vietnamese political situation grew unstable.

And then came the 1968 Tet Offensive when Marine-Army relations reached their lowest ebb, Strachan-Morris says. He focuses here on the defense of Khe Sanh, which exacerbated tensions among American political and military leaders—and which distracted from the overall strategy of the war.   

Strachan-Morris’ concludes that counterinsurgency is “a useful operational level tool but it is not to be conflated with nation building, nor is it enough by itself to win wars.” His subtext, based on the Marine Corps’ experiences in Vietnam, rates counterinsurgency as effective at a tactical level 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.

At the same time, he contends that Marine CAP efforts prevented a “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese and aided “Project Recovery,” the South Vietnamese government’s post-Tet reconstruction plan.

I am amazed that a book this thin can foment so much controversy.

In my mind, analyzing and comparing military counterinsurgency operations from different wars in different eras provides limited guidance. For example, the British flaunt their success with counterinsurgency in Malaya after World War II, yet observers contend the British used force and human rights abuses to get results.

Similarly, no two counterinsurgency programs have been alike. Each was tailored through trial and error to fit specific situations. The nature of the insurgents, the terrain, and the political landscape differ in each situation, as Strachan-Morris says, so too do the counterinsurgents themselves. Experts on the strategy provide general principles, but they leave specific methodology to be determined by the situation.

Two recently published books also touch on Marine counterinsurgency operations. Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a grunt-level member of a Combined Action Platoon, tells of living with villagers near 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, the PF avoided maneuvers that involved risk taking. Palm, an extremely well-read and self-made man and a dean of two colleges, seems to have never stopped growing up and sharing what he learns. I trust him.

A Final Valiant Act by retired Marine Col. John B. Lang calls the CAP “a success wherever it was instituted.” Beyond counterinsurgency, Lang’s book describes two complex amphibious operations in 1967—at Duc Pho and along the DMZ—that validate the Marines’ willingness and ability to fight conventionally. The book is a good read about the Vietnam War, but Lang was not there and reports from a historian’s perspective.

That boils down the discussion to two Marines and two opposing opinions: Take your pick.

—Henry Zeybel