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Mao Tse-tung once famously said that guerrilla warriors must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea. The combined action platoon Marines were American fish in a vast Vietnamese sea. As the program grew, CAPs began popping up all over I Corps. "Marine members of the CAPs live in the same tents, eat the same food, and conduct the same patrols and ambushes as their Vietnamese counterparts," a 1967 report for General Krulak explained. The job was as much diplomatic as military. To the locals and the PFs, these Marines were the very face of America. The CAP members soon found that very little if anything they did escaped the notice of the Vietnamese. "They see everything we do-how we shave, how we dress, the way we talk to each other, the way we work," Corporal Joseph Trainer, a team leader in Thuy Phu village, told an interviewer. "If we give them a bad impression, that's the impression they'll get of all Marines, and Americans."
When Gunnery Sergeant John Brockaway established a CAP at a village in Quang Nam province, he found that the area had been under VC control for many months. The insurgents had told the villagers that U.S. Marines would rape their wives and daughters, steal their property, and kill their children. "When we first got there, you couldn't get within a hundred meters of these people without some of them going in the opposite direction." It took many weeks, and much good behavior, to loosen them up. Another Marine estimated that it took him about a month before he knew what was happening in his team's village. "When you first come here, it's hard, but then you begin to learn the customs and how the people operate . . . and pick it up eventually."
The Marines had to be very careful not to arrogantly foist American values and cultural norms on their new Vietnamese acquaintances. This took patience and tact. The rural Vietnamese did not share American ideas of time, labor, or money. They did not think in punctual terms of having to be somewhere at a certain time. They did not adhere to a time schedule for getting jobs done. They especially did not conform to American hygiene standards. Their personal bathing and dental standards were not to the levels that Americans took for granted. Moreover, many Marines were shocked, and nauseated, to see the people publicly defecate "right outside their homes, or right outside the street in front of their homes," in the recollection of one man. Quite commonly, the people also defecated in their rice paddies, combining waste disposal with fertilization. The Marines sometimes did, with local permission, build latrine facilities, but more commonly they had to accept such local customs or fail in their mission. For their part, the Vietnamese were a bit taken aback with the American penchant for using handkerchiefs. The idea of blowing one's nose into a cloth and putting it back into one's pocket was disgusting to them. "They wiped their noses on a banana leaf or just blew it on the ground," John Daube, a corpsman, recalled.
s.e.xual mores were markedly different, too. In rural Vietnam, s.e.xuality was almost puritanical. s.e.x before marriage was forbidden. However, mutual masturbation by two men was widely accepted. The Americans could not begin to understand this concept (especially on the occasions when they caught PFs indulging while on guard duty). Among the Vietnamese, two men often held hands as a sign of friendship. Thus, if a Vietnamese man attempted to take a Marine by the hand, he was offering a significant gesture of trust and friendship. But the Americans saw hand-holding among men as h.o.m.os.e.xuality, at a time when American popular culture greatly frowned on same-s.e.x relationships.
Hailing from a youth-centered culture, the Americans were slow to understand the importance of elders to the Vietnamese. So the Marines tended to interact with children-who were generally friendly and exuberant-more than adults, particularly elderly people. "With kids being kids, and Marines being Marines, you get attached to them," Lieutenant Thomas Eagan, commander of a combined action company named Delta-1, told an interviewer in 1967. Like many other Marines, he believed that making inroads with the kids would help the long-term effort in Vietnam. "They'll have a good many Americans that they can remember . . . this I think is definitely going to sway them to an attempt to hang on to the country as they know it." Perhaps, but this preoccupation with kids at the expense of elders sometimes cost them credibility with the average Vietnamese villager, until the Americans learned to reach out to everyone.
CAP squad leaders especially learned to cultivate village chiefs and district chiefs since both types of leaders were generally influential. Those who were not in league with the VC were usually in danger, so the security of a Marine CAP could be attractive to them. The mere act of sitting down, drinking tea with a chief, asking him how the Marines could help his people often held great sway. At times, it also yielded information on the VC or facilitated civic action projects for the village. Making this kind of headway with local leaders raised the status of the CAPs, and perhaps even legitimized them, in the eyes of villagers. Such on-the-ground support was, after all, a key objective of the combined action mission. When a CAP leader forged these relationships, it hardly guaranteed success, but he had little chance of accomplishing much without them.
Other cultural issues came from the unfortunate fact that some of the CAP Marines were boors who had no business being in the program. They dealt with people harshly, used racial slurs, broke squad rules about refraining from drinking and whoring, or just generally projected ill will. Most of these types did not last long on a team. Far more often, cultural problems resulted from simple American ignorance about local customs. CAP Marines, like most Americans, tended to pat kids on the head until they found out that many villagers believed this infested them with evil spirits. So, too, they had to learn to avoid crossing their legs or pointing their heels at their hosts when sitting in someone's home. To the Vietnamese, the pointed heel meant that the person at whom it was pointed would die the next day. Lieutenant Eagan found, to his chagrin, that he committed a gratuitous cultural insult one day. "All I had done was to walk into a hootch and said something to one of the old men in the ville and I turned my back on his family altar without paying any sort of respect to it." In a culture that was centered around ancestor worship, this was a grave offense indeed. It was no small matter tactically, either, because such an insult could easily cause the offended party to cast his lot with the VC, putting more American lives at risk.
CAP members also had to deal with the loss of face that resulted from errant firepower or damage inflicted by conventional units. When people got hurt or killed, it could unravel months of excruciating effort on the part of the CAP. Even when the damage was only material, tension was often high. Staff Sergeant David Thompson had to smooth over some very hurt feelings when a line unit carelessly destroyed a vase and several other sacred items in his village's temple one night. "Whatever the troops do . . . goes back on the American government, and this does not make for good relations [with] the people." These were the vagaries, and immense challenges, of operating in so alien a cultural environment.
Although some CAPs were aloof from their villagers, most did form some sort of relationship, many of which even culminated in strong ties of friendship. Generally, this happened quite gradually if the Marines behaved well and made an effort to insinuate themselves into the local customs and culture. The average Vietnamese peasant was caught in the middle of a vicious struggle that raged among the PFs, ARVN, the NVA, the VC (many of whom he probably knew), and the Americans. This meant that most of the people simply wanted the security to be left alone and live their lives in peace. "It's not that so many people in Vietnam are Viet Cong," one CAP leader explained as the combined action program was just starting to grow. "It's that most of them will swing with . . . whoever's got the strength. Because they don't have anything to lose by going over to the Viet Cong when the VC are in their village; or going back to the government when the government comes in the village. But now you've got a ville that's got khaki [a CAP] in it; it's got medical attention there, it's got people that care and people that show some friendliness and some interest. So the villager like any other human being begins to develop loyalties."5 As foreigners, the Americans aroused a great deal of suspicion but also curiosity among the villagers. When the Vietnamese saw that the CAP Marines were willing to stay with them permanently, provide security, and blend in as best they could, they usually softened. One major indicator of this was when they invited Marines to share meals with them. This was such an important aspect of village culture that no American could turn down the opportunity. Thus, every CAP Marine had to be an adventurous eater. Corporal Michael Cousino found this out one day when a respected elder butchered a goat, drained its blood into a bowl, took a sip, and then offered it to Cousino. "I pretended to drink it by bringing the bowl up to my mouth and letting some blood form up around my lips. This way I wouldn't offend him. He accepted me into his family."
One time, the locals who lived near Thomas Flynn's CAP at Cam Hieu honored the Marines with an elaborate feast. With great fanfare, they arranged pots and baskets full of rice, with boiled chicken alongside trays of pig brains, intestines, jellied blood, and raw fish that still had their heads and scales. Flynn, a meat-and-potatoes Irish kid from New Jersey, was a bit reluctant to dive into the spread but he knew he had no choice. "As I picked up a piece of the pig brain, the people watched with antic.i.p.ation. When I swallowed it and smiled, they clapped their hands and laughed. I wondered if they were happy because they thought I really liked their food or if they were laughing because they were thinking that this dumb b.a.s.t.a.r.d is really eating this s.h.i.t!" These meals sometimes resulted in invitations to weddings, funerals, family gatherings and the like, for even more eating. The Americans learned to always leave something on their plates because, in Vietnamese culture, if a guest cleaned his plate, it meant that the host had not prepared enough food and he or she lost face.
Most of the Marines grew to like the local fare, especially the Nuoc Mam sauce with which Vietnamese flavored so many dishes. Corporal Barry Goodson made a point of buying sauce-soaked pork and fish sandwiches from nearby merchants whom he befriended over time. At times, a sandwich could be bug-infested, but Goodson hardly cared. "Eating it was a simple way to strengthen my bond with our Vietnamese counterparts." Sometimes, during day patrols, people invited the Marines to join them for lunch. Other times, they sat down together for full-fledged dinners of rice, fish, watermelons, and carrots. "After they eat they will sit and watch us, and laugh at the way we use their [chop]stick and eat their food," Sergeant Alexander Wert, a squad leader, said in early 1967. "It's all good natured. We laugh at them and they laugh at us, it's always a lot of fun."
Most commonly, the two peoples exchanged or mixed their foods. This was especially true among the Marines and PFs. The Marines were not shy about dispensing C rations, soda, and chocolate to their allies. When Sergeant Jim Donovan, who headed up a squad in Tuy Loan village, found out that his PFs liked Salem cigarettes and Orange Crush soda, he pa.s.sed out these products as a reward for good behavior. He also loved Vietnamese food and enjoyed many mixed meals with the PFs. "I like rice and soup with the noodles. I ate at least one meal a day with a Vietnamese." They would mix C ration chicken and noodles with the local version. "They [PFs] would take the noodles and throw 'em away. Then they would make their own noodles and they'd eat the [C ration] chicken." Donovan was amazed that the PFs actually liked ham and lima beans, the most despised C ration meal for practically all Americans in Vietnam.6 The single biggest cultural problem was the language barrier. Even among the CAP Marines very few could speak Vietnamese with any semblance of fluency. Most knew only common phrases, slang expressions, and the odd word or two. Lance Corporal Richard Wildagel had thirty days of language training in Danang before joining his CAP, and the course was useful, but his communication with the people was still so limited that he often relied on hand signals and gestures. He found that he had to make a daily effort to be conversant. "Just by being in the ville, you can pick up a lot, just by listening to the people, or asking what something is." Corporal Dukin Elliot went to language school in the States for nearly a year. He was well ahead of his colleagues in his ability to communicate with people, but even he had troubles. "It's a difficult language to learn, because you can write a word the same way and it has different meanings." Only one man on David Sherman's team had any linguistic training and it was practically useless in Ky Hoa, their remote village. "His instructor was Saigonese. Vietnamese as spoken in Saigon is much different from what is spoken in the countryside. Out there dialects can change considerably in 10 miles."
Sergeant Donovan's squad even had an ARVN interpreter a.s.signed to it. Of course, this yielded tremendous influence to this individual since he literally controlled the vital power of communication (a phenomenon familiar a generation later to many small-unit leaders in Iraq who also relied far too heavily on their interpreters). This meant he had to be reliable. Unfortunately, Donovan's ARVN was not. A visiting Special Forces major who knew some Vietnamese eavesdropped on the man as he questioned the locals and found he was feeding Donovan bad information. The interpreter ended up getting drunk and deserting. Fortunately for Donovan's team, he was replaced with a South Vietnamese Marine Corps sergeant who was loyal, courageous, and who spoke excellent English. "He gave me a lot of history of Vietnam. He got a lot out of people. They really liked him."
Most of the CAPs were on their own, though. The language barrier would have been a challenge even if the American preparation for it had been barely adequate. As it was, the Marines learned to get by as best they could. Those who at least made an attempt to speak Vietnamese tended to get along well with people. Of course, many of the Vietnamese, particularly the PFs, spoke some English. A surprising number of militiamen could converse to some extent. Children, always so adaptable, sometimes picked up English with stunning alacrity, and acted as vital go-betweens.
Even so, for most CAP Marines and their Vietnamese partners, everyday communication-such a crucial component of human understanding, empathy, and cooperation-was basic and tentative. The Marines and their PFs communicated by hand signals, common phrases, and even facial expressions. Given these constraints, it is remarkable how well they usually worked together.
Nonetheless, the inability to communicate in any kind of depth was a real hindrance for most of the CAPs. It limited how much intelligence they could pick up from locals. It intruded upon their cultural understanding. It curtailed the amount of in-depth joint operations or planning they could conduct with the PFs. It led to misunderstandings that could only be worked out through substantive conversation, as when someone from one group accidentally shot someone from the other, or when the PFs stole American property (as they often did). This language failure was a direct symptom of the flawed American approach in Vietnam-in a war whose outcome would be determined by cultural literacy, gra.s.sroots influence, and the local dominance that could only be forged by agile formations of light infantry, American strategists instead relied upon the bigness inherent in technology, material superiority, and firepower.7 With such deficient language skills among the CAPs, the team member most capable of bridging the cultural chasm was usually the Navy corpsman. "I think our Corpsmen, pound for pound, were some of the most important men we had," one commander a.s.serted. Invariably known as "Doc" or "Bac si" (the Vietnamese word for medic), the corpsmen served as the on-the-spot medical face of the United States. Most of them were all of nineteen or twenty years old. In general, they worked with a PF who had been designated as a medic, either by his sergeant ("Trung Si") or the district chief. Quite often, the American corpsmen conducted medical civic action projects (MEDCAPs) for the villagers, treating everything from headaches to serious war wounds and contagious diseases. The corpsmen conducted close to two million MEDCAPs during the war. "Invariably surrounded by children, he seeks to advise and empirically treat whatever he encounters," Lieutenant Commander Lawrence Metcalf, who served as medical coordinator for the combined action program, wrote. "Identifying communicable disease and reporting it, acquiring intelligence information, and selecting for medical evacuation those patients whose conditions most warrant medical referral . . . are all part of the CAP Corpsman's routine."
By most accounts, they were even more effective than trained physicians. There were two reasons for this. First, they were less condescending with people and infinitely more patient. Second, unlike almost all the doctors, they lived among the people and developed some level of comfort with them. "Intestinal worms were endemic, and ringworm was common as well," David Sherman recalled. "Our corpsmen got the people disinfected, taught them rudimentary sanitation, cleared up some other minor medical problems, and introduced them to soap." Versatility, patience, and a true sense of compa.s.sion were qualities that all corpsmen had to possess. "I treated everything-boils, bunions, rashes included," corpsman John Daube explained. During his regular MEDCAPs, Jack Broz treated more babies than he could count. In many cases, their heads were covered with oozing sores from jungle rot and parasites. "I took some Furacin ointment and smeared it liberally all over the baby's head. Then I wrapped my own special bandage that I devised around its head, complete with chin strap." On one such MEDCAP, Wayne Christenson treated a boy who had severely lacerated his forearm in an accident. "I'd never sewed up anyone before. I injected the area with novocaine and sewed up the wound. This kid did not even whimper. The Vietnamese are a very stoic people."
For the corpsmen all of this was, of course, in addition to carrying out their primary responsibility of dispensing medical care to their Marine comrades. The worthy task of saving the lives of their friends, and caring for the Vietnamese, led to a high level of job satisfaction for the corpsmen. "I began to see myself less and less as a Navy corpsman and more and more as a Marine," Christenson said. Another corpsman came to think of the locals as part of his personal circle of friends. "There's a great deal of satisfaction in working with these people," he told an interviewer who visited his CAP one day. "I have gotten to know them all very well. There isn't one person in this ville I haven't treated yet." This corpsman, and dozens of others like him, were the cutting edge of the combined action program, particularly in relation to civic action. They helped break down barriers between the Marines and the Vietnamese. They also saved many lives.8 Turf Battles.
Establishing ties and personal rapport with the Vietnamese villagers was of paramount importance for every CAP, but so was security. The most crucial step in earning the people's confidence was to provide them security. Without that, nothing else mattered. Defeating the VC, then, was the primary job of each team. Theirs was a war of wits and continuous tension, stalking and being stalked by shadowy groups of Viet Cong. Since the CAPs were so small in number, they were vulnerable (this was a major reason why Westy was always suspicious of them). Each team dealt with the constant danger that a large enemy unit, VC or NVA, might attack and destroy the entire CAP before nearby friendly conventional units could intercede.
Building a strong, defensible compound was important for the CAPs. Most constructed some sort of fortified area, complete with bunkers, concertina wire, claymore mines, and machine-gun posts. Patrolling, though, was the lifeblood of security. Patrolling is to an infantryman what skating is to a hockey player-it is the gateway to everything he does. On patrol, an infantryman gathers intelligence, projects power, a.s.sesses terrain, calms friends, intimidates enemies, outwits the enemy soldier or insurgent who would like to kill him, and, if necessary, gets into a life-and-death fight with that enemy combatant. In the CAPs, patrolling was the military version of the hometown policeman's beat. In a way, these patrols were the ultimate expression of ground power, depending as much on mere presence and relationships as overwhelming weaponry.
In the various hamlets and villages of I Corps, the Marines and their PFs spent much of their time on such patrols. Day after day, night after night, they roamed their respective areas, PFs in tow, usually in groups of less than ten, with several meters between each man, rifles and machine guns at the ready, always looking for danger. At night, amid darkness so vast that they could hardly see more than a few feet in any direction, they chose ambush spots among the rice paddies, within the jungles, or even at times in the hamlets. They hunkered down, tried to ignore mosquitoes, ants, the heat, and the persistent tension of the unknown, while they watched and listened for the VC. Sometimes they got into firefights with the VC. The vast majority of the time, they did not. When fights did occur, they usually lasted only a few minutes. The CAPs generally inflicted more punishment than they absorbed, but casualties among the Marines and PFs tallied up, normally in ones and twos, over the course of many such firefights. Most of the combined action Marines did not realize it, but casualty rates in the CAPs were actually higher than in the conventional rifle companies. As of 1967, each CAP Marine had a 75 percent chance of getting wounded and a 12 percent chance of being killed.
Good leaders, Marine and PF, knew never to set noticeable patterns. Patrols had to avoid using the same routes at the same times or perhaps the same ambush spots night after night, anything that might betray their location to the enemy. "To protect the people from Viet Cong terrorism and physical and economic hara.s.sment, the combined action units depended on aggressive patrolling and ambushing, superior tactical skill and a detailed knowledge of the local area and the people," a perceptive III Marine Amphibious Force report intoned. "[They] emphasized mobility, spreading their activity over thousands of meters to seek out and interdict the enemy."9 No matter how good the Marines were at patrolling, they could not be effective if they did not work well with the PFs. For one thing, the PFs represented the local people, whose loyalty must be won for pacification to succeed. For another, even the worst PFs had unique skills that were crucial to the survival of any CAP Marine. The PFs best knew the terrain, the mood of the people, the whereabouts and perhaps even the ident.i.ty of the VC. They also had an uncanny ability to sniff out b.o.o.by traps. With experience, the Marines often grew proficient at all of these things, but, as foreigners, they could never know or understand the local situation like the PFs.
The Marines, of course, were much better trained and disciplined than the PFs. The Americans were physically stronger, more courageous, and they certainly took better care of their weapons. To these proud Marines, the PFs often seemed lazy, cowardly, and untrustworthy. "When we first came in," one CAP leader recalled, "it was a fight every night to get the people [PFs] to stand guard. They wanted to stand guard for two hours and go home and go to bed." Their reliability in showing up for patrols, as well as their noise discipline, were often substandard. Too often, they ran away when a fight loomed or even in the middle of firefights. One squad leader estimated that about 10 percent of the PFs in his combined unit were VC infiltrators who were simply gathering information on Marine weapons, procedures, and capabilities. In Edward Palm's CAP, the relationship with the PFs was marred by the fact that the PFs were unreliable and seemed to have an understanding with the VC not to patrol in certain areas. "A typical patrol began with Sarge, our squad leader, briefing the Trung Si the day before. Sarge showed him an overlay and requested that a number of PFs, usually twelve, be ready at the appointed time and place. If four or five showed up we were lucky. Despite numerous suggestions, complaints, and threats we were never able to form integrated, cohesive patrolling teams. It was luck of the draw every time out."
In the majority of cases, though, the PFs were good fighters. They simply lacked the formal training, good weaponry, and soldierly discipline that Marines took for granted. The Americans were often at fault for the problems that arose. For instance, Corporal Barry Goodson's combined action company commander, from the disembodied perspective of a compound miles away, decided to send a rear echelon man to join the team for a night in the field. The man was about to rotate home. The officer wanted him to earn some medals before he left and he could only do that in the field with the CAP. This was idiocy in the extreme. The frightened Marine was completely out of his depth. He knew none of the other men, and he posed a danger to the team because he did not know how to operate in this perilous light-infantry environment.
Sure enough, on ambush that night the rookie accidentally shot and killed a sixteen-year-old PF, thinking he was a VC. The brother of the dead PF, and many of the other militiamen, wanted to kill the Marine. Only the intercession of the Trung Si and the immediate removal of the offending Marine prevented them from doing so. The close relationship that Goodson's team had built over many months of shared danger with the PFs eroded literally overnight, and was never quite the same. "The air was filled with tension, distrust and fear," Goodson wrote. "During the day the villagers shunned us and refused our offers of help. They even refused our medical treatment. When we set up ambush, [the Trung Si] no longer mingled his men amongst mine. Time subdued the overt hatred and bitterness, but our relationship with all the Vietnamese people had changed. The distrust could not be shaken."
The Americans needed to understand that the PFs were in a perpetual state of war, struggling for their homes and families. Long after the Marines rotated back to the U.S., their fight would still rage on. This created a combination of fatalism and patience in most of the PFs, especially their leaders. The Americans had to accept this or fail. The typical PF leader was canny, courageous, and probably more combat-experienced than all the CAP Marines put together. It did no good to deal with him in a heavy-handed way, like a drill instructor berating a recruit. "He don't like the idea of some big galoot of an American walking in his ville and walking over to him telling him what he's gonna do and what he's not gonna do," Lieutenant Eagan said. "So . . . you have to deal with them as an individual and try to get him to come around to your way of thinking, or at least come to a point where you can compromise your thinking with his and come up with a mutual action patrol."
This could also mean looking the other way at their excesses. In this terribly personal war, what the Marines knew as torture was perfectly acceptable behavior to the PFs. A couple PFs from Sergeant Jim Donovan's team caught an NVA colonel one time and recognized him as the person responsible for obliterating a nearby village several years before. In a matter of minutes, they tortured and killed the colonel. "They chopped off a bamboo thing and stripped it. They soaked it in water and just started whipping him and screaming at him for questions. He wasn't gonna talk at all. I think his body turned out to be like jelly." Donovan contemplated interceding but he was concerned that, if he did, the PFs would turn on him. "This is people that have been at war for a hundred years and they didn't have any Geneva Convention s.h.i.t."
Corporal Goodson encountered a similar situation one night-before the accidental shooting-when his PFs captured the Viet Cong girlfriend of an NVA officer. Everyone understood that she knew much about an impending enemy attack on the CAP. While in custody, she struggled mightily, "like a wild animal," in Goodson's memory. "The girl had hate in her eyes and continuously fought her captors, cussing us through her gag."
As the Marines stood aside, a team of PFs took her into a shack for interrogation. Goodson and the Americans heard shouts and the sound of slapping. Then, when Goodson heard her emit a bloodcurdling scream, he climbed the side of the shack and peered down from a ventilation hole. "The beaten girl was nude, lying in a pool of water on the floor. Wires, attached to every vital part of her body, led back to a hand-cranked generator. The hand on the generator cranked in rapid turns. The girl screamed again as her body jerked around on the floor." Sickened and haunted by the scene, he could watch no more. He contemplated doing something to stop this, but came to the painful realization that he was powerless. "It was their territory. It was their way. No one could interfere." The girl died in agony.10 Working with the PFs, then, was a constant process of accommodation, negotiation, and amalgamation. But when the Marines and the PFs clashed with the VC, or were attacked by them, they fought together as brothers. In the run-up to and during the major communist Tet Offensive of 1968, they made a point of attacking the CAPs with powerful formations. According to one study, almost half of all enemy attacks in I Corps from November 1967 through January 1968 were against the CAPs.
Even before the fighting intensified, many of the CAP Marines had picked up intelligence on the enemy offensive, as well as a foreboding mood among the villagers. "When we sent in reports" to higher headquarters, Private First Cla.s.s Tom Krusewski recalled, "n.o.body believed us. That was one of the problems with the CAPs-we didn't have any officers with us. They thought we exaggerated. And they distrusted the Vietnamese." Indeed, NCOs had so much lat.i.tude and independence in running their CAPs that officers seldom had much impact on the day-to-day operations. To most CAP members, the officers were distant and out of touch, and generally held in contempt. "In our teams we were not listened to by higher command," one sergeant a.s.serted. "We watched [enemy] heavy weapons squads come in, platoons come in [before Tet], and we called these [in]. And n.o.body would believe us. We watched them move in with rockets . . . and heavy mortars. We were told by higher-ups that, quote, 'we didn't know what the h.e.l.l we were talking about.'"
Thus, the average Marine sensed what was in the offing, even if those at headquarters did not. While walking through his village one day, Corporal Igor Bobrowsky noticed that people were building coffins. Sergeant Keith Cossey watched as his village "had suddenly been filled with strange young men in civilian clothes." All of them carried South Vietnamese ID cards but they were actually the vanguard of a North Vietnamese Army regiment. "We had our hands full with literally hundreds of these characters just hanging around."
When the attacks started, they were especially violent. With terrible suddenness one night, the VC hit Private First Cla.s.s Thomas Flynn's Tiger Papa Three CAP by bombarding their makeshift compound with RPGs. The tin and wood hootch where Flynn was sleeping collapsed on him. He got separated from his rifle. In the confusion, with bullets flying and the screams of Marines, PFs, and VC mixing together amid the noise, Flynn saw a Viet Cong soldier toss a grenade into an adjacent bunker, killing a Marine. "His body [was] twisted and his stomach was torn open from the explosion," Flynn wrote. As Flynn approached the enemy soldier, he turned and pulled a knife. "Before he could react, I grabbed his wrist and his throat and kicked his legs out from under him with a large sweep. We both went down on the ground with me on top. I disarmed him. With both hands on the handle, I thrust the knife into his chest."
Seconds later, a group of armed VC surrounded him. He lunged for one of them and, as he struggled for his rifle, another VC shot Flynn in the face. "My tongue was ripped. My mouth filled with blood, and I felt several teeth lying loose in my mouth." He could also feel a hole in his left cheek where the bullet had exited. As he vomited blood, the VC dragged him several yards by the hair. They bayoneted him in the hand and exploded a grenade against his leg. But they were either too distracted with the resistance offered by other CAP members or were perhaps unwilling to finish him off face-to-face. Eventually they retreated, the battle died down, and Flynn's buddies medevaced him. As was so common in these situations, the surviving Marines and PFs later rebuilt their compound and renewed their mission.
The enemy tactic was to strike swiftly with overwhelming force, attempt to overrun the compound, inflict maximum damage, and then withdraw before nearby conventional units could arrive on the scene. According to Lieutenant Colonel Corson, one 1967 a.s.sault was supported by "150 rounds of 82mm mortars, 40-50 rounds of recoilless rifle fire and multiple bangalore torpedoes to break the defensive wire. Once through the wire the a.s.sault forces moved rapidly against the pre-selected objectives of the dispensary, the command bunker and the ammunition bunker."
This particular attack lasted seven minutes. During Tet, most were longer. Often the enemy trained for their a.s.saults on exact mock-ups of whatever compound they had targeted. Because of these elaborate rehearsals, the average enemy soldier was very well prepared to kill at close range. "At times the attackers advanced to ranges so close that hand grenades were employed freely by both combatants," one post-battle report stated.
In one such instance, a potent force of 150 NVA and VC a.s.saulted a 3rd Combined Action Group CAP in the middle of the night. "As soon as the first [mortar] round hit the compound," Lance Corporal Frank Lopez, a rifleman, recalled, "they just put cardboard boxes and blankets and mats on the wires." This allowed them to breach the wire rapidly. They then set to work blowing up bunkers and exchanging shots with the Marines and PFs. "It looked like ants coming over a hill or just coming through the wire, towards the compound yelling and screaming," Lopez said. "Everyone was just yelling and getting hit." The CAP Marines and PFs had little illumination and no fire support because their supporting units were also under heavy attack. "The VC threw a lot of satchel charges that night," another Marine said, "within half an hour the entire compound was set on fire."
Men of both sides scattered in every direction, among bunkers and buildings, where they fought to the death in a personal fashion. The Viet Cong even taunted the Americans with bullhorns, naming individual Marines and promising to kill them (the VC often put bounties on the heads of CAP Marines). "They [VC] were every place," Corporal Arliss Willhite remembered. He himself heard his name over the bullhorn. "They had the Compound almost totally destroyed in twenty minutes. Why they did leave, and why they didn't kill everybody, I don't know. They just turned around and left when the sun started coming up." They probably withdrew for fear of getting annihilated by U.S. aircraft or rescue forces. As it was, they killed seven Marines and eleven PFs.
The next year, 1969, the communists launched another Tet Offensive. This one was not quite as potent as the one in 1968, but for the CAP Marines in the path of the attacks, this one was bad enough. Corporal Goodson's CAP, for example, knew from their many local intelligence sources that the attack was coming. Before the fighting started, though, they had the surreal experience of partic.i.p.ating in a bizarre eve-of-battle Tet holiday banquet with the VC and NVA. In a situation that was probably unique in the entire history of the war, Goodson, the seven other Marines on his team, and the PF leader visited the enemy's remote camp, at their invitation, for a feast. "Every man in black PJ's and NVA uniforms nodded respectfully as we pa.s.sed, giving us forced smiles that made no attempt at camouflaging the contempt and hatred they held for us. Yet even past the hatred you could sense a fear and reverence for our presence." At six feet three, Goodson towered over them, and made a point of stretching to his full height. Each Marine struggled to conceal his own fear, betraying no weakness in front of the enemy.
As the meal ended, an NVA officer stood up and spoke in English. "Welcome, gentlemen. I hope you have enjoyed your meal. You honor us with your presence as warrior honors warrior. You will all die tonight. Tonight, marines, some of our men will collect the bounty we have placed on your heads. Tomorrow we celebrate with same meal over our victory! But, today, enjoy yourselves. Eat as much as you like." Corporal Goodson sat listening and thought: "Hope we see you personally tonight."
When the banquet ended, the team left with little fanfare. The situation was nerve-wracking and strange in the extreme. Knowing full well that they would soon fight a battle of extinction, they had sat down for a convivial meal with the enemy, as if they were about to engage in nothing more consequential than a sporting event or a chess compet.i.tion. Such were the psychological vagaries of combat, and the strong human connections that often existed between mortal enemies, even in this modern era when combatants sometimes cared little about old-world notions of honor.
Realizing that time was short, they retrieved their weapons, smeared themselves with buffalo dung to blend in with their surroundings, and settled into a predetermined ambush spot to wait for the communist attack. Sure enough, the a.s.sault came at about midnight. "It seemed like every tree and bush was alive with NVA and VC," Goodson wrote. "Brazenly they stepped into the light and opened fire with their AK's and machine guns. Green tracers and their deadly partners sliced away at the trees around us." American fire scythed through the enemy soldiers. In the weird half-light, the Marines could see some of them stumbling and falling.
The battle ebbed and flowed like this for an indeterminate amount of time. The team was running low on ammo. Goodson called his company commander, several miles away in a firebase, for fire support. The enemy fighters were within fifty meters of the team now. "They were coming from all directions like a pack of wolves moving in for the kill." Instead of arranging for artillery or helicopter support, the company commander accused Goodson of staging a fake battle for glory and medals. He refused to provide any help. Angry beyond description, Goodson hoped only to survive long enough to kill the CO. Once again, this was another troubling example of the disconnect between officers and enlisted men in the CAP program.
When the team was almost out of ammunition, and about to be overrun by the enemy, a sensible colonel got on the net, overruled the company commander, and came to the rescue with Hueys and helicopter gunships. The intense fire of the gunships kept the NVA and VC at bay, while the Hueys landed and resupplied the team with ammo. By dawn, the battle was over and the enemy was gone. The team had lost one man killed and another wounded. "Everyone was physically and mentally drained," Goodson later wrote. "Battles such as this one simply do not end with the last bullet. They are lived time and again in your mind as your senses attempt to cope with the horrors and the highs."11 Mobility, Agility, and Finality.
In response to the Tet battles, the CAPs adopted new mobile tactics. As the furious onslaughts piled up, the program's senior commanders, such as Colonel Theodore Metzger, came to believe that the stationary CAP compounds were too vulnerable. After all, they were fixed targets. The VC knew exactly where they were and could easily gather intelligence on their defenses (as evidenced by the mock-ups they often built). Nor was it difficult, as Tet proved, for the enemy to ama.s.s powerful attacking forces to overrun a compound. If the CAPs became mobile, though, and never planted themselves in one widely known spot for any length of time, the VC lost the initiative. "With its mobility, the CAP can keep the VC guessing," Colonel Metzger said in early 1970. "They don't like to come after you unless they've had a chance to get set and do some planning. Mobility throws this off. It . . . means that the CAP can be found anywhere outside a village or a hamlet, and they [VC] don't like this when they're trying to come in for rice, or money, or recruits, or just plain coordination." Moreover, the mobile CAPs did not have to tie down a substantial portion of their limited manpower to the job of defending a compound. Instead they became stalkers, roaming daily and nightly throughout an area of operations, insinuating themselves into many villages, frequently clashing with the equally mobile VC.
By the middle of 1969, almost 90 percent of the CAPs were mobile. As Metzger put it: "CAP Marines literally went to the bush for their entire tours." At first, this could be quite a daunting challenge, especially for the newer men, who felt comforted by the false security of a compound. For many of the Marines-and all Americans in Vietnam, come to think of it-a compound, firebase, or perimeter meant security. This was actually one of the major problems with the war effort-namely, that not enough Americans were in touch with the people, or engaged in the job of providing them real security. Base camps were designed to offer safety to the Americans and no one else. Leaving that dubious security, plunging into the jungles, paddies, and villages among the people, seemed to augur great danger, if not guaranteed death. So the idea of permanently plunging into the world outside the wire was frightening indeed, a counterintuitive nightmare that portended a sort of bogeyman-inspired doom.
Perhaps this trepidation also stemmed from the natural human impulse to have a home, even in the most dangerous of situations. "I saw the mobile CAPs as extremely scary," Gene Ferguson recalled. "I didn't have the safety to run back to." He liked the idea of having a barbed-wire compound with mortars, machine guns, and bunkers around him. "In the mobile CAP they could just slaughter us like flies. I was so scared. When the weather got bad, we didn't get resupplied. There were times when we would go three days without any food." Like most newcomers, Barry Goodson was taken aback when he first joined his CAP and realized it was mobile. "You mean you don't have a compound to hide in case of an attack?" he asked his new friends. They a.s.sured him that they lived in the jungle full-time, moving to different ambush positions every night. A deep apprehension settled over Goodson and he wondered what he had gotten himself into. "Here I was with only five other men [Marines]. The jungle jungle was our home!" was our home!"
Goodson, like most of the other Marines, got used to the new ways, and came to embrace them. The mobile CAPs were indeed a potent weapon. In practice, they acted as stealthy hunter-killer teams, putting the VC on the defensive, forcing them to react to the Marines and PFs rather than the other way around. For the sake of sheer survival, they learned to blend in well with their surroundings. They were masters at patrolling because that was all they did.
They suffered fewer casualties than the stationary teams, and they inflicted more damage on the VC. "It was darned tough on the CAP Marines," Metzger said, "but it saved many lives and greatly enhanced our security capability." In 1969, at the cost of 117 Americans killed and 851 wounded, they killed 1,952 VC and NVA (by actual body count), while capturing another 391. They conducted about twelve thousand patrols or ambushes per month, most at night. They initiated two-thirds of their firefights (compared with a 10 percent rate in the line companies). In the first few months of 1970 alone they killed 288 enemy soldiers and captured 87. All of these numbers were improvements from the 1965 to 1968 phase of the program, when most of the CAPs were stationary.
The mobile CAPs were consummate, agile light infantry. They immersed themselves in the culture and the war itself. They arguably had more at stake than any other Americans in Vietnam because they were so close to the land and the people. Their lives were always at risk. "Ambushes, ambushes, ambushes; it seems like that's all we did in the CAPs I was in," Private First Cla.s.s Warren Carmon recalled. "Our group ran them seven nights a week. My G.o.d, even the [line company] grunts got a chance to go to the rear for some rest." But not the CAP grunts. "Some of our ambushes were very successful. Like one night an NVA patrol, fourteen soldiers, entered our killing zone. It was perfect. We opened up on them, dropping eleven instantly. The other three tried to run but never made it. We moved around so much I can never remember the names of most of the villages. The people, at least to your face, were very friendly. They encouraged us to stay around their homes to protect them. We got along great with the kids."
The mobile CAPs did have one major downside, though. They enhanced tactical proficiency and security at the expense of civic action. With the teams on the move so much, they did not have as much time to devote to forging relationships with the villagers. They could not dig as many wells, share as many meals, conduct quite as many MEDCAPs, or share in village life to the extent they did before. For these reasons, Lieutenant Colonel Corson, the spiritual father of the program, actually disagreed with the change to mobile CAPs that happened after he rotated home in 1967.
In Corson's opinion, the vulnerability of the compounds should not have been a problem if the CAPs were doing their jobs correctly, winning the support of the people and thus finding out the enemy's every move from them. Corson believed that the CAPs had to maintain a visible presence in one spot, as an alternative to the VC. He believed that each CAP should, in the words of one scholar, "be a center of pacification; a place to which hamlet officials, elders and peasants could turn." Mobile CAPs could not do that quite as well as stationary CAPs. Overall, it is probably fair to say that the mobile CAPs were better at the mission of destroying the enemy and providing security (for both Marines and civilians) but at the expense of everyday gra.s.sroots influence within the villages.12 In 1970, not long after the program reached a zenith of 114 platoons that were covering about 15 percent of the I Corps population, the United States began its withdrawal from Vietnam in earnest. As this happened, Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, the most highly respected ARVN commander of the war, pleaded with one Marine general: "I don't care what you do, but please don't take the CAPs." Nonetheless, the CAPs were disbanded and scaled back in the same proportion to other American forces in Vietnam. In 1971, the program came to an official end.
The CAPs were the most innovative aspect of the American pacification effort in Vietnam. They demonstrated the adaptable versatility of well-trained infantrymen, and the persistent tendency of modern warfare to devolve into a contest of will at the basic levels of home, hearth, and local economics.
How successful were the CAPs? The answer is mixed. The Americans lost the war in Vietnam, so the combined action approach could only have been so successful. Even at the peak of the program, only 2,220 Marines and corpsmen were a part of it, and, of course, some of them were administrative people who spent most of their time at a base. That number of 2,220 represented less than 3 percent of the Corps' strength in country. At any given time, no more than 10 to 15 percent of the population in I Corps was affected, in any way, by a CAP. And I Corps was just one part of South Vietnam, so the reach of the CAPs was not very extensive.
What's more, the presence of a CAP did not exactly guarantee success. Some never made any inroads with their PFs or the locals. Their relationships were chilly or downright hostile. James Trullinger, a scholar with many years of experience in Vietnam, spent much of that time in My Thuy Phuong, a village that hosted a CAP. Trullinger developed close relationships with people on all sides of the war, including members of the VC. Among the people he interviewed, he found that none of them had any close ties with or partiality to the CAP Marines. Outside of a tiny few government supporters, most of the people supported the VC, if not openly then surrept.i.tiously. They thought of the guerrillas as courageous local boys who were standing up to the Americans and a repressive Saigon government. "The people were very happy after they saw how brave the Liberation Front guerrillas could be," one villager said. "Many of us thought to ourselves, secretly, that we must support the Liberation Front."
The other major issue was that, even when the people accepted a CAP and befriended the Americans, they seldom had any love for the South Vietnamese government. Often enough they hated and feared the VC, but they were put off by the poor behavior of ARVN soldiers, as well as the tendency of government officials to be corrupt and exploitive. So, often, the Americans earned their loyalty but not the Saigon regime, and that did not bode well because the Americans could not stay forever.
A few of the CAP Marines, like Edward Palm, believed that the program was a failure. "Combined action was merely one more untenable article of faith. The truth, I suspect, is that where it seemed to work, combined action wasn't really needed, and where it was, combined action could never really work." In his opinion, the VC infrastructure "was too deeply entrenched, literally as well as figuratively in some places. They had had more than 20 years to win hearts and minds before we blundered onto the scene. We were naive to think 13 Marines and a Navy corpsman could make much difference in such a setting. The cultural gulf was just unbridgeable out in the countryside."
Most of the other Marines disagreed. General Walt a.s.serted that "of all our innovations in Vietnam none was as successful, as lasting in effect, or as useful for the future as the Combined Action Program." Lieutenant Colonel Corson saw the CAP as a dramatic success and believed that, if it had been expanded by fifteen thousand Marines, the VC would no longer have been able to operate. "It would have taken two years [to eliminate the VC]. There was no doubt in my mind about it." General Westmoreland would never have approved such an expansion of the program. He admitted that the CAPs experienced some success at the local level, but as commander in Vietnam he did not believe he had enough troops to sprinkle throughout the country in such fashion. "I simply had not enough numbers to put a squad of Americans in every village and hamlet; that would have been fragmenting resources and exposing them to defeat in detail." One study estimated that in order to secure all of the unoccupied hamlets in similar fashion to the CAPs, over 22,000 PFs and 167,000 American troops would be required at the cost of $1.8 billion per year. Not even the most ardent pro-CAP devotee would have argued for such an expansion. Everyone acknowledged that the big units were needed to fight major NVA and VC formations. Advocates like Corson and Krulak simply a.s.serted that dealing with the big enemy units was not enough-in order to win the war, the countryside also had to be secured through pacification and the CAPs were, in their view, the best way to do that.
David Sherman noticed that his unit's village got stronger as time pa.s.sed. The people had more control over their lives and they grew more prosperous. He was amazed that his makeshift squad and the PFs performed as well as they did. "Either group could have been xenophobic about the situation. We could have been more isolated than we were; they could have resisted all change. Instead, we both managed to get our acts together. We found ways to cooperate despite the cultural clash. It was, I think, an enriching experience for all of us." Tom Harvey, a platoon leader, held no illusions that the CAPs had inflicted any sort of lasting defeat on the VC, but he still viewed the program as quite effective for its size. "I think the concept of the CAP was one of the best to come out of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, and one of the few that wasn't counterproductive. I think we accomplished a lot with a relatively small cost to the U.S. taxpayer. We managed to keep the VC out of all the hamlets in Phu Thu District . . . with a force of probably no more than 75 Marines. Considering the number of kills, POW's, enemy weapons captured, chieu hois [ralliers], and intelligence, coupled with the relatively low cost to operate, I do not see how there could have been anything more efficient going for us."
Walt's III Marine Amphibious Force and General Krulak's Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, produced all sorts of graphs, charts, and statistics to measure this kind of success in the platoons. Much of this amounted to bureaucratic self-justification. It also demonstrated the overreliance on questionable statistics that warped the perspectives of American leaders, military and political, during Vietnam. After all, how could one really measure the level of loyalty and security among the people in a hamlet? Only those on the ground, round the clock, could offer any valid opinion, and even then the situation could change by the day. For this and many other reasons the high-level statistics are all questionable to the point of uselessness. The following facts are not, though. The combined action platoons reduced desertion rates among the PFs. In villages with CAPs, local leaders usually felt secure enough to sleep in their homes, a relative rarity among non-VC chiefs in non-CAP villages. Neither the VC nor the NVA ever displaced a CAP from a village. In 1999, Jim Donovan interviewed a former NVA division commander and asked him what he thought about the effectiveness of the CAPs. "In his opinion the hamlets where the Marines lived were of little help to his troops when they needed food, men or intelligence."
Over the course of nearly five years in existence, the CAPs killed 5,584 enemy soldiers and captured another 1,652. They also captured 2,347 weapons, a high ratio of weapons to enemy KIAs that lent credence to the body count numbers. They were 900 percent more likely than their colleagues in the big units to capture prisoners. They also sustained far fewer casualties from mines and b.o.o.by traps. In terms of killing and capturing the enemy, they were per capita more potent and efficient than the line companies.
The effectiveness goes beyond these mere barometers, though. Many of the CAP Marines came to feel very strongly about their villages. They felt a commitment to protect the people, secure what they thought of as their freedom, and fight alongside their PF brothers. What other explanation could there be for the high extension rates among the CAP Marines? At the village level, the war made sense to them. Those who extended were committed to see the war through to a successful conclusion.
The CAPs conducted hundreds of thousands of patrols and ambushes. They spread immeasurable amounts of good feelings among tens of thousands of people. They built wells, schools, and homes. They helped farmers maximize their harvests. They taught fishermen to catch more fish. They dispensed medical care to the sick, wounded, and healthy alike. They shielded thousands from VC hara.s.sment, tax collectors, and recruiters. Their everyday bravery communicated something honorable about American culture to the Vietnamese-namely, that some young men could, and would, give everything of themselves for the betterment of others. By no means were they perfect, but their behavior was generally correct. Because of this, they established ties of friendship that never quite died away in the years since the war. "There is a residual of goodwill among the Vietnamese who were in contact with them," Corson claimed decades after the war. "It's there, because we have people that have gone to areas where they served as CAP Marines; and they found that the residual of goodwill was still there." Their other legacy is the Military Transition Teams (MITT) employed so effectively by both the Army and the Marines in Iraq in the twenty-first century. Like the CAPs, these teams embedded with their Iraqi Army counterparts, trained them, improved them, and established strong ties with the locals.13 More than any other modern combatants, the CAP grunts in Vietnam experienced the crucial element of human will in war. By necessity, they morphed into rural warriors. In retrospect, the CAPs were the least glamorous but probably the most effective aspect of the ill-fated American war effort in Vietnam.
Attrition and the Tears of Autumn: Dak To, November 1967.
"A Lousy Place to Fight a War"
The grunts called it "the Land with No Sun." This was Kontum province and it was the most challenging terrain in South Vietnam. Also known as the Central Highlands, the area around the valley village of Dak To and a nearby Special Forces camp of the same name teemed with thick jungles, foliage-covered mountains, and muddy valleys. "The mountainous regions are rugged and rise to heights of 2,400 feet," a 4th Infantry Division report, prepared in early 1968, stated. "They are normally covered with . . . thick jungle. The plateau area is intermittently covered with forests of 100-150 foot trees, gra.s.s and thick bamboo rising some 50-60 feet in the air. Except for the valley areas, 90% of the higher elevations are covered with dense close-canopy rain forests." Another soldier wrote of it as a "merciless land of steep limestone ridges . . . covered with double- and sometimes triple-canopy jungle. This nightmare vegetation reaches up to blot out the sun with teak and mahogany that tower 100 feet or more above the rot of the jungle floor. The draws between the ridges are dreary, tangled places of perpetual twilight, where a thousand growing things struggle to the death for light and air. The jungle is laced with vines and thorns, and in it live diverse snakes, a million leeches and about half the mosquitoes in the world." To the infantry soldiers, Dak To meant steamy, bone-weary humps, confining jungles, bamboo fields, wild streams, insects, exhaustion, and an eerie sense that they were treading on the enemy's turf.
In fact, just several miles away, in Laos and Cambodia, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) maintained an extensive network of infiltration routes and base camps generally known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Shielded by the dense jungles, the North's courageous soldiers sallied forth from these routes into South Vietnam, often to fight as guerrilla warriors. In the fall of 1967, several regiments of these NVA regulars ma.s.sed around Dak To, heavily fortifying many of the key hill ma.s.ses. Their goal was to draw the Americans into a costly struggle for those hills. They hoped that the heavy jungle canopy, the dearth of roads, and the dizzying array of peaks would negate the firepower and mobility of American aircraft, artillery, and vehicles. The communists were planning a major offensive for early 1968 and they wanted to draw the Americans into such remote areas, away from population centers. If the Americans did not take the bait, then the NVA formations would push east, make common cause with Viet Cong (VC) insurgents, whose hidden supply caches would support the NVA, and fight a hit-and-run war near the country's population centers.
The Central Highlands, and specifically Dak To, presented General William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, with a vexing problem. He could not sit back and let the NVA move unmolested from their base camps into the rice-producing regions and cities of South Vietnam. Nor could he go after them in the exact manner he wished. He yearned to attack and destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail sanctuaries. But President Lyndon Johnson feared the international political ramifications of invading such ostensibly "neutral" countries as Laos and Cambodia. That the North Vietnamese and their allies in the VC had already done so hardly mattered in the forum of international opinion, which viewed any American cross-border operations as aggression. For fear of this sort of backlash, and the possibility that hitting the communists in Cambodia and Laos would provoke a larger world war with China and the Soviet Union, the Americans, as of 1967, had straitjacketed themselves into fighting the ground war primarily on South Vietnamese soil. For Westmoreland, this meant he had to react to enemy incursions of South Vietnam, rather than take the fight to the communist bases or even North Vietnam itself. His avowed strategy for victory was, of course, attrition-fight the enemy's big units and savage them with overwhelming firepower until the communists could no longer continue the war.
Like most American commanders from World War II onward, Westy believed that aggressive attacks, the use of maximum firepower, and the relentless quest to annihilate the enemy's forces in battle all led to strategic victory. By and large, this had worked in the Second World War and it had produced some results in Korea, too. So, in Vietnam, Westy liked the idea of fighting such decisive engagements in the out-of-the-way Central Highlands, where he could employ the full range of his firepower without fear of inflicting casualties on noncombatants. This, he believed, was the place to pile up the large body counts he so badly needed for his strategy to work. If he could not go after the communist bases themselves, he could essentially head the enemy off at the pa.s.s-taking on NVA units when they crossed the border, around the hills of Dak To, before they could push east, get into the towns and cities of South Vietnam, and cause even more serious problems. Better, he thought, to fight them in the remote areas first.
He understood that the suffocating jungles and peaks of the border areas negated some of the mobility he so badly needed to carry out his search-and-destroy concept. But he felt that helicopters more than made up for whatever he might lose in ground mobility for his foot soldiers and vehicles. "I believe when the enemy comes forth from Cambodia or Laos with his princ.i.p.al formations looking for a fight we must go out and fight him," Westy once told one of his superiors. "We must strike him as soon as he is within reach, and before he can gain a victory or tyrannize the local population."
All of these ideas made some sense, but they also led to serious problems that Westy either downplayed or did not appreciate. If the United States was unwilling to invade Cambodia, Laos, or, for that matter, North Vietnam, then there was almost no way that the Americans could control the borderlands. The NVA knew the ground quite well, far better than the Americans. The communists could always retreat to their sanctuaries, where they could devise new plans, reinforce their combat units, and come back to South Vietnam whenever they chose. Ominously for Westy's attrition strategy, this also meant they could control the rate of their losses.