[A Papa Three Popular Force soldier, summer, 1967]A British Ph.D. candidate found my Combined Action Vietnam memoir, "Tiger Papa Three," and asked if I thought my experience had been "exceptional." He also asked how Vietnam-style combined action compares to the current Provincial Reconstruction Team approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought I would share my response. --EFP
Dear Craig Wood,
Thank you very much for your interest and your kind words about my CAP memoir. I suppose I am an iconoclast when it comes to the Marine Corps' Combined Action Program in Vietnam. To be sure, some Combined Action platoons were more successful than Papa Three. The best measure of that success, I've come to realize, is how often and how aggressively they were attacked. But many of those who celebrate, and even romanticize, the Combined Action Program tend to ignore or minimize some of the cultural and political realities of that time and place.
First, the fact that villagers and Popular Force soldiers could be superficially friendly didn't necessarily mean that they were on our side. The Viet Cong infrastructure was well-entrenched and pervasive throughout the countryside in Vietnam. It had been there, in a dormant stage at least, since the First Indochina War, and it certainly came to life again with our entry into the war. As we came to realize at Papa Three, the villagers and even our PFs had made their accommodations with that infrastructure. They may not have all been enthusiastic supporters of that infrastructure, but many of its members may have been their friends and neighbors. The reality was that our PFs had to live among the local VC, and we couldn't protect them once they went home.
Now, in hindsight, I can hardly blamed our PFs for refusing to patrol with us. A pop culture allusion/analogy comes to mind. In the film "Chinatown," someone asks Jack Nicholson's character what he did as a policeman in Chinatown. His answer: "As little as possible." I imagine that's the way our PFs felt. I know that's the way many of us felt--if we're honest with ourselves. We found ourselves caught up in an inscrutable (pardon the cliché) cultural contest. When you don't even understand the game, much less feel that you can win it, it's better to try to sit it out.
In later life, at an academic conference, a Vietnamese woman told me that my cultural insights were sound. She told me that, even though she is Vietnamese and speaks the language, she couldn't go into a strange village and expect to be taken into anyone's confidence. That traditional Vietnamese culture was insular and xenophobic. How could we expect to know what was going on in the villages to which we were assigned?
Second, an absence of enemy contact didn't necessarily mean that a village was "pacified." As we discovered at Papa Three, that VC infrastructure was a highly disciplined organization that could bide its time so as not to jeopardize the larger strategy.
Third, to my fellow CAP veterans who romanticize the program, I have always posed this question: If the program really was successful in winning the hearts and minds of villagers and PFs, why did none of these supposed allies tip us off about the impending Tet Offensive. We now know that the VC infrastructure was helping with the NVA infiltration and the logistics of the offensive. I have to believe that we, the Americans, were the last to know.
This is not to say that we couldn't and shouldn't have done better at Papa Three. The problem was that we really weren't given enough of a cultural and historical orientation. As I believe I pointed out in "Tiger Papa Three," the guiding premise of the program was that young Americans are inherently likeable and could win over the people. The Marine Corps ignored the cultural conditioning of my generation and even the realities of our military indoctrination. Most young Americans in those days were raised in an atmosphere of pervasive racism--influencing our attitudes toward Asian people as well as people of color. Our military indoctrination likewise reinforced the prejudice that Asian people were inferior and couldn't be trusted. It was a tall order to take those same, largely uneducated young Marines and expect them to be culturally sensitive ambassadors in green.
As for the current conflicts, I see one important advantage that today's military enjoys. I think that the current generation of young soldiers and Marines are much more tolerant of multiculturalism and diversity than we were. That has to help. Also, I am told that they are getting much more of a cultural indoctrination than we got. Finally, I understand that the PRTs represent a much more comprehensive and larger scale, coordinated effort than the Combined Action Program of old. Our great liability, as I've written, was that Combined Action was very much an enlightened gesture of dissent against a search-and-destroy strategy that clearly wasn't working and which would ultimately prove to be self-defeating. The Marine Corps was very much going it alone, with little help or encouragement from other agencies.
On the other hand, I do see the same disconnect happening in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved self-defeating in Vietnam. Every time a Predator drone strike kills 15 civilians and maybe one bad guy, we have, in effect, created more VC/Moslem extremists than we killed. As William Lederer long ago tried to remind us, iin his book Our Own Worst Enemy, in a counterinsurgency, it’s the people that count.
And one other reservation comes to mind: As I understand it, the Afghan government has even less influence and control over the people in the countryside than the late South Vietnamese government had over its people. I'm told that it's very much a tribal society and another highly insular culture. Can we really win hearts and minds among the Afghan people, especially when we don't have the means to provide physical security for all those tribes dispersed throughout a country larger than Vietnam?
But, in all fairness, I only know what I've read and been told about Iraq and Afghanistan. Note that I am copying Chuck Armstrong on this message. Chuck Armstrong is a retired Marine colonel and a counterinsurgency specialist who has been involved in preparing Marines for the current conflicts. He has also gone to Iraq and Afghanistan--several times, as I understand it. Chuck could tell you much more than I could about how the current PRT approach is working.
Note that I have also copied Larry Scroggs, who served with me at Papa Three and who also served in a more successful CAP platoon. Larry and I don't always agree on the effectiveness and legacy of the program, but he is one of the CAP veterans who deals in well-informed reasoned opinion.
I think you would find both Larry and Chuck both to be helpful. Sorry to go on at such length, but I found this to be a welcome distraction from the online teaching I should be doing this morning. Thanks again for contacting me, and good luck with your dissertation.