Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Could We Have Won in Vietnam?

The question of whether we could have won in Vietnam is one that continues to haunt us as Vietnam veterans. I'm addressing this issue in a revision of my Vietnam memoir, "Tiger Papa Three" (first published in "Marine Corps Gazette" and reprinted in my web site, www.edwardfpalm.com). This is an excerpt from that revision. --EFP
. . . . a long time ago, back when my generation too thought “freedom was on the march,” I got caught up in something extraordinary. Through a combination of chance and circumstance, I became a Combined Action Marine in Vietnam.

Like most of the pacification and nation-building programs we tried in Vietnam, the Combined Action Program was grounded in the neo-imperial presupposition that, deep down inside, the Vietnamese were just like us and that by merely associating with us they would adopt our cultural values and ideals. But on the plus side, the Marine Corps at least deserves high marks for recognizing the importance of the insurgency that supported the North Vietnamese maneuver units the Army was obsessed with defeating. The Marine Corps further recognized that the only way to wage a successful counterinsurgency was to seduce the people away from the other side.

Hence, as early as 1965, without the support or even the consent of the Army, which was running the show in Vietnam, the Marine Corps began to experiment with sending small groups of Marines out to train and patrol alongside Vietnamese “Popular Force” soldiers in their home villages. In fairly short order, the Corps’ leadership recognized the potential intelligence advantages and the certain public relations value of combined action and decided to regularize the program. Throughout their area of operation, Northern I-Corps, the Marines formed permanent combined action companies, each of which established garrisons in a number of villages. Thus was the Combined Action Program—“CAP” for short—born.

What made CAP unique was not just the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Vietnamese and their culture but also the extraordinary degree of trust and confidence the program reposed in young enlisted Marines. There were no officers out in the “villes.”

On the Marine side, the typical Combined Action Platoon, or “CAP,” consisted of 12 enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman. The ranking member and compound leader was usually a sergeant, and given the way Vietnam had accelerated the promotion process, most of the compound leaders were still on their first enlistment and were not career Marines.

On the Vietnamese side was a platoon of Popular Force soldiers. Popular Forces were roughly analogous to our national guard, except that they were not nearly as well trained, equipped, or disciplined as our national guardsmen. An irregular component of the Army of South Vietnam that the French, under our tutelage, had formed in order to put a Vietnamese face on their imperialism, Popular Forces were part-time soldiers who served in their home villages under the direction of the village chief.

Popular Forces were part of the fiction we all subscribed to back then, which was that the enemy was alien to the people of South Vietnam and won their support mainly through fear and intimidation. Most of didn’t know that South Vietnam had been our creation and that we had encouraged the man we had put in place, President Ngo Dinh Diem, to renege on the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam in 1956 under whichever form of government the people chose, democracy or communism.

We didn’t know that the term “Vietcong” was our coinage and that, insofar as the people were concerned, we were fighting the same nationalist forces who had forced the withdraw of our French predecessors in 1954. We didn’t know that the same clandestine network that had waged guerrilla war against the French, and which had helped hide and supply the People’s Army of Vietnam, was still latent in the villages and the back allies of the cities.

We didn’t know that America had bankrolled that First Indochina War and had even convinced France to stay the course when they were ready to throw in the towel after a disastrous ambush in 1950.

But the Vietnamese knew. They knew they had struggled against Chinese domination for a thousand years and eventually prevailed. They knew they had struggled against French domination for a hundred years and that the French had eventually tired of the struggle and gone home. They knew that we had seized on the French departure as an opportunity to remake South Vietnam over into our image, thereby demonstrating the superiority of our way of life over communism.

They knew, or they would come to know, that we believed the end to justify the means and that the right of self-determination didn’t apply to them. We knew what was best for them—or we thought we did. They knew they could count on the spirit of Vietnamese nationalism, and on the longstanding xenophobia of their people, to outlast our half-hearted and half-baked commitment to “nation building.”

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