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U.S. Marines in the Heart of the People The Combined Action Platoons Experience in Vietnam

Allied experiences
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Counter-insurgency conflicts leave two main modes of operation emerge for the regular forces: the "vcoming and going» from bases or permanent presence at within the population. The first mode is the most used, because it seems the least risky and the most suitable to get quick results. History tends yet to show that the second, under certain conditions, is not only more effective against the enemy, but also less costly in terms of lives... human. In this regard, the experience of Combined Action Platoons during the Vietnam War is interesting, because she's one of the only ones who's done subject to scientific analysis.


In 1964, when he took command of the American forces in Vietnam, General West-moreland, from theUS Army, considers the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese communist movement, such as the a simple extension of North Vietnam and its forces as auxiliaries of the north armyVietnamese (NVA) fighter on the back. In keeping with the culture of theUS Army culture, that does not conceives of victory only through the rapid destruction of the enemy military force on the battlefield,Westmoreland's preferred modus operandi is the search and destroyoperation , i.e. therapidand massive gathering of a force in a given area which isthen "cleansed" of any enemy combatants . Thenumber of these fighters eliminated, the body count ,then determinesthe degree of success of this manhunt .In this context , theSouth Vietnamese population is rather considered as an embarrassment whose fate is the sole responsibility of the local authorities .

For its part, the marineswhich takes in charge in 1965 of the Ier army corps South Vietnamese in the north of the country, has a vision a little different. Although under the authority of Westmoreland, the IIIeMarine Amphibious Force (MAF) under General Walt has a certain s latitude to carry out its missions, including the pre-the protection of the immense base of the Danang. Unlike theUS Army, the Corps of marines has known "a few"petites guerres», of the end 1898 to 1935 in Central America, in particular in Nicaragua. He even theorized the experience of this "guerre of bananas» in the Small War Manual in 1940. In accordance with this experience, Walt gives grid areas around Danang to his battalions with like mission to multiply patrols, ambushes, but also experiments.

Those units deployed in the field soon discovered that the popu-is not a neutral element, but a more or less neutral actor. forced to benefit whoever controls or protects her. They note also the mismatch between the volume of their deployed forces and the size of their areas of responsibility. One battalion therefore creates its own force of voluntary substitutes, another Undertakes to train village militias more effectively. known as the Popular Forces (PF). Several officers perform joint missions with these same militiamen. From all of these experiments, Major Zimmerman of the 3...e battalion of the 4e regiment of marines proposes to form mixed sections, or Combined Action Platoons (CAP), permanent. These are merge a battle group of marines of 14 men (one sergeant and three teams of four plus a grenade launcher, reinforced by a nurse from theUS Navy), all volunteers, with the 15 to 50 men of the People's Forces, very poorly equipped and trained, but knowing the terrain inside out.

The American and Vietnamese commands of the Ier Body give their agreement, and a first experiment starts in August. 1965. The mission of this first Combined Action Companyof four sections is to control the area around the base of Phu Lai and ban his access to the Viet Cong, to inform on the enemy's activities and to train the popular forces. This first experience makes it possible to highlight the difficulties of such a "greffe», the language barrier, the problems of cultural misunderstanding as well as the mismatch of competence, equipment and fighting spirit between the marines and the militia. We also and especially note that the American base of Phu Lai is no longer under attack, that the area is under control and that the enemy is starved of resources.

Growth of Combined Action Platoons

In January 1966, General Nguyen Chanh Thi, commanding the Vietnamese forces in Area Ier body gives the order to the forces of the people to cooperate with the marines. It is then decided to form four additional sections each month, with of American volunteers willing to spend at least six months in a Vietnamese village.

After a two-week internship in the CAP school near Danang where they learn the rudiments of the language and customs, but also a tactical and technical upgrading, the Americas-The first step is to carry out safety operations by periphery of the village. There they get to know themselves, from different units, and to communicate with the popular forces. It is only when they master the milieu human, physical and even animal (the behaviour of the buffaloes offers, for example, many clues about human activity in the vicinity) that the Americans are penetrating the villages and live there among the people, paying rent. Their is first made up of day patrols, to find out about the middle and show up, and ambush at night, to fight. Between patrols, these marines of 20 years are deepening their knowledge of the area, the inhabitants and instruct the localmilitia.

The most important man of the device is undoubtedly the American sergeant who is often also the head of the entire section. It is responsible for the safety of approximately 3500 inhabitants. The average age of this man-band is 22, organizes joint patrols, solicits and directs support artillery or sometimes air force, informs the chain of command, organizes training and requests for assistance to the population. The success of the entire mission.

The price to pay is often high. Inserted with his men in Binh Nghia, in the Chu Lai area, in June 1966, Sgt. Joseph Sullivan quickly came to an agreement with Ap Than Lam, the leader of the the police and local popular forces to fight the Viet Cong, very present in this region near the border with North Vietnam. Together, they're organizing a system perman very effective patrols and ambushes. There are then a fender bender every 36 hours for two months. Finally driven out of the area, the Viet Cong called for a NVA's scheduled airline to go up in September. a joint offensive against Binh Nghia's post. The communists are finally repulsed with very heavy casualties due to the arrival of a reinforcement from the neighbouring battalion, but Ap Than Lam and Sullivan were killed in the fighting with five other men from the platoon.

However, not only did the volunteers miss never, but two-thirds of them will ask to extend their normal stay of several months. Despite the risk and difficulties of all kinds, misunderstandings, discomfort and isolation, life in CAPs is generally lived as a strong human adventure. While the contacts are permanent, there are far fewer problems between U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese civilians than with all the other units of the expeditionary force. Polls show even that these are the parts of the country where Americans and Vietnamese people like each other the most. In the abundant literature on the Vietnam War, this experience is an important one. of the very few to be presented as positive and to generate nostalgia.

Maturity from concept

At the end of 1966, an initial assessment was carried out which showed that than in thezone CAP» of the Ier bodies, the villages have a clue almost double the security of the others, with a correlation between the time spent by the marines in the villages and increasing that level of security. Most importantly, it turns out that the Vietcong hardly recruits there anymore and cannot and rice, while the administration is no longer collecting taxes and rice. of the Republican government can be exercised there normally. The report also demonstrates a positive influence on the quality of the of popular forces. Not only is the desertion rate there almost nil, compared to 15% in South Vietnam as a whole, but there are believes that a group of marines engaged in a village creates almost twenty volunteers and that they are trained twice. faster than when they're left alone in command... Vietnamese.

In October 1967, the CAP companies were integrated into of Combined action groups (CAG). On the 1ster is around Chu Lai, on the 2ndethe largest with nine companies, is close to Danang, for which he is responsible for security and the 3e in Phu Bai. A fourth group is organized in July 1968 around Quang Tin. If the small company staffs are responsible for coordinating tactical, those of the groups rather manage the logistics and the human resources. In particular, they are the ones who select the men who then leave for the villages. Each group is normally integrated into the sector battalion for the support of logistics and fire support, which is not without its drawbacks. problems when this battalion is engaged, as is often the case, in the mobile operations. However, it was not until January 1970, a few months before the end of the program, to see how the program will be implemented. place of a completely autonomous structure having in clean by all means.

When the Tet offensive began, at the end of January 1968, there were more than of 80 CAPs, with almost 1800 Americans and more than 3000 Vietnamese. At that time, the Communists understood... the threat they could pose and, while these sections protect only 10% of the population in the Ier body, they concentrate nearly 40% of their body's energy against them. attacks. CAPs lose 120 marines and 83 Vietnamese killed in five months, but more than 1300 enemies are also eliminated and if many had to temporarily withdraw from their sectors, none of them were destroyed.

The year 1969 is the year of greatest activity. At that time, there were 114 CAPs in 14 companies, with more than 2200 soldiers Americans and almost twice as many Vietnamese. They are then nomadic, now turning between villages, without the need for a fixed position. Their life is a little rougher and their impregnation in the human environment a little shallower, but they are less vulnerable, more offensive and can make better use of power. of American fire carrying the fight out of the villages. A American inserted in a CAP then eliminates twice as much of enemies that an American acting as part of a combat unit national level, while at the same time helping the population, instructing the local forces and reducing the enemy's resources. More surprising Again, if an American soldier and a Vietnamese soldier are killed... on average each year in each CAP, the risk is two. infantry battalions in the United States of America. basics. The invisible protection of knowledge of the physical environment and the intelligence provided by the population is thus more effective than base walls or the massive firepower of the search and destroy operations. Thanks to this protection, mine and trap losses are marginal in the AACs so that they account for one-third of total U.S. losses. Thanks to it again, the CAPs have the initiative of the battles in over in 70% of cases, which is usually enough to win, whereas the proportion is inverse with the operations of "vcoming and going» from the bases, which the American battalions are obliged to do compensated for by an expensive flurry of fires. However, despite this proven effectiveness, the CAP program is generating the greatest reluctance in Saigon.

Blockingetendd’a experiencereussie

The CAPs, with their mix of missions and composition, are find themselves at the crossroads of three great rival commandments: the commandmentment South Vietnamese military who don't like to see some of his forces escaped him, the American ambassador... Robert Komer, who believes he has a monopoly on everything that ...was a pacification matter, and the military high command... American in Vietnam who denounces in the CAPs a waste of money. of means to the detriment of offensive operations.Several generals of theUS Army like Harry Kinnard, commander of the 1re cavalry division (airmobile) or Willliam Depuy, commanding officer of 1re infantry division and future responsible for doctrine, are then very hostile to CAPs. The first states that the marines does not"veuld not play» and the second that they "s’sit and do nothing». They all point out the Relatively low total losses to the enemy, only criterion valid in their eyes.

Not being able to completely prohibit any initiative by the Corps of marinesWestmoreland nonetheless orders that drastically this experiment, using the excuse that it is impossible to provide the 167000 men needed for the application simultaneous use of the CAP method throughout the territory. From As a result, the CAPs remain below the critical mass that would have allowed to extend pacification according to the formula of the stain of oil and thus also to free up American manpower. Islands of security in the heart of enemy-dominated areas, he always has was not possible, with the exception of two cases, to identify the marinesof the sectors in which they were engaged or else the situation would be degrade very quickly. It is true that scaling up theCAP methodwould have meant finding many more volunteers and quality. It would have also probably implied strong responses from theenemy. One can however imagine that in this very heavy American army which has, at its maximum, deployed 550,000 men for only 80,000combatants, would have gained by developing a light infantry more numerous and capable of really living in themiddle of the population .But as Douglas Blaufarb points out in The counterinsurgency era : US doctrine and performance (1977 ):

"The American command was unable to admit... the implicit conclusion of the success of the CAPs was that the huge resources available to him in terms of equipment and technology was unsuitable for this type of warfare. »

The entire CAP device was deactivated as of July 1970. The last section was dissolved in May 1971.


- Charles W Driest, Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Biblioscholar, 2012.

-•Andrew Krepinevich, The Army in Vietnam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1986.

-•Bing West, The Village, Pocket Book, 2003.

-•Albert Hemingway, Our War Was Different: Marine Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1994.

Title : U.S. Marines in the Heart of the People The Combined Action Platoons Experience in Vietnam
Author (s) : le colonel (R) Michel GOYA