War Stories

Good Marines Make Good Neighbors

Why a Vietnam War counterinsurgency program is being tried again in Iraq.

CAP in action

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.—The U.S. military has spent decades trying to purge its bitter memories of Vietnam. But as it gears up for a yearlong deployment in Iraq’s violent Sunni Triangle, the 1st Marine Division is resurrecting one of the few tactics that worked in Vietnam, the corps’ counterinsurgency strategy: the “Combined Action Program,” or CAP. The revival of this counterinsurgency program represents an experiment by the 1st Marine Division, which replaces the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq next month. With CAP, the Marines are betting that a kinder, gentler approach to Iraqis will pacify the bloody Sunni Triangle more effectively than the 82nd Airborne’s harsh tactics have.

CAP was designed by Marine strategists as an alternative to the Army’s “search and destroy” tactics used throughout the Vietnam War. From 1965 to 1973, Marine platoons—along with South Vietnamese Popular Forces, or PFs—spent months living in villages in Central Vietnam. “In the places where we used the CAP program, we ran the Viet Cong and NVA out of the area,” says Noel Williams of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which is assisting the 1st Marine Division as it applies the Combined Action Program to Iraq. The Marines and PFs worked in rice paddies with impoverished villagers during the day and ran patrols against the VC at night.

By living among the Vietnamese instead of on a fortified American base, CAP Marines forged relationships that helped develop a web of local intelligence. “It was just like running a neighborhood watch, except that I was scared all the time and people were shooting at me,” says Ed Matricardi, who in 1967 served in a CAP platoon in a village south of Phu Bai.

Totaling a mere 2,000 Marines at its peak, CAP was never more than a footnote in the Vietnam War. And, measuring the true success of any counterinsurgency program is difficult. Yet as Andrew Krepinevich notes in his classic counterinsurgency study The Army and Vietnam, the villages protected by CAP platoons not only remained VC-free longer than areas patrolled by the Army, but the casualty rate for the Marines in CAP platoons was actually lower than that for soldiers on “search and destroy” missions. Perhaps the greatest measure of CAP’s success is the fact that men like Gen. William Westmorland couldn’t stand it. As Krepinevich notes, America’s top general in Vietnam blasted the program in his memoirs for being too passive, and other Army advocates of the “search and destroy” method echoed the sentiments of their boss. “I did everything I could to drag [the Marines] out and get them to fight,” Army Gen. Harry Kinnard of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division remarked in a 1982 interview. They “came in and just sat down and didn’t do anything. They were involved in counterinsurgency of the deliberate, mild sort.”

Marine commanders believe Iraq’s Sunni Triangle is ripe for the same kind of “deliberate, mild” tactics—a CAP 2.0. The 1st Marine Division is training select units to live in Sunni villages along with members of the nascent Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. The goal is to build trust among the locals and get them to hand over critical intelligence about the Iraqi insurgency. CAP platoons are receiving more intensive language and cultural training than regular Marines. The hope is that they will be able to run more effective patrols in Baathist towns such as Fallujah and Ramadi, better penetrate the insurgency’s sources of money and arms, and help bring legitimacy to the ICDC. (In Marinespeak, Lt. Col. John Freda of the 1st Marine Division explains it this way: “We need to find the people who need killing, and differentiate them from those who don’t.”)

At least publicly, Marine officers at Pendleton deny that CAP 2.0 is an intentional dis of the Army’s current counterinsurgency tactics in the Sunni Triangle. Yet it’s clear the Marines think more velvet is needed on the velvet fist. Some of the Army’s heavy-handed tactics, especially those used by 82nd Airborne soldiers in towns throughout the Sunni Triangle, have been pilloried inside the Pentagon. Many military officers, especially within the special operations community, believe that the “show of force” raids in places like Fallujah have served only to infuriate segments of the Sunni population and broaden popular support for the insurgency. It didn’t help matters back in November when the 82nd Airborne’s Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack boasted that the Army’s get-tough approach in central Iraq—which included airstrikes in Baghdad and encircling some villages with concertina wire—was akin to using “a sledgehammer to crush a walnut.”

CAP 2.0 will borrow tactics that had success in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq during the months immediately after Baghdad’s fall. Instead of patrolling in armored vehicles, 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. James Mattis has ordered Marines to run mostly foot patrols in Sunni cities, and the division plans never to use artillery or other “indirect fire” that too often results in civilian casualties. “If something is found [during a raid], do not throw the leader of the house to the ground in front of his family,” explains a Marine Corps planning document. “Give him some honor. Tell him that he needs to explain to his wife and children that he is coming with you. … You would expect no less when the local police come into your home.”

Army officials resist openly criticizing this approach, yet privately they point out that training done at a base in Southern California might be irrelevant the first time the Marines see the business end of an AK-47. Or, as one Army general who has logged hours in the Sunni Triangle puts it: “In Fallujah, you can put out all the foot patrols you want, and you could turn a corner the next day and they’ll still try to kill you.” What may have worked in Shiite areas, many in the Army say, cannot be directly applied to the Baathist heartland. And, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld points out at every turn, Iraq is not Vietnam. CAP’s success in the jungle does not guarantee similar success in the desert 40 years later. The biggest problem CAP platoons in Iraq might face is getting Sunnis to embrace the ICDC troops. The Marines will be relying heavily on the Iraqi forces to win enough hearts and minds that villagers turn on the insurgents. But many in the Sunni Triangle still view the Iraqi security forces as stooges of the American occupiers.

The most ambitious goal of the Marine strategy generally—and CAP specifically—may be political rather than military. The mission is to convince a skeptical Iraqi population bristling under military occupation that the best option is to side with the occupiers. It’s a hard sell, and there is little doubt at Camp Pendleton that the Sunni Triangle is going to be a tougher slog than the Shiite south. Yet with officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority mostly bunkered within the Green Zone in Baghdad, the task has fallen on the more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to play soldier, negotiator, and ambassador alike. And, with U.S. soldiers still dying in handfuls just four months before Iraqis are set to assume political control, the unfinished battle in Iraq is far more complicated than Clausewitz’s classic definition of war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” In post-Saddam Iraq, politics and war must be waged at the same time.