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Defend and Befriend

The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam

John Southard

Publication Year: 2014

After relatively successful military interventions in Iraq in 1992 and Yugoslavia in 1998, many American strategists believed that airpower and remote technology were the future of U.S. military action. But America's most recent wars in the Middle East have reinforced the importance of counterinsurgency, with its imperative to "win hearts and minds" on the ground in foreign lands. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has studied and experimented with the combined action platoon (CAP) concept used from 1965 to 1971 by the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

Consisting of twelve Marines, a medic, and dozens of inexperienced local militiamen, the American contingent of CAPs lived in South Vietnamese villages where they provided twenty-four-hour security and daily medical support for civilians, and fostered social interaction through civic action projects, such as building schools, offices, and wells. Defend and Befriend is the first comprehensive study of the evolution of these platoons, emphasizing how and why the U.S. Marine Corps attempted to overcome the inherent military, social, and cultural obstacles on the ground in Vietnam. Basing his analysis on Marine records and numerous interviews with CAP veterans, author John Southard illustrates how thousands of soldiers tasked with counterinsurgency duties came to perceive the Vietnamese people and their mission.

This unique study counters prevailing stereotypes and provides a new perspective on the American infantryman in the Vietnam War. Illuminating the fear felt by many Americans as they served among groups of understandably suspicious civilians, Defend and Befriend offers important insights into the future development of counterinsurgency doctrine.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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p. vii


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pp. viii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

My interests in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Vietnam War stem from my dad, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran. Although my dad has remained mostly silent about his wartime experiences, he has never shied from declaring his unwavering pride in the Marine Corps. ...

Abbreviations and Acronyms

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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. 1-12

Thus Tom Morton, a former U.S. Marine corporal in the Vietnam War, succinctly expressed how his perception of the Vietnamese people changed during his tenure in a combined action platoon (CAP). Morton, a squad of his fellow Marines, and a U.S. Navy corpsman lived in a South Vietnamese village for months, ...

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1. The Evolution of Combined Action Platoons

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pp. 13-32

The practice of embedding U.S. Marines among an indigenous population did not originate in Vietnam. The World War I–era Marine Corps first combined the military and political components of a counterinsurgency in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. ...

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2. Combined Action Platoons, Green Berets, and Mobile Advisory Teams

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pp. 33-48

On the surface, U.S. Army Special Forces A-teams and mobile advisory teams shared characteristics with CAPs. SF A-teams and MATs lived near the civilian population, interacted with villagers, instituted civic action, and trained the local indigenous military forces. ...

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3. Becoming a Combined Action Platoon Marine

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pp. 49-70

Until 1967, Marines entering CAPs did not have any formal schooling in Vietnam on the distinct military and cultural environment they would encounter in the villages. Early in the war, Marine commanders at IIIMAF and FMFPAC headquarters had become concerned about the rising number of physical altercations between American GIs and South Vietnamese civilians in I Corps. ...

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4. Life in a Combined Action Platoon

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pp. 71-104

American infantrymen roaming the countryside of South Vietnam had seen and heard the sights and sounds in the villages, but usually only in passing. Americans in the program had to realize that their assignment necessitated living with the Vietnamese and, to ensure success, adapting to their way of life. ...

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5. Popular Forces in Combined Action Platoons

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pp. 105-122

As John Nagl’s quote above suggests, the PF ultimately had to win the war themselves. The CAP Marines had to provide the conditions that would allow the local forces to win the war once the United States departed. The program’s standard operating procedure assigned the Marines to “motivate, and instill pride, patriotism and aggressiveness in the PF soldier.”1 ...

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6. The Combined Action Program and U.S. Military Strategy in Vietnam

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pp. 123-144

During the war, Westmoreland told the FMFPAC commander Victor “Brute” Krulak that fighting with CAPs “will take too long.” The quickwitted Krulak, the most vocal Marine opponent of the U.S. Army during the war, quickly responded, “Your way will take forever.”1 ...

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pp. 145-152

The U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia, has produced numerous studies of the program, most of which offer fervid appraisals of CAPs in Vietnam. In 2002, Maj. Curtis L. Williamson’s study argued that the dispersal of CAPs throughout South Vietnam would likely have preserved the country’s sovereignty. ...

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pp. 153-156

I owe a sincere debt of gratitude to numerous people in the history department at Texas Tech University for helping me complete my doctorate degree and this book: Laura Calkins, Lynne Fallwell, Randy McBee, Justin Hart, and Patricia Pelley. Each of them offered either personal or academic support far beyond the realm of their job descriptions. ...

Appendix: Historiographical Essay

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pp. 157-160


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pp. 161-178


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pp. 179-196


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pp. 197-208


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E-ISBN-13: 9780813145273
E-ISBN-10: 0813145279
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813145266

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 880580240
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Defend and Befriend

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Civilian relief.
  • United States. Marine Corps -- History -- Vietnam War, 1961-1975.
  • United States. Marine Corps -- Civic action.
  • Combined operations (Military science).
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