Wednesday, January 07, 2004


Now, the Marines
January 14, 2004 1:14 am

IN 1960, "The Magnificent Seven," a film about seven gunfighters who for 20 dollars each defend a poor Mexican village from a small army of brutal bandits, premiered. Its true-life sequel came out five years later in South Vietnam's I Corp.

There, groups of 14 Marines (plus one indispensable Navy corpsman) began living day and night in hamlets, training local militia to fight, sharing their privations, and guaranteeing rural Vietnamese that the Viet Cong no longer would confiscate their crops, money, and sons. The "stars" of this production, soon to be restaged in Iraq, quickly knew their worth: The VC offered 10,000 piasters, dead or alive, for any Marine serving in a Combined Action Platoon.

Not only are CAPs returning when Marines this March begin replacing the 82nd Airborne soldiers now stationed in the western part of Iraq's bloody Sunni Triangle. So is the interservice soreheadedness surrounding the program. Some Army officers complain that the Marines' plan--which calls for greater sensitivity to Iraqi customs, the forswearing of heavy ordnance to punish whole towns, and broadcasting the clear message "we're not the Army"--is an implicit criticism of the larger service. It is. Again.

In 1965, Marine commander Gen. Lew Walt, recoiling from the sweeping "search and destroy" missions ordered by his superior, Army Gen. William Westmoreland, said, "The Marines have never felt that the war stands to be won by the grand maneuvers of large forces, by brilliant marshalship in the Tannenberg or Chancellorsville image, but rather in the villages." Westmoreland tolerated, but did not order the Army to mimic, Marine CAPs, which, unlike the Army chief's turbulent strategy, prevented Vietnamese farm families from becoming landless refugees.

CAPs worked in South Vietnam. They actually won hearts and minds, and not just for a day: Vietnam Marine Bing West, a friend of these pages, has written of returning recently to the Vietnamese hamlet where he lived and fought to find lovingly tended shrines to his fallen comrades. As the late Gen. Walt wrote, "Of all our innovations in Vietnam none was more successful, as lasting in effect, or as useful for the future as the Combined Action Program.Increasingly, we became the fish swimming in the sea of people, with the guerrilla flopping on the bank, gasping for air."

Iraq, it's true, may be another kettle of fish altogether. Marine CAPs will not be pitching their bunks in friendly--perhaps not even neutral--villages. Iraq and Vietnam are different places with different histories, religions, and temperaments. By some estimates, a third of Iraqis, disproportionately dwelling in the Sunni Triangle, support outright violence against coalition troops. Can vows of restraint withstand suicide bombings and hate-filled mobs ready to repay benevolence with a bullet in the back?

In his book "Semper Fi Vietnam," military historian Edward Murphy tells the story of Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith, all of 19, a CAP Marine in Quang Ngai Province in 1970 when his hamlet came under ground attack. Though wounded, Keith moved to positions held by village militiamen and directed their fire. Spotting five enemy infiltrators, Keith charged them, killing three and wounding the others. Flattened by a grenade, Keith got up and charged into 25 more attackers, killing four and scattering the rest. He died of his wounds, the last Marine in South Vietnam to earn a Medal of Honor.

Courage enriched by compassion and intelligence--this is what the Marines aim to bring to the war in a different form than any yet employed by an Army unit, however worthy. Who knows? The bandits who would rule Iraq may soon put a price of 10,000 dinars on the heads of CAP members. In this generation's shadowy war, that would be a magnificent measure of progress.
Copyright 2001 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

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By R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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