Bing West’s “The Village” is an incredible masterwork of war reporting and narrative from the ground-level, eyewitness perspective. Its not scholarly, but it remains deeply informative of the human experience for Marines fighting a very different kind of war from most of their counterparts on their own side and across enemy lines, as well as some fascinating impressions of Vietnamese life at the village level, especially how police work, schools, and political leadership were experienced by the people.
West relates the story of a Marine Combined Action Platoon (CAP), a Marine innovation for the Vietnam War that sharply contrasted with the top-down, impersonal, highly destructive tactics deployed by the Army. A Marine infantry squad (around a dozen or so) would live among the Vietnamese in a given village, patrolling with local militia units also from the village known as PF’s (Popular Forces). Early on, the Marines of this village called in artillery support after making contact with VC (CAP Marines patrolled every night and usually experienced contact with the enemy every other time, a far more active combat experience than the rest of the military), leading to a tragic accident that killed several villagers and burned down several huts. From that moment on, they realized such mistakes could not be repeated and strove to rely on their own evolving wits and training rather than the potentially costly crutch of air and artillery support (aside from Medivacs and illumination).
Relationships develop between the Marines (around 15 of whom are profiled in unsentimental but compelling details) and the villagers, from the PFs themselves who must overcome barriers of trust and pride to families who have to weigh the consequences of choosing a side by inviting the Marines into their lives. Marines kill and are killed, amid accounts of unsparing heroism and sacrifice by them and some of their Vietnamese brothers in arms. The biggest battle they fight is one without physical violence but instead a moment of grave danger as an enemy battalion is prepared to wipe out the CAP fort and reassume control of the village. Finding the Marines there intend to fight it out rather than flee, their attack is foiled and most importantly, the entire village knows the Marines stood their ground against the VC. Local allegiances then shift appropriately.
Wouldas, couldas, and shouldas can abound after reading The Village. In the end, Gen. Westmoreland’s common view of Orientals having a cheaper conception of life than Americans won the day (one foolishly held in some variant by generations of colonial and occupying powers across continents, usually to their eventual disaster), and a rich opportunity for a potentially better way to fight the war was cast off in the grand scheme of things. The understanding by the Marines that they eventually became “of the people” rather than “among” or “around” the people was not only a testament to their professionalism and superior execution but a tremendous achievement most counter-insurgents could only dream of attaining. (More on this in a subsequent post…)
*West, a Marine officer, patrolled with the unit for a time (though in practice a junior NCO typically led operations in the long term, leading to some memorable moments of command friction and general stupidity by people not on the ground with the CAP Marines) and then was reassigned back to interview the Marines and provide a lessons learned overview for his commanders.
I cannot be more thrilled unless I could point to an op-ed or blog post in which I laid out the details formally, but this is something I have thought would be an exceptional innovation for years (since seeing how JROTC changes people for the better in high school) and had made the focus of two education presentations in high school and college in 2001.
DeKalb County in Georgia has entered into a partnership for a high school run with the US Marines.
The DeKalb Marine Corps Institute will be the first of its kind in Georgia, and joins an expanding network of such schools nationwide. The first public military academy opened in Richmond, Va., in 1980, and more than a dozen now exist in places from New York to Wisconsin.
One proponent has been Arne Duncan, recently nominated as the nation’s education secretary after leading the Chicago public school system since 2001. Chicago opened the nation’s first public high school run by the Army’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and now features six full-site military academies, among other military-style programs.
DeKalb officials say their school will combine academics with a military-style regimen for as many as 650 ninth- through 12th-graders. The school’s commandant will handle anything not related to academic instruction. A principal will be hired to handle academics, which includes a focus on math and science.
What this entails exactly is not yet known, though an emphasis on kids with troubled backgrounds (especially those lacking a father) should be made. The military is bar none the best social integrator this country has, especially for those who have been handed a bad hand in their early life.
What I envisioned was an immersion of teens starting in seventh grade in such an institution.
-A traditional course load would be augmented with foreign language training, courses in military history, tactics and strategy, emergency medical basics and the child’s choice of a number of concentrations (from engineering to anthropology).
-Classes would run from 7 to 7, with early PT and evening team sports before and after.
- Students would be responsible for growing fruits and vegetables as part of their diet and in teaching basic responsibility and attention to detail.
- Saturdays would consist of training exercises growing progressively more difficult in scale and scope based on Marine Corps boot camp and combat training.
- Faculty would emphasize veterans participation.
After graduation, students would enroll in the Marine Corps for four years. Imagine the potential quality and skills of these Marines!
This is not a fool-proof plan, and for all we know this school in Dekalb County could be a disaster, or worse, a middling mediocrity. It seems the Marine school established in Chicago is running well enough, though it (and Dekalb’s) are nowhere near the level of immersion and participation I have called for.
Peggy Noonan steps away from politics for most of her work this morning and talks about the Marine investigation into the University City tragedy, where 4 civilians were killed when a F/A-18 Hornet crashed into their house. If you will recall, the husband who lost his wife, two infant children and his mother in that crash showed incredible grace when he publicly forgave the pilot.
With local anger growing over what nearly all (correctly) believed to be a debacle, the Marines released their internal investigation results this week.
They could not have been tougher, or more damning. The crash, said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, the assistant wing commander for the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, was “clearly avoidable,” the result of “a chain of wrong decisions.” Mechanics had known since July of a glitch in the jet’s fuel-transfer system; the Hornet should have been removed from service and fixed, and was not. The young pilot failed to read the safety checklist. He relied on guidance from Marines at Miramar who did not have complete knowledge or understanding of his situation. He should have been ordered to land at North Island. He took an unusual approach to Miramar, taking a long left loop instead of a shorter turn to the right, which ate up time and fuel.
Twelve Marines were disciplined; four senior officers, including the squadron commander, were removed from duty. Their military careers are, essentially, over. The pilot is grounded while a board reviews his future.
Residents told the San Diego Union-Tribune that they were taken aback by the report. Bob Johnson, who lived behind the Yoons and barely escaped the crash, said, “The Marines aren’t trying to hide from it or duck it. They took it on the chin.” A retired Navy pilot who lives less than a block from the crash and had formed, with neighbors, a group to push the Marines for an investigation, and for limiting flights over University City, said after the briefing, “I think we’re out of business.” In a later story the paper quoted a retired general, Bob Butcher, chairman of a society of former Marine aviators, calling the report “as open and frank a discussion of an accident as I’ve seen.” “It was a lot more candid than many people expected.”
I am impressed with the frankness of the report and the seriousness with which the Marines took the seething anger of the populace of San Diego. Then again, in my dealings with Marines for 5 years, I always took note of how seriously they took accountability and responsibility, to a level some sailors never could imagine.
It reminded me of how careful (for various obvious political reasons) the US military is with its operations in Japan. For whatever reason, dating back to the horrors inflicted on innocent Americans with the military’s nuclear tests in the 40′s & 50′s, this has not always been the case in America, as the University City tragedy highlights again. Let us hope the behavior of the Marines, along with the kind of sterling leadership Secretary Gates showed with the idiocy that occurred within the Air Force nuclear program, are the harbinger for a better attitude towards the safety of Americans.