Hearts and minds, building schools, and training locals on defense tactics sound like the strategies used in Iraq and Afghanistan to gain the trust of the local population.
But many of these counterinsurgency warfare concepts were formalized during the war in Vietnam. And as is the case today in Afghanistan and Iraq, their results take time to develop– and they may not influence the overall outcome of a counterinsurgency conflict.
Historian and retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Ronald Hays, who goes by “Gene,” was a member of a civic action team in South Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 as part of what the Marines call the Combined Action Program (CAP).
The counterinsurgency concepts in CAP were derived from experiences Marines had in the Banana Wars in the 1920s and 30s, according to Hays. And from that, the Marine Corps’ “Small Wars Manual” was written. The manual’s lessons were eventually applied in Vietnam.
CAP started in 1966 with Marines embedding a squad in villages and hamlets to train local Vietnamese forces, who were like National Guard units, according to Hays. These platoon-sized CAP units also included a Navy Corpsman.
“And the whole idea was of course, first of all, to keep the Viet Cong and the (North Vietnamese Army) out of the villages and hamlets. And then secondly, to learn the customs and values of the Vietnamese,” he said. “And the overall effort to win the hearts and minds.”
Other military branches had similar programs, including the U.S. Army’s Green Berets with the Montagnards in the highland area of South Vietnam.
Part of the mission of these Marine CAP units was to carry out civic action projects in their villages, like building schools or public health, though Hays said most ended up only having time for the training and defense work.
So, two senior Marines, Lt. Gens. Victor Krulak and Lewis Walt, created civic action teams to fill the void, according to Hays.
Civic action units like Hays’ in Chu Lai were focused on outreach efforts in villages that were in enemy controlled areas by providing building supplies for schools or teaching how to sanitize wells, “just anything that would help support them and win them over to the government,” he said.
“But it was a very successful program,” Hays said of the civic action program. “Had it been expanded a lot earlier throughout the entire theater of operation, it may not have changed the outcome, but it definitely would have given us, I think, a better chance than how it ended up at the end.”
Disagreeing with the strategy of Gen. William Westmoreland, Krulak and Walt felt that “rather than trying to go out into the hinterlands and find the enemy and kill as many of them as we can, that this war of attrition would end up costing us more lives and blood and treasure,” he said. “And it turned out to be that way.”
U.S. Army Gen. Creighton Abrams would succeed Westmoreland in 1968 and implement a pacification strategy similar to the Marines’ in I Corps, according to Hays, but by then, support for the war at home had waned.
“One thing I think we learned through all of this and very evident today, we can—our military can defeat any military in the world,” Hays said about the CAP program’s use in current conflicts. “But if we don’t have a political solution on the ground, usually it ends up being for naught. And that’s a hard lesson learned from Vietnam and we’re still working with that as far as Afghanistan and Iraq also.”
Troops who use tactics like CAP in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hays said, is looked at “in the same way that Gen. Westmoreland did in Vietnam. He agreed that our program would work, but he thought it would take too long. Which, that’s an understatement when you think about it today too.”
“In that he was probably right, but as far as going out and just and trying to kill all of the enemy, like I say, if you haven’t won the hearts and minds on the ground, it may not in the long run be good,” he said.
President Donald Trump said during his Aug. 21 speech on his strategy in Afghanistan, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
For the strategy in Afghanistan, Hays believes that there must be a political solution on the ground. He hopes that the new strategy works and thinks that members of Trump’s Cabinet, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, are considering the political solution.
“Because we can’t just kill them all and leave and then hope that everything turns out alright,” he added.
“Speaking for other Vietnam Veterans like me, we don’t want to see another (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) Wall have to go up and it end up being for nothing,” Hays said.