An Interview with John Southard
Your book Defend and Befriend: The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam was published in July 2014 by the University of Kentucky Press. It features some strong blurbs from scholars of the Vietnam War and seems likely to find a considerable audience. Aside from academic experts, who are some of the intended readers for this book?
Southard: When I began to transition from the research to writing phase of the book, I knew the subject of Combined Action Platoons (CAPs) certainly had the potential to appeal to U.S. military personnel, both active and retired. While the U.S. military is certainly an intended market, the overall purpose was to enlighten everyone about what CAP marines and corpsmen experienced during the Vietnam War. People need to know that not every American in Vietnam acted like the soldiers in Platoon.
From 1965-71 the Marines used Combined Action Platoons, placing Marines in vulnerable South Vietnamese villages, where they lived 24 hours a day and sought to protect the civilians. These platoons have been relatively neglected in the writing on the war, haven’t they? Why is that?
Southard: There are several reasons. One is the simple fact that the number of Americans involved in CAPs was very small. At the peak of CAP in 1969, there were less than 2000 Americans involved in the program, which comprised slightly less than 3% of the overall U.S. Marine Crops (USMC) presence in South Vietnam. From a much larger perspective, 1,895 out of the more than 500,000 Americans in Vietnam at the time were in the CAP program.
Secondly, I think for so long the focus had been on answering “what went wrong in Vietnam?” From a military history standpoint, the scrutiny and criticism centered on military strategy, William Westmoreland, war of attrition, and search and destroy. This particular historiographical focus tended to overshadow programs like CAP. Attached with this explanation, however, is American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars highlighted the importance of counterinsurgency, and influenced many researchers, historians, scholars, etc. to probe the historical context of American counterinsurgency. Many military historians over the last 10 years have begun to pay more and more attention to the use of CAPs in Vietnam.
Tell me about the interviews you did with Marine veterans. Weren’t you called by one who appears on the cover of the book? What did he say?
Southard: I attended two different CAP veterans reunions to conduct interviews. It was an absolutely fantastic experience. As I mention in the book, they welcomed me with open arms and I cannot thank them enough for allowing me to learn from them. To answer the actual question, I was contacted by a CAP Marine on the Defend and Befriend facebook page who said he is on the cover of the book. A friend of his told him about the release of my book. When he went to the book’s Facebook page he noticed the picture that features him front and center. I have never met him before, but it blew me away – such is the power of social media.
How did you seek to give these particular veterans a greater voice in how we remember the war?
Southard: 1)The first set of interviews I conducted really solidified how I would give them a greater voice. I went into those interviews not knowing exactly what direction I wanted to take the book. When I watched many of these veterans telling me with the utmost confidence that they gained respect for – and befriended – many of the Vietnamese villagers, I knew I had to explain how that happened. I kept thinking to myself, “How in the world did 18 and 19 year old Marines in Vietnam ‘defend and befriend’ villagers?” Considering what I had learned about the war – the Americans’ general disrespect for the VN people – this was the most important question to answer.
2)I wanted to simply let the veterans tell their stories as much as possible. Three of the chapters are driven by my personal interviews with veterans and oral histories from archives. There are a lot of quotes in those chapters, but what they did and said is so unique – I wanted to let them tell it.
3)Placing the reader in the village, as much as that is possible, and showing them that these marines and corpsmen were surrounded by only a handful of Americans while isolated in rural areas of northern South Vietnam, the bloodiest region of the war. Meanwhile, an enemy unit numbering in the hundreds could attack the village without much notice.
How and when did you get the idea for this book?
Southard: I came across the topic inadvertently while in graduate school. I was researching in the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech for a graduate seminar research paper. I was writing a paper on the American Friends of Vietnam, an American lobbying group replete with famous political surnames like Kennedy. I found an article from a 1967 Life magazine entitled “To Keep a Village Free.” It was the cover story, and it chronicled the lives of the Americans in a CAP village. I read it and knew that this was “up my alley.” I had heard of CAPs before, but never investigated it too deeply. After reviewing the existing literature, I knew I had found a great and largely overlooked topic.
What kind of experiences have you had in Vietnam?
Southard: I went to Vietnam in 2007 as part of a study abroad trip with the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University. It was a life-changing experience. First of all, as the son of a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, I was anxious to see the country where my dad fought decades ago. I traveled from Hanoi to the southernmost reaches of the Mekong Delta. I spoke with North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong veterans, as well as with civilians who experienced bombings. We also spoke with students at universities in Vietnam and Cambodia. I gained not only a new perspective on the war, but also a new perspective on life. I learned how to view life through a telescope instead of a microscope.
What are some of the possible lessons of this book for counterinsurgency?
Southard: I think the book reinforces the importance of social and cultural understanding in a counterinsurgency environment. Many historians of counterinsurgency disagree with this, but I believe that the social, political, and cultural components of counterinsurgency (COIN) dictate the military security, an argument that is not necessarily novel. Another important lesson is that you do not need to implement a cavalcade of “cutting edge” technology and massive firepower to execute a counterinsurgency.
How does this complicate our usual understanding of the war?
Southard: Well, the usual understanding of the war, at least from my standpoint, is that U.S. policymakers and top-ranking military brass failed to answer the “why” of Vietnam. The McGeorge Bundys and Robert McNamaras of the world, the “best and the brightest,” never formed a cohesive and coherent answer to “why Vietnam?” They certainly knew how, but not why. This is brilliantly laid out in several books, but H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty comes to mind first.
I think that the COIN element complicates our understanding of the war simply because an endeavor like CAP was completely different than search and destroy, but CAP was never considered seriously by the U.S. Army/Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) as an alternative to the war of attrition. I think through CAP, the USMC addressed the “why,” certainly more than the civilian and military leaders in Washington did. Lew Walt, who commanded the USMC in Vietnam from ’65-’67, outlined the answer to “why Vietnam?” in his book Strange War, Strange Strategy. For Walt, the answer was to improve the social well-being of the civilians. CAP was a major part of this.
What is one of the most misunderstood things about the American war in Vietnam?
Southard: Well, I answer this in light of a recent review I wrote for the New York Times bestselling book Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. This book, in addition to a litany of pop culture publications since the 1970s, generalized Vietnam veterans as “baby killers” and/or social misfits. To answer your question, Vietnam veterans are still the most misunderstood “thing” about the American war in Vietnam. Unlike Robert DeNiro’s psychopathic character in Taxi Driver, countless Vietnam vets after the war established extremely successful careers in various capacities and in numerous industries. As just one example, just two years after serving as a Marine in Vietnam, Fred Smith created what the world came to know as FedEx. Vietnam veterans had to overcome a multitude of obstacles when they returned home. For one – and one that is rarely mentioned – numerous World War II veterans denied Vietnam veterans access to local VFW halls, and then called them sissies for suffering from the same war-related mental issues or post-traumatic stress syndrome that the WW II vets were secretly experiencing themselves as a result of their experiences in Europe and the Pacific.
What do you make of the comparisons made in our political debates today between the war in Iraq and Vietnam?
Southard: Each armed conflict and historical event is unique in its own way, making it very difficult sometimes to compare two armed conflicts. When it comes to Iraq and Vietnam, we have some similarities from a broad perspective in that both wars featured smaller COIN elements in a strategic environment dominated by more conventional methods of war. However, it becomes really difficult to compare the two when you consider that there are two different eras, different armed forces, different technologies, different cultures, etc. In today’s political scene, Vietnam is often used to gain leverage for an argument against the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is that it is used as a political ploy, but very few people actually “call out” the person of power making the comparison. A collection of well-respected historians published a book several years ago comparing Iraq to Vietnam. These comparisons are dangerous. The danger is that we have decades of retrospect on one war and only a few years with the other. We need to let the current situation play out much longer before we even attempt to make book-length comparisons.
What do you make of the war in Afghanistan – did Washington and the military fail to learn from the lessons of Vietnam, or is this a really different conflict?
Southard: This is a tough analogy to make simply because…well, what I said before. The military in Afghanistan has employed the CAP concept much more extensively than they did in Iraq. It seems that the U.S. military knows the lessons of Vietnam, but does not always apply those lessons. I know that the USMC brought in Vietnam CAP veterans to speak with Marines in Quantico who were about to embark on the same mission in Afghanistan. Clearly, the lessons are being acknowledged. Its just a matter of scale. How can the CAP concept help to transform a war if CAPs are not used on a wide enough scale?
Beyond the book, what are you interested in doing with your expertise in military history – what new topics would you like to explore?
Southard: Right now I am using my military history background in the business world. Unbeknownst, and perhaps unbelievable to many historians (including myself initially), many businesses like to interject historical perspectives and analogies into their business plans, strategies, and models. We can really use any field of history to bolster things like business communications, finances and investments, cross-cultural exchange, market research, and customer relations, to name a few.
I recently became friends with a Yale history PhD who now owns a wealth management company. He explained to me with the utmost confidence that his history background helped him immensely. He was able to attack certain business initiatives with different perspectives and knows what questions to ask that will demand substantive answers – all because of his background in history.
John Southard, Ph.D., taught for three years in the History Department at Georgia State University.
For his overview of recent work in military history, see his essay on Tropics of Meta.
Follow him on Twitter at @southard7 and follow news concerning his book on Facebook