Degree Name

MA, Master of Arts

Degree Type

Thesis - Open Access


Program in International Affairs

Advisory Committee

Committee Chair - Michael Creswell

Committee Member - Max Paul Friedman

Committee Member - Mark Souva




Only a fraction of armed forces in Vietnam made the “other war” – the war for hearts and minds – their primary struggle. These were the U.S. Marines comprising the Combined Action Platoons, who lived and worked in individual hamlets, trained local security forces, made civic improvements, and sought to secure the war’s objectives on the lowest community level. The program’s scope and achievements were limited; while 85,000 Marines occupied Vietnam at the conflict’s apogee, CAP Marines never numbered more than 2,500. However, in an age of renewed interest in “small wars” and pacification, the CAP program is a remarkable subject of study.

This study re-examines the CAP program with two basic goals. First, it argues that the program represented a departure from the U.S. government’s conventional wisdom regarding pacification and counterinsurgency operations, and this departure was consistent with the Marines’ institutional traditions of flexibility, non-conformity and strategic innovation. The Marine Corps’ identity as an army-navy hybrid gave it a starring role in America’s so-called “small wars” of pacification abroad; its diminutive size allowed members to put a premium on open thought and political involvement that is rare in most military institutions. Grounded in these Marine traditions, the CAP program originated as an act of insubordination – as military innovation almost always does.

Second, this study examines the CAP program’s potential exportability, its resemblance to modern counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its grand strategic implications. The Marines’ experience in Vietnam suggests that while the CAP concept marks a significant advance in counterinsurgent theory, it still assumes a long, expensive occupation that carries numerous caveats as well as large – and largely predictable – risks. These risks limit the usefulness of combined action to selected political and geographical ground states: it is useful in an Afghanistan, but probably not in an Iraq. An empirically honest understanding of pacification and its hazards can help policymakers distinguish between justifiable future missions and imprudent, costly gambles. They will recognize the difference, as B. H. Liddell Hart put it, “between grand strategy and grandiose stupidity.”


Open Access