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A Review of Bing West's The Village: An Irregular Warfare (IW) Classic
A classic is a book that gets re-read. Therefore, The Village is rarely found on the bookshelves of the hoary dens of unconventional warriors. Instead, it's typically found lying, dog-eared and stained-up with Lucas oil, on their work desk or tucked into a pocket of their FILBE pack. Serious students and responsible instructors of unconventional warfare have been re-reading Bing West's classic ("camera's eye") report for five decades because its remarkably productive and durable author -- a combat Marine, an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a RAND analyst, and a Grandfather of eight -- unpacks an elephant trunk of lessons learned, lessons won hard from fighting in Vietnam for well over a year, uninterruptedly, shoulder-to-shoulder with the villagers of Binh Nghia, enduring lessons that have remained intelligently useful and usefully relevant, since its publication in 1972, to fighting small wars, in Central America in the 80s, Yugoslavia in the 90s, in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, or even in Flint, Michigan today.
Discouragingly, too many top-echelon war-policy makers at our present and fateful hour appear oblivious to the tradition of warfare to which West has devoted himself. They appear willfully ignorant about what this extraordinarily responsible instructor has to teach us about the stubborn and irreducible facts of waging war unconventionally. The two most stubborn and irreducible of those facts about small war, which watermark every page of The Village, are not strategic or tactical, so much as moral facts: Courage and commitment. I'll discuss the applicability of The Village's many lessons learned to current Village Stability and Community Stability Operations as (they really should be) conducted in the current environment of 4th Generation Warfare in a moment. First, background.
The Village was West's second serious publication while in uniform. His first was a so-called "pamphlet," Small Unit Action in Vietnam, published in the summer of 1966, which has also become a standard title in the irregular-warfare library. Note how General Murray, the U.S. Marine Corps Chief of Staff who sanctioned West's fact-finding mission in Vietnam, describes this pamphlet, its aim, method, and sources:
This pamphlet, then, is based upon first-hand, eyewitness accounting of the events described. It is documented by notes and taped interviews taken in the field and includes lessons learned from the mouths of the Marines who are currently fighting in Vietnam. It is published for the information of those men who are serving and who will serve in Vietnam, as well as for the use of other interested Americans so that they may better understand the demands of the Vietnam conflict on the individual Marine.
Regarding the Vietnam War, we've become all-too accustomed to, accepting of, and complicit in the pious mantras of war-ignorant but highly influential civilian publishers and filmmakers about the military's not listening to or caring about or learning from the combat troop's lived experience of that infamously ambiguous war. According to politically pious narrators of how that war got lodged in American consciousness, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War was the first book published by a combat troop in his own words about what he experienced in Vietnam. That book -- important and valuable though it, along with many others in its autobiographical vein, may be in its own right -- appeared in 1977.[i] It is often cited as the first-person narrative that first made American civilians to see Vietnam as US troops saw it, to listen to and care about what the Vets had endured.[ii]
Yet, over a decade earlier, the Marine Corps had been actively seeking, recording, and publishing many "lessons learned from the mouths of the Marines who are currently fighting in Vietnam." That boots-on-the-ground experience of war (and unconventional warfare) was not being suppressed, ignored, nor otherwise erased from US institutional memory, as has so often been asserted by historians of the Vietnam War who came of age protesting on the campuses of elite American colleges and universities a conflict most of them had not seen firsthand.[iii]
The exact opposite is true. Marine Corps Command, among other commands, were trying to gain reliable access as swiftly as possible to the best that had been thought and tried on the ground in Vietnam. They even organized missions to collect life-saving war information directly from US and Vietnamese warfighters. That's why West was sent back to Vietnam in 1966, to get at and record that kind of troop-derived information, so that the Marine Corps, particularly, and the Pentagon and the American public, generally, could learn from and make informed use of that just-a-shot-away, ground-level experience. In 1966, the American public, Joe Civilian, was not yet ready to give serious attention to the combat experience of its troops in Vietnam. As for listening to what the grunt or the jar head had to teach, the US military was ten years ahead of the American-civilian parametric curve. The military had begun playing Studs Terkle, systematically recording oral histories of troops in the field, even before Terkel, the purported Larry King of oral history, had published his first book.
Moreover, the fighting experience that the US military listened to, as recorded for public use in books like The Village or Robin Moore's The Green Berets, was then vigilantly incorporated into the massive, accumulated US experience of small wars, tracking back through the North American tribal wars of the 17th and 18 centuries, wending through the War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Philippines War, and WWI and WWII, and the Korean War.[iv] But that history, which emerges from the living institutional memory that our service branches still embody -- otherwise known as military history -- has typically been shunned and discarded by too many Americans, so much so that most civilian colleges and universities do not employ a single military historian, nor offer any courses in military history.
The point is critically important to evaluating the meaning of West's classic to the broader American collective consciousness of small-war fighting, especially today when the US experience of Vietnam -- recording, remembering, memorializing -- is overwhelmingly dominated by civilian documentary filmmakers, like Ken Burns, who have never experienced any war, let alone Vietnam, firsthand. In addition to proving that there was never any conspiratorial cover-up by the military about the war in Vietnam, West's Marine-Corps-sanctioned mission to collect and record, in order to learn from, the lived experience of Marines right then fighting the war in Vietnam also points to the two divergent, mutually exclusive, interpretations of the tradition and history of America's small wars (irregular and unconventional warfare).
One group exploits that experience to lament the Vietnam war as a dark symbol of all of America's "dirty" wars ex post facto, with 20/20 hindsight, literally looking to the past not the future. The other group investigate that experience, in medias res, in the blinding dust of war-fighting, to pull from it facts, data, insights, wisdom, operating practices that might potentially save the lives of US troops currently at war. They make of this past something intelligently useable for present and future warfighters.
Understanding the divergence between those two mutually exclusive ways of understanding America's collective experience of small wars is especially critically important to evaluating the potential relevance and practical applicability of West's classic to 4GW today.[v]
To oversimplify for rhetorical purposes, there's the Ken Bern's version of Vietnam, in which the Vietnam war becomes a general symbol, as dark and "shameful" as the Memorial Wall, of all of America's small wars, past imperfect and present future, from the so-called Indian Wars right up to our fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and Syria.[vi] I will leave that version to Ken Burns's PBS viewership.
(As we know now, much of the anti-Vietnam-war-protest movement got its information about the war from a single Time Magazine reporter, not from the lived experience of US combat troops; that is, from a North Vietnamese spy who pulled off one of the boldest and most successful disinformation campaigns in the history of war espionage. His VC-sponsored mission was not only to gather information on US operations (grabbing information), by infiltrating Time Magazine, but also, and more insidiously, to sow seeds of disinformation (spread lies) that would break the American will to win the war in Vietnam. He and his communist handlers succeeded. According to the spy-as-reporter, Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine was publishing, whether its editors knew it or not, exactly what the VC wanted the American public to believe about the Vietnam war. By his own admission, what Time published about the war was, largely due to his own sedulous efforts, morale-killing prevarication.[vii] For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Pham Xuan An's extraordinarily successful campaign of dezinformatsia speaks poignantly to current media coverage of today's small wars.)
And then there's the other version of our collective small wars experience, the lesser-known but more holistically-studied version (at least by the serious): Bing West's, the viewpoint of the unconventional warrior. West's experience of irregular warfare emerges from and reaches back into the long tradition of American encounters with insurgency and tribal dynamics, including innovators such as Josiah Harlan (the man who would be king in Afghanistan, in the 1830s), Dean Worcestor ("tribal expert") and his US Army indigenous, Luzon fighting groups in the Philippines (1890s), and even further back to the earliest American Indian Wars, especially to the forgotten career of US Army Captain Bonneville who was commissioned directly by President Jackson (1830s) to recruit an elite cadre of mountain-men, embed with Crow tribes in the Rocky Mountains, and lead an insurgency to fight the anti-American Black Feet and their colonizing British backers out of the Northwest Territory, thereby liberating the North American continent from the imperial domination of his Majesty.[viii] The American West was won, in part, by forerunners of Bing West's style of warrior, men who gained the trust of, by living and fighting and morally and martially allying with local tribes. It may be too much to ask in the era of Ken Burns's The Vietnam War, but a fair and judicious reading of The Village by a war-leery civilian requires a non-prejudicial interpretation of over two-hundred years of American tribal engagement, insurgency, counterinsurgency, irregular and unconventional warfare. And that is why this book remains (and will likely remain) a classic among a specialist readership.
Truly to understand the quality of the lessons learned offered by The Village, we need to place it in the context of Small Unit Action, which offers lucid, NCO-usable episodes like this:
This is not one story. It is a diary relating several night patrols. The participants are 13 Marines, numerous Vietnamese villagers and militia, and Viet Cong. The Marines lived with and trained the Popular Forces (PF), a few dozen local farmers who had agreed with the central government ^ to protect their village in return for exemption from draft into the regular army. The Marines had volunteered for the job because it promised action and an escape from company routine. They found the action.
The ultimate goal of the Marines was to train and develop the PF forces so that the Marines would no longer be needed to protect the village. The men did not deceive themselves; they knew that goal would not be reached in a few short months. And until the PFs were a competent fighting force, the Marines would carry the main burden of combat around the village.
Detailing how this Marine Unit achieved their goal, West reveals himself, as early as 1966, as a master of writing truthfully about combat operations, his characteristically lucid prose being what makes his book re-readable. Attend to the clarity of a passage in which West records the key insights of an NCO:
“Once a person gets hit,” he said, “and your fire and maneuver stops in a paddy, your momentum is dead. It gives the enemy a chance to sight in. When the next man gets up, he’ll get dinged —then nobody wants to get “up. So you might as well have them crawl back across the paddies. If you could get them up on a line and charge, you might carry the position— with casualties, of course. But you’ll probably not get the men to do that all at once together.” “If I’d made it in that first half-hour,” He added ruefully, “I’d have squeezed them up.”
This passage creates a Hemingway effect -- who learned to write about war truthfully in telegraphed dispatches (every letter of every word cost time and money) from the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War -- where the prose is often so accurate and concrete in detail that one finds more, the more one re-reads. (However, unlike the bibulous bearded bard, West never said farewell to his commitment to writing the truth about war.)
Packed into this episode are the main lessons learned that would inform the Marine Corps' design and deployment of Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), in one of which West fought for a year and a half in one village. The themes that emerge foremost from this report are commitment to a single group of fighting men who are defending their own home territory, their home village; the courage to stay in the fight, fighting with the same fighters over time, the same unit of the same Marines spent many unbroken months fighting and training the same small group of "PFs" in the same place at the same time in firefights where they were often outnumbered two to one; the trust that accrues between US trainers and their local partners when uncommon courage and commitment are proven time and again in the eyes of villages for years, not months, or weeks. Note that latter point: Unit rotation (a deployment) was a matter of years--not months, let alone weeks, as is the case among today's US trainers in many African countries.
West rarely preaches. CAP Marines did not get up on soapboxes at village wells, like their Viet Cong adversaries, and sermonize ideology. They walked. They didn't talk. As a writer, West favors showing over telling. In his report to MC Command, West demonstrates how moral capital, primarily trust, was won from Vietnamese allies by US Marines:
In one week, from 7-13 July 1966, the 13 Marines killed 31 guerrillas. They set 16 ambushes and made contact 9 times. On three occasions, the VC ambushed the Marines; each time the Marines seized the offensive within a few minutes, forcing the VC to break contact. In many engagements the Marines were outnumbered; but fire discipline, shooting accuracy, and aggressiveness compensated for numbers.
Courage, commitment, and trust -- the means to the cardinal virtues of unconventional warfare -- are always won and revealed through the devils of local detail. Moral victory, the ultimate goal of warring irregularly, is registered in subtle but profound ways. West describes the arming of local villagers:
Cooper then brought the two Vietnamese to a nearby hillside where one of his platoons was firing its biweekly familiarization course. From the array of weapons, he chose a 12-gauge shotgun and a LAAW and handed them to his guests to fire. When the Vietnamese later returned to their hamlet, they walked, not like timid, frightened men, but with distinct swaggers.
West skillfully lands the paragraph on that all-telling word swagger, because that is what Cooper detected in the villagers as the most reliable indication of his squad's mission progress. Cooper, as most experienced CAP Marines, was constantly looking for signs of moral victory in the body memory (what the military calls "bearing") of his native comrades. Diligent students of irregular warfare will notice that there is nearly no distance at this point in the combat operations upon which West is reporting between Cooper and his native allies. Cooper scrutinizes the subtlest nuances of expression and comportment of his Vietnamese brothers in arms for clues about mission progress. This is known as the intimacy of combat. That is, Cooper and his Marine unit have formed brotherly bonds with their Vietnamese counterparts.[ix]
West then adds this curious paragraph to his report, deftly and respectfully summing up the lessons that MC Command should be learning from Cooper's way of perceiving the realities of Vietnam with the eyes of the Vietnamese:
What would happen in the future, Cooper was not about to guess. But he was proud of what his Marines had done. They had worked and rebuilt the life of a hamlet. They had not thought in those terms precisely when they came. But by protecting the hamlet and patrolling the village, by example and discipline, by generosity and spirit, they had infused the will and desire for progress into a hamlet and had protected a village. Not much when compared to the millions of Vietnamese under VC control, perhaps, but more meaningful than sitting on a hill.
"Sitting on a hill" is what far too many US troops ended up doing in Vietnam, as many of their sons later ended up sitting in a firebase in Afghanistan, and not living in the tribal areas and qalats that needed their protection and security, their example, and generosity of spirit.[x]
According to many historians of this war, "sitting on hills" is precisely why the United States lost the war in Vietnam. By contrast the CAPs, as West reports them, rarely sat around waiting for anything. They were constantly on the hoof, going with villagers wherever they needed to go.
In fact, it's typically only the "sitting on a hill" side of the war that the anti-war protestors of the sixties and the Ken Burns memorializers of today because that approach to the war in Vietnam did fail, as miserably as we are now failing in Afghanistan.
When West penned this paragraph, however, the war was still open for winning. And this deft paragraph more than hints that the future of this village, along with the future of thousands of others like it in Vietnam, are at stake in how carefully and honestly West's Marine Commanders will read this pamphlet. How attentively will they heed Cooper's and his unit's experience? How aggressively will they ram the LLs of this so-called pamphlet up the chain of command to get them implemented on the ground in Vietnam? When he penned this remarkable paragraph, West knew exactly what he was proposing. He knew his audience.
West's rhetorical op succeeded, at least in part, because it did persuade Command to organize and deploy Combined Action Platoons to numerous hotly VC-contested villages in Northern Vietnam. CAPs did get sent into the thickest of the action. Alert and open-minded historians of this war should wonder: What if we'd committed all of our troops to CAPs and deployed them all over Vietnam? Would we have won that purportedly un-winnable war?
On his fact-finding mission in 1966, when he gathered the oral history of deployed Marines fighting war unconventionally, West learned what CAPs should not be.
They should not be sitting around in bunkered bases (Fobs or Cops) waiting for enemy assaults. Instead, CAP Marines "went native," lived with, ate with, worked with, moved around with, fought with, often died alongside villagers.
They should not be anything like what we'd call today Social Science Human Terrain Teams, handing out questionnaires to locals, talking to a few elders via interpreters for fifteen minutes, and then departing to analyze the data in the plywood cubicle of an airbase, never to be seen by the villagers again. Instead, CAP Marines learned as much of the local dialect and culture as they could. They remained among one group of villagers, for over a year. They learned how to listen to their native allies. The best of them, and there were many, learned how to perceive the situation in Vietnam as the Vietnamese perceived that complex and difficult reality.
As West emphasizes in his pamphlet, always showing, not telling, CAPs should not be proselytizers, let alone wannabe therapists practicing psychoanalysis on the "traumatized" civilians of underdeveloped nations, with one hand on Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and another on an M14, as has been recommended recently as a remedy for a clan-conflicted Somalia. Instead, CAP Marines located, listened to, and learned from the local moral authorities who commanded the villagers' respect. The CAP squad figured out what worked and went with that, instead of fixating on what didn't work and trying to fix that.
Notice in passing how many of Tribal Engagement Team guidelines of Major Jim Gant, who was one of our best unconventional warriors during Afghanistan's "Enduring Freedom" era, can be traced back to the CAPs of Vietnam. Notice this guideline especially:
The key to a successful tribal engagement strategy is the ability to identify men (Tribal Engagement Team members) who have a special gift for cross-cultural competency and building rapport— that is, they must become educated in the ways of the tribes and build strong relationships with them based on mutual trust and objectives. These men must like to fight and spend countless months, even years living in harsh circumstances. They will have to fully comprehend tribal concepts of honor, loyalty and revenge— the Pashtunwali code. Initially, they will have very little physical security other than the AK-47 they carry, their planning skills and the tribal fighters they live with.
West opens The Village with the proper name of a villager, Ap Thanh Lam, "Ap Thanh Lam wanted to go home." But Lam is not just any villager. He's the village policeman, the local cop, yet, he was even more than that. Respected by his fellow villagers because he "did not tax them," avoided discussions about ideology and politics, and provided them protection from the Viet Cong, Lam had been trained by the Viet Mihn and had worked in their Security Service after WWII. Lam was a professional. West employs the first chapter of The Village to focus intently on Lam, tracking his daily movements around the village, his interactions with villagers, how he investigates a recent shooting, how he gathers intelligence about Viet Cong operations, how extraordinarily competently he locates and eliminates VC infiltrators.
As West details Lam's remarkable competence as a local officer of local law, both moral and legal, he also reveals Lam's deeper motivations (his truest character) in this response to the recent encroachment and machinations of the Viet Cong as they attempt to gain the moral upper hand in the village:
To teach Lam not to act so independently, the political party started a whispering campaign against him, alleging that he was in the secret employ of Premier Ky and the Saigon clique. These were serious charges, for the Saigon government was never popular in Lam’s province, and if Lam was considered a spy for the Ky regime, many of his sources of information would dry up. Lam’s temper was quick, and when he heard what the local political party was rumoring about him, he barged into the district chief’s office and laid down an ultimatum. “Do you know what is being said about me?” he yelled. “That I work for Ky— that I am not loyal to my province. Those idiots out there would rather see the Viet Cong take this province than work together. They won’t believe what their eyes tell them. Well, I’m not going to put up with it. Either you get them to shut up or I’m going to arrest the next politician who hints that I’m getting paid to spy for Saigon. And if the arrest won’t stick, I’ll cut his tongue out before I let him go.” “You can’t,” the district chief replied. “And I can’t. Neither of us is powerful enough. Let it die down. It might be better if you worked somewhere else for a while.”
West records the political, security, tactical, and human situation of the village strictly from the vantage of its primary local moral authority, Lam. Herein lies the first and one of the most important lessons to be learned (and applied to 4GW) from this classic: Unconventional warriors must know how to locate and leverage the moral authority of local leaders. The narrator of The Village makes us see from the git go that Lam will be key to CAP operations, key to recruiting villagers to defend themselves from the VC, key to winning local trust.
The first chapter of The Village is an object lesson in the weaponization of moral authority. The narrator (the "camera's eye" as West calls his authorial point of view) shows that the CAP could become an on-the-ground capability only if the squad approach its mission through the gateway of moral authority, Lam. West describes Lam like this:
But Lam was given what he valued most: freedom to operate as he chose. A middle-aged man with an unmistakable air of authority, Lam looked and acted like a cop. Even in friendly conversation he gave the impression that part of him was holding back, watching, listening, judging, respected by the villagers because he did not tax them and hated by the Viet Cong because he could trap them.
The CAPs training of the villagers into a local militia was undertaken, as West diligently details, strictly from within the psycho-mythic parameters (symbols, collective narratives, and moral codes) of the villagers themselves. Lam is symbol, collective narrative, and moral code embodied in one person.
Only authorities that the trainees recognized as morally legitimate, like Lam, could be successfully employed by the CAP. West uses the camera-eye narrator to make us see why the squad must win the direct sanction of local leaders, like Lam, who commanded moral authority even in the eyes of the VC, which is why they waged an information (smear campaign against him), before they begin recruiting and training villagers. The CAP does not get that chance, however.
To iterate, the very first IW LL in The Village is found in the first three words of the narrative, which is the name of the one villager who commanded authentic moral authority within the village. The lucidity (ease of reading) of West's prose makes it easy, for those who have never experienced IW firsthand, to overlook that lesson. For those with ear to hear and eyes to see, however...
By the end of the first chapter, we learn that Lam has been killed by the VC:
Next door, a four-man VC assassination cell from the district Security Section was hiding. By different paths they had pedaled to that house the previous day, all posing as farmers. They had remained there overnight, the homeowner later pleading that they would have killed his entire family had he betrayed their presence... Lam was the only armed man in the house. As his guests leaped toward the windows and front door, he drew his revolver and crouched to fire. He just wasn’t fast enough. The Viet Cong came through the door too quickly and all were firing as they came, while Lam had waited for a clear target rather than risk shooting his mother. There were other men still in the room, clawing to get out the windows, but the Viet Cong paid them no heed. Every weapon was firing at Lam, and even after he went down the four Viet Cong converged over his body and stood shooting the corpse. Then, for good measure, they dropped two grenades next to Lam’s body and ran out the back door. The blasts knocked out one wall and collapsed part of the roof. Lam’s body was totally mangled.
And thus, we receive, in the VC's assassination of the village's local moral authority, the next key LL:
The Viet Cong had a problem. In a war in which events were rarely significant in and of themselves, what counted were the perceptions of people about those events. The villagers and the PFs who knew the history of Binh Nghia could clearly see the power of the Viet Cong manifested in the deaths of Khoi, Page and Lam.
By assassinating the villager's chief moral authority, who, incidentally, was not the official political chief ("village honcho"), the VC made a grave tactical mistake. Although the VC had proven their power by offing Lam, they had sabotaged any trust capital they may have built up with the villagers. They also provided a moral opening through which the US CAP squad could enter into the souls of the villagers. West organizes the entire first chapter to set up that lesson, to demonstrate the enormous value of that kind of seemingly insignificant "moral opening" to the broader strategic aims of the US war effort. Lam's moral authority (a moral sacrifice of sorts) haunts every page of the rest of the narrative.
Intent on driving that LL home, West muses that his CAP Marines did not yet understand the inner-moral meaning (the tactical center of gravity) to the villagers of Lam's assassination, not yet anyway:
Not so the Marines. Ignorant of that history and of the nature of the war, volunteers for the Marine Corps and for Vietnam, veterans of dozens of firefights, volunteers for the village, it never occurred to them to view the blows as the brink of defeat. They were saddened and shaken by their losses, but, not knowing the past, they did not view the events as a prelude to the future. There is no evidence that at the end of June the Marines shared the Vietnamese view of the situation in the village.
West is subtlest when he means to instruct: CAP operations will succeed at the tactical level only if they succeed at the moral level, first, only if the Marines can learn to "share the Vietnamese view of the situation in the village"; that is, share their strategic center of gravity. West offered that tough gristle for IW warriors and MC strategic planners to chew on as early as 1971. (For NCOs who find themselves tasked with presenting potentially incendiary reports to commanding officers, West's kid-glove rhetorical strategy here is worth emulating. Speaking truth to power is always risky business, especially for under officers and NCOs. We must admire the moral courage of West's pen in that passage.)
West's insight anticipates, by five decades, Lt. Col Gregory Thiele's parametrical description of the paradoxes of today's 4GW:
Fourth Generation war poses an especially difficult problem to operational art: put simply, it is difficult to operationalize. Often, Fourth Generation opponents have strategic centers of gravity that are intangible. These may involve proving their manhood to their comrades and local women, obeying the commandments of their religion, or demonstrating their tribe’s bravery to other tribes. Because operational art is the art of focusing tactical actions on enemy strategic centers of gravity, operational art becomes difficult or even impossible.
The LLs offered for our edification in the subsequent chapters of The Village illustrate, among many other things, how the CAP learned how to perceive and then work with and within (not against) the villagers' moral centers of gravity. Part of West's authorial genius lies in his ability to make us see (and learn from) that process as it unfolds. That's why the book gets read and read again. The Village gives us the muscle, bone, and sinews of what following generations of IW theorists have formulated into guidelines, abstract principles, and anatomical charts of IW, as did, for example, Colonel Boyd. Colonel Thiele recalls Boyd's early self-conscious articulation of 4GW:
While the three classic levels of war carry over into the Fourth Generation, they are joined there by three new levels which may ultimately be more important. Colonel Boyd identified these three new levels as the physical, the mental, and the moral levels. Furthermore, he argued that the physical level – killing people and breaking things – is the least powerful, the moral level is the most powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two. Colonel Boyd argued that this is especially true in guerrilla warfare, which is more closely related to Fourth Generation war than is formal warfare between state militaries. The history of guerrilla warfare, from the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon through Israel’s experience in southern Lebanon, supports Colonel Boyd’s observation. This leads to the central dilemma of Fourth Generation war: what works for you on the physical (and sometimes mental) level often works against you at the moral level. It is therefore very easy to win all the tactical engagements in a Fourth-Generation conflict yet still lose the war. To the degree you win at the physical level by utilizing firepower that causes casualties and property damage to the local population, every physical victory may move you closer to moral defeat, and the moral level is decisive.[xi]
These starkly self-aware insights about the interlocking and mutually influencing levels of 4GW tallied above were originally thrown into the living motion of narrative and described with unmatched precision in The Village. In this regard, The Village is a classic that gets taught because it teaches the teachers how to teach IW. West knows that the story (narrative) is the most effective pedagogical tool of IW instructors. And IW instructors do well to emulate his narrative model.
What The Village ultimately does to its best readers (the IW community) is make them care deeply about whether or not the villagers will survive when the CAP departs. That's because West makes us witness American Marines sacrificing their lives to impart skill sets to Vietnamese villagers, skill sets that will, in fact, help those villagers survive when the CAP does depart. (Droning the air spaces of Afghanistan or Somalia or Kurdistan does not impart any skill set at all to local clansmen or tribal members.)
By demonstrating how the war in Vietnam could still be won in 1969 (with the 20/20 hindsight of five decades we must say, with mice and men, past contra-factually, could have been won), West renders one of the greatest services any writer writing about a war in which he has fought can render unto his brothers in arms: He reveals the inner meaning of the blood sacrifices made by his squad members who fell in the battle-space. The honesty of his prose points to the secret inner sanctity of the famous Bible verse, John 15:13, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Intentionally or not, historically uniformed claims that the Vietnam War could never have been won by any strategy or tactic suck the meaning out of those blood sacrifices. Read critically, The Village staunches the collective psychic wound that has been self-inflicted on Americans by the lethal journalism of reporters who were duped by the enemy's infiltrators. Again, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear--dezinformatsia!
When we combine West's IW classic with his subsequent career of public duty, we see that a man's experience of war is never finished.
As this author has asked elsewhere in SWJ: What does the veteran do with his direct experience of war? How does he make his hard-won experience of war-fighting serve his fellow citizens after he de-deploys? And what does that have to do with his moral courage and the survival of his community? Those are questions of the social value we place upon personal character -- what the Greeks called “elenchus.” Both The Village and West's subsequent commitment to public duty vitally demonstrate that he is a thinking veteran, a "Socratic Warrior" and that it's what the Veteran does with his "having been there," after he’s been there, that becomes the richest soil of his post-deployment moral and intellectual authority. Though we find that LL more in West's political career than in The Village, it can be found implicitly in the 1971 narrative report, too.[xii]
The final challenge that West's classic puts before his IW readership is for them to honor the dignity of their minds and souls by taking their own hard-won experience of war, conventional or otherwise, seriously as a source of adducible evidence on behalf of arguments and rhetorical and political contests worthy of that sacred experience. In this regard, The Village will always stand as a firm and truthful reminder of a road not taken far enough in a war that America could and should have won. That nation-altering war was long ago decided, but not the moral struggles that it engendered. It is never too late for the small, elite cadre who re-read this book to apply the lessons West and his squad learned to America's current highly unconventional and increasingly "unpopular" small wars.
[i] Violating the spirit of Raymond Chandler, a trench veteran of WWI, the Cohen brothers make long laughs of a Vietnam Vet in the figure of Walter Sobchak in the Big Lebowsky. The film's clownish character is a good but sad symbol of how the Vietnam Warrior tends to inhabit the collective imaginary of 99 percent of Americans who have done 100 percent less for there nation's security than the one percent who serve in our country's military.
[ii] The other book that is given credit for opening civilian ears to the grunt's experience of Vietnam was written by a civilian reporter, later a screenwriter (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) Micheal Herr, see his Dispatches. No other single book about the war did more to distort civilian perceptions of how the war was conducted (and whether it could be won) than Herr's stream-of-consciousness drug trip. He is also largely responsible for turning the experience of combat troops into "Vietnam the film." Herr's is a morally repugnant distortion of the lived experience of US troops.
[iii] For a typical example of the anti-Vietnam-war historiography that purports to tell the "oral history" of the Vietnam war from "all sides," see Christian Appy's Vietnam (Viking Books, 2003). Appy short shrifts, nearly completely ignores, US and Vietnamese experiences of the war that contradict his ideological enabling premise: That the war was never winnable.
[iv] For an unexpectedly useful but largely forgotten military history of the unconventional aspects of America's earliest Indian Wars told by an author who served in the War of 1812, see Washington Irving's Life of Washington (Fred Defau & Company, 1855). For a more recent overview of the place of America's Indian Wars in the broader American experience of war, see Thomas Mays's finely researched, lucidly presented American Guerrillas: From the French and Indian Wars to Iraq and Afghanistan—How Americans Fight Unconventional Wars (Lyons Press, 2017).
[v] For an depth-discussion of the vexing issue of military history in American academies, see Defense Secretary James Mattis's book Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).
[vi] For a standard civilian-academic (and vehement) condemnation of America's history and experience of irregular warfare, see Richard Drinnon's Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).
[vii] See Larry Berman's Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Communist Double Agent (Harper, 2008) Although Berman's biography is excellently researched and presented, he does give enough attention to An's disinformation campaign, emphasizing, instead, An's intelligence swipes.
[viii] For the definitive account of the US IW experience of the Philippines War, see Dean Conant Worcester's The Philippines: Past and Present (Hardpress, 2015); for the accidental IW career of Josiah Harlan, see Ben Macintyre's biography, The Man Who Would be King: The First American in Afghanistan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008); for the career of Captain Bonneville, see Washington Irving: Three Western Narrative (Library of America, 2004).
[ix] "Arming the natives" makes civilian readers nervous, especially today when we talk about arming the Peshmerga or the clan-burdened Somali National Army. IW readers familiar with the career of Major Jim Gant, whose application of the VSO to Afghanistan revealed his uniquely unconventional warrior style, will recall that even US Command get nervous about arming the natives. One of the most controversial moments of Gant's career centered upon arming the local Afghans with whom he lived and fought, which Gant had to push Command hard to approve. Gant's biographer eerily echoes West's 1966 pamphlet:
Then one night in November, a Chinook helicopter flew into the base at Penich carrying the first shipment of guns for the tribal force, formally called Afghan Local Police: three hundred AK-47s, twelve hundred magazines, and about fifty thousand rounds of ammunition. Jim was ecstatic. He knew one could never underestimate the importance of guns and money to the tribesmen. Not only was the modern rifle the ultimate symbol of prestige to them, it was akin to life itself. Since the proliferation of arms factories in Pashtun tribal regions in the late 1800s, crude rifles emerged as a decisive factor in the tribes’ prosecution of raids and blood feuds that were vital to their self-preservation. Jim invited Noor Afzhal to view the weaponry, leading him by the hand to a shipping container and opening a wooden crate full of Kalashnikovs. If Jim’s loyalty and friendship had paved the way for his return to Mangwel, the delivery of the guns sealed it for the tribe.
Guns mean life to villagers defending themselves against ISIS, Taliban, Sandinistas, or Viet Cong. We expect that particular LL to be anathema to civilians but not to military command. For a remarkable biography of an extraordinary IW warrior, see Ann Scott Tyson, American Spartan (Harper Collins, 2014).
[x] See Chapter 8, "How to Engage the Tribes" of Major Jim Gant's One Village at a Time for guidelines specific to Afghanistan about how to wage unconventional successfully in that terrain.
[xi] 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, Castalia House, 2015.
[xii] In case I have not made myself clear: Today’s IW Warfighters and their kith & kin in our alphabet agencies should be revisiting all of the LLs in The Village. The greyer today’s battle-spaces become, the more urgently we need fierce critical understanding of the full nature and deepest resources of martial courage and moral commitment, the cardinal virtues of IW. In that regard, the West's entire library is especially useful to us right now.