SWJ Book Review: “The Village” by Bing West
Let’s just forget the Vietnam War ever happened. For thirty years following the last Huey helicopter flying off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon that’s exactly what the U.S. military tried to do. We had lost for the first time, and it hurt. Service members coming home from the war were spat on, ridiculed, and looked down upon, and it hurt. It hurt so much that senior leaders let the military become hollow and weak, turning a blind eye to misconduct and sinking unit morale. They vowed to never fight another war like that and stripped the lessons of Vietnam out of the lexicon of U.S. combat operations.
This was the world that The Village by Bing West was born into, a world that wanted to erase the Vietnam War from its memory as soon as possible. Despite the fact that the book was beautify written, more like a novel then then a dry dusty history book, the environment it was published into caused the book to not be very well received. But as James Schlesinger, the presiding Secretary of Defense at the end of the war, prophetically told West in the early 1970’s and stated in the forward to the 1985 reissue, “your book will eventually receive its just due”. He was a little off in his prediction, Schlesinger thought it would only take about ten years, but the book did eventually gain popularity. This can be attributed to two things, first it’s inclusion in the Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list, and second the United States found itself fighting in two wars that felt, from a tactical standpoint at least, very similar to Vietnam.
As the type of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan began to resemble what was experienced in Vietnam and the population was seen more and more as the center of gravity in that fight, leaders started to look for lessons and examples of how to conduct themselves in that type of environment. Books like LTC(R) John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife and David Galula’s Counter-Insurgency Warfare Theory and Practice became required reading for commanders preparing to deploy. While these books are great deep thought exercises on the concepts of counter insurgency they lacked the feel, emotion and tactical level lessons of what it’s actually like to live through a counter insurgency. This is the void that The Village fills.
The Village draws you into the world of a small unit, a unit roughly equivalent to a rifle squad, as it struggles to secure a small village near the Vietnam Demilitarized Zone, work with local security forces, and gain the trust of the population all with little to no help from higher echelons. West’s novel like prose puts the reader in the action for each patrol, ambush and tragic loss.
While The Village provides the reader with the feel and emotion of operating in a counter insurgency it also provides several tangible small unit lessons on successful operations in a counter insurgency environment. These lessons include:
- Living in and among the population is the best way to gain trust and shift the center of gravity in favor on the counter insurgent. This lesson can be drawn from the entirety of the book. West demonstrates over and over throughout the story how the mere presence of that squad, and the local security forces partnered with it, effected how the Viet Cong operated in the area. The VC were so focused on breaking the squad’s influence within the population and dislodging them from the village that they sent significantly larger forces, West describes battalion size elements, to overrun their “fort”. The squad and their South Vietnamese combined force elements, known as Popular Forces or PF, were able to repel these attacks. The VC tactics ultimately backfired and further entrenched the squad as a positive force within the village.
- Using artillery in populated area can have unintended consequences that can negate a tactical success. Early in the book West describes an incident in which a patrol stumbled upon a Viet Cong assault force. The patrol was quickly pinned down. The remaining Marines at the fort could see this happening and proceeded to call in a fire mission. Tragically one of the rounds hit 300 yards short of the target, landing on a thatched roofed hut which was home to a family of five. The hut immediately caught fire and only three of the five people inside where able to get out, leaving a mother and her daughter to die in the flames. This one event was so traumatic for the squad that it caused a shift in the tactical operations within the village. Indirect fire and air support would no longer be used to support of a mission in or around the village.
- Working together with the host nation security force significantly increase both elements’ overall effectiveness. This lesson resonates throughout the book. Without the support of the Popular Forces the Marines assigned to the village would not have lasted long. The Viet Cong would have brought to bear a force large enough to dislodge and likely completely destroy the squad of Marines living in the fort. On the flip side had the Marines not been in the village the Popular Force would not have had the credibility or enjoyed the tactical successes that it did.
- Working in a small unit with a foreign force is an inherently dangerous mission, any loss to that unit is painful but the urge to end the mission must be resisted. The Marines assigned to the village took some tough losses. A larger sized unit would have been considered combat ineffective and pulled from the fight to be refit or reorganized. At any time the squad could have been re-missioned but the leaders above it calculated the risk and ultimately made the correct decision in keeping the squad in place, leading to their successful securing of the village.
The four examples above are just a few of the many lessons littered throughout the book. It is no wonder that in the environment of today’s conflicts, The Village would be on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Read List. This book is a must read for anyone preparing to deploy to a counter insurgency environment, or anyone who is interested in a unique and little talked about aspect of the Vietnam War.
The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the US Government, DoD, or US Army.