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the Marines to determine accurately how large an enemy force they had encountered. Estimates of the size of the Viet Cong unit varied from 30 to 100; the Marines believed they accounted for at least seven enemy. The withdrawing VC had carried off their dead, wounded, and weapons, leaving no vindication for the four Marines wounded in the day's fighting.

When the tractors entered the Cau Do they were fired on from the southern bank. The Marines returned fire and the enemy rifles were once again silenced. Some thought had been given to going back to the Phong Le Bridge and again attacking southward into Cam Ne (l) and (2), where the company could be supported by the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, but Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig knew it was too late to accomplish the mission in the remaining daylight. He called off the operation.

The company had not attained its final objective, but the Marines had learned some valuable lessons. They realized that one company could not cover the area and reach its target in the time allotted. Beyond the tactical lessons learned, Cam Ne forcibly brought to the attention of the American command both the political and military dilemmas inherent in the Vietnam War where the enemy could and did use the dvilian population as a shield. Among the casualties at Cam Ne were a dead 10-year-old Vietnamese boy and four wounded villagers, who were caught in the crossfire between the Viet Cong and the Marines.

The nastiness of the village war was dramatized for millions of Americans on their television screens. A CBS television crew had accompanied the Marine company into Cam Ne and American viewers saw a Marine casually set a hut on fire with his cigarette lighter while an old woman pleaded for the preservation of her home. The CBS film version of the action showed the Marines meeting little or no resistance, and indeed, Morley Safer, the CBS reporter, who narrated the film, bluntly stated that "If there were Viet Cong in the hamlets they were long gone.'' Taking exception to the CBS report, the Marine Corps argued that Cam Ne was a fortified Viet Cong village and that Captain West's Marines had received small arms fire, including automatic weapons, from an estimated VC platoon as Company D attempted, to enter the hamlets. The editors of the Marine Corps Gazette, perhaps best stated the Marine Corps position:

War is a stupid and brutalizing affair. This type of war perhaps more than others. But this does not mean that those who are fighting it are either stupid or brutal. It does mean that the whole story should be told. Not just a part of it.36*

Realizing that extending the Marine TAOR into the heavily populated hostile area south of the Cau Do would cause trouble, General Walt, as early as 10 July, had issued a written directive to keep noncombatant casualties to a minimum. He stated:

It is imperative that all officers and men understand the nature of the Vietnamese conflict, the necessity of winning the support of the people, and the primary importance of protecting and safeguarding civilians whenever possible . . . the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of weapons is counterproductive. The injury or killing of hapless civilians inevitably contributes to the Communist cause, and each incident of it will be used against us with telling effect.

But the general made it clear that this order was not to infringe upon "the inherent right of an individual to defend himself from hostile attack."37 Rather, the emphasis was on discretion by the Marines to employ the necessary force to accomplish their mission. General Westmoreland, also concerned about civilian casualties, reiterated his interest on 5 August with an order to all commands for increased emphasis on the subject.

On 18 August, the Marines returned to Cam Ne, this time in greater strength. The 1st Battalion, 9th Marines established its command post south of the

 

 

*In 1977, General Walt remembered that he gave Morley Safer a lift into the Cam Ne area in his personal helicopter on 3 August. According to Walt, he gave permission to the battalion and company commanders "to burn those thatched houses which hid or camouflaged pill boxes," and that Mr. Safer heard him give this permission. Walt considered that the television account of the incident was a misrepresentation of the facts. Gen Lewis W. Walt, Comments on draft MS, dtd 10Aug77 (Vietnam Comment File). Lieutenant Colonel Charles Ward, who in 1965 was the 9th Marines S-2, recalled that in a conversation about the Cam Ne incident with Newsweek correspondent Francois Sully in 1968, Sully told him that "the Marines' orders and efforts to avoid antagonizing and to try to win the cooperation of the local populace were misplaced in regard to the people of Cam Ne, and breaking up the group and levelling of the village structures were the only feasible actions short of a military assault." Ward concluded his comments with the observation that the Marines operated in the area south of Da Nang with ''salient gaps" in their knowledge "regarding the people" and very often without the cooperation of the local authorities stating, "too often the Marines had to blunder their way through the early critical encounters with the people as well as with the enemy." LtCol Charles Ward, Comments on draft Ms, dtd 270ct76 (Vietnam Comment File).

 

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