Tuesday 23 April 2013

Policies in War Politics and Strategy

Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
Mao Zedong, "Problems of War and Strategy" (November 6, 1938)
Selected Works,  Vol. II, p. 224.
Vo Nguyen Giap was the mastermind behind the Viet Minh military effort, and he laid down principles underlying VM actions, based on Maoist doctrine. Giap fully understood the works and writings of Mao, Trotsky, Sun Tzu - and was able to create his own methods without slavishly following these guides. As Ho Chi Minh said of the struggle for Vietnamese independence:  "It is the fight between tiger and elephant. If the tiger stands his ground, the elephant will crush him with its mass. But, if he conserves his mobility, he will finally vanquish the elephant, who bleeds from a multitude of cuts."
(Obviously, the elephant is the CEFEO and the tiger is the Viet Minh). But, while such rhetoric is of some use in setting the background to these tactics, this page is supposed to be discussing the realities of VM combat. 
Giap, following Mao, developed the principle of three stages to the struggle:
  1. First, the movement must establish strong bases in country where the enemy cannot easily attack them. Here they can train their soldiers, and build political strength amongst the surrounding villages. It also gives the military a supply base and headquarters, and somewhere to fall back on in difficult times.
  2. Second, a period of guerrilla activity and political campaigning. The guerrillas will make pinprick attacks in the enemy rear, forcing him to disperse his forces and making his troops' morale drop. When the enemy becomes frustrated and makes reprisals, then the movement gains political strength from this. The less control which the enemy is seen to have over the country, the more that the people will look to the VM for support and guidance. If the enemy presses hard on the guerrilla forces, they should avoid contact and only fight when they have a clear advantage.
  3. Thirdly, when the enemy is weakened and the people are behind the VM, it is time to engage in open warfare. Again, every victory by the VM brings political capital. VM failures should be ruthlessly abandoned, so that the enemy can take little advantage from them. Eventually he will be forced to retire from the country.
That, in essence, is the thinking behind both the First and Second Indochina Wars from a communist/nationalist perspective. As can be seen, the political and military objectives are one and the same. It is not land itself that matters, but standing with the people and hence political power. If the second or third phases are started too early (as was the case when open warfare was initiated in 1951, and the VM were heavily defeated at Vinh Yen, Mao Khe and Phat Diem), then the VM just pull back to the lower level (i.e. to low-level guerrilla warfare, or in extremis back to their base camps).  In the guerrilla phase, VM political agents moved around the villages teaching and indoctrinating. But the French could rarely discover these agents who (in the words of Mao) "moved like fish in the sea". If an area was quiet, was it truly pacified or just reorganising for future campaigns? It was difficult for the French to know. 
In Sun Tzu it is stated that "Know the enemy and know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated" - this is very true for Ho, Giap and the VM. They had lived with, and been ruled by, the French - and had seen the French defeated by the Japanese. They knew their own people, and knew that the French yoke was too heavy - if they offered something better then many would listen. But the French seemed ignorant of the true strength of the VM - initially, when they could have crushed the movement, they took little notice of another group of "bandits". Then, as things escalated they dreamed up ever wilder schemes to defeat the VM on a military basis, until finally - when the VM tide was rolling down on them like a tidal wave - they were forced to back down. Little or no attempt was ever made by the French administration to fight the VM on a political level, and this, I feel, is where they failed... 

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