From Our April 1965 Issue . . .
The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
f we look at the 20th century alone we are now in Viet-Nam faced with the forty-eighth "small war." Let me just cite a few: Algeria, Angola, Arabia, Burma, Cameroons, China, Colombia, Cuba, East Germany, France, Haiti, Hungary, Indochina, Indonesia, Kashmir, Laos, Morocco, Mongolia, Nagaland [an Indian state on the Burmese border], Palestine, Yemen, Poland, South Africa, South Tyrol, Tibet, Yugoslavia, Venezuela, West Irian [Indonesia, on New Guinea], etc. This, in itself, is quite fantastic.
The Century of "Small Wars" In fact, if a survey were made of the number of people involved, or killed, in these 48 small wars it would be found that these wars, in toto, involved as many people as either one of the two world wars, and caused as many casualties. Who speaks of "insurgency" in Colombia? It is mere banditry, apparently. Yet it has killed 200,000 people so far and there is no end to it. The new Viet-Nam war, the "Second Indochina War" that began in 1956-57 and is still going on, is now going to reach in 1965, according to my calculations, somewhere around the 200,000-dead mark. Officially, 79,000 dead are acknowledged, but this is far too low. These may be small wars as far as expended ordnance is concerned. But they certainly are not "small wars" in terms of territory or population, since such countries as China or Algeria were involved. These wars are certainly not small for the people who fight in them, or who have to suffer from them. Nor are they small, in many cases, for the counterinsurgency operator.
One of the problems one immediately faces is that of terminology. Obviously "sublimited warfare" is meaningless, and "insurgency" or "counterinsurgency" hardly define the problem. But the definition that I think will fit the subject is "revolutionary warfare" (RW).
Let me state this definition: RW = G + P, or, "revolutionary warfare equals guerrilla warfare plus political action." This formula for revolutionary warfare is the result of the application of guerrilla methods to the furtherance of an ideology or a political system. This is the real difference between partisan warfare, guerrilla warfare, and everything else. "Guerrilla" simply means "small war," to which the correct Army answer is (and that applies to all Western armies) that everybody knows how to fight small wars; no second lieutenant of the infantry ever learns anything else but how to fight small wars. Political action, however, is the difference. The communists, or shall we say, any sound revolutionary warfare operator (the French underground, the Norwegian underground, or any other European anti-Nazi underground) most of the time used small-war tactics--not to destroy the German Army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population. Of course, in order to do this, here and there they had to kill some of the occupying forces and attack some of the military targets. But above all they had to kill their own people who collaborated with the enemy.
But the "kill" aspect, the military aspect, definitely always remained the minor aspect. The political, administrative, ideological aspect is the primary aspect. Everybody, of course, by definition, will seek a military solution to the insurgency problem, whereas by its very nature, the insurgency problem is military only in a secondary sense, and political, ideological, and administrative in a primary sense. Once we understand this, we will understand more of what is actually going on in Viet-Nam or in some of the other places affected by RW.
Recent and Not-So-Recent Cases
The next point is that this concept of revolutionary war can be applied by anyone anywhere. One doesn't have to be white to be defeated. One doesn't have to be European or American. Colonel [Gamal Abdel] Nasser's [president of Egypt, 1956-1970] recent experience in Yemen is instructive. He fought with 40,000 troops, Russian tanks, and Russian jets in Yemen against a few thousand barefoot Yemenite guerrillas. The tanks lost. After three years of inconclusive fighting the Egyptian-backed Yemen regime barely holds the major cities, and Nasser is reported to be on the lookout for a face-saving withdrawal.
Look at the great Indian Army's stalemate by the Nagas. And who are the Nagas? They are a backward people of 500,000 on the northeastern frontier of India. After ten years of fighting, the Indian Army and government are now negotiating with the Nagas. They have, for all practical purposes, lost their counterinsurgency operation. In other words (this is perhaps reassuring), losing an insurgency can happen to almost anybody. This is very important because one more or less comes to accept as "fact" that losing counterinsurgency operations happens only to the West.
Very briefly, then, let me run through the real differences between, let us say, a revolutionary war and any other kind of uprising. A revolutionary war is usually fought in support of a doctrine, but a doctrine may be of a most variegated kind. It could be a peasant rebellion or it could be religion. For example, in Europe between the 1300s and the 1600s, as the feudal system evolved and then disappeared and was replaced by the early stages of the capitalist system, there were many peasant rebellions. Those peasant rebellions were fought, even though the people did not know it, for economic and social doctrines. The peasants were sick and tired of being serfs and slaves working for a feudal lord. Those peasant rebellions were in line with later socioeconomic movements. This is why the communists, of course, retroactively lay claim to the European peasant rebellions.
There were, of course, the religious wars in Europe--Protestant versus Catholic. Their doctrinal (ideological) character was self-explanatory. As soon as we run into that kind of war, not all the rich and not all the poor will stick together with their own kind. Doctrine somehow will cut across all social lines. This is often misunderstood. We look, for example, at the Viet Cong insurgency in Viet-Nam, and expect that all the Viet Cong are "communists" of low class. Then we find out that there are intellectuals in the Viet Cong. There are Buddhist priests, Catholic priests, and minority people. Hence, this very oversimplified view of the enemy falls by the wayside; we are now faced with something which is much more complicated and multifaceted, and the enemy, of course, thanks to doctrine, cuts across all classes. Pham Van Dong, the prime minister of Communist North Viet-Nam, is a high-ranking Vietnamese nobleman whose father was Chief of Cabinet to one of the late Vietnamese emperors. One of his colleagues at school was Ngo Dinh Diem [president of South Vietnam, 1955-1963], a high-ranking nobleman whose father also had been Chief of Cabinet to one of the Vietnamese emperors. Ho Chi Minh [founder of the Vietminh and leader of North Vietnam, 1945-1969] was not exactly born on the wrong side of the tracks. His father had a master's degree in the mandarin administration. This is very important.
In a doctrinal conflict there are people on both sides who probably embrace the whole social spectrum. Although communists will always claim that all the peasants and workers are on their side, they find out to their surprise that not all the peasants or workers are on their side. On the other hand, neither are all the elites on our side.
Finally, we have the French Revolutionary War and the American Revolutionary War. There is a difference between the two. The American Revolutionary War was literally a "national liberation war." It did not advocate the upsetting of the existing socioeconomic structure in this new country called the United States. But the American Revolutionary War brought something into this whole field which nobody really studied, and that is the difference in certain types of foreign aid that the United States received during its liberation war. What basically made the difference between, say, [the Marquis de] Lafayette and [the Comte de] Rochambeau? Lafayette was an integrated military adviser, but Rochambeau commanded a separate military force. He commanded French forces fighting alongside the United States forces, whereas [Tadeusz] Kosciuszko, [Baron Friedrich] Von Steuben, and Lafayette were actually the allied parts of the army that were sandwiched in (the new word for this in Washington is "interlarded") with the United States forces.
What would happen if American officers actually were put into the Vietnamese command channels--not as advisers, but as operators; or if a Vietnamese officer were to serve in the American Army like the Korean troops in the U.S. Army in Korea? Perhaps this is one approach to the problem of "advisermanship." There was a whole group of foreign officers in the American Revolutionary War army. Were they "mercenaries," and if so, who paid them? I don't know. Were they Rochambeau's men or not? Or, what was the difference between Lafayette and the mercenaries of the Congo? I don't quite know. It would be interesting to find out.
The American Revolutionary War was a national liberation war in present-day terms. The French Revolution was, again, a social, economic, doctrinal war--a doctrinal revolution. In fact, it is amazing how well the doctrine worked. The French had developed three simple words: "Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! "And that piece of propaganda held an enormous sway. For ten years after the French Revolution was dead and gone, French imperialism in the form of Napoleon marched through Europe taking over pieces of territories in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Millions of people throughout Europe turned on their own natural or home-grown leaders believing that this French concept of liberty, equality, and fraternity was carried around at the point of French bayonets.
To be sure, in many cases, Napoleon left behind a legacy of orderly administration, of such things as the Napoleonic Code, but certainly Napoleon did not bring independence any more than the communists bring independence. He did bring a kind of Western order which was highly acceptable. To this day there are slight remnants of Napoleon's administration in the Polish Code. The streets are lined with poplar trees in Austria because Napoleon lined such streets 167 years ago.
One thing that Napoleon also brought with him was French occupation and the first true, modern guerrilla wars against his troops. For example, the word "guerrilla," as we know it, comes from the Spanish uprising against the French. There were similar wars, for example, in Tyrol. The Tyrolians rose up under Andreas Hofer against the French. There were such uprisings in Russia also, although they were in support of an organized military force, the Russian army. In that case we speak of partisan warfare. We also had such things in Germany, the Tugend-Bund, the "Virtue League." This was sort of a Pan-Germanic underground which got its people into the various German states to work for the liberation of the country from French occupation.
Very interestingly we see the difference between Napoleon and some of the other leaders in the field of counterinsurgency. Napoleon tended to make his family members and his cronies kings of those newly created French satellite states. One of his brothers, Joseph, got Spain, and Jerome got Westphalia, a French puppet state cut out in the Rhine area. The population of Westphalia rose up against Jerome. He sent a message to his brother saying, "I'm in trouble." The answer returned was typically Napoleonic. It said, "By God, brother, use your bayonets. (Signed) Bonaparte." A historic message came back from Jerome to his brother saying: "Brother, you can do anything with bayonets--except sit on them." In other words: One can do almost anything with brute force except salvage an unpopular government. Jerome Bonaparte had the right idea, for both the right or wrong ideas about insurgency are just about as old as the ages. We have always found somebody who understood them.
What, then, did communism add to all this? Really very little. Communism has not added a thing that participants in other doctrinal wars (the French Revolution or the religious wars) did not know just as well. But communism did develop a more adaptable doctrine. The merit of communism has been to recognize precisely the usefulness of the social, economic, and political doctrines in this field for the purpose of diminishing as much as possible the element of risk inherent in the military effort. But if one prepares his terrain politically and organizes such things as a Fifth Column, one may reduce such risks by a great deal.
The important thing is to know how to discover the symptoms of insurgency. This is where I feel that we are woefully lagging in Viet-Nam. I will show you how badly mistaken one can be in this particular field. For example, I have a Vietnamese briefing sheet in English which the Vietnamese government used to hand out. It is dated 1957 and is called The Fight Against Communist Subversive Activities. At the end of the last page it says: "From this we can see that the Vietminh authorities have disintegrated and been rendered powerless." Famous last words!
Here is a communication by Professor Wesley Fishel, who was the American public police adviser in Viet-Nam in the late 1950s. He said in August 1958, "Indeed, Viet-Nam can be classed as about the most stable and peaceful country in all of Asia today." I would underline the fact that in 1958 the Vietnamese were losing something like three village chiefs a day. But village chiefs were not considered a military target. They were not considered part of our calculations with regard to what makes a war. For example, the Infantry Journal of August 1960 stated:
The Communist objectives, for the most part, have been thwarted by South Vietnamese military strength. Threats and actual attacks have been made on American advisers through their armed forces. The fact that these attacks have been made is a good indication that the American aid is effective.
What this seems to mean is that if American advisers get killed in Viet-Nam we are doing fine. The Air Force and Space Digest of June 1962 stated:
There are a few things about the insurgent warfare that favor the use of air power and one of them is that the jungle rebels are not equipped with antiaircraft, so that air superiority is practically assured.
That would be good news to the helicopter pilots, who represent the bulk of our casualties. In another Air Force and Space Digest article of August 1964 the following statement is made:
The figures of 1963 in the Vietnamese theater indicate that the cost/effectiveness of the air effort is high. It is estimated that the Viet-Nam Air Force uses less than 3% of the total military personnel. . . . These planes account for more than a third of the total Viet Cong killed in action; that is 7,400 out of 20,600.
The joke, of course, if you can see the point, is that if 3 percent of the Vietnamese personnel effects 33 percent of the casualties, a simple tripling of that 3 percent of Air Force personnel would effect 100 percent of the casualties. Therefore, we need not send anybody else. But no one has considered that in all likelihood, of the 23,500 killed, a large part are noncombatant civilians. It is pretty hard to tell a Viet Cong [when you are] flying at 250 knots and from 500 feet up, or more. This leads to the completely incongruous reasoning that if there are 100,000 Viet Cong in South Viet-Nam and the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] kills 23,500 a year and maims perhaps another 25,000, and if we divide 100,000 Viet Cong by 50,000 a year, the war should be over in two years. This meaningless equation probably accounted for 1963 estimates of victory by 1965. This is precisely where "cost/effectiveness" has its limitations.
Such reports point to a phenomenon which seems to conform to a pattern. Allow me to cite a report on the subject:
There was little or no realism in the sense of appreciating facts and conditions as they really were or were going to be, instead of what was imagined or wanted to be. The cause was fundamental, consisting of an academic bureaucratic outlook, based on little realistic practice and formed in an environment utterly different to what we experienced in the war.
In the case of the staff this environment was in the cool of an office or the comfort of the road, scarcely ever the rubber jungle with its storms and claustrophobic oppressiveness. All seemed good in a good world. There was no inducement to look below the surface or to change our appreciations.
The document is declassified now. It is a report of a British colonel whose regiment was destroyed in Malaya by the Japanese in 1941. This document is 23 years old. Yet it sounds like a U.S. adviser from yesterday. Then as now everybody likes to fight the war that he knows best; this is very obvious. But in Viet-Nam we fight a war that we don't "know best." The sooner this is realized the better it is going to be.
When I first arrived in Indochina in 1953, the French were mainly fighting in the Red River Delta. This was the key French area in North Viet-Nam, . . . [with a] fortified French battle line. The French headquarters city was Hanoi. When I arrived I checked in with the French briefing officer and asked what the situation was in the Delta. He said:
Well, we hold pretty much of it; there is the French fortified line around the Delta which we call the "Marshal de Lattre Line"--about 2200 bunkers forming 900 forts. We are going to deny the communists access to the 8 million people in this Delta and the 3 million tons of rice it produces. We will eventually starve them out and deny them access to the population.
In other words, this was the strategic hamlet complex seen five thousand times bigger. There were about 8,000 villages inside that line. This fortified line also protected the rice fields then, whereas now the individual strategic hamlets do not protect the same fields. "Well," I said, "do the communists hold anything inside the Delta?" The answer was, "Yes, they hold those five black blotches" [on a map]. But at the University of Hanoi, which was under national Vietnamese control, my fellow Vietnamese students just laughed. They said that their home villages inside the Delta were communist-controlled and had communist village chiefs, and just about everybody else said the same thing: that both the French and the Vietnamese Army simply did not know what was going on.
Most of these villages were, in fact, controlled by the communists and I decided to attempt to document that control. It was actually very simple. To the last breath a government will try to collect taxes. So I used a working hypothesis; I went to the Vietnamese tax collection office in Hanoi to look at the village tax rolls. They immediately indicated that the bulk of the Delta was no longer paying taxes. As a cross-check on my theory I used the village teachers.
The school teachers in Viet-Nam were centrally assigned by the government. Hence, where there were school teachers the government could be assumed to have control. Where there were none, there was no government control. [I produced a map that showed] the difference between military "control" and what the communists controlled administratively, which was 70 percent of the Delta inside the French battle lines! This was one year before the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in May 1954. In fact, the [official military situation maps--showing only small, isolated areas believed to be less than 30 percent French-controlled-- were] complete fiction and had absolutely no bearing on the real situation inside the Delta. Of course, when regular communist divisions became available to attack the Delta in June 1954, the whole illusion collapsed. . . . The last French battle line before the ceasefire [lay deep in a zone that was, in fact, solidly] communist-infiltrated and, of course, it collapsed overnight. That is revolutionary warfare. You now have seen the difference between the two.
RW in South Viet-Nam
When I returned to Viet-Nam in 1957, after the Indochina War had been over for two years, everybody was telling me that the situation was fine. However, I noticed in the South Vietnamese press obituaries of village chiefs, and I was bothered. I thought there were just too many obituaries--about one a day--allegedly killed not by communists, but by "unknown elements," and by "bandits." I decided to plot out a year's worth of dead village officials. The result was that I counted about 452 dead village chiefs to my knowledge at that time. Then I also saw in the press, and here and there in Viet-Nam heard, discussions about "bandit attacks." These attacks were not made at random, but in certain areas. That too worried me, so I decided to plot the attacks. I immediately noted in both cases a very strange pattern. The attacks on the village chiefs were "clustered" in certain areas.
I went to see the Vietnamese Minister of the Interior, Nguyen Huu Chau, who then was, incidentally, the brother-in-law of Madame Nhu [Diem's sister-in-law], and I said to him: "Your Excellency, there is something I'm worried about. You know that I was in the North when the French were losing and I noticed the village chiefs disappearing and I think you now have the same problem here." He said, "What do you mean?" So I just showed him the map. He said, "Well, since you found that out all by yourself, let me show you my map." And he pulled out a map which showed not only the village chiefs but also the communist cells operating in South Viet-Nam in 1957-58, when Viet-Nam was at peace and there was supposedly nothing going on. It was wonderful. We all congratulated each other. Yet, very obviously, to use a somewhat unscientific term, the whole Mekong Delta was going "to hell in a basket," and much of South Viet-Nam with it.1
The insurgency cross-check was unexpectedly provided to me by the International Control Commission. They get reports from the communists as well as from our side, but in this case what interested me was the alleged incidents inside South Viet-Nam. The communists would report from Hanoi, through the ICC, that Americans or Vietnamese were doing certain things out in the villages which Hanoi alleged were "violations" of the ceasefire agreement. I said to myself, "If I plot out all the communist reports about alleged violations on a map, and if they match high-incident areas, there may be a logical connection between the guerrilla operators and the intelligence operators who provide the basis for the ICC reports." Sure enough the same areas with the high incidents also had high reports. As of early 1958, I knew we were in deep trouble in Viet-Nam and I kept saying so.
In 1959 the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization gave me a research grant to do a study on communist infiltration in the area. . . . One of the results of the study: Saigon was deliberately encircled and cut off from the hinterland with a "wall" of dead village chiefs. President Kennedy, in his second State of the Union message on May 25, 1961, stated that during the past year (meaning April 1960-61) the communists killed 4,000 minor officials in Viet-Nam! This was one year before the [Maxwell] Taylor Report which got the whole American major effort going. In other words, in 1960 and 1961 the communists killed 11 village officials a day. By the time we woke up and learned that we had a problem, the communists had killed about 10,000 village chiefs in a country that has about 16,000 villages. This, gentlemen, is "control"--not the military illusion of it.
From then on, it was open and shut. One year later, in 1963, somebody discovered that my system of judging insurgent control from tax returns was applicable to South Viet-Nam also. . . . [The U.S. Agency for International Development, or AID, produced figures that] reflected the situation for March- May 1963, six months before Diem was overthrown, and four months before the Buddhist outbreaks. To make a long story short, in 27 provinces the communists . . . were formally collecting taxes with bonds, receipts, and tax declarations. In [ten more areas] they were collecting taxes on an informal basis. There were only three provinces out of forty-five which reported no communist tax collections!
The Erroneous Criteria of "Success"
I have emphasized that the straight military aspects, or the conventional military aspects of insurgency, are not the most important. Tax collections have nothing to do with helicopters. Village chiefs have nothing to do with M-113s [armored personnel carriers] except in the most remote sense, nor with the aerial bombardment of North Viet-Nam. What we are faced with precisely is a communist, military-backed operation to take over a country under our feet. I would like to put it in even a simpler way: When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being out-administered. Subversion is literally administration with a minus sign in front. This is what I feel has to be clearly understood. Whether it is the Congo, Viet-Nam or Venezuela, is totally irrelevant. Whether we have the "body count," the "kill count," the "structure count," or the "weapons count"--these are almost meaningless considerations in an insurgency situation. We can lose weapons and still win the insurgency. On the other hand, we can win the war and lose the country.
We always hang on for dear life to the Malayan example, which, of course, is totally unworkable. The only thing that Viet-Nam has which resembles Malaya is the climate. We don't give the communists credit for making mistakes, yet Malaya was one of their big mistakes. They actually decided to take on the British in a straight-forward military operation and, predictably, failed.
If revolutionary war simply were jungle war, every regular force could win it. Americans know how to fight jungle wars. One can fight a revolutionary war in Norway, or fight a revolutionary war in France. It doesn't take a jungle to fight a revolutionary war. One can take over villages not only in the highlands of Viet-Nam, but in the lowlands of Belgium the same way. This is, of course, the key point. Remember that the British fought in Cyprus, and seemingly had everything in their favor. It is an island half the size of New Jersey. The Royal Navy, which can be trusted to do its job, sealed off the island from the outside. There were 40,000 British troops on Cyprus under Field Marshal Sir John Harding, and his opponent, Colonel [George] Grivas, had 300 Greeks in the EOKA [National Organization of Cypriot Struggle]. The ratio between regular troops and guerrillas was 110-to-1 in favor of the British! After five years the British preferred to come to terms with the rebels.
The French in Algeria learned every lesson from the French in Viet-Nam. The troop ratio there was a comfortable 11-to-1; the French had 760,000 men, the Algerians had 65,000. The French very effectively sealed off the Algerian-Tunisian border, and by 1962 had whittled down the guerrillas from 65,000 to 7,000. But the French were winning at the expense of being the second-most-hated country in the world, after South Africa, in the United Nations. They were giving the whole Western alliance a black name.2 At what price were the French winning? Well, 760,000 men out of the about 1 million men of the French armed forces were tied down in Algeria. It cost 3 million dollars a day for eight years, or $12 billion in French money. No American aid was involved. The "price" also included two mutinies of the French Army and one overthrow of the civilian government. At that price the French were winning the war in Algeria, militarily. The fact was that the military victory was totally meaningless. This is where the word "grandeur" applies to President de Gaulle: he was capable of seeing through the trees of military victory to a forest of political defeat and he chose to settle the Algerian insurgency by other means.
Some of these wars, of course, can be won, as in the Philippines, for example. The war was won there not through military action (there wasn't a single special rifle invented for the Philippines, let alone more sophisticated ordnance) but through an extremely well-conceived civic action program and, of course, a good leader--[Ramon] Magsaysay.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can't fight an ideology; one can't fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, "land reform," and the other side says, "better culverts." One side says, "We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords." The other side says, "Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain." These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
What, then, can be done in a warlike Viet-Nam? Does the West have to lose such wars automatically? I said at the beginning that even the non-Westerners can lose those wars. But, either way, one must attempt to preserve the essentials. The question in my mind is this: Can we in Viet-Nam, or anywhere else, save (or improve) the administrative or governmental structure? The answer is obvious, and there is no other effort really worth doing. We have tried this with the "strategic hamlets" and that literally failed. Out of 8,500 strategic hamlets, about 1,400 survived the effort. Some people have spoken of what is called the "oil-slick principle," which has been described as the holding of one particular area, one central area, and working one's way out of the center. That was fine when the French developed the concept for the Sahara, because in the Sahara there are obligatory watering points. If they have all the oases, those outside have to come in and get water. But Viet-Nam doesn't happen to be the Sahara or an oasis. Thus, the oil-slick method succeeds mostly in pushing the Viet Cong units into the next province. Of course, it looks good, at least, because for one week there will be a "cleared" province. For the time being this is considered adequate until something more imaginative is discovered.
The actual thing that can be done, and is also being done, is what the French call "gridding" (quadrillage). One doesn't start from the center of something and work one's way out, but he starts from the periphery and works one's way in. The chances are that if it is done right, and if it is done in enough places at once, some communist units will finally get fixed (as the army says) and caught. This may yet work, but this requires a high degree of man-power saturation not available in Viet-Nam.
There are no easy shortcuts to solving the problems of revolutionary war. In fact, I would like to close with one last thought, which applies, of course, to everything that is done in the armed forces, but particularly to revolutionary war: If it works, it is obsolete. In Viet-Nam and in many other similar situations we have worked too often with well-working but routine procedures and ideas. It is about time that new approaches and--above all--ideas be tried; obviously, the other ones have been unequal to the task.
1. Cf. Bernard Fall, "South Viet-Nam's Internal Problems," Pacific Affairs, September 1958.
2. For example, when the French effected a reprisal raid on rebel bases in Tunisia on February 8, 1958, several senior U.S. leaders expressed shock and demanded the return to U.S. control of American-made aircraft used by the French.