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Guest Post: The Lessons of Dien Bien Phu

(Today's guest post is by Austin Bodetti, who attends the Hopkins school in New Haven and has an avid interest in military history. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

From the Vietnam War to the Wars on Drugs and Terror, the United States of America has never stopped searching for pitched battles (i.e. guaranteed victories), yet even the most decisive of these battles mean nothing in terms of counterinsurgency. After the Tết Offensive, the Việt Cộng (vc) ceased to be a problem for the United States Army, but the US Army ceased to have popular support. Today is no different: the Battle of Baghdad and Fall of Kabul yielded similar results to Tết in the long term. Among all the lessons that the Vietnam War, Iraq War, and War in Afghanistan offer, nowhere in American history is there an example of the opposite, a case where guerillas had the means to defeat the counterinsurgent in pitched battle. Exceptions in warfare fall, as always, to the French.

Before the us Army fought the VC, the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO), led by Henri Eugène Navarre 1953–4, fought the Việt Minh. Navarre lacked the tactical genius of opponent Võ Nguyên Giáp; unlike the previous commander in chief Raoul Albin Louis Salan, Navarre had little experience in leadership. He was an intelligence officer thrown the job of leading four hundred thousand Frenchmen, Indochinese, and North Africans, and he blamed his problems on communists in Paris, who blamed the First Indochina War on him. It was this unremarkable man whom the French Fourth Republic and its American ally expected to succeed where six of France’s best generals had failed. It was he who would fail most remarkably of all.

The French high command proposed to Navarre a project that Salan had begun. In 1953’s Operation Castor, Salan had captured a large piece of Việt-Minh territory, where he established a sixteen-square-mile stronghold in a ravine outside the city Điện Biên Phủ. This base had two airstrips, enough artillery to flatten Vietnam, and a 10,800-man garrison, largely legionnaires and paratroopers.Para commander Marcel ‘Bruno’ Bigeard declared, ‘Dien Bien Phu est imprenable!’ and each of Navarre’s American advisors agreed. When Giáp attacked Điện Biên Phủ—he would have to attack since it was the honorable, French thing to do—the cefeo would be so ready that all Giáp’s men might die on the spot. The Americans liked this idea.

Neither the Americans nor Navarre expected Giáp to be an admirer of Napoléon Bonaparte, who first earned fame dragging artillery a few miles across the Alps. Giáp dragged his artillery all the way from Beijing. He shelled the French March through May 1954, when they surrendered…legionnaires, paras, and all. Giáp’s artillery, what ensured his victory, did not cross the Sino–Vietnamese border on his back. Thousands of peasants, communist and nationalist alike, offered to carry ammunition and food hundreds of miles by truck, by bicycle, and most often by foot. Plus, Giáp had forty-eight thousand soldiers, all volunteers, to the cefeo’s 10,800 professionals.

The French had better soldiers. They had better weapons. They even had Bigeard, called the greatest para in history. Decades later, Giáp would write the book People’s War, People’s Army: The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries, where he described how guerillas could defeat a Western country as long as they had popular support. This support the French lacked, and five thousand reinforcements airdropped by Central-Intelligence-Agency pilots were never going to get it. The situation became so dire that the CIA proposed Operation Vulture: the US Air Force would nuke Việt-Minh positions around Điện Biên Phủ with British and French support. The French agreed. The British, who have long understood the nuances of counterinsurgency, did not. They saw that the First Indochina War was no Malayan Emergency, which the British had quelled by promising the Malays independence. The French had refused independence to the Khmers, the Laos, and the Vietnamese for the Indochina War’s eight years, and turning Điện Biên Phủ into Hiroshima would change nothing.

Like Giáp, Navarre wrote a book about his experience, where he blamed the defeat not on his own errors and those of the French in general but on communists in Paris, who continued to haunt him till his death in 1983. Bigeard, on the other hand, applied the lessons from the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in French Algeria, where he earned the love of civilians (Arab as well as French) and the respect of his enemy. Somehow, America has spent the last sixty years studying Điện Biên Phủ without learning to do the same.

24 comments

related
http://ciar.org/ttk/mbt/armor/armor-maga..


Thanks Sven and thanks Austin. Austin has another great post for next month too, so stay tuned. Really well written.

As for the idea of engaging the pitched battle, Austin is absolutely correct. I think we have written about the before, but Hollywood actually encourages this mindset (which goes all the way back to the Greeks and the decisive moment). If you want the uber-example, think the Death Star being destroyed by a single proton torpedo.


There was a time when the written history of wars consisted of the date, location, size and result of battles only.
It’s intellectual laziness, but totally understandable for those people who do not spend much time studying war(fare).

I focused a lot of my research on how to make battles unnecessary by deciding them in advance.
This is what happens against insurgents – they’re people who understand correctly that they would lose a pitched battle.

Now the trick is to pull it off against a peer, and my research has wandered away from “manoeuvre” of large forces such as brigades or huge preparation air campaigns à la 1991 towards unit- and small-unit sized teams piling up advantages for ‘our’ side.

Coincidentally, that’s kind of what insurgents do as well, albeit very differently and much slower than what I am thinking of.


Choosing whether to write about RC4, Điện Biên Phủ, or Mang-Yang Pass (what Sven mentioned) was a difficult choice. RC4 could have been obscure. Điện Biên Phủ could have been unoriginal, and I still see nothing new in my analysis. Mang-Yang Pass could have raised, ‘What’s the point of discussing the battle after Điện Biên Phủ?’ which I could never answer; unless you’re analyzing the entire First Indochina War, Mang-Yang Pass will always raise that question.

Điện Biên Phủ made the most sense because it related the most to America, American counterinsurgency, and American foreign policy. The Navarre Plan was an American idea and all, namely Eisenhower, felt it a Franco–American failure. While the French mouthed, ‘C’est la guerre,’ and moved to Algeria, Americans mourned the loss of first Korea and then Indochina, whose American intervention Korea had inspired.

It surprised me to learn that America soldiers from the boots on the ground to the top brass were well aware of Indochina while fighting Vietnam. Bernard Fall was required reading among many officers, yet they ignored what they read. French veterans from Bigeard to the infamous Aussaresses lectured American soldiers, some of whom fell asleep. Whatever their legacy (and the actions that warranted it), veterans of Indochina and Algeria proved some of the greatest counterinsurgents in history–even so, their brilliant speeches signaled nap time for a few holier-than-thou graduates of Westpoint. Your understanding of counterinsurgency proves that you would have listened, Mr. Cummings, and other officers would have, but how many? Would they have been enough?

I suppose that the French are right, ‘C’est la guerre,’ and that’s that.


The late battle was interesting because it was a pitched battle not against a fortress, but against a force on the move (a more common case).

It can be compared to what we saw in Iraq and saw/see in Afghanistan and serve as a reminder about how feeble the Taliban opposition actually is (also in comparison to the 80’s Mujaheddin).

I am often facing people who lost such a wide context and think of the Taliban as a challenging, dangerous opposition.
There are even people who thought the opposition in Mali would be troublesome, or the ancient Libyan air defences would pose a risk and so on.

The general discourse about military affairs needs a better understanding of proportions as much as lessons learned.


There are a few different issues at play here. First, It’s a bit simplistic to state that pitched battles are indecisive in counterinsurgency – particularly when dealing with insurgents or guerrillas following Mao’s principles, which culminate in ‘phase 3’ operations which are purely conventional and are decided by the pitched battle (Tet being one such mis-timed decision). It would probably be more accurate to state that the counter-insurgents can’t force the issue through pitched battle, but the insurgents can. Saigon fell following pitched conventional battle. But even in classic phase 2 operations the guerrillas can mass forces to achieve local superiority, and have done so in countless minor actions ranging from small ambushes (such as at Nasiriyah) to large ones (Ap Bac). One common theme is that the insurgent typically picks the time and the battlefield, while western forces tend to approach the ‘big battle’ as a meeting engagement, or occasionally pick the battlefield and then wait for the insurgent to show up.

Second, I agree with your implication that popular support is generally misunderstood by western forces (and the USSR/CIS, for that matter), for several reasons. First, one has to recognise why the insurgency has arisen. Getting this wrong will introduce fatal weaknesses in strategy to counter it. Indochina was a nationalist war – not a Communist war. Getting this wrong affected the way the French and then the US supported the established governments, effectively preventing those institutions from ever gaining popular support. Next, one has to recognise that countering an insurgency means you’re probably starting on the back foot as the existing government has done something stupid to get to the stage where its people have taken up arms. This means trying to re-establish good governance concurrent to fighting, while trying to find good local leaders. Someone like Ramon Magsaysay is the ideal. If you’re lucky, you’re facing an insurgent who has yet to gain popular support (someone like Georgios Grivas, or Che Guevera in Congo and Bolivia),

Third, the French oil-spot theory, involving dispersing forces throughout the region in order to maximise influence on the population is recognised to be the ideal in a COIN environment, and is one of the better means of keeping pressure on the insurgents while concurrently building effective governments. But those dispersed troops need to be resupplied (unless they live off the land, which no western army has done in over a century to the best of my knowledge), and that’s really what led to RC4 (see above re insurgents picking time/place of battle). I think one of the lessons is the importance of maintaining focus on an unglamorous tactical approach and not getting sidetracked by the promise of big battles (the military equivalent of falling for a ponzi scheme). The challenge is getting over the ‘we don’t do constabulary operations’ mentality, while preserving the force to respond to an insurgent phase 3 mobilisation.

As for failing to learn from other nations’ experiences, I think most armies are institutionally biased and believe they have nothing to learn (how many armies are examining current French operations in Mali and are updating their doctrine in combining airborne and light armour tactics?). Everyone is guilty. Everyone is equally guilty of thinking that their own lessons apply to every other theatre. And everyone is also guilty of completely misreading history (US forces in Iraq weren’t the analog of Lawrence – they were the analog of the Turks; and those who called for arming the tribes in Afghanistan didn’t need to be like Lawrence – they needed the support of an Allenby).

Finally, I think Bigeard was a brilliant tactical leader who definitely applied Indochina lessons in Algeria, but for every civilian who loved him there were a dozen more who despised him and who celebrated his recent death so he’s not the best example to give of winning popular support. For that I nominate Ramon Magsaysay.


F., thank you for your reply. It’s rare that I have opportunity to debate topics as obscure as Indochina and Algeria. I’m seventeen, so opportunity for historical discourse depends on availability of history teachers.

  • Remember that I wrote, ‘Even the most decisive victories mean nothing in terms of counterinsurgency,’ not, ‘Pitched battles are indecisive in counterinsurgency,’ as you took me to mean. Pitched battles can be decisive and almost always are decisive—in fact, decisiveness is an unwritten rule of pitched battles that counterinsurgents follow to a T. However, decisiveness is not strategic but tactical in these cases. Perhaps pitched battles meant long term victory against insurgents in Roman times, but not now. The French were never fighting Gauls (Strange enough that the French come from Gauls.). I find fault with your example here, the Fall of Saigon. Saigon fell to the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA), a conventional army, not the VC, an unconventional one. See my post’s first paragraph: the VC existed till 1975, when Saigon fell, but ceased to be a major issue after Tết. You can disagree with me, but you can never say that the VC, not the PVA, won the Vietnam War. Also, the Fall of Saigon was one of Vietnam’s least-decisive battles. Everyone, including Americans and South Vietnamese, expected it to fall. I agree with your other points in argument 1.
  • I also agree with you here. Remember that the French Armed Forces more or less achieved popular support (or submission) of Arabs by 1959–62. It was French support that the Armed Forces failed to maintain though the May-1958 crisis and Algiers putsch are a debate for another day. My knowledge of Philippines history is shaky at best, so I’ll have trouble challenging you on Ramón del Fierro Magsaysay. However, he died in a freak accident in 1957 and had little time to make a name for himself. History often ignores important figures, yet ignoring Magsaysay could be a legitimate choice for all that I’d know.
  • Yes, but oil spot is a little too simple. You need stationary groups, which do everything from garrison duty to interacting with and policing the population, and you need mobile groups, which hunt guerilla groups when and where it is best to do so. COIN has so many nuances that different wars call for different approaches. Also, French COIN in Indochina so varied that historians could never categorize it as oil spot or anything else. You’re ignoring important context for RC4, such as the Battle of Cao Bằng.
  • I agree with you in argument 4.
  • Most civilians who despise Bigeard despise him because of the incident in 2000, when Arabs and Frenchmen and women associated him with torture of which he had no part. Historians give undue weight to torture in Algeria. Plus, Bigeard had widespread respect during the Algerian War. Magsaysay was no Bigeard.

Sorry if my responses appear hasty. It seems that you know much more about this topic than I do.


I remember the term as “ink spots”.

I’d like to disagree on the “decisive battle” as ‘decisive on the tactical level’ thing. many battles between very much dissimilar forces only bear the illusion of decisiveness. It’s perfectly possible for both sides to achieve their objectives at tolerated costs and the more powerful force will usually stand on the battlefield the day after and claim a decisive victory. Meanwhile, their weaker opponents had probably modest objectives and accomplished them. I suppose that doesn’t deserve to be called “decisive”.
The term “decisive” isn’t used very often and even that’s probably too often.


Yes, but the majority of pitched battles in COIN are decisive one way or another, for the counterinsurgent has such an advantage over the insurgent that the outcome can be little other than decisive. Giáp admitted his mistake after battles such as Vĩnh Yên: he had engaged in pitched battle, which he could never win (till Điện Biên Phủ). Think Jalabad if you’d like something more current. Perhaps there are a few indecisive pitched battles in COIN, but most will be decisive, and most will go to the counterinsurgent. I would agree with you if we were discussing regular war, but regular war ceased with World War II (except in a few cases).


Austin, “pitched battle” has a rather wide definition (ad is no military term), which makes your statement about their decisiveness wrong.

I propose you read up on the concept of a delaying action:
http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/l..
It’s probably the most common way how inferior forces fight a battle.


You are correct that militaries have no universal definition of pitched battle like they have no universal definition of guerilla war (though many soldiers have tried to define both). However, Wikipedia has a small article on pitched battle. Pitched battles of guerilla wars vary in that disengagement may be impossible for one side or both, and Điện Biên Phủ resembled a siege. The difference that I see between traditional guerilla tactics and pitched battle in any form is hit and run versus hit and hit. I was referring to when both sides have clear means to engage each other; hit and hit: no one’s running. Have there been battles in guerilla war meeting these criteria that were indecisive? If so, are such battles frequent? I’m relying on you here, Sven. I could never say myself.

Feel free to email if you’d to discuss further. No need to bombard On Violence with unnecessary comments, and you know a lot about this issue. I’d love to hear more if you have time.


Syria seems to produce lots of indecisive battles recently.

The Wikipedia article explicitly mentioned either side could withdraw; feel free to make up a new term if you feel like it, but it’s not helpful if you take a somewhat established one and assert an exception without making that assertion right at the beginning. That’s just a wrong use of a word.

Even battles in conventional warfare are rarely fought till the bitter end; they either cool down after a while or one side yields at least a bit. Battles of annihilation are rare and mostly limited to cauldron battles or island assaults.
The ‘typical’ battle sees one side yielding after suffering 10-20 casualties means almost always more than 50% loss of power.

Hit and run tactics are usually associated with raiding, delaying or skirmishing, neither really describes a battle. Instead, they’re about adding to the overall effort one bit at a time. That’s the opposite of the idea of a battle.


Syria is a poor example, and I would call those battles neither ‘decisive’ nor ‘indecisive.’ The Battles of Aleppo and Damascus, continuing for over a year, are less battles than perpetual skirmishes. The Free Syrian Army is combining a guerilla war with a war of attrition and is winning it. I have seen no pitched battles in Syria, only the Syrian Army (not the FSA) bombing and/or raping anything that moves.

I know what the Wikipedia article mentions. You must have misread my statement, ‘Pitched battles of guerilla wars vary in that disengagement may be impossible for one side or both.’ Perhaps you prefer withdrawal, but disengagement is there. Anyway, I will use conventional battle if you prefer, and Điện Biên Phủ was conventional.

It surprises me that you associate casualties with decisiveness. There are so many factors in a decisive victory that casualties may be the least decisive among them.


Let’s approach this from a different angle. Austin, you make the point that Saigon fell to the NVA and not the VC, which is absolutely correct. However, that needs to be taken in context of Mao’s three phases of revolutionary warfare. The first phase is using cadres to raise popular support among the population. The second phase is a combination of guerrilla and terrorist strikes with two purposes: eliminate local leaders who oppose the revolution; and target the government forces to acquire their arms and to provoke an overreaction, which in turn further separates the people from the government. Phase three is conducted when the revolutionary forces are strong enough to decisively defeat the government in conventional battle. So yes, Saigon fell to the NVA, but that was part of the broader North Vietnamese strategy. Similarly, you can’t really parse engagements against VC or NVA as being distinct aspects of that war – they were all part of the North’s revolutionary strategy.

The typical mistake made by revolutionaries/ insurgents is in trying to fight that decisive battle too soon, and getting beaten. Tet was one such example. In Afghanistan, Op Medusa is another such example. But in neither case can the battle be considered decisive. The government forces didn’t really get much further ahead, and the insurgents simply sucked back to phase 1 or 2 operations (the key being to make sure their critical cadres are not sucked into that battle). Back to Vietnam, Ia Drang is another example of a pitched, yet indecisive battle.

This is why large scale battles are almost never decisive in this style of war, particularly when initiated by the counter-insurgents (who you correctly note typically have every advantage in weapons, technology, training and logistical support). I agree with your statement that this lesson continues to escape westen generals.

We have distinctly different takes on the Algerian war, but that’s a separate issue!


I’ll take this a step further.

Conventional battle in a COIN environment is almost irrelevant. At best it buys the counter-insurgent time and a little space for political action to displace the effects of the insurgent’s political activity (regaining popular support). It may also result in some intelligence gains for future operations, but on the whole such operations are rarely worth the opportunity costs.

Conventional battle initiated by the insurgent, when in the context of phase 3 of the strategy has potential to be decisive. Conducted any earlier and it risks hard to replace equipment and manpower.

As a result, I can’t think of any specific insurgency wars that throw up many examples of conventional toe-to-toe slug fests, but just about every war has at least one or two.


You make an impressive argument, F. I agree that we should approach the argument from a different angle, one that excludes the Fall of Saigon. The name Fall of Saigon implies that it was the climax of the Vietnam War—as you treat it—but Saigon fell, and that was that. The PVA almost walked to victory (North-Vietnamese soldiers likely spent more energy on marching than fighting in Saigon). An easy victory came from several years of tiring the ARVN in a war of attrition, since the Easter Offensive, and the lack of direct American support, also since the Easter Offensive (or 1972-ish). The transition from Soviet intervention to civil war in Afghanistan was somewhat similar, but stretching that comparison could be dangerous. I’d hesitate applying Mao’s principles to the PVA, which used more-or-less conventional warfare throughout. Rarely is history simple, yet the PVA and VC were pretty even in their divide of conventional war to guerilla war, northern communists to southern communists.

I’d hesitate to reference Mao in general. Relying on the principles of a military theorist, especially one and one only, is dangerous. Mao was brilliant but a little insane, and historians continue to argue the legitimacy of his military and political doctrines. Then again, historians debate everything. The historian in me says to reference examples (e.g. battles, strategies…), of which you have excellent command, rather than theorists, of whom you also have excellent command. I’ll always have a secret love for David Galula though (even if this book galula disagrees with me).

Remember that never fighting a conventional battle ‘too soon’ could mean never fighting a conventional battle at all. America could have crushed and always did crush the PVA and VC in any conventional battle. The CEFEO was a small logistical disaster, so the Việt Minh had a chance at Điện Biên Phủ and took it. Even so, Điện Biên Phủ might have been the victory needed by the CEFEO if the CEFEO had organized. It came close. American guns and napalm made a difference whatever Giáp said (though the Việt Minh had better American guns than the CEFEO). It is in the nuances of context that Mao’s principles fail to apply. Nothing is universal in war, and brilliant strategists are idiots out of context. Look at MacArthur against Japan versus MacArthur against North Korea. Look at Giáp against France versus Giáp against America. He said, ‘The Americans will have their Điện Biên Phủ‘—he was talking about Mao’s ‘third phase‘—but the Americans had nothing of the sort. They had ‘a diplomatic Điện Biên Phủ’ as Massu would call the May-1958 crisis. Context is everything.

I agree that ‘conventional battle in a COIN environment is almost irrelevant’ as far as conventional battle is almost always a stupid choice on the guerilla’s part. For this reason, counterinsurgents search for conventional battles but rarely find them. Insurgents fear and counterinsurgents prefer conventional battles because of their decisiveness. George Washington, one of the original guerillas (Yes, he used guerilla tactics.), avoided large-scale, conventional battles because he feared losing the American-Revolutionary War in one shot. Returning to Vietnam, let’s throw Saigon out the window for now. Look at the Battles of Huế and Khe Sahn. Huế was the only city that America lost during Tết, yet the Battle of Huế proved one of America’s most-decisive victories. America withdrew from Khe Sahn, yet the Battle of Khe Sahn was a decisive victory as well.


You can’t avoid Mao when examining any 20th century revolutionary war. He, along with Lenin, Guevera and, to a lesser extent, Carlos Marighella, formalised the theory and defined the terms of revolutionary war. Tactics, be they guerrilla, terror or conventional, are simply subsets of that theory.

Regarding definitions, we may have a problem with the word ‘decisive.’ You describe both Khe Sahn and Hue as decisive American victories. They certainly resulted in a lot of dead Vietnamese, shattered VC cadres, and set the North’s cause back by a few years, but the North won the war so I’m really not sure they can be described as decisive. They were certainly momentarily significant, but in the end they didn’t help either the US or the South’s government.

The challenge is to see the battles in the context of the larger political struggle. What is the intent of the battle? Khe Sahn is generally accepted to have been Giap’s attempt to fix US forces far from the cities, which were the real objectives of Tet. In the end his forces were also fixed and mauled much worse than he had intended (a running theme in his career). But he could still recover enough to achieve the broader political aim, albeit years later. I’d argue that a reason western forces are seduced by the lure of the big battle is because there tends to be too little political oversight (I’m not talking about White House tactical micromanagement – I’m taling about selection and maintenance of a political aim), leaving generals and admirals to revert to their training. An example of how to avoid that is the British campaign in Malaya (a campaign that is all too often held up as the acme of counterinsurgency, but which I feel is actually a terrible example – we can discuss that elsewhere). Both Robert Thompson and Frank Kitson remarked on the clear chain of command, where civilians were always in charge. For the British forces, that meant that that ensured that military operations supported politics and not the other way around. I believe that the biggest obstacle to effectively replicating this command structure is ego.


You can neither ignore the communist revolutionary-theorists nor ignore everyone but them. You mentioned Lenin. I find the Soviet Union’s role in Afghanistan more interesting. You mentioned Guevara. I find Cuba’s role in Angola more interesting. As you watch the Cold War begin and end, you see how the theory of communist revolution disintegrates as history draws farther from context, for those brilliant insurgents, such as Lenin and Guevara—almost all of them—became counterinsurgents and outright failed in some cases. The MPLA turned insurgent to counterinsurgent in a year, fighting former ally UNITA. UNITA had American support. America has supported some of the world’s best insurgents, Savimbi among them, yet it’s among the world’s worst counterinsurgents. Do you see the importance of context? Theories are well and good, but adaptability is everything. Many of your insurgents failed to adapt. Marighella lost his head for it. Remember that it’s easier to be an excellent insurgent than even a mediocre counterinsurgent.

You have to use decisive in the right context. Tết was decisive in military terms but indecisive in political terms. In fact, Tết had little to do with politics on its own. It gave Americans and South Vietnamese opportunity to say what they thought. America’s political failures elsewhere undermined its military victory at Tết. Giáp is another theorist whom you must keep in context. Some think him brilliant. Hoàng Văn Chí thought not. I could never say myself.

I agree with you on the Malayan Emergency. The British won in the short term—the insurgency stopped—but lost in the long term—they lost Malaysia. However, civilian oversight is tricky. Many civilians given oversight are annoying. Some are idiots. They get in the way, and soldiers have a point there. Civilians whom soldiers can respect, civilians who must have expertise in their field, are necessary to prevent counterinsurgencies (and counterinsurgents) from running amuck.


The British didn’t intend to keep Malaya. The plan was all along to merely release it in an orderly state.
The Chinese insurgents in Malaya were a minority and would have brought the country close to the PRC, while the Malay majority would be grateful and might keep good relations with London if the insurrection was defeated.
Besides, the British probably still felt they had to even the score against East Asians after their defeat at the hands of the Japanese in Malaya 41/42.


Exactly: the British pursued a defeatist policy (i.e. surrendering Malaysia) from the beginning. The communists in Malaysia were a minority, but the British only severed the MCP’s chance at popular support when they gained the Malays’ support—through an offer of eventual independence. Total victory would have meant British Malaya then and forever.


Austin – we’re now way off topic. The isses of insurgents or revolutionaries adapting to being in power and then facing a counter-revolution (or going abroad to fight) is completely different from the place of the big battle in a COIN environment. It may be worth discussing, but under a different thread.

You mention context, but I suggest that you are failing to put the big battle in its appropriate context, which starts with politics. What is the political aim of the insurgent? What strategy is being pursued (rural-based? worker-based? foco? the role of a political wing or vanguard party? This is where the importance of understanding the theory comes into play.) and how does violence fit into that strategy? As an aside, if you believe that Tet had little to do with politics then you need to do some more reading.

You have to ask similar questions from the counter-insurgent’s perspective when viewing the big battle. What are the aims? How does the battle fit in the context of trying to regain popular support, and what follow-up actions are planned and executed to take advantage of the time and space acquired in any local victory? How does the battle fit into the overall strategy? Those are the kinds of questions that need answering to establish the context for a battle.

You also need to study more on military-civilian relationships because you have it all backwards. Military forces are under civilian control. It isn’t the responsibility of the civilians to earn the respect of soldiers. It is the responsibility of soldiers to do what their civilian leadership direct. Civilian politicians, civil servants and diplomatic staff can be annyoing, idiotic and in the way (though that’s an astonishingly juvenile way of putting it) all they want. Generals and admirals have a responsibility to advise, but ultimately they are responsible for developing tactical and operational plans that fit the strategy and political direction developed by civilians. The danger arises when civilians abdicate that authority to the generals.


You can’t avoid Mao when examining any 20th century revolutionary war. He, along with Lenin, Guevera and, to a lesser extent, Carlos Marighella, formalised the theory and defined the terms of revolutionary war. Tactics, be they guerrilla, terror or conventional, are simply subsets of that theory.

Because I responded to that statement in my second-to-last post, how ‘way off topic’ are we? I focused on, ‘Tactics, be they guerrilla, terror or conventional, are simply subsets of that theory,’ in particular, for Mao’s (and Guevara’s and Lenin’s) theories apply in some context but not in others. They outright failed in others, so I meant to prove that your theories are neither infallible nor universal. You also ignored my statement, ‘Remember that it’s easier to be an excellent insurgent than even a mediocre counterinsurgent,’ though I suppose that it too was ‘way off topic.’

I wonder whether you have done enough reading. The PVA and VC expected their invasion to generate a Southern uprising, perhaps the ‘political aim’ to which you referred, but the uprising never materialized because the South Vietnamese feared a corrupt communist government more than they feared a corrupt capitalist one. If this uprising was the ‘political aim’ to which you referred—though I assume that you meant a different one—that ‘political aim’ proved a political failure for the North Vietnamese and thus a political victory for the Americans: the South Vietnamese preferred their American benefactors or else they were close enough to a neutral party. Tết was a military failure for the North Vietnamese (Thank you for acknowledging Khe Sahn.), and they never expected the political victory that did manifest. Said General Tran Do, North-Vietnamese commander at the battle of Huế:

In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets [not in comparison], and this was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.

Even the North Vietnamese admitted that their political victory had been an accident. You are correct that Tết related to politics like military matters always do, but the political consequences for which Tết is famous had little connection to the immediate plans of the Americans and the North Vietnamese. Neither expected that Tết, the anticipated military victory of the North Vietnamese and the realized military victory of the Americans, would be the political defeat that began America’s loss in Vietnam.

‘Civilian politicians, civil servants and diplomatic staff can be annyoing, idiotic and in the way […] all they want’ if they want to lose. Seamless civilian–military interaction is crucial to victory. For such victory, civilians need to respect soldiers, and soldiers need to respect civilians, but civilians will only respect soldiers when civilians understand soldiers, and soldiers will only respect civilians when civilians understand soldiers. Do you see the contradiction? I appreciate history. So do you. So does Sven. So do Eric and Michael. Many soldiers fail to appreciate history whereas some civilians (e.g. you, Sven, Eric, and now Michael) are history experts. Often, they are different civilians from those with whom soldiers must work. Civilians must understand the wars that they lead, and soldiers must understand the wars that they fight. It surprises me that you ignore an example and the topic of this guest post, Điện Biên Phủ. In 1953, France was losing the Indochina War, and French civilians wanted a decisive—there’s that amazing word—victory. How the CEFEO could win a decisive victory civilians neither knew nor cared. They told politicians to make it happen or else to end the war, and politicians told General Salan to make it happen or else to forget his job. Salan said that it would be impossible, that Indochina required a different approach, so Paris fired him. Then came Navarre, who said that a decisive victory would be difficult but perhaps possible. No, Salan was right: it was impossible, Điện Biên Phủ happened, and it gave us topic for discussion. The Battle of Hòa Bình resulted from a similar situation (Note that Hòa Bình began under General de Lattre but ended when Salan realized that such a battle was impossible.). That you simplify civilian–military interaction to soldiers doing anything that civilians say is ineffective and even dangerous. Yes, soldiers must respect civilians for the sake of democracy, but civilians must respect (and understand) soldiers for the sake of COIN. If you believe that my proposal results in authoritarianism, remember that the countries best at COIN, especially those with good civilian–military interaction, are democracies (unless you consider dictators Franco and Salazar successful with the that perpetual conflict in the Sahara and the Portuguese Colonial War).

By the way, I am sorry if my wording offends you, but history has its idiots. President Carter was terrible for COIN.


The evolution of revolutionaries transitioning to putting down insurgencies is too big to discuss in this post/counter-post conversation. I point you to the timely Max Boot article here: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1... We can certainly discuss it elsewhere.

Regarding civilian control over a counter-insurgency campaign, there are a number of different categories of war (war on domestic soil, such as Rhodesia; war in a colony, such as Indochina or Kenya; and war in an area of interest, such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). Each instance has its own unique features, but only the first is an actual fight for survival, so we’ll leave that category aside. The other categories are ultimately wars of choice.

Let’s create a completely fictitious scenario: The Duchy of Grand Fenwick has an overseas industrial interest in the country of Florin. Florin is beset by insurgents intent on replacing the government through violent means, with one of their stated aims being the nationalization of all foreign businesses, including the Grand Fenwick Widget Monopoly. Fenwick decides to intervene (Blood for Widgets!). Civilian control now takes place on two levels: In Fenwick and in Florin. Within Fenwick, it is up to the government to determine its interests and the resources it is prepared to commit, keeping in mind other regional and global interests. It will exercise control over its deployed forces through the following mechanisms:

1. Authorising the size and composition of deployed force;
2. Authorising the rules of engagement;
3. Stating the frequency with which government is to be formally updated on activities;
4. Defining the nature of operations/risks that require approval from a Fenwick-based level of command (combatant command, chief of defence, or minister of defence);
5. Imposing any additional caveats.

The government will ensure that Fenwick and Florin interests are in alignment [this is where things usually go pear shaped. I don’t want to get into things like SOFAs and other standing agreements here, but on a broad basis, the French in Indochina are a prime example of placing undue emphasis on French expat interests at the expense of Indochinese interest and misjudging the resentment caused by reneging on promises for independence and so misreading the intractable nature of the opposition] and will maintain this through the ambassador in Florin. Within Florin, the ambassador ensures that the Fenwick Theatre Commander keeps his operations running in accordance with the political interests and aims. The committed forces have to understand that all of the above can change with a change in government, the nature of the government (presidents, prime ministers, leaders of majority parties and leaders of minority parties or coalition parties all face different challenges), and that different Fenwick governments will have different perceptions on the value of widgets. If at any time the national interest in supporting the counter-insurgency becomes “to avoid a humiliating defeat” then there’s a problem, but one for the voting public to address, not the military (although mass resignations remain an option).

The reason the government maintains control is because it sees the national resources available to spend on the campaign and balances those resources against other domestic and international interests and needs. Generals typically focus on the narrower theatre issues. This doesn’t mean that civilians are always right. They get things catastrophically wrong as often as the generals. US State Department advice on Indochina and Vietnam was horribly skewed as a consequence of purges in the Far East division during the McCarthy-era [Google “How could Vietnam happen? An Autopsy – I’m out of hyperlinks; David Halberstom’s The Best and the Brightest analyses this, and other civilian failings, in much greater detail; if you have a spare year and no other reading to do, have fun with The Pentagon Papers.].

Regardless, soldiers have to follow the civilian lead. Anything else results in wasted effort. So, within all that political context, the armed forces have to decide what kinds of operations to conduct. When looking at historical battles we need to ask a series of ‘whys’ to get to truly understand why it they were fought. In modern planning, generals and their staffs need to as similar questions to make sure they are performing in line with higher intent.

To get back to the original example, Dien Bien Phu, we can agree that it was a bad decision all around – from the political motives to the military execution (there were some appalling tactical decisions from start to finish). A lot of later American-initiated battles in Vietnam seem to have been driven by conventionally-minded generals performing in accordance with the metrics demanded by MacNamara. Those examples seem to undermine my argument about civilian primacy, but actually I argue that they reveal a sense of political desperation and a hunger for a quick fix (for completely different reasons in Paris and DC), rather than the will to conduct long campaigns for popular support – both at home and in the theatre of operations.

That was much longer than I originally intended!


Hypothetic examples are iffy, but, yes, I agree with you.