|Mao Tse-tung and
General Vo Nguyen Giap On Guerrilla Warfare
by Florian Waitl
|| Army cadres concern themselves solely with
Government cadres with administrative jobs,
Party cadres with Party business.
They are like men standing on one leg. It is wrong for a cadre
to be acquainted only with one field. He will no be truly
proficient because army, mass, government and party work
forms a whole which would not be strong and complete should
one of its components come to miss.
Ho Chi Minh- July 1952 (Ho's Selected Writings, p. 146)
Guerrilla Warfare is a method of war that can be traced back as far as the 3rd
century B.C. when Fabius Maximus utilized this form of warfare against
Hannibal's forces during the Second Punic War. Ever since then, the phenomenon
of Guerrilla Warfare or Guerra de guerrillas has surfaced again and
again throughout history when low intensity confrontation is the only tool that
can be utilized against an unpopular foreign regime or modern army which is
more powerful on the conventional battle field. According to Robert Taber
(2002), "Guerrilla Warfare is a politico-military quasi science- part
Marxist-Leninist social theory, part tactical innovation- that is changing the
power relationships of the post- World War II era, and in the process is
destroying the verities of the Western general staffs whose professional
concern it is, and increasingly will be, to understand and to combat it" (p.
This form of warfare has become the political phenomenon of the mid- twentieth
century which brings not only fear and concern to the superpower nations but
also hope and will to the "suppressed". This "wind of revolution" as Taber
(2002) calls it, is not as important to our military who many times
unsuccessfully attempt to fight such an invisible enemy but rather to the
political regime in power who sends its military to win an unwinnable war and
expects the impossible to be accomplished. This paper has the purpose to take a
closer look at the Indochina and Vietnam War in which two superior nations and
their armies have lost a war against an ill-equipped insurgency. It will show
that Mao Tse-Tung's use and theory of Guerrilla Warfare was used and adapted
(to Vietnam) by General Vo Nguyen Giap who through the patient application of
the basic Guerrilla principles became the victor over two great countries with
nothing more but an ill- equipped insurgent army and the will to fight and
resist. Further more, this "visible wind of revolution" which started its major
debut in the mid- twentieth century is in fact used in a score of countries
from Afghanistan to Iraq and is here to stay as a political phenomenon rather
than a military one. The Marxist-Leninist social part of this equation has
merely changed into a radical- religious concern in the twenty-first century
but the basics of this type of warfare have stayed the same. By understanding
what Guerrilla Warfare is and that the guerrilla fighter is a political or
religious partisan whose primary weapon is not his rifle but his relationship
to the community and the nation in and for which he fights, the reader will
understand not only why Giap was victorious both against the French and the
Americans but will further develop a basic understanding of these implications
in contemporary military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan which bring the U.S
Military and its allies as many problems as it does. The use of history and the
lessons that should have been learned a long time ago are being brought to
light in this paper with the hope of saving future deaths of our military in a
war that can not be won militarily. After all, George Santayana's quote "Those
who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it" is mentioned by many
but understood by so few.
The first topic that will have to be examined is the history of the country of
Vietnam itself before looking at Mao Tse-Tung's and General Vo Nguyen Giap's
way of warfare in order to understand the conditions that must be present for
The beginning of Vietnam's history is considered to have taken place in 208
B.C. when a Qin general named Trieu Da established a state called Nam Viet
which consisted of the southern part of China and the Red River Delta. Some
historians claim that this was the beginning of Vietnam's occupation by the
Chinese while others still see this as an independent era but for most of the
period from 111 B.C. to the early 10th century, Vietnam was under the rule of
China and its successive Chinese dynasties. During this time many cultural and
religious influences were imported into modern Vietnam but at the same time its
people maintained a sense of their separate national identity (Isserman, p. 9).
Sporadic independence movements were attempted against the Chinese but failed
until Vietnam gained its independence in 939 A.D. following the Bach Dang River
battle. Following ten centuries of Chinese occupation, Vietnam's future saw
several attempts of invasion by the Mongols who were successfully defeated and
even an expansion southward between the 11th and 18th centuries would further
strengthen Vietnam's ability to stay independent from its neighbors. The new
problem that arose in Vietnam was internally. Rival dynasties emerged in the
north and south, warring with each other for centuries for control of the
entire country and it wasn't until the start of the 19th century when the
country was reunited under a single emperor, Gia Long (Isserman, p. 9).
The 15th century would mark the beginning of European expansionism which led to
the establishment of religious missions, trading settlements and colonies in
Africa, the newly discovered Americas and Asia. The first French Catholic
missionaries arrived in Vietnam during the 17th century and a sizeable minority
of Vietnamese was converted to the Catholic religion. Vietnamese rulers worried
about the loyalty of these Catholic converts and periodically persecuted the
missionaries. Following several missionaries' slaughters, French forces, under
the pretext of protecting its missionaries, set out to conquer Vietnam and
convert it into a colony of France which was accomplished with the Indochinese
Union of 1887 which brought modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos under the
rule of a single French governor. Even though the Vietnamese emperors were
still allowed to sit on the imperial throne, they were powerless to govern
their people while local governors were replaced by French administrators.
French settlers gained control of the most productive farmland; the colonial
government imposed heavy taxes on the Vietnamese and established government
monopolies trading in salt and other necessities. Nearly 95% of rubber
plantations in Vietnam were French owned and less than 10% of school age
children were educated in schools even though the French boasted of their
mission civilisatrice or "civilizing mission". Under this colonial
empire several uprisings occurred but all were suppressed rather quickly with
arrests of hundreds of nationalists. The French pride of "Liberty, Equality,
and Fraternity" was denied to its colonial subjects which is why the European
colonial empires were destined to fail in the 20th century (Isserman, p. 10).
Ho Chi Minh ("He Who Enlightens") was born in 1890 and is credited as being the
man most responsible for Vietnam's independence from the French. Educated and
experienced from his world travels, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after 30
years with the goal to gain Vietnam's independence. Following the disinterest
of Vietnamese independence at the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty, he turned for
support elsewhere and joined the French Communist Party in 1920. Leaders of the
Soviet Union, who directed the international communist movement, called for the
overthrow of the colonial regimes of Asia and Africa which was reason for Ho
Chi Minh to join in the first place. According to Ho Chi Minh, "it was
patriotism and not Communism that originally inspired" him to join the
communists. He rose quickly through the ranks of the International Communist
movement and traveled to Moscow and China on several occasions to gain the
support for Vietnam's independence. Unable to return to Vietnam due to
prosecution by the French, Ho Chi Minh continued to work in exile to gain
support for Vietnam's independence. With the defeat of France by Germany in
1940 and the occupation of Vietnam by the Japanese, Ho Chi Minh was able to
slip back into Vietnam in early 1941 where he founded the Vietnamese
Independence Brotherhood League, or Viet Minh, which was used not only to
attack the Japanese but also French forces. Ho Chi Minh believed in an Allied
victory and that Vietnam would be rewarded with independence after the war.
Being the only pro- Allied force in Vietnam, the Viet Minh were supported by
the United States and its Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of
the CIA) with whose help the Viet Minh were conducting guerrilla warfare
against the occupation forces. With the end of World War II and the Japanese
surrender, Ho Chi Minh was regarded as the father of the Vietnamese
independence by his fellow countrymen. Ho Chi Minh exploited the power vacuum
created after Japan's surrender and before Allied forces were able to regain
control over Vietnam, he declared Vietnam an independent state on 2 September
1945, borrowing a passage from the American Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately due to the outbreak of the Cold War following the swiftly
unraveling of the temporary wartime alliance of the United States and the
Soviet Union, Ho Chi Minh's dream of an independent Vietnam was denied once
again. The French wanted to reestablish their empire in Indochina, especially
following the embarrassment of World War II. The United States were shoring up
anti- Communist governments in Western Europe, including France, which
translated into the deny of accepting an independent Vietnam and the U.S.
government made it clear that it wouldn't stand in the way of the
reestablishment of the French colonial empire. Vietnam was divided between the
Viet Minh controlled North and the French controlled South by late fall 1945.
Following a year long failed negotiations between the two parties, French naval
forces shelled the northern port of Haiphong in 1946 which marked the beginning
of the first Indochinese War (Isserman, p. 11-13). The map at the end of this
chapter shows the French expansion in Vietnam throughout the years and
illustrates the above named points in their geographical retrospect.
The Viet Minh soon abandoned the cities and fought back from the countryside
using Guerrilla tactics. The man in charge of the Viet Minh was Vo Nguyen Giap,
a schoolteacher and self taught tactician. It would be Giap using Mao
Tse-Tung's Guerrilla Warfare and the Chinese help to fight the French and
Americans successfully in order to gain an independent und united Vietnam in Ho
Chi Minh's vision. The history of Vietnam is important to the discussion of
Guerrilla Warfare for several reasons. It shows the mistreatment of the
Vietnamese under French colonial rule which wasn't only the case in Vietnam but
in most of the colonies, the implications of World War II on Vietnam as well as
most of the other colonies and finally the history of oppression which was a
big part throughout Vietnam's history. For thousands of years the Vietnamese
had fought invaders with the goal of independence which shows a certain will to
fight and resist outsiders that might not be common or known in Western
countries. World War II proved to be the turning point for the British in
India, the British, French and Belgians in Africa, and the French in Indochina.
With the help of Guerrilla warfare, these colonial empires fell and many
countries gained their independence following long struggles against these
major powers (Taber, p. 3-6). But what exactly is Guerrilla Warfare? In order
to answer this question, one must take a closer look at Mao Tse-Tung's book On
Guerrilla Warfare whose ideas were not only used by General Vo Nguyen
Giap during the Indochina and Vietnam War but by guerrillas around the world.
Mao Tse-Tung's Guerrilla Warfare
… the guerrilla campaigns being waged in China
today are a page in history that has no precedent.
Their influence will be confined not solely to China
in her present anti-Japanese struggle, but will be
-Mao Tse-Tung, Yu Chi Chan, 1937
Mao Tse-tung (1937) is often viewed as the father of modern insurgency and
Guerrilla Warfare due to his most notorious book On Guerrilla Warfare which
he wrote in 1937 while in retreat after ten years of battling the Nationalist
army of Chiang Kai- shek. He wrote Yu Chi Chan or On Guerrilla Warfare
following the Japanese invasion of China with the goal of laying out a pattern
for the organization of the Chinese people for unlimited guerrilla warfare on
the Japanese (Griffith, p. 37). But how can an insurgency win a war against a
powerful mechanized army?
Mao's approach to the theory of war was simply to shift the emphasis
customarily given to the fundamental components of previous established
military doctrine. In other words, where the industrial nations stressed such
tangible military factors such as arms, logistics and manpower; Mao focused on
the intangibles which are time, space and will. Not
being able to fight a well- equipped army in the field, Mao avoided battles by
giving territory to the enemy forces which was a space for time
trade. With the newly gained time Mao was able to produce will which
will eventually and inevitably lead to victory. After all, only those who will
admit defeat can be defeated while the ones who will not admit defeat and
produce more will to resist, will never be defeated. With this in
mind, the question arises how one can organize space so that it could be made
to yield time. Mao's political problem was how to organize time so
that it could be made to yield will, that quality which makes
willingness to sacrifice the order of the day, and the ability to bear
suffering cheerfully the highest virtue (Taber, p. 43). This might be another
reason why the concept of Guerrilla Warfare had its roots in the ill- equipped
and poor farmer who has nothing to loose. The Chinese peasant according to Mao
Tse-tung, "ate bitterness" from the time he could walk until he was laid to
rest in the burial plot beneath the cypress tree (Griffith, p. 14). Who else
would be willing to suffer for one's cause for years or decades just to gain
their political means? The Western military thinkers usually direct a large
part of their attention to the ending of military operations while the
guerrilla does the exact opposite; he has to avoid a military decision for as
long as possible. Obviously those are two extremes when comparing the "Western
Way of War" which focuses on a fast and decisive battle to decide the outcome
of a war, and the guerrilla tactics of Mao Tse-tung which focus on the
continuation of war and the avoidance of any military decision. This explains
the reasons why tactics such as hit and run, fight and live to fight for
another day are being used by guerrillas around the world. The guerrilla can
afford to run when he cannot stand and fight with a good chance of winning, and
to disappear and hide when it is not safe to move. "A guerrilla", according to
Mao Tse-tung (1937), "can always sink back into the peaceful population which
is the sea in which the guerrilla swims like a fish". The space for time
formula is well conceived but the importance of time is that it has to
be used to produce a political result which translates into the raising of a
revolutionary consciousness or the will of the people. In fact, the
population is the key to the entire struggle. Without the consent and active
aid of the people, the guerrilla would be merely an outlaw and could not
survive for long. Without the support of the population, the guerrilla would
not exist because there would be no war in the first place. This kind of
thought process is familiar to Clausewitz, one of the writers Mao Tse-Tung read
(Short, p. 363-365), and who termed the individual components of war as a
"wondrous trinity" which consists of violence and passion which signifies the
people; the chance and uncertainty which would be signified by the Armed Forces
and the talent and knowledge of the commander; and lastly the political purpose
and effect which would be signified by politics itself. But by no means does
this "wondrous trinity" only consist of people, government and army as many
like to think but rather violence, hatred and enmity; chance, probability and
creativity; and reason which all three combined make the essence of war. Only
if we understand the concept of "wondrous trinity", can we go on and make sense
out of Clausewitz's statement that "War is more than a true chameleon that
slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case" (On War, Book I, Chapter
I) which means that war can take on radically different forms depending on the
conditions of the three elements of the "wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit". This
theory also shows us that the three above mentioned parts drive the events of
war in the real world and according to Clausewitz must be kept in balance "like
an object suspended between three magnets" (Book I, Chapter I).
Now bringing this chameleon into China, a slight different animal develops. As
Clausewitz, Mao Tse-Tung saw the importance in the people as well, which is the
most important part of his equation as can be seen from the above discussion;
the political objective which in Mao's terms was the fight itself in which he
won the support of the people; but lastly, the uncertainty or fog of war
disappeared in Mao's equation because the chameleon changed due to the enormous
size of the Chinese country side. Instead of the friction of war that
Clausewitz had to battle in war, Mao or guerrilla fighters have the time which
translates into the gaining support of the people and the successful
revolution. The fog of war or uncertainty is a factor in conventional warfare
which will never be solved, no matter how much technology or money is invested
into the war machine. In fact, the fog of war is not only the uncertainty on
the battlefield but also an important factor on the home front. Increasing
costs of the war machine, increasing opposition to the war itself by both
civilians and politicians and no light at the end of the tunnel in winning a
war can bring down even the mightiest war machine of them all.
On the other hand the guerrilla fighter does not have to worry about this
friction of war or the uncertainty. The guerrilla has the initiative and it is
he, who begins the war, and he who decides when and where to strike. His
military opponent must wait, and while waiting, he must be on guard everywhere.
The military opponent is in a defensive position before and during the war by
reason of its role as a policeman. It is the guerrilla's opponent who has to
protect cities, towns, villages, communications, commerce, industry and all its
military investments such as convoys, airfields, outposts etc. The political
system is another factor which has to be preserved and strengthened which
obviously is already under a severe strain if open insurrection has been
reached. At the same time, the guerrilla remains elusive and insubstantial as
the wind. There are no posts, no towns, no villages, no expensive military
hardware etc to defend. He has nothing to defend but his own existence which he
can do quite easy by dispersion and hiding and sinking back into this "peaceful
population". The guerrilla fighter is primarily a propagandist, an agitator and
disseminator of the revolutionary idea. His mere survival is a political
victory which encourages and raises the popular opposition to the incumbent
regime. So, Mao realized that "the guerrilla's fighter war is political and
social, his means are at least as political as they are military, his purpose
is almost entirely so". At the end, Clausewitz can be paraphrased and one can
say that Guerrilla Warfare is the extension of politics by means of armed
conflict, and at some time during this war the guerrilla war becomes a
revolution in itself which can not be countered or suppressed militarily
because the incumbent government can not wipe out the populace, or any
significant sector of it. The guerrilla on the other hand can wear down his
opponent as we have seen on the above discussion but his primary objective is
not militarily but political (Taber, p. 10-16). Clausewitz's statement holds
true that "The political object- the original motive for the war- will thus
determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it
requires" (On War, Book I, Chapter I) and with amount of effort the time of the
struggle is meant and how much the struggle develops into a political
revolution before the incumbent government cracks.
Mao Tse-tung (1937) believed that guerrilla warfare has a specific relationship
to national policy. In the case of China in the 1930s and 1940s, the resistance
against the Japanese can be seen as a semi colonial country against an
imperialism which meant that a clearly defined political goal had to be
established. The basic policy of China was the creation of a national united
anti- Japanese front which had to be accomplished through the accomplishment of
the following seven steps.
1. Arousing and organizing the people.
2. Achieving internal unification politically.
3. Establishing bases.
4. Equipping forces.
5. Recovering national strength
6. Destroying enemy's national strength.
7. Regaining lost territories.
On Guerrilla Warfare, p. 43
The above named steps were included in three phases according to Mao Tse-tung
(1937) which are fairly indistinct and many times intermingle among one
another. The first phase is the period of establishment of the movement and the
development of its viability. The support of the people is needed which means
that the movement must have some kind of political goal which the masses
support otherwise there would be no movement in the first place. The base of
the revolution has its roots in this organization, consolidation and
preservation of regional base areas phase. The indoctrination of the mass and
the persuasion of the mass take place which translates into support in forms of
food, recruits and information. In other words, the water is made used to the
fish and the peaceful living together of the two is being realized. During this
time there might be only sporadic military operations due to the still weak
movement. The next phase though is based upon an ever increasing importance of
military operations which include acts of sabotage, assassinations of
"reactionary elements", attacks on vulnerable military and police posts and
targets, and whatever other target can be attacked successfully. During this
phase, the progressive expansion phase, the movement learns to fight which Mao
Tse-tung (1937) referred to as a university in itself. "Our chief method is to
learn warfare through warfare. A person who has had no opportunity to go to
school can learn warfare- he can learn through fighting in war…" (Taber, p.
43). The teachings of warfare are not the only part gained by the guerrillas
but rather the primary purpose of this phase is the collecting of arms,
ammunition, medical supplies and any other essential materials. With the help
of this newly equipped guerrilla force, more political agents are being sent
out to proceed with the indoctrination of the inhabitants of peripheral
districts. Once again a single spark, which is the idea of revolution, can
ignite a prairie fire which can not be stopped by water (military) alone.
Throughout the first two phases, the primary objective is to get the commitment
of as many people as possible so that the movement gradually acquires the
quality of mass. Even though the guerrilla force consists only of the hardcore
indoctrinated guerrilla, some local "home guards" or militias are formed which
support the guerrilla forces from time to time. It is this militia where we can
mainly find the school teacher and peasant during the day but the partisan at
night (Mao Tse-tung, p. 79-84).
The last phase is the decision or destruction of the enemy phase during which
time a significant part of the active guerrilla force transforms into an
orthodox army capable of engaging the enemy in conventional battle. Many times
this phase is protracted by "negotiations" which are held for the simple reason
of gaining time and to wear down and frustrate the enemy army and
incumbent regime. So, guerrilla warfare starts with the political partisan who
gains support through the population, gains experience and the needed weaponry
to resist and to fight until through the help of the population the guerrilla
force is being transformed into a "conventional" army capable of destroying the
enemy on the conventional battle field (Griffith, p. 22-24).
Throughout this paper one can see that the population is the key in every
instance which is reason for the importance of discipline in the guerrilla
fighter as well. Mao Tse-tung (1937) emphasized the importance of
decentralization of control and he believed that guerrilla units should and
must be allowed to operate on their own. Of course an attempt to coordinate the
efforts of the individual units must be made as well but Mao Tse-tung stated
that "Dispersion, concentration, constant change of position- it is these that
guerrillas employ their strength" (p. 102) and in order to use this strength
and apply these situationally, guerrilla units must have freedom. The
individual in charge of such a guerrilla unit must chose when and where to
attack, how and how long a fight will be continued etc. At the end, Mao
Tse-tung wrote that "the basis for guerrilla discipline must be the individual
conscience" (p. 90) which gives reason for the importance of the indoctrination
of these forces. Due to the dispersion and freedom necessary for guerrilla
forces to operate successfully, Mao Tse-Tung introduced the "Three Rules and
the Eight Remarks" which were used by the Eight Route Army in the hope to
further stabilize and increase the unity of spirit between the guerrilla forces
and local inhabitants.
1. All actions are subject to command.
2. Do not steal from the people.
3. Be neither selfish nor unjust.
1. Replace the door when you leave the house.
2. Roll up the bedding on which you have slept.
3. Be courteous.
4. Be honest in your transactions.
5. Return what you borrow.
6. Replace what you break.
7. Do not bathe in the presence of women.
8. Do not without authority search the pocketbooks of those you arrest.
(On Guerrilla Warfare, p. 92)
If the above named rules are followed, a close unity between the people and the
guerrillas is formed which will only increase by the abuse and mistreatment of
the population by the incumbent regime and its army. This is reason why
guerrilla warfare is a people's war and a people's army which brings us to the
next topic. Mao Tse-Tung's ideas and theories were and still are used all over
the world but one of the most successful uses and adaptation of Mao's Guerrilla
Warfare took place in Vietnam under the leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap.
General Vo Nguyen Giap's Guerrilla Warfare
|| The war of liberation of the Vietnamese people
proves that, in the
face of an enemy as powerful as he is cruel, victory is possible only
by uniting the whole people within the bosom of a firm and wide national
united front based on the worker- peasant alliance.
General Giap (The Military Art of People's War, p.
Vo Nguyen Giap was born 28 August 1911 in Quang Binh Province. His
revolutionary tendencies were already known and in the files of the French
security service by the time he was 13 years old. Giap graduated from
university with a degree in law and political economics but was forced into
exile in China in 1940 due to the ban against the Communist Party. During his
exile, Giap met Ho Chi Minh, immersed himself in the study of Mao Tse-Tung's
and other military strategist doctrines and attended a political/ guerrilla
warfare school. Giap was given increasingly important leadership roles in the
Indochinese Communist Party and once the decision was made to actively fight
the Japanese and French forces in China, he was named commander of the Viet
Minh forces. According to Arthur D. Jackson, Giap had the experience of a major
in a western army at the end of 1945 but he was put into the responsibilities
of a four star theater commander when he took charge of the Viet Minh (p. 64).
It was during these early years that Giap tested the strategies and operational
doctrine (learned by Mao Tse-Tung) on the battlefield, analyzed his successes
as well as failures and then developed his own kind of revolutionary warfare
which followed Mao Tse-Tung's On Guerrilla Warfare in many aspects.
The discussion about Mao Tse-Tung's guerrilla warfare was discussed in the
above topic which and should give the reader already a basic understanding of
guerrilla tactics which is reason why mainly the differences and changes that
Giap introduced are being discussed in this chapter.
Giap's "new model" of Mao Tse-Tung's Guerrilla Warfare incorporated a more
robust capability and intent to shift back and forth between the various stages
of warfare. The shift was dictated by the situation as well as the region where
the fighting occurred. Giap tailored Mao's guerrilla warfare to the
requirements of the period as well as the geographic location. In his words, he
saw a protracted warfare as a gradual altering of the balance of power by a
long series of small tactical victories, each of which had been assured by
achieving overwhelming local superiority, or declining battle. Giap divided
protracted war into three distinct phases which are similar to Mao's but are
not the same.
Giap's three phases according to Robert O'Neill (1969) consisted of:
1) Stage on Contention (predominantly organization and guerrilla warfare).
2) Period of Equilibrium (complex mix of guerrilla and mobile warfare).
3) Stage of Counteroffensive (mobile warfare with conventional forces including
some positional warfare in late stages) (p. 62).
Giap relied on regular forces much earlier in order to gain and hold new areas.
He saw organization and limited guerrilla activity and minor success against
the enemy as integral to the overall organizational success. Giap continued and
believed that the first phase also targeted enemy morale and attrition.
Obviously attacks and other military operations were only conducted when
success was certain because otherwise the continuous gaining of popular support
was in danger. The wearing down of the enemy was another important aspect at
this stage which was supposed to be accomplished by only attacking when success
was certain but the withdrawal and the inability of the enemy to find the
guerrillas was dragging down their morale. The second phase, the equilibrium,
had two aspects; mainly the altering of the balance between the two forces due
to the loosing of the will to fight by the enemy and the morale issues both in
the enemy army as well as the homeland which affected the reluctant
reinforcement of new troops. The next aspect in this phase was the importance
of conventional units that were supposed to exploit the gains of the guerrillas
already by making deliberate attacks aimed at geographic positions that were
supposed to be held. The last phase of Giap, his counteroffensive, is where
mobile warfare by large conventional forces would dominate the battle field.
During this last phase, the importance of logistics and support functions
became much more involved due to the switch from guerrilla to conventional war,
at least to some extend (Currey, p. 53, 152-154).
But some other changes are of notable importance as well. Giap' view is much
less rigidly structured and more flexible as already mentioned above. Within
each stage it reflects the strong influence exerted on national guerrilla
strategy by North Vietnam's small size. For Mao, the three stages of protracted
war moved from one stage to the next in a continuous and progressive process
which means that each phase is precisely delineated and this development is
usually carried out at the same time throughout the country. Mao further
believed that the process is ongoing which means a retreat from a more advanced
stage to an earlier one should not occur. Giap on the other hand saw the three
stages merge into one another without a clear cut demarcation between them.
Another point in which the North Vietnamese view differs from Mao's can be seen
in the uniform development of the different stages. For Giap and Vietnam, the
stages did not develop in a uniform pattern throughout the entire country. Giap
had all three stages of Guerrilla Warfare throughout the country at the same
time which explains why Giap believed that some areas that have already
advanced to the third stage may be forced back into one of the other two former
stages. This makes the protracted war a subject to innumerable retreats and
deviations which is seen in its sporadic nature. Mao though believed that
protracted war must be progressive and sequential which meant the entire
country must be in the same stage of revolution (Taber, p. 63-64).
Another change from Mao's Guerrilla Warfare to Giap's can be seen in the
functions and roles of guerrilla and conventional forces. While Mao placed
emphasis on the conventional forces at the last stage, Giap continued to
strongly support the guerrilla character in the combination with mixed
conventional forces throughout all phases of his protracted war. Mao Tse-tung
also urged the retreat to the countryside and the avoidance of positional
warfare as can be seen in his words that "the enemy advances, we retreat; the
enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we
pursue" (p. 46). Base areas for Mao Tse-tung were in the countryside where the
support of the people saved the guerrilla. Giap on the other hand recommends a
dedicated defense of the cities by using positional warfare and the use of
guerrilla forces in such areas even after losing them and the development of
base areas in close proximity to the cities. Once again, the geographical space
played the significant part in the change of the Maoist doctrine. The second
phase has differences as well between the two. Giap focused on the insurgent
operations mixed with conventional forces which are being continued into the
third stage as well where Mao demanded the use of conventional elements in its
purity while Giap believed that final victory results from a combined guerrilla
and conventional effort fighting hand in hand (Taber, p. 68-70).
General Vo Nguyen Giap, the school teacher and self taught general, showed the
remarkable talent of extracting and applying elements of his choosing from a
diverse group of military strategists and tacticians such as Sun Tzu,
Clausewitz, Mao Tse-tung and others. Giap used the ideas of others and adapted
them to the unique circumstances of Vietnam. He understood the concept of
campaigning from having studied Napoleon and T. E Lawrence; his thoughts on
"People's War" show the knowledge of the Clausewitzian trinity and the
successful prosecution of war. Giap understood that in a "People's War", the
center of gravity is the people. This isn't only the center of gravity of the
enemy but also the center of gravity of one's own forces. The "hearts and
minds" of the people decide the victor in any "People's War". The word that
best describe General Giap's process throughout the use of guerrilla warfare in
Vietnam is "adaptive". According to Giap, these adaptations represent "…a wise
and creative application of Marxist-Leninist principles on revolutionary war
and revolutionary armed forces to the practical situation of a small, weak,
colonial and semi-feudal country" (p. 70).
Conclusion- On Guerrilla Warfare
Why does the guerrilla fighter fight?
We must come to the inevitable conclusion
that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer,
that he takes up arms responding to the angry
protest of the people against their oppressors,
and that he fights in order to change the social
system that keeps all his unarmed brothers
in ignominy and misery.
Ernesto Che Guevara (p. 10)
The "wind of revolution" which has brought a communist government to China and
Vietnam was and still is felt around the world. Guerrilla Warfare, even though
used from the 3rd century B.C. is ever changing and becoming a more powerful
weapon in the hands of the technological backwards areas of the world. It is
liberating the masses of the poor from the oppression of the privileged few.
This wind picked up at the end of World War II and was used as a political
phenomenon against the West. We have seen on the example of Vietnam and its
able General Vo Nguyen Giap, that this form of revolution can be changed to fit
the geographics and demographics of any country. Of course the example of
Vietnam is one in a thousand. The Boer Wars, the Greek Civil War, the Napoleon
campaign against Spain, the Philippine American War and many other examples
throughout the centuries come to mind when discussing Guerrilla Warfare. All of
these examples have something in common though, which is the incumbent regime
or its army attempts to solve this problem in a purely military way.
After reading this paper, it should be clear that Guerrilla Warfare isn't as
much a militarily problem as it is a political one. The idea of the military
campaign against guerrillas is senseless. Territory is nothing in a Guerrilla
War. The conventional army is even invited to expand which gives the guerrillas
more chances to harass. While the conventional army attempts to encircle and
suppress the invisible guerrilla, they themselves become encircled by the
guerrilla force. No clear frontlines are visible and the guerrilla continues to
attack the army's rear and weak spots. Movement of men and material becomes
progressively greater and more expensive. The longer the lines of communication
and supply get, the more vulnerable they become to guerrilla attacks. As longer
as the war continues, the stronger the guerrilla and the weaker the
conventional army becomes. It is a war based on time not space.
The more the morale of the conventional army declines, the bigger the support
for the guerrilla grows. This has been the case now for centuries but many
military commanders look the other way and attempt to win this unwinnable war
by modern technology.
My plea to learn from history stays unheard by many and we are condemned to
repeat our past over and over until the voice is heard and we finally learn all
the lessons of history. The war against terror which is currently costing the
USA and its allies billions and billions of US $ as well as a substantial
amount of human lives, is being fought as a conventional war even though the
enemy is using guerrilla tactics around the world. With globalization and the
end of the Cold War, the Marxist- Leninist social theory died but the radical
religious trend has taken over this part of the guerrilla equation. It might be
called terrorism today but the amount of guerrilla tactics used in this war is
disturbing. The phases of guerrilla warfare described by Mao Tse-Tung are still
reality today in the war on terror. Phase I and to some extent Phase II is
happening right now in Iraq and Afghanistan while the belief of being able to
counter guerrilla warfare/ terrorism with military power. The winning of the
hearts and minds of the people is the most important aspect in such a war but
with every disturbing picture of atrocities conducted by US soldiers in Abu
Ghraib, every report of rape and killing of civilians in both Iraq and
Afghanistan, the chance of winning the war dwindles. Every soldier in the
conventional army is a diplomat of their country. Every action they take will
have consequences in the big picture and in the outcome of this war or any
Guerrilla or insurgent War. Mistakes during the Vietnam War, such as the
relocation of entire villages, were conducted in the hope to gain the support
of the population which would be like taking away the water from a fish (or
taking away the support of the population from the guerrilla) but the exact
opposite was the case. The enemy's and the population's culture has to be
studied so that mistakes such as the one above will not be made. Once again, it
is the ability to "know your enemy and yourself" (Sun Tzu) which will make
warfare successful. Especially in guerrilla warfare, the West has to know
themselves and understand that such a war will be long. Guerrilla Warfare is
measured in years and decades which means that the support (West's center of
gravity) of the own people will be lost over time. Throughout this paper we
have learned a lot about the guerrilla enemy as well as ourselves and it is my
believe that the West will never be able to win such a war, unless it uses
atomic weapons to eliminate both the guerrilla as well as the supporting
populace which would transform the war into a crime against humanity.
Show Footnotes and
Clausewitz, Carl. (1976). On War. Howard, M. and Paret, P. (Eds.and
Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Currey, Cecil B. (1999). Victory at any cost. The genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo
Nguyen Giap. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, INC.
Giap, Vo Nguyen. (2001). People's War. People's Army. The Viet Cong
Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries. Honolulu, HI,
University Press of the Pacific.
Guevara, Ernesto Che. (1998). Guerrilla Warfare (Marc Becker, Eds.).
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Jackson, Arthur D. (November 1967). General Vo Nguyen Giap Insurgent Theorist
or Leader of a People? Naval War College Review.
Isserman, Maurice (1992). The Vietnam War. (John Bowman, Eds.). New
York: Facts on File, Inc.
Minh, Ho Chi. (1973). Selected Writings (1920-1969) by Ho Chi Minh (Foreign
Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, Trans.). Honolulu, HI: University Press of
O'Neill, Robert J. (1969). General Giap: Politician and Strategist. New
York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers.
Short, Philip. (1999). Mao- A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company,
Stetler, Russell. (Eds.). (1970). The Military Art of People's War. Selected
Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Taber, Robert. (2002). War of the Flea. The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare.
Washington, DC: Potomac Books, INC.
Tse-tung, Mao. (2005). The Art of War (Special Edition). (Foreign
Language Press, Peking, Trans.). El Paso, TX: El Paso Norte Press.
Tse-tung, Mao. (1961). On Guerrilla Warfare. (S. B. Griffith II,
Trans.). Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Vietnam Map. Retrieved on October 29, 2006, from
Copyright © 2007 Florian Waitl.
Written by Florian Waitl. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Florian Waitl at:
About the author:
Florian L. Waitl, co-founder of Human Dimension Leadership Consulting (HDLC), is a military historian and leadership development specialist. He received his Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University and has an extensive background in military history, leadership development, team building, and lessons learned programs. He facilitated leadership seminars at dozens of universities and at various prestigious military leadership institutions such as the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC), the U.S. Army Engineer School, the British Land Warfare Centre, and the German Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr. To read more about Florian’s accomplishments, connect with him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/Florian-L-Waitl-HDLC.
HDLC is a leadership consulting company headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri that develops and delivers customized experiential leadership training conveying the lessons of the past to today's leaders. HDLC’s unique and highly effective methodology is designed to improve business operations. Florian and his team translate the military leadership observed on the battlefield into relevant leadership concepts and practices which can be applied by today's business leader. For more information visit www.HumanDimensionLeadership.com.
Published online: 12/09/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.