Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla Warfare

The term 'guerrilla' originates from the actions of small bands of Spanish soldiers who fought against Napolean's French army in the Peninsular War (1807-1814). The word 'guerrilla' is Spanish for "little war".

The tactics employed by "guerrillas" date back to the ideas of Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist who lived over 2000 years ago. Sun Tzu argued that all warfare involves the employing of one's strength to exploit the weakness of the enemy. In his book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu gives several suggestions on how to defeat an enemy that is larger and better equipped than your own army.

Sun Tzu's ideas were successfully adapted by Mao Zedong, the leader of the communist forces in China. The establishment of a communist government in China was an inspiration to all revolutionaries in South East Asia. This was especially true of China's neighbour, Vietnam.

The strategy and tactics of the National Liberation Front were very much based on those used by Mao Zedong in China. The NLF was organised into small groups of between three to ten soldiers. These groups were called cells. These cells worked together but the knowledge they had of each other was kept to the bare minimum. Therefore, when a guerrilla was captured and tortured, his confessions did not do too much damage to the NLF.

The initial objective of the NLF was to gain the support of the peasants living in the rural areas. According to Mao Zedong, the peasants were the sea in which the guerrillas needed to swim: "without the constant and active support of the peasants... failure is inevitable."

When the NLF entered a village they obeyed a strict code of behaviour. All members were issued with a series of 'directives'. These included:" (1) Not to do what is likely to damage the land and crops or spoil the houses and belongings of the people; (2) Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend; (3) Never to break our word; (4) Not to do or speak what is likely to make people believe that we hold them in contempt; (5) To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood, carrying water, sewing, etc.)."

Most peasants in South Vietnam were extremely poor. For centuries, the Vietnamese peasants had accepted this state of affairs because they believed that poverty was a punishment for crimes committed by their ancestors. The NLF educated the peasants in economics and explained how poverty was the result of the landowner's selfishness. They pointed out that fifty per cent of the agricultural land in South Vietnam was owned by only two and a half per cent of the population. Two thirds of the peasants owned no land at all and were therefore forced to work for the rich landlords.

The NLF's solution to this problem was to take the property of the large landowners and distribute it amongst the peasants. In some cases, the landowners were executed as a punishment for the way they had treated the peasants in the past.

In return for the land they had been given, the peasants agreed to help the NLF by feeding and hiding them. In some cases, the peasants also agreed to take up arms with the NLF and help 'liberate' other villages.

The peasants were motivated by fear as well as a sense of gratitude. The NLF told them that if the United States Marines or ARVN managed to gain control of the village, they would take the land back. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the peasants saw the NLF as their friends and the US Marines/ARVN as the enemy.

This view was re-inforced if the NLF left the village to escape advancing US or South Vietnamese troops. In an effort to discover information about the NLF, the peasants were sometimes tortured. If evidence was found of the NLF being in the village, the people were punished. As William Ehrhart, a US marine explained:"... they'd be beaten pretty badly, maybe tortured. Or they might be hauled off to jail, and God knows what happened to them. At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose. Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice confiscated - and if they weren't pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left."

As well as taking over the running of villages, the NLF would send out patrols into government controlled areas. The tactics they employed have been described by Robert Taber, who fought with the guerrillas in Cuba, as the war of the flea: "The flea bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow, but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him... All this requires time. Still more time is required to breed more fleas... the military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend; too small and agile an enemy to come to grips with."

To defeat the more powerful enemy, the guerrilla needs to dictate the terms of warfare. In the words of Mao Zedong: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

The NLF was told not to go into combat unless it outnumbered the enemy and was certain of winning. It therefore concentrated on attacking small patrols or poorly guarded government positions. To increase its advantage, the NLF relied heavily on night attacks.

At first the NLF used hand-made weapons such as spears, daggers and swords. However, over a period of time, it built up a large supply of captured weapons. A US army survey of weapons in 1964 discovered that 90% of weapons taken from the NLF had previously belonged to the ARVN and the US army.

In 1965, General William Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of 'search and destroy'. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'."

In the villages they controlled, the NLF often built underground tunnels. These tunnels led out of the villages into the jungle. They also contained caverns where they stored their printing presses, surgical instruments and the equipment for making booby traps and land mines. If US patrols arrived in the village unexpectedly, the NLF would hide in these underground caverns. Even if the troops found the entrance to the tunnels, they could not go into the tunnels as they were often too small for the much larger American soldiers.

The overall strategy of guerrilla warfare is to involve the enemy in a long-drawn out war. The aim is to wear down gradually the much larger and stronger enemy. It is only when all the rural areas are under their control and they are convinced that they outnumber the opposition, that the guerrillas come out into the open and take part in conventional warfare. Thus the NLF, who were based in the thick forests of South Vietnam, began by taking control of the villages in the rural areas. As their strength grew and the enemy retreated, they began to take the smaller towns.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Vietminh directives (1948)

(1) Not to do what is likely to damage the land and crops or spoil the houses and belongings of the people.

(2) Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend.

(3) Never to break our word.

(4) Not to do or speak what is likely to make people believe that we hold them in contempt.

(5) To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood carrying water, sewing, etc.)

(6) In spare time, to tell amusing, simple, and short stories useful to the Resistance, but not to betray secrets.

(7) Whenever possible to buy commodities for those who live far from the market.

(8) To teach the population the national script and elementary hygiene.

(2) Tim O'Brien served in the Vietnam War as an infantryman. In this passage he describes the dangers of going out on patrol. Over 10,000 US soldiers lost limbs during the war, a considerable number of these injuries were caused by National Liberation Front mines.

The most feared mine was the Bouncing Betty. It was conical shaped, three prongs jutting out of the soil. When your foot hit the prong, a charge went off that shot the mine into the air, a yard high, showering shrapnel everywhere. It's a mine that goes after the lower torso: a terrible mine... On one occasion after my company had encamped and sent out patrols there was a large explosion only 200 yards away... We raced out there and only two men were living out of a patrol of eight or so. Just a mess. It was like a stew, full of meat and flesh and red tissue and white bone.

(3) Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare: A Method, Cuba Socialista (September, 1963)

Guerrilla warfare has been employed on innumerable occasions throughout history in different circumstances to obtain different objectives. Lately it has been employed in various popular wars of liberation when the vanguard of the people chose the road of irregular armed struggle against enemies of superior military power. Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been the scene of such actions in attempts to obtain power in the struggle against feudal, neo-colonial, or colonial exploitation. In Europe, guerrilla units were used as a supplement to native or allied regular armies.

In America, guerrilla warfare has been employed on several occasions. As a case in point, we have the experience of Cesar Augusto Sandino fighting against the Yankee expeditionary force on the Segovia of Nicaragua. Recently we had Cuba's revolutionary war. Since then in America the problem of guerrilla war has been raised in discussions of theory by the progressive parties of the continent with the question of whether its utilization is possible or convenient. This has become the topic of very controversial polemics.

Almost immediately the question arises: Is guerrilla warfare the only formula for seizing power in all of Latin America? Or, at any rate, will it be the predominant form? Or simply, will it be one formula among many used during the struggle? And ultimately we may ask: Will Cuba's example be applicable to the present situation on the continent? In the course of polemics, those who want to undertake guerrilla warfare are criticized for forgetting mass struggle, implying that guerrilla warfare and mass struggle are opposed to each other. We reject this implication, for guerrilla warfare is a people's war; to attempt to carry out this type of war without the population's support is the prelude to inevitable disaster. The guerrilla is the combat vanguard of the people, situated in a specified place in a certain region, armed and willing to carry out a series of warlike actions for the one possible strategic end - the seizure of power. The guerrilla is supported by the peasant and worker masses of the region and of the whole territory in which it acts. Without these prerequisites, guerrilla warfare is not possible.

(4) Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (1961)

We consider that the Cuban Revolution made three fundamental contributions to the laws of the revolutionary movement in the current situation in America. First, people's forces can win a war against the army. Second, one need not always wait for all conditions favorable to revolution to be present; the insurrection itself can create them. Third, in the underdeveloped parts of America, the battleground for armed struggle should in the main be the countryside.

(5) Che Guevara, People's War, People's Army (1964)

Mass struggle was utilized throughout the war by the Vietnamese communist party. It was used, first of all, because guerrilla warfare is one expression of the mass struggle. One cannot conceive of guerrilla war when it is isolated from the people. The guerrilla group is the numerically inferior vanguard of the great majority of the people, who have no weapons but express themselves through the vanguard. Also, mass struggle was used in the cities as an indispensable weapon for the development of the struggle. It is important to point out that never during the period of the struggle for liberation did the masses give away any of their rights in order to get some concession from the regime. The people did not talk about reciprocal concessions but demanded liberties and guarantees, which brought inevitably in many sectors a crueler war than the French would have waged otherwise. This mass struggle without compromises - which gives it its dynamic character - gives us fundamental elements with which to understand the problem of the liberation struggle in Latin America.

Marxism was applied according to the concrete historical situation of Vietnam and because of the guiding role of the vanguard party, faithful to its people and consequently to its doctrine, a resounding victory was achieved over the imperialists. The characteristics of the struggle, in which territory had to be given to the enemy and many years had to pass in order to achieve final victory, with fluctuations, ebb and flow, was that of a protracted war. During the entire struggle one could say that the front lines were where the enemy was. At a given moment, the enemy occupied almost the entire territory and the front was spread to wherever the enemy was. Later the lines of combat were delimited and a main front was established. But the enemy's rear guard constituted another front; it was a total war and the colonialists were never able to mobilize their forces with ease against the liberated zones. The slogan "dynamism, initiative, mobility, and quick decision in new situations" is in synthesis the guerrilla tactic. These few words expressed the tremendously difficult art of popular war.

(6) After the Vietnam War was over some American soldiers admitted acts of atrocities against the Vietnamese people. In the book Prevent the Crime of Silence, a former American intelligence officer described what happened to people suspected of being members of the National Liberation Front.

I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation... and that included quite a number of individuals... They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the Vietcong, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or things like thrown from helicopters.

(7) In villages where the population was suspected of helping the National Liberation Front, torture and executions of civilians sometimes took place. On 16 March, 1968, American troops killed more than 500 people from the village of My Lai. A young helicopter gunner, Ronald Ridenhour who saw the massacre wrote to President Nixon about the incident. Attempts by the army to cover-up what had taken place were undermined by the journalist, Seymour Hersh, who managed to persuade several soldiers involved in the massacre to talk about what taken place at My Lai.

Some of Calley's men thought it was breakfast time as they walked in; a few families were gathered in front of their homes cooking rice over a small fire. Without a direct order, the first platoon also began rounding up the villagers... Sledge remembered thinking that "if there were VC around, they had plenty of time to leave before we came in. We didn't tiptoe in there."

The killings began without warning... Stanley saw "some old women and some little children - fifteen or twenty of them - in a group around a temple where some incense was burning. They were kneeling and crying and praying, and various soldiers... walked by and executed these women and children by shooting them in the head with their rifles.

There were few physical protests from the people; about eighty of them were taken quietly from their homes and herded together in the plaza area. A few hollered out, "No VC, No VC,"... Women were huddled against children, vainly trying to save them. Some continued to chant, "No VC." Others simply said, "No. No. No."

Carter recalled that some GIs were shouting and yelling during the massacre: "The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they're doing, they have to be enjoying it." A GI said, "Hey, I got me another one." Another said, "Chalk up one for me." Even Captain Medina was having a good time. Carter thought: "You can tell when someone enjoys their work." Few members of Charlie Company protested that day. For the most part, those who didn't like what was going on kept their thoughts to themselves.

By nightfall the Viet Cong were back in My Lai, helping the survivors bury the dead. It took five days. Most of the funeral speeches were made by the Communist guerrillas. Nguyen Bat was not a communist at the time of the massacre, but the incident changed his mind. "After the shooting," he said, "all the villagers became Communists."