Monday, August 07, 2006

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Colonel W. Pat Lang , making an observation about Israel's war in Lebanon with both immediate as well as historical implications.

"The Lebanese Hizbullah "Arab Guerrilla Army" is something different. What Newsweek describes is a force in transition, a force becoming a real army. Vo Nguyen Giap wrote in "People's War, People's Army" that a national resistance movement's armed force must "evolve" from political agitprop activities to guerrilla war and eventually to the status and capability of regular armed forces if it is to succeed in defeating its enemies and seizing " a place at the table" in its country's future."

The interesting thing about this observation is that, while Giap is a military leader of the first rank, his theory of guerilla warfare has rarely been borne out by history, including that of the Vietnam War. It is exceptionally rare for irregulars or guerillas to " transition" or "evolve" into full-fledged conventional military operations against a modern, first-rate opponent. Generally, guerilla forces beat state opponents by becoming more effective at guerilla warfare and causing a psychological and moral collapse of the state's will to resist; and only after seizing power, do the new rulers transform their guerilla fighters into professional soldiers.

At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh army under Giap inflicted a conventional military defeat upon the French. Conditions were ideal in the sense that the French themselves had helped Giap immeasurably by intentionally isolating their forces geographically. When Giap attempted to bring the Viet Cong into an open clash with American forces during the Tet Offensive, the political victory of the surprise attack was purchased at the cost of the physical decimation of the Viet Cong. The Southern cadres could not " evolve up" against that kind of concentrated firepower and never recovered from having tried. As a result, the costs of the war on the Communist side were increasingly carried on by North Vietnamese regulars, culminating in a conventional invasion of the South and Saigon's fall in 1975.

( Nor did the Communist side " evolve" in Vietnam under their own power. Hanoi was willing to bear enormous costs in blood but a considerable amount of the treasure for their effort was supplied by the Socialist bloc. It must be noted that all of the military aid supplied by the Soviets and China bought these powers remarkably little leverage over Hanoi's war policies. The Soviets, to their embarrassment, cound not even get North Vietnamese to agree to refrain from provoking the United States during the few days of Kosygin's state visit)

Mao's experiemce as a guerilla leader during the long Chinese civil war is probably the the closest example to " transitioning up" a guerilla army to conventional military status. Here again though, the caveats loom large. The Nationalist army was not a first or even a second rate military power and the Kuomintang regime, itself shot through with corruption, had almost destroyed Mao's Communists during the democidal 1930's extermination campaigns, carried out with the help of Wehrmacht advisers. Added to the general incompetence of the Nationalists was the stress of also fighting Imperial Japan, of which Chiang's army bore the brunt. Only under these conditions, did Mao's army manage to successfully" evolve" ( and only some units at that but that was enough to win).

Hezbollah has cetainly "evolved" in terms of its sophistication but not in moving toward open, set-piece battles with the IDF, which would result in Hezbollah getting creamed. Instead, Hezbollah appears to have acquired elite units adept in a blend of clandestine intelligence and special forces activities, capable of operating on their own in an adaptive, pro-active, manner. Advantages that depend upon the employment of stealth, secrecy and speed in order to be most useful against the Israelis.

The importance of state sponsorship in "guerilla evolution" should not be ignored. In Hezbollah's case Iran and Syria are the main patrons. Depending on your perspective such aid could be considered trivial ( no battalions of Revolutionary Guards) or large ( training, intelligence, rockets). If the aid provided is a catalyst in changing the operational parameters of Hezbollah, then in my view, the effect is significant even if it isn't buying Teheran or Damascus tactical control. Either a strategic balance is being altered or it isn't - in geopolitics there is no such thing as just being a little bit pregnant.

Evolution requires a change in the environment. Shaping the battlespace is a strategic move and Iran and Hezbollah have done that.


I have to recommend this post by Kingdaddy at Arms and Influence.
minor note:

his last name is Vo,
first name Nguyen-Giap

eg Ho, Chi-minh.
Hi Sun,


As a rule, incorrect but commonly used transliterations of historically significant foreign names into English are usually maintained until the modern( or more accurate) transliteration becomes familiar.

If, for example, on H-Diplo, a listserv heavy with Vietnam War and SEA/ Asia specialists, I used "General Vo" instead of "Giap" they would think that rather odd. If I saw "Vo" I'm not sure I would immediately realize it was "Giap" either.

Eventually, it does change - Americans use "Mao Zedong" and not the old Wade-Giles version of his name but Mao's nemesis is still " Chiang" and not "Jiang".

Linguistic consistency is not always a strong point of the historical profession :o)
yeah..very minor tidbit.
it just sounds strange to asians, as if hearing Mao was referred to as "Dong", or Deng as "ping"
..... or KJI as "Il"(eww) :)

i agree with your comment about (lack of) historic example. in fact, even though Mao's China eventually evolved, there were a lot of hipcups, 30 years that is, until Mao died.

IMO the fact that Hezbollah (and to a lesser extent Hamas) transformed was because of the democracy which allowed them to participate and hence forced a learning process and transformationevoltution. evolution
takes place because of needs (mao's army had to grow crops themselves) and opportunity (Hamas, which is not really guerilla but more of a true terrorist entity), not because it is part of guerilla establishment

But I think the concept of "people's war" is the most relavant to guerilla/4GW.

OTOH, a few examples Col Lang noted was merely more professional skill-sets acquired, which could be a capability transferrable to the 'transformation', but not neccessarily showing the trend of transformation/evolution.
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