Beautiful Waters was a fairly typical village in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Before the French colonial occupation, about two-thirds of the land was owned by the village.
By 1940, five or six families controlled a third of the land, and so did the poorest 90% of villagers. This meant that most villagers now had to work for the big families.
The enforcers of this change were the colonial police. For the people of Beautiful Waters, French rule meant landlord rule.
That is why many peasants joined the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese national liberation movement, or even the Communist Party of Vietnam, which effectively controlled the Viet Minh.
Here is what one woman in Beautiful Waters said:
I was a little girl at the time. But I can still remember how much everyone liked the Viet Minh. In my family, my mother and sisters and I spent our time late at night making little Viet Minh flags. We worked on them together. We sewed all the flags with the yellow star, because we knew that the people would want them to celebrate the Viet Minh victory. And we were pretty sure that the Viet Minh was going to take over the country.
They were right. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the Viet Minh controlled Beautiful Waters and the rest of Vietnam for about 18 months. In this time, rents were reduced, communal land restored to the poor, and the land tax on smallholdings abolished.
It was not socialism. The landlords kept their land. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam were not socialists so much as nationalists. They wanted the support of the landlords in the struggle for national independence, so they limited things to social reforms. But these were real enough if you were poor.
A war of the poor
For the next 30 years, the prospects of the poor peasants of Beautiful Waters and ten thousand other villages would depend on war – first against a French colonial regime, then against a client dictatorship backed by the United States.
When the Vietnamese national liberation movement – first the Viet Minh, later the Viet Cong – controlled a village, the poor peasants did better. The French and the Americans, on the other hand, backed the landlords. In the end, the Vietnamese won their war against foreign occupation because the poor are many and the rich are few.
The Viet Cong – the direct descendants of the Viet Minh in the villages of South Vietnam – were embedded in the villages. Their fighters were the sons and daughters of peasants. They were, in effect, the armed wing of the South Vietnamese peasantry. The US was, in effect, waging war against an entire population.
One measure of this is the US estimate that, had a general election been held in South Vietnam, 80% of the population would have voted for Ho Chi Minh and reunification with the North. So there was no election. Instead, half a million US troops were deployed to prop up a corrupt and brutal dictatorship supported by landlords and profiteers. The ‘enemy’ was everyone else.
That is why most of the 2 million or more Vietnamese killed in the war were civilians killed by aerial bombing. It is also why, after his men had destroyed the village of Ben Tre, a US Army major could explain that ‘it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it’.
This was the logic of a war against an entire people. Here is Marine Lieutenant Philip Caputo describing how the strategy worked on the ground:
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition also had an effect on our behaviour. Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill Communists and to kill as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low kill-ration, war a matter of arithmetic.
The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong, ‘If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC’ was the rule of thumb in the bush.
The worse the bombing, burning, and killing, the greater the bitterness and the stronger the flow of young Vietnamese to the resistance. The growing violence of the invaders was like pouring petrol on a fire.
Vietnam was a poor country. The guerrillas fought with outdated weapons, home-made bombs, and jungle booby-traps. They spent much of their time in tunnel complexes that swelled into underground cities, complete with dormitories, canteens, hospitals, and storerooms. But they could operate easily on the surface, the fighters being an inherent part of the people, ‘invisible in plain view’ as it were, right up until the moment came for sudden military action.
The resistance had other advantages. The leadership – the Vietnamese Communist Party, the National Liberation Front, the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese Army top brass – were all highly centralised. The movement they led was tightly disciplined, its ideology was coherent and compelling, and its programme amounted to a package of national liberation and social reform attractive to the great majority of ordinary Vietnamese.
The official American view was hopelessly distorted by the Cold War. American leaders obsessed about the fact that Ho Chi Minh’s movement was formally ‘Communist’, that it was aligned with the Soviet Bloc, and that its fighters were equipped with Kalashnikov AK-47s.
The more deranged of them imagined they were facing some sort of inexorable ‘spread of Communism’ across the globe, one country after another ‘falling like dominoes’, as if a great global conspiracy to take over the world was being masterminded by megalomaniacs in Moscow and Beijing. Some of the popular caricatures were straight out of a Bond movie.
Military appreciation cannot be based on political polemic. To wage war effectively – to make war rationally – it is necessary to understand one’s enemy, not to view him through a distorting mirror of hostile propaganda.
The Vietnamese peasantry did not conform to the caricature. They were not ‘victims’ of external Communist ‘aggression’. The only foreign troops in the country were backing the Saigon dictatorship: half a million of them. The Vietnamese were not awaiting liberation at the hands of the US Marines. They were turning their villages into fortresses to resist them.
The scale of self-delusion among US leaders became apparent in 1968. General Westmoreland, the US commander-in-chief, was claiming in late 1967 that the Communists were ‘unable to mount a major offensive’. He continued:
I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing… We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.
In the early hours of 31 January 1968, the National Liberation Front launched the Tet Offensive. Across South Vietnam, Viet Cong guerrilla units, supported by North Vietnamese soldiers, mounted coordinated attacks on about a hundred targets, including most provincial capitals, major US military bases, and even the heavily defended US Embassy in Saigon. A commando group of 19 men blasted its way into the embassy compound and managed to hold the main building for several hours.
The greatest battle was fought in the north, near the border with North Vietnam, where Hué was reduced to rubble during a month-long struggle between US Marines and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units that had seized the ancient city at the beginning of the Offensive.
American TV viewers were stunned by the images broadcast night after night. Just when the war was supposed to be almost over, fighting had erupted in every major town and city in South Vietnam.
The anti-war movement
General Westmoreland demanded 200,000 more troops. US President Lyndon Johnson knew this was impossible. Morale in the US Army was rock-bottom. Tens of thousands of GIs were simply refusing to leave their bases. Scores of gung-ho junior officers had been ‘fragged’ – killed by their own men.
Opposition to the war at home had split the country down the middle. Tens of thousands of young men had burned their draft cards. Hundreds of thousands had hit the streets to protest against the war. Millions had been sickened by the media images – of prisoners summarily executed, of children set alight by napalm, of peasant farmers blown apart by high explosive.
Two months after the opening of the Tet Offensive, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not be seeking a second term of office. It was the official admission – from the pro-war incumbent – that America’s rulers had lost their war against the Vietnamese people.
An army of peasant guerrillas (the Viet Cong) and peasant conscripts (the North Vietnamese Army) had defeated the world’s greatest superpower.
This outcome underlined the lesson of numerous other modern insurgencies: a fight for national independence and social reform rooted in a traditional peasantry and directed against dictatorship, landlordism, and foreign occupation is, once firmly embedded in the villages, exceptionally difficult to root out.
Rural guerrilla warfare
Even if the guerrillas cannot win an outright victory on the battlefield – Dien Bien Phu in 1954 is an interesting exception – neither can they be rooted out. What I shall call ‘progressive’ insurgency (in contrast to fascist-type movements like ISIS) tend to become intractable.
By offering substantive material improvement to the lives of the majority – because, that is, they are movements of national independence and social reform – they engender mass support. This turns attempts to destroy them into counter-insurgency wars against the population as a whole.
‘Hearts and minds’ cannot be won with napalm. When counter-insurgency operations degenerate into generalised violence against civilians, they become petrol on the fire.
This point had been reached in Vietnam under the French. Dien Bien Phu was the decisive battle of Vietnam’s long struggle for independence and unity. A powerful national movement then existed. US violence in the 15 years following simply had the effect of fanning this movement into a raging conflagration of counter-violence.
It is foolish for commentators to argue that the US could have won the war physically – by deploying another 200,000 men, by intensified aerial bombing, by nuking Hanoi. Wars are never simply physical. Clausewitz taught us that. They are waged by men and women, and therefore are as much political and moral as physical and material.
It was enough that the people of Beautiful Waters refused to give up. The Vietnamese won their war because their resistance broke the will of the United States to carry on. More precisely, because the American people turned on their political and military leaders when it became clear that they had been led into an unwinnable war devoid of moral legitimacy.
As the Afghans used to say, reflecting on their long history of successful resistance to foreign invaders, ‘Our enemies have the watches, but we have the time.’ •
Photos: PBS / NARA