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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Võ Nguyên Giáp on learning war from the people

Võ Nguyên Giáp, who died yesterday at the age of 102, had no formal military training yet he led the armed struggle for Vietnamese independence for more than 30 years, and is widely considered one of the greatest generals of all time.

Much of that greatness can be traced to his ability to learn from the people. In the following passage from Fighting under Siege, Giới Publishers, Hanoi, 2004, pp 106-110, General Giap recounts some of the earliest days of this struggle, in the winter of 1946-47, and how he was able to learn lessons from a company he thought had been destroyed; lessons that would powerful shape the war going forward:
After the fourth military conference, I planned to visit Tuyên Quảng and Chiêm Hóa before the arrival of the dry season But during the conference, Nguyên Khang, secretary of Zone 12, made reference to our fighting in occupied zones in the southern part of Bắc Ninh. I was concerned about this, so I decided to visit Zone 12 first.

War zone 12 was then composed of Lang Son, Bắc Giang, Bắc Ninh, Hải Ninh, Hòn Gai, Quảng Yên (including Dong Trieu and Chí Linh) provinces.
General Giáp on the way to Military Zone 12
It was my first return to this midland region since my move to Việt Bắc. I noticed a strange phenomenon: an independent company of the main provincial force of Bắc Ninh had always remained in the enemy-occupied region.

This unit was originally a 100-strong company of the self-guards of Ngoc Thuy (Gia Lam) many of whom were workers at the Gia Lam Railway Factory who had sworn to fight to the death after the night of December 19 [1946, start of Battle of Hanoi - clay] . The province provided the unit with one additional platoon of self-guards from Bắc Ninh town and about 100 guerrillas chosen from various communes. The company was organized into five platoons, including one section of Christian self-guards from Al Mo village and one section of women called Section Trưng Trắc.

The company coordinated its operations with a main force battalion from the Bắc Bắc regiment. When the enemy launched large-scale offensives, the battalion commander ordered the unit to withdraw. The communications person who brought the order to the company was wounded which cut off the company's links with the battalion. The company was besieged on all sides and the regiment thought it had been annihilated. Some time later, the regiment learned that the company was still fighting, ordered it to withdraw. But the whole unit, from officers to ordinary soldiers, asked to continue fighting. They convinced their superior officers that it was impossible for the French to annihilate them. The militia and the people living in surrounding districts to the south of Bắc Ninh unanimously asked the provincial authorities to let the company remain in the enemy-controlled territory, promising to take care of the men.

The company was able to survive because it was firmly supported by the people. Our fighters relied on fighting villages. They concentrated then dispersed into platoons or sections in order to fight the enemy. The French knew that parts of our forces remained. They frantically searched for them, trying by all means to extricate them or to drive them out of the region. However, they could not. Through the determination of this company, the guerilla movement was not only maintained but expanded. French soldiers travelling in small numbers were annihilated. The French administration in many communes was afraid of the Việt Minh. Many wicked elements were killed. Quite a few people involved in the French administration became two-faced, working for the enemy but actually obeying the directions and control of the Việt Minh. Thanks to this single company, the province's main force could easily enter and leave the occupied zone to organize ambushes and surprise attacks far behind the enemy's rear.

Even before the August 1945 general insurrection, Bắc Ninh had organized fighting villages. The Japanese and the security guards had found it very difficult to intrude into these villages. After 19 December 1946, resistance villages developed widely. Faking the lead were Dinh Bang, Tu He, and Lang Giang villages. Each village had a battle area filled with tunnels, trenches, fortifications, mines, pikes, and booby traps. Militiamen and self-guards strictly controlled the coming and going of all strangers. Although these were isolated battlefields, our forces were often caught in the middle of big sweeps but by relying on the tunnels and trenches even with scarce arms and ammunitions, they could hinder the advance of the enemy. The resistant village in Ái Quốc commune and Cam village, located next to the dike of the Dương river caused great losses to the enemy, obliging them to give up lens sweep operation mid-way through. Dinh Bang village north of Bắc Ninh did not let the enemy go beyond its bamboo hedge a single time in six months.

I discussed the development of more independent volunteer companies, describing the experiences of the independent company of Bắc Ninh in the areas newly occupied by the enemy. I also described the multiplication of the resistance villages with the mat Committee and Command.


Fighting in south Bắc Ninh was like opening the page of a new book. During the anti-Japanese struggle in Cao-Bắc-Lang, I realized that the platoon was the right size for armed agitation work and that only a company could have sufficient strength to survive and to carry out efficient military activity in an enemy-controlled area. Our fourth military conference decided to allow forces of company size to remain to the enemy's rear. This decision proved correct. To widely develop guerilla warfare, the role played by an independent company was indispensable. On the way back, I wondered what size a main-force unit should be be most effective should the French attack Việt Bắc.

We intended to organize two main-force divisions The zones eagerly chose their best battalions and their best weapons and exposed them to the High Command. But the war broke out and expanded very quickly. Contingents had to be sent to the South and regiments were busy with their own war zones and battlefields. The conditions were not right to concentrate our strategic reserve forces order to repel the enemy's large-scale offensives.

In mid-August, the Government approved a decree organizing an independent division under the High Command. Hoang Van Thai, chief of the general staff, was expected to become division commander, with preparations made by the High Command.

While thinking about the animated atmosphere surrounding the setting up of the division, the image of the volunteer company living behind enemy lines in southern Bắc Ninh became clearer and clearer. I was on horseback, climbing a slope through a narrow pass that marked the boundary between the mid-lands and Việt Bắc. At the top of the pass, clumps of bamboo shone brilliant green in the yellow autumnal sun. Gusts of wind brought the cold from Thai Nguyên. I felt comfortable and completely at ease. Still on horseback an idea flashed across my mind like a bolt of lightning, clarifying my thoughts.

At that moment, I realized that to ensure the steady progress of the resistance war, we could not yet concentrate our troops into divisions and prepare for large-scale battles. On the contrary, we must undergo a long-term process of training our troops from bottom to top. Past events appeared in my mind one by one: the breaking up of the Hue' battlefield, the failed regiment-scale attack on Ha Dong town, the company of volunteers in Bắc Ninh's enemy's rear, and so on. All this proved that what we needed to do now was to disperse part of our forces into companies operating guerilla warfare deep in the enemy rear. Our main forces must be trained to fight at the battalion level before undergoing training for larger-scale battles.

From Thai Nguyên town, I decided to go on to Cho Chu where Uncle Ho was living, but his residence had been removed to Diem Mac.

After dinner, sitting by the fire in a house on stilts, I reported to him on the fourth military conference and my visit to Zone 12: '"The enemy is preparing for a large-scale offensive to wipe out our main force and achieve an early end to the war. Our troops with their present level of equipment and skills are not capable of fighting in big concentrations. I propose to Uncle Ho and the Standing Central Committee that we delay for some time the organization of division-sized units. We stand for resistance by all the people in all respects, but guerilla warfare to the enemy's rear is not yet strong. I feel it is necessary to dispatch part of our main forces to localities to the enemy's rear, to disperse them into companies to develop guerilla warfare. Our main force at the central and zonal levels should be limited to battalions; a battalion is not too small. The French consider a battalion "a small fighting contingent". Battles of battalion scale are appropriate for mobile guerilla warfare tactics. I propose a concrete formula: "Independent companies, concentrated battalions". Under the guiding principle put forth by Uncle Ho, the militia should constitute a source for replenishing our main force. When the local resistance movement is strong, our main force will operate elsewhere. The stronger the local force, the more effectively it will replenish the main force. In two or three years, guerilla warfare must develop all over the country. In that end, to win victory, we must certainly have a very strong main force."

Uncle Ho listened attentively, then he said, "The dispersion of part of the main force to develop guerilla warfare is very necessary. We shall not only send companies to the enemy's rear, but also to these regions where the hostilities will expand to in the future. The formula of "Independent companies, concentrated battalions" is appropriate for the current situation. The number of companies to be sent to the localities will be decided by the Standing Central Committee. Once a unanimous decision has been reached, it must be implemented at once."

The family of the host offered us a basket of cassava and some molasses.

Uncle Ho was smoking and meditative when he continued, "The enemy has sent in a large reinforcement, the war will expand and become more atrocious, our people will suffer a lot... For the autumn aid winter season this year, have the preparations been completed?"

I reported that instructions hid been sent to every locality, to which the scorched earth policy would be applied, food and other materials hidden, houses and gardens emptied, and key communication lines destroyed when the enemy arrived. In the country there were now over one million militiamen and guerrillas. 'he army had been strengthened and replenished throughout the summer and were ready to fight.

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