[News] Vietnam Will Win: Self-Defence

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 9 10:57:31 EST 2018


  Vietnam Will Win: Self-Defence

by Wilfred Burchett 
<https://www.counterpunch.org/author/wilfred-burchett/> - March 9, 2018

During the 1968 Lunar New Year offensive, NLF attacking forces were 
immediately able with remarkable facility to set up defensive positions 
in numerous cities, which they quickly turned over to local, 
self-defense forces, enabling the spearhead of the attacking force to be 
withdrawn for action elsewhere. The task of the self-defense forces, the 
hard core formed mainly from underground NLF cells established in the 
cities during years of patient organizational work, was to defend the 
positions secured and to transform them into NLF military bases inside 
the cities for use as jumping off points for further waves of attacks. 
In one great bound the NLF had jumped over what the Americans considered 
insuperable obstacles at the approaches of the cities and had seized 
what were considered impregnable positions. Their forces were implanted 
inside the cities in such a way as to require virtually no supply lines 
or transport; their arms, munitions and food were secured in those first 
few hours when they seized almost all the arsenals and munitions depots, 
distributing the contents to the future self-defense forces.

Several scores of thousands of arms were seized and distributed within 
the first 24 hours of the attacks (hundreds of artillery pieces and 
heavier weapons for which the NLF had no use were destroyed to deny 
their use to the enemy). Machinery from the arsenals for making or 
repairing light weapons was also seized and in the days that followed, 
this equipment was distributed to hundreds of tiny workshops in the 
cities and throughout the country. Of the 140 towns and cities attacked, 
the NLF leadership had designated certain priorities and within each 
town and city there were priority targets. Attacks on the US. Embassy 
and Thieu’s presidential palace in Saigon, for instance, were 
diversionary, while priority targets like the huge Thanh Tay An arsenal, 
near Tan Son Nhut airport, were seized and 5,000 weapons, from this one 
installation alone, were distributed to the future self-defense forces.

Another priority target was communications (the cutting of all major 
roads, the blowing up of strategic bridges and the destruction of 
planes, helicopters, military vehicles, trucks and river craft) aiming 
to paralyze military movement and isolate the cities at least 
temporarily, preventing the enemy from rushing reinforcements to any one 
spot. Time was thus gained for the self-defense forces to dig in, 
consolidate their positions, link up these positions with trench 
networks and tunnels and build strong points and combat nests in order 
to create solid positions from which to continue the armed struggle in 
the cities. The priority target in Saigon was the “Chinese city” of 
Cholon, with more than one million population. Cholon is the main 
location of rice-husking mills and therefore the greatest rice storage 
center in all of South Vietnam. All warehouses were seized and steps 
immediately taken to set up big reserves of foodstuffs for the 
self-defense forces (stocks were also distributed to the population in 
case the Americans started bombing the storage depots as part of their 
usual tactics to prevent foodstuffs falling into “Vietcong” hands). 
Within the first few hours of the attack against Saigon-Cholon, the 
self-defense forces had stocks of arms, ammunition and food, sufficient 
for many months of combat. The same was true in most other cities marked 
down as priority targets. In the main target cities, the self-defense 
forces were firmly established in one key sector or another, 
consolidating their positions and where necessary establishing a line of 
communication with NLF rear bases.

The conception of “self-defense” centers is an original idea, one of 
many developed by the Vietnamese people for the conduct of guerrilla 
warfare, and it is inseparable from the whole conception of “people’s 
war.” Self-defense or auto-defense was utilized during the anti-French 
resistance war, but on nothing like the scale on which it has been used 
more recently in the South. Self-defense in the cities is exclusively an 
innovation of the South. Although the stage of encirclement of the 
cities had been reached in the anti-French resistance, the Geneva 
Agreements obviated the necessity for the actual assault on the cities. 
Auto-defense in the cities is but an extension of a system already 
perfected in the self-defense villages.

Auto-defense has been extremely important in South Vietnam and the 
resistance struggle could never have reached its present stage of 
assaulting cities without the formation of self-defense units in the 
liberated villages and the integration of whole groups of fortified 
villages into self-defense zones.

The establishment of self-defense units and zones was an inevitable and 
logical development within the South Vietnamese conception of people’s 
war. The self-defense concept is inseparably linked with the political 
unpopular aspect of the armed struggle and plays a vital supporting role 
of overall political-military activities. Self-defense mobilizes the 
creative initiative of the people for developing new techniques, tactics 
and even weapons. This creative energy reaches full fruition only when 
an entire nation is engaged in the struggle.

The self-defense concept has been developed in the very specific 
conditions of South Vietnam, including such factors as the establishment 
by the adversary of village “self-defense” units as an anti guerrilla 
measure and the building of anti guerrilla fortifications around the 
“strategic hamlets,” which facilitated their transformation into anti 
government “fortified villages,” defended by the weapons and often some 
of the personnel of the original anti guerrilla “self-defense” units. 
But the basic idea of self-defense villages and zones presumably could 
be adapted anywhere the people have taken to arms in a nationwide 
liberation struggle. Success obviously depends on the struggle being 
waged not partially but on a large scale; on careful political work to 
lay a solid groundwork in which the widest possible unity is forged 
around determination to wage a resolute, long-range struggle. The 
self-defense zones have to be either large enough or have natural 
conditions to permit a certain mobility of the defending forces within 
the zone itself, or must be linked to a solid base area into which they 
can temporarily withdraw or maneuver.

The Vietnamese experience with self-defense is largely unknown abroad 
and has nothing in common with the failures of auto defense in Columbia 
and Bolivia analyzed by Régis Debray in /Revolution in the Revolution. 
/In saying that “today self-defense as a system and as a reality is 
liquidated,” Debray is apparently referring to the concept of 
self-defense when utilized in complete isolation and as the primary 
strategy used in a revolution. For example, in Bolivia the tin miners 
who played a key role in overthrowing the oligarchy then established 
themselves in an almost autonomous and heavily defended but politically 
isolated zone, against which government forces could prepare at leisure 
and finally in May 1964 launch a devastating attack supported by 
aircraft and U.S.-trained parachutists. Debray accurately analyzes the 
weaknesses of such a concept of “self-defense” in isolation but the 
conclusions are incorrect that: “self-defense therefore reduces 
guerrilla warfare to a tactical role and robs it of all revolutionary 
strategic significance…” and “… even if it temporarily ensures the 
protection of the population it endangers it in the long run…”

A revolutionary war, like a revolution itself, is a process of constant 
development, sometimes at a snail’s pace, sometimes in great bounds 
ahead. In a previous chapter there were illustrations of how a simple 
propaganda act of scrawling up slogans was transformed into political 
action; political acts were transformed into armed struggle. Similarly 
passive defense was transformed into active defense and defensive 
operations were transformed into offensive operations. Units which 
started their military career in 1959 by preparing spiked traps around 
their villages later became veteran battalions which stormed into cities 
at the end of January 1968, or which tore elite U.S. parachute units to 
pieces in the battle of Dak To in November 1967. There was nothing 
static about self-defense units or self-defense zones in South Vietnam. 
They were in constant development and played an active role of vital, 
revolutionary strategic significance.

At the beginning of the struggle in early 1960 in the old revolutionary 
bases of the Ca Mau peninsula, self-defense took the form of “passive 
violence,” according to Nguyen Tu Quang.[1] <#_edn1> “Since the Diem 
authorities were using extreme forms of violence against us, we decided 
the only recourse was to counter violence with violence. As protection 
against the large-scale military sweeps, people started defending their 
villages and homes with traps. They did not prevent movement on the 
roads at this stage… If the enemy came through the village and went 
straight on, nothing happened. But if the troops started moving into 
houses or around the pigsties and fowl pens or into the gardens and 
orchards, they started falling into spiked traps… This was one of our 
earliest forms of self-defense and for a time it was extremely 
effective. When the enemy started getting tougher, we started making all 
sorts of explosive booby traps-they were still more effective.”

Confirmation of the effectiveness of such self-defense measures was 
reported in the /New/ /York Times/[2] <#_edn2> in a dispatch from Da 
Nang by Joseph Treaster, who wrote: “Few United States Marines in South 
Vietnam question the thesis that booby traps and mines are the 
guerrillas’ most valuable weapons. Despite a growing effort in the past 
two years, the Marines have been unable to decrease significantly the 
effectiveness of the wide variety of devices that explode suddenly and 
fatally, often when the enemy has long disappeared.

“Booby traps and mines account for 50 percent of the casualties among 
the 25,000 men of the First Marine Division and for 25 percent of those 
suffered by the 74,000 Marines in Vietnam…” To reduce casualties, 
Treaster states, a special “Vietcong Booby-Trap School” had been set up 
from which marines must graduate before coming to Vietnam. “Part of the 
graduation,” he continues, “is a walk through a ‘Vietcong’ village.

“An intruder who opens the main bamboo gate pulls the detonator on an 
American-made mortar shell. A trip wire a few feet down the main path 
rattles a can full of rocks to warn of his approach. Further down the 
main path are examples of guerrilla ingenuity found in dense jungles: a 
large bamboo square fitted with large spikes and set to fall between two 
trees, a supple length of bamboo with six spikes rigged so it will whip 
into the midsection of a man, and several carefully camouflaged holes…”

“Stick to the main road and no harm will befall you,” people told the 
Diem troops in the early days of insurrection, “but move off it and 
you’ll be in trouble because there are spiked traps everywhere. The 
Vietcong were around here last night.” When “accidents” happened, none 
would appear more sympathetic than the villagers who had in fact laid 
the traps. “Ah, poor young man. We warned you, and now look what’s 
happened.” While binding up his wounds and giving him tea the villager 
might say: “But why did you come burning our houses anyway. The Vietcong 
said you would do this but we didn’t believe them…”

When a group of villages had developed enough spiked traps to make it 
costly for troops to enter houses or pillage orchards and fields and the 
soldiers started using artillery to demolish the hamlets, then 
self-defense – still passive – reached out further to “mine” the roads 
with spiked traps. And in the highland tribal areas it was natural to 
use poison on the spikes and then to move from the “passive” use of 
spikes to the “active” use of poisoned arrows from their crossbows 
combined with “passive” animal traps.

Y Bay of the Sedang minority, a political cadre of the Autonomous 
Minority Movement of the NLF, spoke about events in Kon Plong District 
of Kontum Province as early as 1957. “There was a battalion from the 
Diem 22nd Division stationed at Longlek. Once they sent a unit to one of 
our Sedang villages to take a pig, but it was the day after one of our 
festivals. There had been a big feast and there was only one pig fit to 
eat left in the village. The woman who owned it refused to let the 
troops take it. One soldier grabbed it by the head and she grabbed it by 
the tail. There was a real tussle; then the woman drew her knife and 
slashed the soldier’s hand. He reached for his gun, but a big crowd 
gathered round with knives and crossbows. The unit withdrew. The enemy 
didn’t come back for a long time and this incident had a big effect on 
all our Sedang people, not only in that village but throughout Kon 
Plong. The Diem authorities started sending agents to survey the 
situation but we set traps for them and few ever got back to report. 
Then they sent troops and we had losses, people were arrested, tortured 
and killed, buffalo shot and houses burned down. We had greater losses 
between 1957 and 1959 than during the nine years of the anti-French war.

“In 1959 our people could stand it no longer. They rose up and destroyed 
the enemy post Mangden, killing the district chief and wiping out a 
platoon of troops that had behaved very brutally. A new district chief 
was sent and a meeting arranged with one of our tribal leaders. The 
district chief said: ‘president Diem will send an army of a million men 
to punish those who attacked the post.’ ”

Y Bay continued: “We have already got an army of a million waiting for 
them. You could not crush our people with your Mangden post or your 
Longlek post and even if you send a few thousand troops against us, this 
will change nothing. We have a million defenders on duty day and night, 
in sunshine or rain, well dug in where your men will never find them and 
can never shoot them.” He was talking of the thousands of steel-hard 
bamboo spikes set in a wide variety of traps which uttered the approach 
to every village, man-sized versions of those they had perfected in 
generations past for use against wild beasts.

“From December 1960 to June 1961, our hamlets were constantly under 
attack by troops from the Longlek post. During that period about 60 of 
them were killed in our traps and we had collected most of their arms. 
In June 1961 we attacked the Longlek post and wiped it out completely. 
Since then [we were talking in early 1964], Kon Plong District has been 
a liberated zone. Our people picked up all sorts of tactical tricks. We 
started setting our traps on the roads. Once we set an ambush on the 
left side of the road, but we had devices for making noises on the 
opposite side. When they turned towards the noise we fired poisoned 
arrows into their backs. At 150 feet, our crossbows never miss.

“In one of our villages, the enemy burned down most of the houses, but 
left one as a sort of watch tower. When the officer leaned out of the 
window next day to look around, a device dropped down and sliced off his 
head So that house was burned down too. But troops kept away from that 
area for a long time. Everybody in our villages has an allotted task. 
The men use their guns and crossbows. Women and children sharpen the 
bamboo spikes and the older children lay them out in our minefields.

“At first we just protected our villages with an occasional attack on a 
post. But then we sent out our best sharpshooters to surround the enemy 
posts and prevent their troops from moving out. We let them go out to 
obtain water, but if they started moving toward the villages then there 
was a poisoned arrow for the head of the column and the first one or two 
following him. In the end the Longlek post was abandoned and the enemy 
pulled all the way back to Quang Ngai Province…”

The whole area of which Y Bay was speaking is now a solidly liberated 
area and most of the young men who started their military activity by 
sharpening bamboo stakes are now veterans of the regular NLF armed 
forces who stormed into Kontum city at 2 a.m. on January 30, 1968. Over 
the years, passive self-defense in Kon Plong district, which started 
with a fight over a pig, had developed into active pursuit of 
large-scale enemy units.

In general, “passive violence” was already widespread in 1959-60 and was 
a prelude to the self-defense concept which followed the widespread 
uprisings against the “strategic hamlets” system.

Persons with whom I spoke who had taken part in the early stage of the 
resistance struggle usually emphasized certain steps in the evolution 
from passive to active defense and developments within the framework of 
“auto-defense” itself. The main lines of these developments and 
different steps were as follows: first, defense of houses and fields was 
extended to the tracks leading from the main roads to the hamlets and 
then to the main roads themselves; in the next phase, explosives were 
used in addition to the spiked traps; this was followed by the dramatic 
turning point at which guns recovered from the victims were used, first 
by the armed propaganda groups and then by the self-defense units, which 
soon started ambushing and counterattacking raiding forces; and finally 
the time was reached when enemy troops would be pushed back into their 
posts and full-time encirclement of these posts was maintained. It is 
important to note that the change from one phase to another never 
occurred in isolation but in whole groups of villages at a time, so that 
none could be singled out for special reprisals.

Once the self-defense forces had enough firearms for a whole group of 
such villages there was never any question of their sitting around 
waiting for the enemy to come to their particular hamlet before they 
took to arms against him. The self-defense activities of hamlets were 
first coordinated at village level[3] <#_edn3> and village activities 
were later coordinated at district level. Although the primary tasks of 
the self-defense forces were to defend their own hamlets and villages 
and to neutralize nearby enemy posts, in the case of large-scale enemy 
attacks they coordinated their harassing activities and ambushes with 
actions of the NLF regional troops and the regular NLF army, as the 
latter gathered strength. The self-defense forces were an excellent 
training school for recruits for the regional troops and later for the 
regular army, providing a constant supply of manpower for the latter. 
They were in constant process of development; after every successful 
action there were more arms available. Technique and tactics improved, 
as did coordination between hamlets, to such an extent that in some 
districts an elaborate network of underground tunnels linked every hamlet.

In Cu Chi District of Gia Dinh Province, at the gateway to Saigon, which 
I visited in early 1964 and again in late 1966, virtually all hamlets 
were interconnected with such a tunnel system into which the 
self-defense forces could withdraw in case of overwhelming force and 
within which they could maneuver to outflank the enemy, striking from 
the least expected places at the most unexpected times, to disappear 
underground again to explode electrically controlled mines or ambush 
from underground firepoints within the maze of tunnels and 
communications trenches of which they were the undisputed masters.

The most difficult moment for the self-defense units was the first 
period after formation. Normally an armed propaganda unit helped to 
demolish their “strategic hamlet” and get a self-defense unit organized, 
then moved off to deal with some other problem while the self-defense 
unit was on its own awaiting the inevitable enemy reprisal, especially 
in the early days when the Diem regime tried to stamp out the first 
sparks of revolt at all costs.

What usually happened, especially after the NLF was formed and 
resistance was scientifically organized and coordinated, was that the 
NLF command at district level carefully selected a target “strategic 
hamlet” where a solid political base had been established. With the 
collaboration of trusted elements within the hamlet a supported uprising 
would be staged, various reforms (outlined in an earlier chapter) would 
be instituted and a self-defense unit set up. Delegates from the hamlet 
would immediately be sent to inform other hamlets in the area what was 
happening while at times delegates arrived from other hamlets demanding 
NLF support for an uprising. Usually before the Diem authorities had 
time to react against the first uprising, there were simultaneous 
actions in a dozen or more other hamlets, with a total of anything up to 
50,000 people involved. Such large scale uprisings spread over a large 
area could only occur if the people were politically ripe for such a 
move. In the case of the group hamlet uprisings, whatever weapons the 
Diem authorities had put in the hands of local Civil Guards or other 
paramilitary units in and around the hamlets automatically passed into 
the hands of the new self-defense units. The local district commander 
simply did not have enough troops at his disposal to cope with the 
situation, especially as steps were taken to ensure that he had an 
exaggerated account of the size of the NLF supporting troops. (He could 
never gamble on such accounts not being true because on some occasions 
when the NLF forces were really strong, they spread rumors that they 
were only a handful in order to lure district troops into ambush.)

In my book /Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War/, I mentioned a 
typical action in the coastal province of Phu Yen where, after a “model” 
strategic hamlet at Ky Lo in Dong Xuan District was liberated, delegates 
arrived asking for NLF support for uprisings in their hamlets in 
neighboring Son Hoa District. Support was readily lent, although the NLF 
cadres had not had time to organize political bases in these particular 
strategic hamlets. Almost simultaneous uprisings took place in another 
13 hamlets, as a result of which almost one-third of Phu Yen Province 
was liberated, with important self-defense detachments immediately set 
up. Within the 16 months that followed, no less than 55 operations had 
been launched by Diem troops, all of them thwarted by the self-defense 
units, sometimes in coordination with regular NLF troops. The main 
result of the 55 operations was the liberation of most of the rest of 
Phu Yen Province.

Sometimes uprisings in the hamlets were coordinated at district level, 
sometimes at provincial level. The self-defense units set up as a result 
of uprisings in Dong Xuan-Son Hoa Districts were strong enough for this 
area to be considered from then on an important guerrilla base which 
soon linked up with other solidly NLF-controlled areas in the highlands 
to the west.

Effective self-defense units are not something that can be set up under 
coercion, as the Americans have learned at great cost. Every effort they 
have made to create so called “self-defense” units, aimed at repression 
of the population, has ended with the arms passing into the hands of 
those they were intended to repress. The guns must be in the hands of 
people who have something to defend, something more than their own pay 
or skins.

The self-defense units set up during the campaigns to destroy the 
“strategic hamlets” had these immediate aims: to use the guns to defend 
the new, free life; the right to live in their former villages, 
cultivate their old fields and protect the new ones received under land 
reform; freedom to practice the cult of their ancestors; to resist the 
tax collectors and landlords’ agents and those who protected the latter; 
to resist at all costs being herded back into “strategic,” “new life” or 
some other type of concentration camp hamlets.

These aims were very easy for members of the self-defense units to 
grasp. If the task at first seemed limited to defense of their own homes 
and fields, the self-defense recruits soon saw the necessity of going 
further afield, at first to pin the enemy down in nearby posts and then 
at an appropriate moment to take the initiative in wiping out those 
posts in coordinated actions. In the process of taking on these broader 
tasks, a self-defense zone was transformed into a guerrilla zone, an 
area in which the guerrillas were complete masters at night (and usually 
during daytime) but in which locally based Saigon forces could also 
penetrate in daytime if they came in force. As the situation developed, 
it was easy to grasp that if, in coordination with other self-defense 
units, they could wipe out the enemy’s local forces, the guerrilla zone 
could be transformed into a guerrilla base in which they were masters 
day and night and the enemy could penetrate only by using his main-force 
units. When the call went out for recruits from the self-defense forces 
to serve with NLF regional troops to encircle enemy posts at district or 
even provincial level and be ready to oppose and counterattack the 
enemy’s mopping-up operations, there was no lack of volunteers. Concepts 
broadened and the necessity to engage the enemy’s main-force units by 
building up NLF main-force units, especially after the direct commitment 
of US. combat troops, also became clear to everyone. Every attack by 
U.S. planes speeded up the flow of recruits and demands to go still 
further afield to hit the bases where the planes were stationed 
self-defense with rifles and light automatic weapons was obviously not 
sufficient against planes; the best defense was to attack them on the 
ground. The self-defense units produced natural guerrilla leaders and 
fighters of exceptionally high morale because every step they had taken 
had been so clearly right, so clearly in defense of their interests, 
those of their neighbors and those of the nation.

The self-defense units are actually the base of the pyramid on which the 
whole structure of the NLF armed forces rests. They are the most 
concrete expression of people’s war. They are of the people, for the 
people and appointed by the people. It would be difficult to imagine a 
more democratic form of armed forces or a more perfect form for the 
tasks imposed by the resistance struggle. They represent an answer to 
the NLF’s seeming lack of mobility due to its lack of a modern transport 
system and American monopoly of air power. While the Americans have to 
fly their troops (and the munitions, food and even water to supply them) 
scores or hundreds of miles for an operation, the self-defense forces 
are always on the spot over the entire face of South Vietnam, 
surrounding every U.S. base and outpost, and they are ready for speedy 
concentration if necessary with sufficient equipment on their backs to 
give immediate battle to the enemy’s mobile forces. They can count on 
continuous replenishment of supplies by the local population. The 
self-defense units have proved capable of holding up U.S. main unit 
attacks or severely slowing them down until NLF regional troops arrive 
to wage coordinated actions with the self-defense units, and if 
necessary in cooperation with the Liberation Army’s regular forces.

During the 1965-66 and 1966-67 American dry season offensives, 
self-defense units bore the brunt of the American operations. They 
ground offensives down to a halt by harassing operations and ambushes, 
forcing the attackers to employ roads and trails where traps had been 
prepared well in advance, planting mines from unexploded U.S. shells and 
bombs in the path of tank columns, launching night attacks and 
preventing the attackers from penetrating the main base areas where the 
regular NLF forces were building up for the 1967-68 operational season. 
In their first two years of offensive operations, U.S. forces rarely 
came to grips with the NLF regular troops, although the main avowed aim 
of the “search and destroy” operations was to find and wipe out these 
main-force units. This was because of the solid organization of the 
“self-defense” troops and regional forces with which they closely 

The establishment of even partial NLF power in the cities, with another 
four million population from which to recruit, ensures an extremely 
rapid growth of urban self-defense units. The latter act as a powerful 
pole of attraction for city youth, who have been resisting by all 
possible means conscription into the Saigon army, and also for 
individuals and units within the Saigon army. Possibilities of desertion 
were greatly facilitated by the move into the cities. If the first great 
wave of some 200,000 desertions was mainly from among the Saigon army’s 
regional troops, it was certain that the example of the self-defense 
units in the cities would be a further powerful stimulus for the Saigon 
regulars to desert.

It is clear that the self-defense forces in South Vietnam are playing a 
major role in revolutionary warfare.


[1] <#_ednref1> See Chap. 10

[2] <#_ednref2> March 31, 1967.

[3] <#_ednref3> Most villages are comprised of four to six hamlets.

*NEXT: Chapter 13 – The People’s Revolutionary Party*

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