General Giap's most famous victories are far back in the past. He lost many battles too, but understood the power of national pride in an old civilisation humiliated by colonialism - that people would endure colossal sacrifices for the goal of independence. The outpouring of emotion for this ruthless, idealistic general is in many ways driven by nostalgia for the values of that simpler age of heroic struggle, so unlike today's Vietnam. (Vietnam holds state funeral for General Vo Nguyen Giap, BBC News Online, October 12, 2013), from
That contrast was emphasized by some press reports. "The Communist Party would like Gen Giap's death to remind the Vietnamese of its role in fighting for national liberation, he adds, but it will also bring home to many just how far a party tainted by corruption and nepotism has fallen from the ideals it once espoused." Vietnam holds state funeral for General Vo Nguyen Giap, BBC News Online, October 12, 2013.
To that end, this post includes an Interview with Giap (PBS Series on Guerrilla Wars (RealAudio Excerpt)) and the argument of Michael W.S. Ryan, "The Jihadist Legacy of Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap," The Jamestown Foundation, October 15, 2013.
Interview with Vo Nguyen Giap Viet Minh Commander
PBS Series, The People's Century, Guerrilla Wars 1956-89
Giap: The victory at Diên Bin Phû was a victory for the people. But then, of course, while the concept of a people's war and guerrilla warfare are not entirely separate, they are separate nonetheless. In this case, it was the people's war that was victorious. And guerrilla warfare was one aspect of that people's war. It's all quite complicated.... What is the people's war? Well, in a word, it's a war fought for the people by the people, whereas guerrilla warfare is simply a combat method. The people's war is more global in concept. It's a synthesized concept. A war which is simultaneously military, economic and political, and is what we in France would call "synthesized." There's guerrilla warfare and there's large-scale tactical warfare, fought by large units.
Q: What was new about the idea of the "People's War"?
Giap: It was a war for the people by the people. FOR the people because the war's goals are the people's goals -- goals such as independence, a unified country, and the happiness of its people.... And BY the people -- well that means ordinary people -- not just the army but all people.
We know it's the human factor, and not material resources, which decide the outcome of war. That's why our people's war, led by Ho Chi Minh, was on such a large scale. It took in the whole population.
Q: What do you think about the significance of Diên Bin Phû for the world?
Giap: The history of the Vietnamese people goes back thousands of years. During that time we've repelled thousands of invaders. Only, in former times the countries that tried to invade us were on the same economic level as we were. Theirs, like ours, was a feudal society. That was the case, for example, when we fought the Chinese in the 13th century. But Diên Bin Phû was a victory in another era. What I mean is that in the latter half of the 19th century, when western imperialism divided the world into colonies, a new problem emerged. How could a weak, economically backwards people ever hope to regain its freedom? How could it hope to take on a modern western army, backed by the resources of a modern capitalist state? And that's why it took us 100 years to fight off the French and French imperialism. Diên Bin Phû was the first great decisive victory after 100 years of war against French imperialism and U.S. interventionism. That victory that put an end to the war and marked the end of French aggression. From an international point of view, it was the first great victory for a weak, colonized people struggling against the full strength of modern Western forces. This is why it was the first great defeat for the West. It shook the foundations of colonialism and called on people to fight for their freedom -- it was the beginning of international civilization.
Q: Was Diên Bin Phû an easy victory because the French made so many mistakes?
Giap: It's not as simple as that. We believed that in the French camp, French general staff and the military chiefs were well informed. They'd weighed up the pros and cons, and according to their forecasts, Diên Bin Phû was impregnable. It has to be said that at the beginning of the autumn of '53, for example, when our political headquarters were planning our autumn and winter campaigns, there was no mention of Diên Bin Phû. Why? Because, the Navarre plan didn't mention it either. They had a whole series of maneuvers planned.
For us, the problem was that Navarre wanted to retain the initiative whereas we wanted to seize it. There is a contradiction that exists in a war of aggression whereby you have to disperse your forces to occupy a territory but rally your mobile forces for offensive action. We took advantage of this contradiction and forced Navarre to disperse his forces. That's how it all started. We ordered our troops to advance in a number of directions, directions of key importance to the enemy although their presence wasn't significant. So the enemy had no choice but to disperse their troops. We sent divisions north, northwest, toward the center, towards Laos; other divisions went in other directions. So to safeguard Laos and the northwest, Navarre had to parachute troops into Diên Bin Phû, and that's what happened at Diên Bin Phû. Before then, no one had heard of Diên Bin Phû. But afterwards, well that's history, isn't it? French General Staff only planned to parachute in sufficient troops to stop us advancing on the northwest and Laos. Little by little, they planned to transform Diên Bin Phû into an enormous concentration camp, a fortified camp, the most powerful in Indochina. They planned to draw our forces, break us, crush us, but the opposite took place. They'd wanted a decisive battle and that's exactly what they got at Diên Bin Phû -- except that it was decisive for the Vietnamese and not for the French.
Q: Before Diên Bin Phû, do you think the French ever imagined you could defeat them?
Giap: Well, everyone at Diên Bin Phû, from the French generals and representatives of the French government to the American generals and the commanding admiral of the Pacific Fleet, agreed that Diên Bin Phû was impregnable. Everyone agreed that it was impossible to take. The French and then the Americans underestimated our strength. They had better weapons and enormous military and economic potential. They never doubted that victory would be theirs. And yet, just when the French believed themselves to be on the verge of victory, everything collapsed around them. The same happened to the Americans in the Spring of '65. Just when Washington was about to proclaim victory in the South, the Americans saw their expectations crumble. Why? Because it wasn't just an army they were up against but an entire people -- an entire people.
So the lesson is that however great the military and economic potential of your adversary, it will never be great enough to defeat a people united in the struggle for their fundamental rights. That's what we've learned from all this.
Q: Why was the National Liberation Front so successful in expanding the areas it controlled between 1960 and 1965?
Giap: Throughout our long history, whenever we've felt ourselves to be threatened by the enemy, our people have closed in the ranks. Millions of men, united, have called for "Unification above all," for "Victory above all".... The National Liberation Front was victorious because it managed to unite most of the people and because its politics were just.
Q: Did you change your tactics at all when the American troops began to arrive after 1965?
Giap: Of course, but even so, it was still a people's war. And, a people's war is characterized by a strategy that is more than simply military. There's always a synthesized aspect to the strategy, too. Our strategy was at once military, political, economic, and diplomatic, although it was the military component which was the most important one.
In a time of war, you have to take your lead from the enemy. You have to know your enemy well. When your enemy changes his strategy or tactics, you have to do the same. In every war, a strategy is always made up of a number of tactics that are considered to be of great strategic importance, so you have to try to smash those tactics. If we took on the cavalry, for example, we'd do everything we could to smash that particular tactic. It was the same when the enemy made use of strategic weapons.... And, when the Americans tried to apply their "seek and destroy" tactic, we responded with our own particular tactic that was to make their objective unattainable and destroy them instead. We had to...force the enemy to fight the way we wanted them to fight. We had to force the enemy to fight on unfamiliar territory.
Q: Was your Têt offensive in 1968 a failure?
Giap: As far as we're concerned, there's no such thing as a purely military strategy. So it would be wrong to speak of Têt in purely military terms. The offensive was three things at the same time: military, political, and diplomatic. The goal of the war was de-escalation. We were looking to de-escalate the war. Thus, it would have been impossible to separate our political strategy from our military strategy. The truth is that we saw things in their entirety and knew that in the end, we had to de-escalate the war. At that point, the goal of the offensive was to try to de-escalate the war.
Q: And did the de-escalation succeed?
Giap: Your objective in war can either be to wipe out the enemy altogether or to leave their forces partly intact but their will to fight destroyed. It was the American policy to try and escalate the war. Our goal in the '68 offensive was to force them to de-escalate, to break the American will to remain in the war....
We did this by confronting them with repeated military, as well as political and diplomatic victories. By bringing the war to practically all the occupied towns, we aimed to show the Americans and the American people that it would be impossible for them to continue with the war. Essentially, that's how we did it.
Q: You are familiar with those famous pictures of April 1975, of American helicopters flying away from the American Embassy. What do those pictures mean to you?
Giap: It was as we expected. It marked the end of the American neo-colonial presence in our country. And, it proved that when a people are united in their fight for freedom, they will always be victorious.
When I was young, I had a dream that one day I'd see my country free and united. That day, my dream came true. When the political bureau reunited Hanoi with Laos, there were first reports of evacuation. Then the Saigon government capitulated. It was like turning the page on a chapter of history. The streets in Hanoi were full of people.
The pictures of the helicopters were, in one way, a concrete symbol of the victory of the People's war against American aggression. But, looked at another way, it's proof that the Pentagon could not possibly predict what would happen. It revealed the sheer impossibility for the Americans to forecast the outcome. Otherwise, they would have planned things better, wouldn't they.
The reality of history teaches us that not even the most powerful economic and military force can overcome a resistance of a united people, a people united in their struggle for their international rights. There is a limit to power. I think the Americans and great superpowers would do well to remember that while their power may be great, it is inevitably limited.... Since the beginning of time, whether in a socialist or a capitalist country, the things you do in the interests of the people stand you in good stead, while those which go against the interest of the people will eventually turn against you. History bears out what I say.
We were the ones who won the war and the Americans were the ones who were defeated, but let's be precise about this. What constitutes victory? The Vietnamese people never wanted war; they wanted peace. Did the Americans want war? No, they wanted peace, too. So, the victory was a victory for those people in Vietnam and in the USA who wanted peace. Who, then, were the ones defeated? Those who were after aggression at any price. And that's why we're still friends with the people of France and why we've never felt any enmity for the people of America....
Q: Who invented the idea of People's war? Whose idea was it originally?
Giap: It was originally a product of the creative spirit of the people. Let me tell you the legend of Phu Dong...which everyone here knows well. It's a legend set in prehistoric times. The enemy was set to invade, and there was a three-year-old boy called Phu Dong who was growing visibly bigger by the minute. He climbed on to an iron horse and, brandishing bamboo canes as weapons, rallied the people. The peasants, the fisherman, everyone answered his call, and they won the war. It's just a legend and like popular literature, the content is legendary, but it still reflects the essence of the people's thinking. So, popular warfare existed even in legends, and it remained with us over the centuries.
Q: Why do you think Vietnam is almost the only country in the world that has defeated America? Why only Vietnam?
Giap: Speaking as a historian, I'd say that Vietnam is rare. As a nation, Vietnam was formed very early on. It is said that, in theory, a nation can only be formed after the arrival of Capitalism -- according to Stalin's theory of the formation of nations, for instance. But, our nation was formed very early, before the Christian era. Why? Because the risk of aggression from outside forces led all the various tribes to band together. And then there was the constant battle against the elements, against the harsh winter conditions that prevail here. In our legends, this struggle against the elements is seen as a unifying factor, a force for national cohesion. This, combined with the constant risk of invasion, made for greater cohesion and created a tradition -- a tradition that gave us strength.
The Vietnamese people in general tend to be optimistic. Why? Because they've been facing up to vicissitudes for thousands of years, and for thousands of years they've been overcoming them.
Q: What was the contribution of Marxism and Leninism to your theory of a People's War?
Giap:The People's War in Vietnam pre-dated the arrival of Marxism and Leninism, both of which contributed something when they did arrive, of course.
When the USSR collapsed, we predicted that 60 to 80 percent of our imports and exports budget would be eliminated because we depended upon aid from the USSR and other socialist countries. So people predicted the collapse of Vietnam. Well, we're still hanging on and slowly making progress. I was asked what I thought of Perestroika, so I answered that I agreed with the change and thought it was necessary in political relations. But Perestroika is a Russian word, made for the Russians. Here we do things the Vietnamese way. And we make the most of our hopes and the hopes of those in Russia, China, the USA, Japan, Great Britain -- but we try to assimilate them all.
As I mentioned, the Vietnamese people have an independent spirit, stubborn people, I suppose, who do things the Vietnamese way. So now the plan is to mobilize the entire population in the fight against backwardness and misery. While there are the problems of war and the problems of peace, there are also concrete laws, social laws, great laws, which retain their value whether in peace or war. You have to be realistic. You have to have a goal. You have to be a realist and use reality as a means of analyzing the object laws which govern things. To win, you have to act according to these laws. If you do the opposite, you're being subjective and you're bound to lose. So, we learn from the experience, both good and bad, of Capitalism. But, we have our own Vietnamese idea on things. I'd like to add that we are still for independence, that we still follow the path shown us by Ho Chi Minh, the path of independence and Socialism. I'm still a Socialist but what is Socialism? It's independence and unity for the country. It's the freedom and well-being of the people who live there. And, it's peace and friendship between all men.
The Jamestown Foundation, Hot Issues, October 15, 2013
Michael W.S. Ryan
Dr. Michael W. S. Ryan is an independent consultant and researcher on Middle Eastern security issues and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. He is the author of Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (Columbia University Press, 2013).
General Vo Nguyen Giap, the diminutive military giant and author of the military defeats of both the French and the United States in Vietnam, died on October 4 at the age of 102. In a career that began with guerrilla attacks on Vichy French outposts in 1944 and culminated in the 1965-1975 war against conventional American troops and their South Vietnamese allies, Giap’s war against the West stretched over three decades.
One could say that the strategy employed by Giap against America continues even today because his guerrilla doctrine is at the base of al-Qaeda's own version of guerrilla doctrine and strategy in their quest to defeat the United States. Students of military history might say that Giap's military concepts are not only developments of Mao Tse-tung’s military thought, but can also be traced to ancient Chinese military texts attributed to 6th century B.C.E. general Sun Tzu. Some of these students wrote strategic studies for al-Qaeda and fellow jihadists before and after 9/11, using Giap's People's War People's Army: The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries as a practical guide.
A Strategist for All Seasons
After the United States and Vietnam finally ended their period of hostility, a visit to Giap became a destination of choice by former adversaries interested in the history of the war in Vietnam or simply interested in the man. One famous American adversary and hero of the war in Vietnam, Senator John McCain, recently wrote about his own visit to the aging general (Wall Street Journal, October 6). Arguing that Giap's strategy was based on the wanton sacrifice of the lives of his soldiers and countrymen, McCain captured the essence of the struggle in a few terse, insightful sentences:
The U.S. never lost a battle against North Vietnam, but it lost the war. Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn't. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It's hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can't deny its success.
Today, Giap's strategy, an elaboration and practical application of Mao's guerrilla doctrine, lives on in an unlikely space—al-Qaeda's doctrine of regional insurgency and global resistance. Like Senator McCain, al-Qaeda finds it impossible to admire Giap's ideology, but in a distorted image of the Senator's view they find his strategy moral as well as effective as adapted to their own purposes. Al-Qaeda’s leadership has long believed that their Western adversaries will tire “of the dying and the killing” before they do.
How Giap Fits in al-Qaeda's Strategic Doctrine
Before al-Qaeda, classic guerrilla warfare had been a feature of anti-colonial insurgencies in the Middle East and North Africa, often carried out by native veterans of Europe’s colonial armies who received training in guerrilla techniques from pro-Soviet revolutionary cadres. The legacy of this training can be seen in early al-Qaeda documents found inside al-Zawahiri's hard disc recovered in Afghanistan.  Even before 9/11, the author of one such document defined guerilla war as “a political-military technique of revolutionary war that the materially weaker side employs when it is disadvantageous to confront a conventional force [directly].” . . . .
This strategic thinking began partly as an apparent effort to convince a skeptical Muslim audience that the 9/11 attacks and declarations that the United States is the main enemy of Islam did not constitute a fool's errand; and partly as a genuine effort to provoke systematic thinking about war by al-Qaeda's mid-level leaders once it became apparent that the technically overwhelming American military involvement in Afghanistan would not replicate the Soviet experience.
Al-Qaeda strategists (whether in documents or videos) are not quick to cite authorities outside of the movement’s core of sympathizers unless the citation forms part of a criticism of the United States and its allies. However, General Giap, along with other followers of Mao's military-political thinking, appeared to al-Qaeda authors to provide an excellent roadmap for how a weak adversary can defeat a more powerful military, or, in the case of Vietnam, even the most powerful in the world. In his last major work on jihadist history and strategy, the Syrian jihadist strategist and trainer Abu Mus’ab al-Suri gave one of the clearest examples of this respect for Maoist thinking about guerrilla war. Al-Suri makes the point that to use a fixed-point defense at the wrong time (as at Tora Bora) leads to disastrous consequences for guerrillas and provides a number of modern examples. He then adds that these examples confirm everything that he has studied and taught and points out that this truth "is elaborated in the books of the greatest theorists of military art, such as Mao Tse-tung, [Ché] Guevara, Giap, and [Fidel] Castro." 
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Technology or Strategy?
Another al-Qaeda fan of The War of the Flea and General Giap was Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi (a pseudonym for a strategist and advisor to Bin Laden). . . . .Al-Qurashi used the example of Vietnam to make his case. According to this author, the American military traditionally does not learn easily from the experiences of others, especially after the euphoria of its victory in World War II. However, al-Qurashi argues that “after soaking their pride in the soil of the Vietnam war,” the American military returned to analyzing historical strategies and produced many valuable works, including studies of ancient Chinese military strategy. After the U.S. victory over Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990, however, al-Qurashi asserted that these lessons were lost and the United States reverted to relying on military technology instead of strategy.
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Citing People's War People's Army, al-Qurashi presents Giap's definition of guerrilla war as “a type of warfare in which the weak side with poor equipment takes refuge among the masses to fight against a powerful enemy, which possesses superior equipment and technology.”  Al-Qurashi continues with the well-known hit and run tactics that Giap describes in detail, but more important are the virtues Giap ascribes to the guerrilla of patience and heroic zeal, the need for strong rear bases and the absolute necessity of waging a protracted war, the “long war” of al-Qaeda's strategists. Finally, al-Qurashi adopts the most important lesson for guerrillas, or in this case jihadists—the political struggle, in which gaining international support is more important than the military struggle that is waged only to gain the objective of persuading the enemy forces or local government to withdraw. In the best case, the local government would eventually collapse because both the local population and the international community would have turned against it.
Giap’s Influence on the Jihad in Yemen and Elsewhere
These examples are not the only ones described by al-Qaeda strategists who rely on Giap's concepts in developing their own jihadist version of asymmetric warfare. Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym) includes many of Giap's ideas in his book The Administration of Savagery, which was endorsed by the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the blueprint that al-Qaeda is currently following in Yemen. . . .
Unlike Giap, Naji contemplates that these groups will not necessarily be cohesive, but would unite after they become strong enough to confront more powerful enemies directly. It is obvious that al-Qaeda's strategy has not been successful, but neither has it been defeated. The movement’s strategists understand that the first job of the guerrilla is to survive and win the political battle locally and internationally. Following Giap's example, they believe that patience, unreasoning sacrifice and a protracted war in which the West gets tired of “the fighting and dying” will lead to their ultimate victory. They are wrong, if we recognize their strategy for what it is and adjust our own accordingly. The West has won all the military battles so far; perhaps we need to concentrate on winning the political battles, or to use Naji's Giap-derived dictum, “play the political game.”
1. Alan Cullison, who first obtained the computer in Afghanistan after al-Qaeda’s flight, generously offered a copy the contents of al-Zawahiri's hard disk to the author. The document cited was in a folder titled Amn (Security) and the document itself was titled “Types of Wars.”
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3. See Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, Da‘wah al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyyah (The call to Global Islamic Resistance). Parts 1–2, December 2004. Castro is not known for writing theoretical books, but The War of the Flea devotes a chapter to his successful insurgency.