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People's Army of Vietnam.

People's Army of Vietnam.

Douglas Pike. Presido, $22.50. It is the enduring question of the Vietnam war: How did a poor, undeveloped nation of peasants manage to defeat the state-of-the-art armed forces of the most powerful country in the world?

With the same political solipsism that got us into Vietnam in the first place, we Americans have sought the answer in our own mistakes and failures, from which we attempt to draw "lessons' so that we avoid such embarrassment again.

Now comes Douglas Pike to remind us that wars are not only lost, they are won. And the Vietnam war was won by an extraordinary creation, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Pike lists its achievements in what one hopes he considers a descending order of importance: "It frustrated three of the most powerful nations on earth, confused the world press, and confounded academia.'

At the core of the communist army's victory was "a messianic leadership of extraordinary insight acting as a catalyst on a singular, centuries-old, martial spirit.' According to Pike, Ho Chi Minh and his military aide, Vo Nguyen Giap, created their army in 1944 with 34 men and women and "the theoretical base for a new kind of warfare conducted by a new kind of revolutionary force.'

There were two key concepts: that of the dau tranh, or struggle; and that of the thoi co, or opportune moment. Dau tranh meant a total commitment to a single, transcendent end--the liberation and unification of Vietnam; thoi co meant that the end would be gained by whatever means were appropriate at a given moment.

World War II had brought civilians into warfare. Ho and Giap abolished the idea of a civilian entirely. In their dau tranh everyone would fight: men, women, children, with sticks, slogans, knives, propaganda, whatever worked. The army itself, their movement's most valuable possession, would be engaged sparingly, and only when it would almost surely win.

In their vision of protracted war, there was no such thing as defeat; there was only setback. The thoi co would come again; perhaps next time another tactic would work. Pike calls it a "50-year strategy.' It meant that for the Americans in Vietnam to lose militarily was to lose the war, but to win militarily was not to win it. Against the Vietnamese strategy, Pike writes, "there is no proven counterstrategy.'

Having spent considerable time in Vietnam recently, I find myself wondering not how the communists won the war, but how they fought at all. A more backward, bureaucratic, and inefficient society is difficult to imagine. Nothing works, nothing ever gets done, no one ever knows anything, no one is ever responsible. How did they do it?

The good news is that Douglas Pike knows the answer, and the bad news is that in large part the answer was the bureaucracy. The communist victory was a triumph of organization: "The essence of PAVN's success in South Vietnam was organization, in the face of a sort of nonorganization on the part of the South Vietnamese government and society.'

The irony is that the revolutionary PAVN is today transformed in Cambodia into a static, orthodox army using mobility and firepower against a stubborn insurgency. Rather than having contempt for the American tactics they defeated, they have rushed to employ those tactics themselves. There is even a highly publicized policy of "Khmerization,' of turning the war over to their Cambodian allies. It's not working, of course, precisely because the Cambodian resistance is using dau tranh against the army that invented it.

The Vietnamese are being taught the lessons they taught us: that foreign troops cannot build a nation and, as Pike says, "It is nearly impossible to force guerrillas to stand and fight when they do not want to.'

Pike today is the editor of the invaluable Indochina Chronology at Berkeley. He arrived in Vietnam in 1960. "The Viet Cong was formed the month I arrived,' he writes, "and we grew up together.' He left the country for only a few months at a time over the next 15 years. His earlier book, Viet Cong, was the standard work on the subject. And his research after the Tet Offensive of 1968, although challenged by some radical historians, uncovered the communist atrocities in Hue.

Only on rare occasions does he seem to lose his touch. The level of resistance against the government within Vietnam is far less than he implies, if my own experience there recently is any guide. And Pike's suggestion that the long tension between the military and the Communist Party might lead to a military coup seems farfetched.

Also, Pike says that the propaganda blitz about the Vietnamese troops coming home from Cambodia in 1983 convinced the country that the war there was winding down. That is simply false. News has always traveled in Vietnam by word of mouth, and wherever I went in Vietnam in 1984, from the cities to the remotest mountain villages, Cambodia was on everyone's mind.

These irritations, however, are minor in a book of such insight and impressive research. Pike's subject is the remarkable army of Vietnam, but what he tells us about the use of force in politics, the nature of organizations, and the limits of both technology and ideology is of far wider importance.
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Author:Broyles, William, Jr.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1986
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