Historical Dictionary



“Guerrilla” is the Spanish word meaning “small war”. Guerrilla warfare was first practiced by small-armed Spanish groups resisting Napoléon Bonaparte’s invasion and occupation of Spain in the early 19th century. Since then, the word has been used to refer to small-scale groups of combatants fighting an unconventional war on their territory or among a sympathetic population against a militarily stronger adversary. The term was further popularized and theorized during the wars of the 20th century. In 1937, at war against the invading Japanese army, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong published his influential On Guerrilla War. He divided guerrilla war into three phases. The first phase required guerrillas to win over the support of the local population. Phase two called for increasing attacks against the enemy state’s institutions and military forces. The last phase mixes guerrilla hit and run tactics with the use of conventional warfare in order to overthrow the enemy and take control of the country, including the cities. This work and many other Chinese and Maoist texts were imported, translated, and applied by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in its battle against the French during the Indochina War. From the late 1930s, Vietnamese communists had access to many of Mao’s major works in Chinese and Vietnamese translation, including On Guerrilla War (1937) and On Protracted War (1938).

Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese focused on building up a wide nationalist front, mobilizing the populations under their control, and operating hit-run-operations to bog down the enemy. In 1947, Truong Chinh (Long March) identified three phases in revolutionary warfare. The first level was the guerrilla, the second was a combination of guerrilla and conventional forces, while the third phase set the main battle forces against the enemy in the General Counter Offensive. For General Vo Nguyen Giap, guerrilla warfare obligated the Vietnamese to avoid the enemy’s forces when they were strong, attacking them when they were weak. The guerrilla army never attacked its foe directly, but rather harassed it, dispersed it, and tried to exhaust it. However, following the Chinese communist victory of 1949, both Generals Nguyen Binh in the south and Vo Nguyen Giap in the north overestimated their chances of winning the General Counter Offensive and were forced to resume guerrilla operations when they suffered serious setbacks at the hands of the Expeditionary Corps in the Red and Mekong river deltas.

The Chinese and the Vietnamese were not the only ones to practice guerrilla warfare, however. Many officers in the French army in Indochina had used such tactics during the French resistance against the German occupation of France during World War II. Based on this experience and confronted by the Sino-Vietnamese guerrilla model, some of them began to promote the idea of changing French military practices in favor of developing guerrilla ones in order to take the battle to the Vietnamese on their own terms. In August 1949, Colonel Maurice Redon, former ranking leader of the Forces françaises de l’intérieur in France and now in charge in southern Vietnam, sent a report to the army command in France arguing in favor of teaching a new type of warfare, that of guerrilla tactics, to young officers being sent to command troops in Indochina. General Marcel Carpentier agreed, asking that guerrilla tactics be used against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in order to break its “fluidity” and force the adversary into the open so that the army could attack and destroy them more easily with conventional forces. In short, the French guerrilla experience from World War II and the growing desire to imitate their Vietnamese adversary in using such a strategy during the Indochina War laid the theoretical groundwork for the creation of Service Action groups and the Groupement de commandos mixtes aéroportés. It also led French military science into a new type of “revolutionary warfare”. The British and the Americans were also well acquainted with it from World War II and especially the Korean War. Counter-intersurgency was by no means a French invention, although the French became its leading specialists for much of the 1950s. See also ALGERIAN WAR; CHARLES LACHEROY; EDWARD LANSDALE; INDOCTRINATION; PARALLEL HIERARCHIES; PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE.