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The French term guerre révolutionnaire refers to the emergence within the French army in the last years of the Indochina War of a way of understanding and reacting to a “new” type of warfare conceived and implemented by Mao Zedong during the Sino-Japanese and Chinese Civil Wars and then taken up against the French army in Indochina by the communist leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The term “revolutionary warfare” was directly borrowed from Mao Zedong’s 1936 treatise on “revolutionary war” in China, first translated into French in 1950 as Problèmes stratégiques de la guerre révolutionnaire en Chine. While no one French theoretician coined the term, it was picked up by a handful of officers seeking to understand the adversary’s ability to hold on to the “masses” in Vietnam and the French inability to knock out the guerrillas despite their military superiority.

At the head of this shift in French military thinking were officers working above all in southern Vietnam, where French pacification and military operations had failed to defeat the Viet Minh and where the Deuxième bureau’s intelligence files on the enemy’s methods were most voluminious. Moreover, the DRV never developed main force divisions in the south. Nor did southerners succeed in engaging the French in set piece battles as in northern and central Vietnam. It remained a guerrilla war there. Some of the most important French believers in “revolutionary warfare” were Charles Chanson, Guillaume Chassin, Jean Boucher de Crèvecoeur, Charles Lacheroy, Albert Fossey-François, and Jacques Hogard. (All of them had either worked in intelligence in southern Vietnam during the Indochina conflict or had been guerrillas themselves harassing the Japanese army during World War II.)

So enamored of revolutionary warfare was General Guillaume Chassin that he published the first biography in French of Mao Zedong. In early 1951, he also published an influential essay in the Revue militaire d’information entitled La conquête de la Chine par Mao Tsé Toung. To understand Mao’s surprising victory over the Guomindang, Chassin explained, one must understand the “strategy of revolutionary warfare” deployed by the Chinese communists. For Chassin, what made the Chinese Red Army so effective was its control of the “spirit”. Morale explained why the Chinese won battles against all odds. Everything, Chassin concluded, depended on education, indoctrination, propaganda, in short on the “conditioning of the individual”. De Crèvecoeur would extend this analysis to the Vietnamese communists in his lectures given at the Centre d’études asiatiques et africaines de la direction des troupes coloniales in Paris, above all at his seminars entitled Aperçus sur la stratégie du Viet Minh (1953) and Le problème militaire français en Indochine (1952).

With the French defeat in Indochina, Charles Lacheroy further promoted the idea that, in order to win this new type of “revolutionary” war, the French army had to adopt the practices of its enemies, especially those of indoctrination, vying for control of the population, their “hearts and minds”. Lacheroy led the way by “theorizing” the Deuxième Bureau’s ideas on parallel hierarchies, revealing the control the communists exercised upon the population, down to the village and indeed the individual level. It was “a total war”, he and his disciples declared, driven by a group bent on controlling the society. Propaganda allowed the communists to “change the soul” of the person. This gave rise, Lacheroy said, to a “new arm”, the most important one of the guerre révolutionnaire, the control and transformation of the population through mass mobilization techniques, emulation drives, and propaganda sessions.

Advocates of “la guerre révolutionnaire” never spoke of the Sino-Vietnamese success in tapping into the power of nationalism. In a series of lectures and publications, Lacheroy was able to make revolutionary warfare the lesson to be learned from the Indochina War, as Marie-Catherine and Paul Villatoux have shown. Soon, young French officers saw in the “École Lacheroy” the birth of a new type of warfare, la guerre moderne, as opposed to the conventional military science taught since World War I in French military academies. The ground was now prepared for the application of “counter-revolutionary warfare” in France’s future wars.

In this sense, the effect of France’s first war of decolonization on military thinking was to some extent at least “revolutionary”. That said, the emergence of guerre révolutionnaire in French military thinking was not the result of a uniquely French experience in Indochina. The Americans and the British were deeply involved in fighting this new type of warfare that they had encountered in the Korean War and in Malaya. In all three cases, the discovery of revolutionary warfare led the French, the Americans, and the British to “revolutionize” their military tactics to deny the adversary control over populations and to put them under their own control. The importance of this military reorientation is still to be felt to this day. See also GROUPEMENT DE COMMANDOS MIXTES AÉROPORTÉS; EDWARD LANSDALE; ALGERIAN WAR; NEW HERO; PIERRE LANGLAIS; RECTIFICATION.