In his 1961 book about warfare in Southeast Asia, Street Without Joy, Bernard Fall, the Howard University professor and former French Resistance fighter, explained, “A dead Special Forces sergeant is not spontaneously replaced by his own social environment. A dead revolutionary usually is.” Fall’s point was that military capabilities and technologies are important but insufficient when complex politics and long-standing grievances motivate diverse populations to engage in conflict. Through dozens of articles and seven books, including The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis, published in 1963, and Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, published in 1966, Fall explained why France, the United States, and their allies in the Republic of Vietnam had such difficulty countering Vietnamese revolutionary warfare.
The problem the West and its anticommunist allies encountered was an inability to connect military outcomes with often conflicting and shifting political goals. In addition, the network of political organizations that Vietnamese communists created—through an administrative structure Fall called parallel hierarchies—was impossible to counter with military capability alone. These networks, ranging from village-level to large inter-zone regional command elements, thwarted superior military power wielded by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam. Motivation, when it intersected with Maoist-inspired political organization, enabled the Viet Minh and subsequent generations of Vietnamese communists to outlast French and American forces over almost three decades between 1946 and 1975.
The key to the insurgents’ success was irregular warfare, described by Fall as Vietnamese revolutionary warfare, an approach that hinged on more nuanced, precise, and context-dependent policy than that of conventionally minded adversaries. Given the US military’s recent prioritization of large-scale combat operations, Fall’s thoughts about a similar prioritization of conventional warfare in Vietnam seem prescient. Today, US policymakers would do well to study Fall’s insights, or they risk repeating the mistakes of the past.
An Irregular Education: Targeting Collaborators in World War II France
Fall was well equipped to identify and describe connections between guerrilla warfare and political outcomes. Born in Vienna in 1926 to a Jewish family, Fall emigrated to France in 1938 after the Anschluss of Austria. When he was seventeen, Fall joined the Resistance after his mother was deported to Auschwitz and the Gestapo murdered his father. Confronted with the possibility of elimination or conscription for labor, Fall joined several Zionist resistance groups in southern France before landing in the Maquis in Haute-Savoie. During his time in the Resistance, his unit targeted collaborators to undermine Nazi and Vichy authority. Fall later explained how targeting collaborators and assassinating key local leaders isolated occupation forces from the population. Fall’s analysis of warfare in Vietnam is filled with analogies and anecdotes related to his early experiences in the French Resistance. He later moved from the Maquis to the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, subsequently receiving more formal military experience after D-Day as a mortar platoon leader in the French Army’s 4th Moroccan Mountain Division.
After the war, Fall used his French, German, and English proficiency to work as a translator during the early stages of the Nuremberg trials in 1946. In 1947 and 1948, he continued to work for the War Crimes Commission, analyzing the Krupp manufacturing corporation’s widespread use of slave labor to fabricate materials used in Nazi armaments, especially tanks, artillery, and U-boats. In 1952, Fall moved to the United States as one of the first International Fulbright Scholars, earning a master’s degree in political science at Syracuse University. In 1953, he travelled to Indochina for ten months of research on the Viet Minh, gathering material to complete his doctorate in 1955.
Fall subsequently worked for the Special Operations Research Office, established in April 1956, and the Human Relations Area Files, then located at American University. In 1958, Fall joined the faculty at Howard University as a professor of international relations where he worked with such scholars as Ralph Bunche and taught students, including a young Stokely Carmichael, a future key figure in the Black Panther Party. When US involvement in Southeast Asia began escalating in the 1950s, Fall’s experience and scholarship positioned him as one of the foremost authorities on Vietnamese revolutionary warfare. Well before the intervention reached its apex, journalists David Halberstam and Walter Cronkite and military officers, such as Major General William Yarborough, turned to Fall for his expertise.
A Formula for Revolutionary Warfare in Indochina
Fall’s study of Maoist thought along with French military officers who commanded in Indochina, including Colonels Gabriel Bonnet and Charles Lacheroy, inspired his conception of revolutionary warfare. Fall described the influence of other French officers, including Commandant Jean Hogard and Colonel Roger Trinquier, in the introduction to Trinquier’s Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. Many of these officers contributed to the French journal Revue militaire d’information, which was an essential source of information for Fall and provided a basis for his investigation of the critical components of revolutionary warfare. At a time when it was rare to consider Vietnamese sources, Fall also studied and assessed how anti-colonialist thought permeated the nationalism propagated by Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh. These two nationalists laid the groundwork on which communist leaders, such as Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan, and Truong Chinh, built the communist-controlled revolution. Fall’s holistic approach to studying the war ultimately integrated political economy, including regional rice production, criticism of US foreign assistance before 1961, and studies of Vietnamese society and religion.
In an article published in Naval War College Review in April 1965, Fall described revolutionary warfare (RW) through a formula: RW = G + P in which guerrilla warfare (G) and politics (P) were variables. While guerrilla warfare emphasized tactics, politics comprised diverse subfactors, including information and propaganda, ideology, diplomacy, economics, and others. In the article’s first section, “The Century of ‘Small Wars,’” he explained, “This formula for revolutionary warfare is the result of the application of guerrilla methods to the furtherance of an ideology or a political system. This is the real difference between partisan warfare, guerrilla warfare, and everything else.” Fall’s central goal was to delineate the relationship between political action and violence. Through efforts to establish what he described as “a competitive system of control over the population,” he pointed out how any “sound revolutionary warfare operator” historically prioritized political action: “The political, administrative, ideological aspect is the primary aspect. Everybody, of course, by definition, will seek a military solution to the insurgency problem, whereas by its very nature, the insurgency problem is militarily only in a secondary sense, and politically, ideologically, and administratively in a primary sense.”
Revolutionary warfare, therefore, was an accumulation of psychological, political, and ideological factors, driving tactical, operational, and strategic decision-making. In what was Fall’s most precise description, he explained, “I would like to put it in even a simpler way: When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being out-administered. Subversion is literally administration with a minus sign in front.” To implement such as system, Fall was adamant that revolutionary warfare fighters seek “primarily to establish a rival regime via the system of hiérarchies parallèles.” Ultimately, he believed this political and structural administrative system of parallel hierarchies—a shadow system of governance—characterized the type of warfare the United States encountered in Vietnam. Writing in his book The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis in 1963, he explained why recognizing this system of warfare mattered:
Thus, I believe that the whole problem of the meaning of “war” in the new context will have to be re-examined sooner or later, to take into account the facts that parallel hierarchies, revolutionary warfare, and active sanctuaries are here to stay and that our present response of concentrating on the external military symptoms of the problem simply has no bearing on the preponderant politico-socio-economic components.
When US involvement escalated, committed irregular warfare practitioners began to acknowledge the value of Fall’s scholarship. Yarborough, then commandant of the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, personally invited Fall to speak with Special Forces soldiers preparing to deploy to Vietnam in the early 1960s. According to the base newspaper, The Paraglide, Yarborough introduced Fall as “one of few acknowledged experts on Vietnam.” US Army special warfare courses, including “Problems of Development and Internal Defense” and “Counterinsurgency in Indochina,” relied heavily on Fall’s writings. High-ranking politicians also turned to Fall. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright often met with Fall and would later describe how Fall’s scholarship shaped his views on Vietnamese history and Sino-Vietnamese communist relations in The Arrogance of Power. In an important respect, Fall shaped Fulbright’s disagreements with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war policies, and this political dissent culminated in the televised Vietnam hearings in 1966.
A Guide for Irregular Warfare Today
Even as early as 1961, Fall believed that “‘international vandalism’ in the form of Revolutionary War is going to be with us for a long time to come.” To address this problem, it was best to “quit inventing new names and slogans for it, and settle down to study its rules.” As a framework for those rules, he emphasized the importance of studying the context of political legitimacy and how military arms might achieve political goals. Escalating military operations in contexts where adequate popular support and competent allied leaders did not exist was folly. In a contemporary contrast with American experiences propping up weakly supported central governments, Eugene Linden recently noted of US support for Ukrainian resistance, “Unlike the U.S.’s experience with corrupt, incompetent allies during the Cuban revolution, as well as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the U.S. now has a secret weapon on its side—the righteous fervor of the people it is trying to help.” Despite genuine anticommunist Vietnamese allies who fought and died for a free and independent South Vietnam, a series of corrupt and incompetent administrations in the Republic of Vietnam could not unite the South Vietnamese in a manner similar to the way Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united Ukrainians with their government while justifying large-scale American and NATO support.
In the case of Vietnam, Fall wanted decision makers to understand that military might could not counter the social-political and historical drivers of Vietnamese revolutionary warfare. Excessive military force could not compensate for American and allied lack of political will to fight and would be counterproductive. Willpower, in this sense, is not ambiguous and involves critical mental and moral underpinnings. According to a 2019 RAND study, there is a pattern of failed campaigns that reflect “the wavering emphasis on the will to fight in military doctrine.” During the Vietnam War, domestic dissent tied to civil rights, the draft, and other problems connected to US policies demonstrated damage inflicted within the United States that undermined its military might abroad. Importantly, Fall was adamant that democratic values should remain central to military and policy planning, writing in 1965 that “what America should want to prove in Vietnam is that the Free World is ‘better,’ not that it can kill people more efficiently. If we would induce 100,000 Viet Cong to surrender to our side because our offers of social reform are better than those of the other side’s, that would be victory.” Social reform is not possible in every intervention, but military action without political solutions is unlikely to provide desirable results.
Finally, Fall’s writing evokes the difficulty in conducting irregular warfare when it is viewed as competing with and not fully integrated into conventional operations. In Vietnam, despite the efforts of Navy SEALs, the joint special operations task force MACV-SOG, and the 5th Special Forces Group, integrating irregular warfare with large-scale combat operations was challenging. Similar problems exist today. Despite an increased emphasis on large-scale combat operations, “the most likely form of conflict that Army forces are going to conduct based on the historical record, is irregular warfare.” The Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy perhaps did not go far enough in articulating a US approach to irregular warfare. As David Ucko has explained, the annex is “inadequate in the face of the challenge at hand. . . . This competition for legitimacy and influence is fundamentally what irregular warfare is all about and, for this reason, the annex—while very welcome and important—is also insufficient for the reform and change that must now take place.” Regrettably, Ucko’s 2020 comments remain just as relevant today.
Fall’s ideas on political warfare remain relevant today, as David Kilcullen and Greg Mills demonstrate in The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, “reminds us of the primacy of politics in war, a lesson that should be noted by outsiders to any conflict.” This is what Fall wanted policymakers to understand before they escalated military intervention in Vietnam. He recognized the primacy of political legitimacy over military force and noted the tendency to over-rely on military power, writing presciently in 1963: “To win the military battle but lose the political war could become the US fate in Vietnam.” Fall believed that no invading force could possess sufficient military power to compensate for its political standing if that force lacked political legitimacy among the society it sought to control. Relying on politically legitimate partners, then as now, remains central to this task.
Tragically, Fall died in February 1967 when he was forty years old after he tripped a landmine while on patrol with US Marines in Thua Thien province, near Hue, Vietnam. His life experiences and insights into irregular warfare in the twentieth century provide much to consider, particularly as it relates to efforts to establish political legitimacy when military force is involved. Revisiting Fall’s papers and his many books will remind readers why political action remains the foundation for whatever form warfare takes.
Nathaniel L. Moir, PhD, is the author of Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare. He is a critical infrastructure analyst with New York state’s Office of Counter Terrorism and a research associate in the Applied History Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is also a major in the US Army Reserve and was formerly an Ernest May postdoctoral fellow in history and policy at the Kennedy School.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: Bernard Fall with US soldiers in Vietnam, (credit: US Army, via Wikimedia Commons)