Vietnam-Indonesia’s Guerrilla Warfare Revisited: Debunking the Myths through Guerrilla Philosophy Contrast
There are some myths around guerrilla warfare in Vietnam and Indonesia. Are these myths actually true, or just a fanatic’s nonsense?
Guerrilla warfare is among the most well-known form of warfare, has its history spanning from the ancient age into the modern age, transforming alongside the more traditional “conventional” warfare. There will always be guerrilla warfare as long as humanity exists. It is so often described as the “struggle of the weak against the strong” or “struggle of the oppressed people”, but that only shone on the shallow surface of guerrilla warfare itself, devoid of the abyssal varying schools of thought it really has. And of those different schools of thought, two of them are quite relatable among Indonesian: Nasution and Mao. Those two became the basis of Indonesian guerrilla in 1947–1949 and Vietminh-Vietcong guerrilla in 1944–1975, respectively. Those two sparked a neverending public discourse and debate in Indonesian history forums.
There are some widespread myths regarding the relation between Indonesian guerrilla and Vietminh’s (Mao-style) guerrilla. For example, some Indonesians said that both countries’ way of conducting guerrilla warfare is the same. Others said that Vietnam defeated America because they learned guerrilla warfare from Indonesia, specifically one of the most prominent general in the Indonesian Army, Abdul Haris Nasution. Unfortunately, these claims are somewhat outlandish and ahistorical. It should be clearly noted that Mao’s and the consequently Vietminh’s style of guerrilla warfare is different from the one used in the Indonesia battlefield.
According to the Pokok-Pokok Gerilya (Fundamentals of Guerrilla Warfare) written by the infamous A. H. Nasution himself, Vietminh’s style of guerrilla was defined as an example of how a full-scale guerrilla should be: A small guerrilla warfare that in a certain time could turn into full-scale conventional warfare utilizing regimental or even divisional-sized units. This is particularly true if we take a look at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In this battle, both sides were engaged in a fully conventional, trench warfare using heavy artillery and such. Retrospectively, Nasution’s book was originally published in 1953, so it is fairly impossible for Vietminh to learn and implement the book in just one year. Military doctrines require years of time to become properly rooted in certain armed forces. And of course, this also means that Indonesian is the one that learned the lessons from Vietminh, not vice versa.
Then, it will be easier to distinguish these different styles of guerrilla warfare if we dissect the philosophy behind each’s school of thought accordingly.
Through Võ Nguyên Giáp’s book, Chiến tranh nhân dân, quân đội nhân dân (People’s War People’s Army), it is known that the Vietnamese did learn and inspired by a foreign country, but it was not Indonesia. Mao Zedong’s PRC was the one that inspired him to wage a Protracted People’s War, a concept of confronting larger, foreign forces by utilizing all of the population’s resources and conducting a three-stage strategy, described inside Mao’s work On Protracted War.
“(…) it can reasonably be assumed that (a) protracted war will pass through three stages. The first stage covers the period of the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive. The second stage will be the period of the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counter-offensive. The third stage will be the period of our strategic counter-offensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat.”
As stated by Mao on his previous work, On Guerrilla Warfare, his guerrilla warfare takes place in the first and second stages, where he consolidates organizational readiness and stronghold/bases then develops a mobile, more conventional forces in the second and third stages to push the enemy in a (or some) decisive offensive(s). This concept of Mao was implemented against the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II and the Chiang Kai-shek-led Kuomintang Army in the Chinese Civil War. His victory of the latter war in 1949 paved the way for Vietminh — and later Vietcong — to wage a similar guerrilla strategy in the future and allowing direct heavy weaponry supply flow to support Vietminh’s struggle for the next three decades.
In this manner, we have to put more emphasis on the Vietminh’s grand battle plan, generally known as the “Đấu Tranh” (“struggle”) strategy, which itself was developed from the original concept of Mao. It is referred to as the integration of political and military efforts in a nation’s struggle. The explanation of the basic strategy should be like this:
• Dan Van — Action among your people
Basically a total mobilization of propaganda to manipulate internal masses and fighting units.
• Binh Van — Action among enemy military
Subversion and propaganda to encourage desertion, defection, and lowering the morale of enemy troops.
• Dich Van — Action among enemy’s people
Total propaganda efforts to sow defeatism, dissent, and disloyalty of the enemy’s population.
• Phase 1: Organizations and preparations
Building cells, spreading propaganda, stockpiling weapons, etc.
• Phase 2: Guerrilla warfare
Terrorist attacks, sabotage, ambushes, guerrilla raids, etc.
• Phase 3: Conventional warfare
Regular formations and operations to take tactical and strategic objectives.
(Pike, 1986) and (Giáp, 1961)
From the final phase of the military effort, we should understand that Đấu Tranh has the final goal of completely annihilating and forcing the enemy out of Vietnam. This is realized through large scale offensives, such as the 1967 Tet Offensive, Battle of Ban Me Thuot, and 1975 Spring Offensive which saw the deployment of hundreds of thousands of NVA’s (North Vietnam Army) soldiers supported by heavy equipment; tanks, artilleries, airpower, and alike. The 1975 Spring Offensive especially saw how NVA mustering more than 270,000 men, 1,000 artillery pieces, 320 tanks, and 250 armored vehicles into the battlefield. (Le G. & William E., 1981) This is surely not a mere “farmer guerrilla” army the North Vietnamese usually associated with by the common Indonesian. I would like to talk further about this matter in my future story(es), so stay tuned!
On the other hand, as in Indonesia’s case, its style of guerrilla was developed from a style of guerrilla warfare popularized by a British officer, Brigadier General Orde Charles Wingate. Wingate himself was famous thanks to his Chindits unit or formally known as the British Indian Long Range Penetration Groups in Burma (now Myanmar) back in World War II, whom infiltrated Japanese territories and mounting guerrilla warfare to damage and hamper Japanese communication and logistic line, supported by occasional CAS (close-air support) and air-dropped supplies, being possible owing to Allied superior airlift capability. This maneuver-oriented special force was criticized by its high rate of casualties, but those happened mainly due to the harsh tropical jungle of Burma and the naturally high-risk deep infiltration. Nevertheless, Chindits successfully carried out their duty and received a good impression from Winston Churchill — then Prime Minister of Great Britain — and directly inspired the United States’ own long-range penetration group, Merrill’s Marauder commanded by General Frank Merrill. (DIANE, 1990)
The rationale behind this kind of guerrilla warfare more or less described by one of Wingate’s quote:
“Small forces cannot prevent larger forces from carrying out their plan. They can, if properly used (,…) compel the larger force to alter its plan by creating an important diversion, i.e. by positive and not negative action. Forces which have the role of penetration should never, therefore be told to prevent the enemy from carrying out some operation, but should be given the task of surprising and destroying some important enemy installation or force, which will have the effect of changing the enemy’s plan.”
Nasution knew Wingate’s stories and concepts from a book acquired from his friend in Singapore. In fact, he was greatly inspired by Wingate that he named the whole TNI’s (Indonesian Army) guerrilla warfare operation in Java Island as the “Operation Wingate”. He used “Wingate” as the replacement word of “to guerrilla” or even guerrilla in general. (Turner, 2017) and (Moehkardi, 2019)
Nasution then implemented Wingate’s idea by relentlessly harassing Dutch’s garrison and communication line, avoiding direct combat with its forces as he knew his forces wouldn’t stand a chance against the well equipped, well supplied Dutch forces. This reflects his goals of (limited to) exhausting and makes the war too costly for the hastily built Dutch Army to continue, which had conscripted a lot of “green” men but didn’t have the time to properly train them. Hence his famous phrase “memeras darah musuh” — bleeding the enemy dry — in the sense of low intensity but widespread, long-term guerrilla warfare. This is contrasted with the full scale, conventional warfare of the Vietminh’s strategy.
This happened mainly due to the lack of “hard power” Indonesia really needed to expel the Dutch from its home islands by force. Nasution acknowledged this drawback by saying,
“Because of the fact that we were unable to raise a regular army equal to the Dutch, we were forced to rely on guerrilla tactics exclusively. We used guerrilla warfare not because we believed in its ‘ideology’ but because we were forced into it and could not establish a modern, organized force equal to the Dutch. Our guerrilla fight was still in a period of weakening the enemy and we could not yet destroy him even section by section.”
There are also some additional factors that dictate Nasution’s strategy. With the Dutch practically ruling the sea and major ports, smuggling heavy weaponry became a daunting task, if not entirely impossible — dismounting tanks, heavy artilleries from ships require port cranes or special landing ships, which the young Republic did not have. Not mentioning the absence of the reliable weapon supplier at the time — USSR was basically just recovering from the war and would not dare to take such a bold move to support a newly-found republic while directly opposing the Allied-backed Dutch, instead, they took a rather moderate stance after seeing that the US was hesitant to back-up USSR’s anti-colonialism agenda in Southeast Asia (McVey, 2009) — and of course the severely limited budget of Indonesia. Owing to the facts mentioned above, Indonesia has to rely on the already worn and expended Japanese and pre-war weaponry. Perse, Nasution’s decision to incorporate Wingate’s style was fully justified.
To summarize it all, the main contrast between Vietminh-Vietcong and Indonesia in guerrilla warfare is:
Guerilla warfare is only one out of three stages in a People’s War, conducted to support the campaign of conventional forces in the front lines with the final objective to defeat, destroy, and expel the enemy from the people’s territory.
Guerrilla warfare is a Total People’s War and serves as the main core of all war efforts, not merely as supportive effort. The warfare should be as protracted as possible to bleed the enemy dry until they recede from the people’s territory on their own.
With all of the consideration above, we should understand the stark differences of guerrilla styles between Indonesia (Wingate-style) and Vietminh (Mao-style) and not dare to proclaim more false notions — or to put it more extreme in some deliberate claim cases: baseless accusations.
Moehkardi. 2019. Akademi Militer Yogya dalam Perjuangan Fisik 1945 sampai dengan 1949. Yogyakarta: UGM PRESS.
Turner, Barry. 2017. A. H. Nasution and Indonesia’s Elites: “People’s Resistance” in the War of Independence and Postwar Politics. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Anglim, Simon. 2015. Orde Wingate and the British Army, 1922–1944. New York: Routledge.
McVey, Ruth T. 2009. The Soviet View of the Indonesian Revolution: A Study in the Russian Attitude Towards Asian Nationalism.
DIANE Publishing Company. 1990. Merrill’s Marauders: February to May, 1944. Pennsylvania: DIANE Publishing. Singapore: Equinox Publishing.
Pike, Douglas. 1986. PAVN: Peoples Army of Vietnam. New York: Presidio Press.
Le Gro, Colonel William E. 1981. From Cease-Fire to Capitulation. Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History.
Zedong, Mao. 1967. On Protracted War: Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.
Nasution, Abdul H. 1965. Fundamentals of Guerrilla Warfare. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.
Giáp, Võ N. 1961. People’s War People’s Army. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Zedong, Mao. 1937. On Guerrilla Warfare.