PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam Review
Few wars have seen as lopsided in the forces deployed to them than the Vietnam War, where the vast might of the United States faced off against the small and comparatively seemingly weak nation of North Vietnam and its supporters. Earlier, the Vietminh, Vietnamese Communist rebels. faced no less of an uphill struggle against the French army as they fought for their independence during the First Indochina War. And even once the war ended, the newly re-united Vietnam faced a battle against their erstwhile ally, China. In all of these wars, the unifying thread was that the Vietnamese Communists, thanks above all else to their military of the People's Army of Vietnam, won, generally against incredible odds. It is thus with great admiration, respect, even perhaps a bit of awe, that Douglas Pike has written the book PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam, focusing on examining the strategy, doctrine, organization, structure, employment, and history of the Vietnamese military, and why it has proved to be so dangerously effective. This book posits that the Vietnamese have found a particular war-political strategy that is all but invincible, one against which there are few counters, and which when it has been applied successfully has ultimately led inevitably to victory.
"History and Heritage" covers the Vietnamese image of themselves as the "Prussians of Asia", always under siege and outnumbered, and thus a society of warriors, an armed camp. This continues with the foundation of PAVN, in the 1930s with a vital ideal of "Dau Tranh" at its heart, with both political and military forms, a form of revolutionary struggle that would be metered by when the optimal moment for application arrived. The first stumbling attempts to build up an army were made with the Armed Propaganda Team, with the shift to military struggle in the 1940s, focusing on using military action to enhance the political stature of the party. PAVN would rapidly grow from the nucleus of this organization, with both regular forces and militia defense troops. The organization (such as Chinese influence) and objectives of PAVN during the Indochina and Vietnam wars, and then the following post-war changes with demobilization, post-war resistance, and conflict in Kampuchea, Laos, and against China.
Moving into the actual composition of the PAVN is "Organization and Administration", which has an exceedingly complicated chart of the PAVN's command structure and then covers the various military services, these being the regular combat army, regional forces, and militia/self defense forces, in practice the latter two playing essentially the same role as defense forces. It then continues on with the organization of the military command, and then various technical services such as artillery, the air force, sappers, navy, border defense troops, etc. Paramilitary troops, much larger in number than the regular troops, a valuable tool in self defense and guerrilla war, supporting the combat army too. They typically were organized on the basis of economic units such as factories or agricultural communes, with the militia being rural and regional units being principally urban. In the South, following its absorption by the north, a military unit known as the Armed Youth Assault Force was formed, aiming to inculcate the southern youth with state propaganda while avoiding potentially politically troublesome elements. So too, post war the army became increasingly professionalized.
This was not however, as the following chapter on "Ideology and Leadership" lays out, to the detriment of party control, for political commissars had been heavily integrated into the army in a complex and complicated arrangement of civilian involvement in the military, and the party and the military were tightly bound together, and the party constantly stressed that it was in absolute control over the military. This system arose in response to the need to expand the military, since early on the party and the military's leadership were one and the same, but with the rapid expansion of the military the need for political commissars to ensure party control was perceived by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Political commissars it must be noted, ensured far more than just a political oversight role, but also served for propaganda, morale, exhortation, a vital part of the spirit of military units. However, their continued presence ran into problems as the army professionalized, and eventually the political commissars were made subordinate to the military commanders. This also reflected a continuing split in the Vietnamese military between focus on politicization and people's war ideology and technological sophistication, similar to the Chinese red vs. expert dispute, albeit that the professional side is increasingly on the upswing.Regardless of which side had won, leadership continued to be a vital aspect, and in this Vietnam was unique in that most of its military leadership was strictly unorthodox in its heritage and upbringing, without formal military origins but extensive military service, and belonging to a wide variety of different backgrounds - but united in a common view of themselves as beleaguered, outgunned, outnumbered, and under siege, making them into a defensive and cautious group, bound together in collective leadership. In the new post war era, they would have to be able to professionalize and learn how to adapt to a situation other than total war under foreign onslaught, something that they did not do well as evidenced by the quagmire in Cambodia. Furthermore, there were far too many officers of old age, from the previous massive expansion of the military, and the need to train an officer corps that while fanatically loyal and ideological, had very little technical education and sophistication.
"Strategy" perhaps the most interesting for the general reader, takes a closer look at why the communists won in Vietnam, pointing out above all else their concept of Dau Tranh, or struggle,with both military and political elements. The Vietnamese way of war ruled out the noncombatant, turning everyone into a fighter, and bound up in a struggle which would combine all elements of political and military action against the enemy, to undermine them and mobilize all resources to secure victory. This could take a very long time indeed, but it would be vital to be able to demonstrate superior resolve against the enemy than the enemy had themselves, even if for one's own troops stress would be placed upon the expectation of rapid victory. Politically, efforts would be placed to bring the people to one's side, not necessarily through the exploitation of legitimate grievances and up-swelling of popular support, but rather through action and groundwork to build up revolutionary support. Again, important thought was drawn from the Chinese revolution, with their three-stage focus of war on guerrilla operations, conventional warfare, and counter-offensive on important government centers. However, consistently North Vietnam placed greater emphasis on political action in the south, than on military action, building up popular power and undermining the South Vietnamese government, as well as undermining foreign support for the United States and the United States's position. This was all tightly controlled by the communists, rejecting those political movements that they could not control. So too, this was played particularly for the international theater, with an effort to convincing the world of the righteousness of North Vietnam's position and bringing around international opinion (and internal American opinion) to its side, and in the South Vietnamese army and political apparatus itself to undermine it, perhaps contributing to the sudden collapse of ARVN in 1975. All of this proved brutally effective, undermining the enemy, strengthening one's own hand, and bringing victory through a war which the enemy cannot bear the cost of withstanding.
Post war, things were much changed, with stunning success preventing the realization that there was a need to come up with different strategic thoughts to better match Vietnam's strategic situation. The professionalization of the military would be increasingly undertaken along Soviet lines, and technical advancements would be prioritized for aviation, chemical weapons, the navy, and perhaps even nuclear power. Strategic thought however, dealt disastrously with the Pol Pot situation, with a conventional invasion that quickly bogged down in the face of guerrilla resistance. The other strategic challenge, that of China's aggression against Vietnam, was dealt with through older techniques, and ironically much more effectively - but would still be a thorny problem for Vietnam, especially in regards to Chinese sabotage and the cold war against Vietnam, or the threat of outright military invasion - this to be responded to through both new military forces, and the establishment of military fortresses based on fortified villages.
"PAVN, Society, and the Future" is the final section of the book, and one that is fascinating to look at to see what the impression of the future for Vietnam was in the late 1980s. It paints a picture of a vast military, an almost praetorian state, one that continued to be based on peasant soldiers, tough and hard fighters, intensely indoctrinated and obedient, generally although not always willing to be conscripted into the army. The PAVN was also used to a great extent for economic reconstruction, and upholding the Party-based social order, forming the basis for economic production units to build up the economy. It discusses the vast amounts of veterans produced by the war, generally honored and treated decently by the regime, but which at the same time aims to prevent them emerging as a formidable political bloc in of their own right, A final speculation upon what would happen in the future - a curious chapter given that it was written for a world on the verge of radical change, as the Communist world suddenly collapsed just a few years afterwards - paints a gloomy picture of a praetorian society dominated by the military which might itself seize total control, and raise the potential of a Vietnam and Indochina as a whole isolated and cut off from the broader world, mired in poverty and backwardness.
Many military books focus to excess on the simple elements of matérial, military strength, and include at most a limited aspect about the broader doctrine and strategy of an army. By contrast, PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam neatly turns this on its head, devoting its focus overwhelmingly to the strategic framework underlying the Vietnamese army, its logic, and methods.
At the same time it seems hardly unfair to say that Douglas Pike stands perhaps slightly too much in awe of the prowess and ultimate victory of the Vietnamese Communists and their strategy, and sometimes this can result in contradictions on his part. He writes that the victory of the Vietnamese Communists and the fruition of their strategy was the result of the coming together of forces which had never been seen before in history and might indeed very well never be seen again, in effect a unique and perhaps unrepeatable occurrence. And yet he is also eager to stress the universality of the possibilities of the Vietnamese Communist strategy being applied elsewhere, and warns again and again that against the strategy of a long war, predicated above all else on political action, the mobilization of propaganda and the manipulation or engineering of truth, it would be impossible to stand against it - that it had been able to successfully portray the idea of a fifty year war, and that against this, no democracy would willingly sustain such a lengthy and painful conflict. Is Pike correct? I believe not, but I certainly believe that he bandies about his claim too much in the interest of attempting to claim a broader legitimacy and interest than it would otherwise possess, to propose a warning to American policy makers that what happened in Vietnam could occur anywhere else, and that his book offers the possibility of understanding this mastermind strategy.
This ties into another, perhaps inevitable element of the book, in that it has vast amounts of information, but sometimes has difficulty pulling from it conclusions that are solidly confirmed. Much of this is due to the era in which it was written, in the latter half of the 1980s - before the collapse of Communism across the world, indeed just before Vietnam embarked on its own market liberalization programs. This provides a certain fascinating aspect of being able to see a perspective of what the West thought of Vietnam at the time and its future - even if it may have been erroneous, as the prediction for the future section makes clear with its hyperbolic predictions of Red fascism and the take-over of Vietnam by the PAVN, which stands in stark contrast to the economic liberalization and continued Party control which has played itself out in the country over the last several decades - but it also means that it was written at a time when archives were locked and Vietnam off-limits to Western observers. Thus there was no ability on the part of the author to realistically examine such important things as the actual effect of North Vietnamese political action in Southern Vietnam: he can speculate about whether it was this which led to the sudden collapse of South Vietnamese forces, but here he seems on quite shaky grounds indeed: after all South Vietnamese forces fought rather bravely in 1972, and it seems far more likely to pin this collapse upon the United States and its effective abandonment of South Vietnam and the resultant catastrophic dysfunction of a military force heavily reliant upon the United States for aid and support than upon North Vietnamese political action.
It makes for a good book, an excellent source of information upon the ideology, strategy, and composition of PAVN as well as some elements of its operations, strengths, and particularities - but it is one which can easily stretch itself too far, while at the same time it must be taken as a book which is above all focused on the broader aspects of the People's Army of Vietnam and much less upon its gritty composition elements. But its explanation of the idea of Dau Tranh and its insights into Vietnamese strategy, even if it can be taken too far at times, makes it an irreplaceable book to understand the Vietnamese war regardless. As a book to look at the Vietnam War, Vietnam, and the Vietnamese military, it is a book which is sure to find a welcome place on many a reader's bookshelves.
© 2019 Ryan C Thomas