Lessons From the Past: French Counter-Guerrilla Ops in Vietnam

Last week, we wrote how the head of Joint Forces Command (and newly nominated though not yet confirmed head of Central Command), Gen. James Mattis, really pushed the concept of small, highly-trained units, steeped in relevant language and cultural savvy, deployed around the world as advisors working closely with foreign militaries.

Mike Vickers, assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, talks of “counter network warfare” and using a “network to fight a network”; building small teams of special operators across the globe to battle al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

I was reading Martin Windrow’s superb account of the French in Indochina and their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, The Last Valley, and came across an intriguing example of taking the war to the enemy by a unit known as the Composite Airborne Commando Group (later retitled Composite Intervention Group), small teams of French soldiers that followed the adage that the best weapon against a guerrilla is another guerrilla. Windrow writes:

“[A] handful of adventurous French volunteers created a veritable maquis to infiltrate, reconnoiter, ambush, sabotage and harass the enemy throughout the nominally Viet-Minh controlled hills.”

Specially trained, “mixed-race commando teams” were occasionally parachuted in for specific operations. In some parts of the country the groups were so effective they created no-go zones for the Communists.

“This shadowy parallel war was fought without mercy by either side… The few French personnel on the ground were men of extraordinary courage and character. Young NCOs led groups up to a thousand strong, living and fighting among the partisans for many months at a time at the mercy of fragile radio links, their only direct contact the occasional Beaver light aircraft lurching down on to a makeshift airstrip.”

They spoke the highlanders’ languages, ate their food, shared the risks of their Spartan lives and in some cases married their chieftans’ daughters… While the Frenchmen brought modern weapons and radios, they learned as much about guerrilla fieldcraft from their hosts as they taught them.”

The counter-guerrilla operations were never popular with the “conventionally minded commanders,” Windrow writes, and ultimately suffered from too little investment that doomed its effectiveness: “with an earlier start and greater resources it might have achieved a good deal more.” As it was, the Viet-Minh were so threatened by the French backed partisan operations that they asked for support from China which sent a division across the border to fight the partisans.

Certainly an ideal in terms of advisory work that would be hard to replicate, particularly for the U.S. military; though, some Special Forces teams did work closely with the Vietnamese montagnards.

I wonder why we don’t see more of this in today’s wars? Have force protection demands restricted what’s possible?

-- Greg Grant

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