Vietnam Will Win: the Making of a Soldier

NLF soldiers, 1964-65. Photo Wilfred Burchett.

To mark the 50th Anniversary of the 1968 Têt Offensive, CounterPunch is serializing Wilfred Burchett’s Vietnam Will Win (Guardian Books, New York, 1968) over the next few weeks. Readers can judge for themselves the validity of the facts, observations, analysis, conclusions, predictions and so on made by the author. The books is based on several visits to the Liberated Zones controlled by the National Liberation Front (‘Viet Cong’) of South Vietnam in 1963-64, 1964-65 and in 1966-67 and close contacts with the NLF leadership, resistance fighters and ordinary folk. Wilfred Burchett’s engagement with Vietnam began in March 1954, when he met and interviewed President Ho Chi Minh in his jungle headquarters in Thai Nguyen, on the eve of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He was also on intimate terms with General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and most of the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the country’s struggle against French colonialism and American imperial aggression. Wilfred Burchett was not writing history as a historian, with the benefit of hindsight, access to archives etc. He was reporting history as it was unfolding, often in dangerous places. He was an on-the-spot reporter, an eyewitness to history. In his reporting, he followed his own convictions, political and moral. The book he wrote after his first two visits to the Liberated Zones, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War (International Publishers, New York, 1965) concludes with this short sentence: “The best they [the Americans] can do is to go home.” Vietnam Will Win confirms that.

Unfortunately, it took another seven years (1968-75) of death and devastation – and the extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos – for the U.S. to finally leave Vietnam in ignominy in April 1975. So here, chapter by chapter, Wilfred Burchett exposes the futility of fighting a people united in their struggle for independence, liberty and unity. It also explains, soberly and factually, why they were winning and how they won.

George Burchett, Hanoi

The Making of a Soldier

The courage and spirit of self sacrifice of the men and women of the NLF on the battlefield, under torture or confronting their executioners, are without historical parallel and have earned them the admiration of the whole world. No fighters in history have achieved such high standards of morale and intrepidity – and their adversaries are often the first to admit this.

Many explanations have been advanced to explain the exceptional courage of the NLF fighters. Stupid banalities have appeared in the press claiming that “Vietcong” troops are drugged before they go into action, or that Vietnamese, being a “primitive” Asian people, feel pain less than white people. More sophisticated arguments assert that the Vietnamese are a heroic, tough race, inured to suffering by centuries of wars. However, this explanation is contradicted by the lack of combatively and courage and deplorably low morale of the more than 700,000 South Vietnamese troops under U.S. command. Even the argument that comes closest to the truth, that the NLF forces are fighting for a just patriotic cause in defense of their homes and motherland, while the Saigon troops are fighting an unjust war under a Quisling government in the service of a foreign invader, does not explain enough.

How does a simple, illiterate peasant or tribesman know on which side is justice? How is he brought to the point of going far from his native village with the promise of no reward but a harsh, difficult and dangerous existence in which he must be prepared to lay down his life at any moment? How do people become convinced that theirs is a just cause, which can only be won by armed struggle, convinced to the point where they are prepared to make great sacrifices? Where do you start, for instance, with a batch of raw recruits who have just handed over their hoes and ploughs to their wives and sisters? Or with a group of deserters from the Saigon army who want to change sides?

Such were the questions I put to Le Vinh, a seasoned, regimental political officer who had, years before, run a small haberdashery shop in Saigon. Placed on the “suspects” list by the Diem police because he had played a very minor role in the anti-French resistance, he managed to slip away to the Tay Ninh forests in mid-1959, only a few hours before the police came to arrest him.

“In general,” Le Vinh explained, “there are two categories of recruits: those from stable liberated areas and those from newly liberated areas or even from the occupied zones, including deserters from the puppet army. Their political levels are different. We give priority to political over military training for new recruits, and before we start their education, we have to know their exact political level. From the occupied or freshly liberated zones, recruits are not even familiar with political terminology. If we used the same terms as those employed in the older liberated areas, they would be confused. Progress would be slow. Basically the educational program is the same but the form is different. The first thing is to arouse their national consciousness, but this must be based on a class analysis. The higher we can raise their political consciousness, the more we can speak about class attitudes.”

Le Vinh, a typically slight Saigonese, his face now tanned deep brown from years of living in the open – it was difficult to imagine him behind the counter of a haberdashery shop – went on to explain that as most of the recruits are peasants, the general educational level is low and lessons are prepared in question and answer form. Basically, the questions were designed to cause the recruits themselves to find the answers to “why and for whom?”

“Why do we fight?” continued Le Vinh. “For whom do we fight? We fight because we are oppressed, because we are exploited. In order to lead a decent life, free of foreign and feudal oppressors, we must struggle against oppression and exploitation, against the oppressors and exploiters. Who will benefit from final victory? Above all the peasants and workers, the oppressed and downtrodden.”

I asked about workers who came from the cities to join them, and also about students, of whom I met quite a number, who are mainly from the upper middle class, the only ones with money enough to finance higher education for their children. “Students whose parents have not been exploited,” he replied, “understand the national interests quite clearly because their own parents – perhaps small manufacturers or business people, perhaps intellectuals – suffered in the past from French colonialism and today their interests suffer under American neocolonialism. But it is more difficult for them to grasp the class aspect; more difficult for them to see their own personal interest in victory. For the peasants and workers, all of whose families have been victims of exploitation, their class attitude is easily evoked. They see the intimate connection between victory and their own personal interests. For them, however, the national question is not so clear – it seems further removed from their personal interests. But we strive to ally these two outlooks so that all recruits have a correct attitude to both these questions.”

New recruits receive 15 days of education and training before they are given a gun, unless enemy activities interrupt the course, in which case they will get guns immediately and continue the course later. The first five days are devoted exclusively to political education, after which the rudiments of military affairs are taught.

“We must clarify these two points of ‘why and for whom,’ ” continued Le Vinh, “and add to them a third point, that ‘victory is certain’, because if recruits only grasp the ‘why and for whom’ without being convinced of victory, then the results would not be completely conclusive.”

To my question as to how the first real sparks of interest were struck on the question of class consciousness, Le Vinh replied that instructors started by evoking memories of the recruits’ personal sufferings and after they grasped the general principle, each individual saw his own case his own experiences, as an illustration of this principle. If he had not personally suffered at the hands of the landlords, the rent or tax collectors, or at the hands of strikebreakers and the fascist police, he had seen others suffer from these causes and he soon learned of such personal sufferings from his fellow recruits.

“If anyone has some lingering sympathies for the oppressors or for the U.S. imperialists, he is ashamed to speak up and defend them in view of the collective experience revealed,” continued Le Vinh. “But the poor soon speak up with pride. Previously they were ashamed of being poor, they felt it something of a crime and did their best to disguise the fact.”

One stocky peasant soldier, among a group listening to Le Vinh’s explanations, interrupted to recall that when he went to Saigon in the old days, he used to grind his hands with pumice stone to remove as many calluses as possible so that the people with whom he might have to shake hands would not guess at his poverty. The idea that it is the poor and exploited who should have the worthiest place in society, and will have with the victory which they are sure will be theirs, comes as a great revelation. I realized this, not only from talking with Le Vinh and other political officers, but from conversations with rank-and-file troops. This revelation is the basic starting point for the rank and file to grasp the content of “giai phong” – liberation – a component in the name of all their organizations from the National Liberation Front on down. There are the Liberation Peasants Association, the Liberation Trade Unions, Liberation Women’s Association and so on. “Giai phong” means liberation from the foreign invader, from the Saigon oppressors and liberation from national and class oppression.

One of the first acts in a newly liberated area is to distribute land more equitably; with priority for the poor and landless peasants. When this is done the concept of “liberation” is no longer abstract.

“Once the idea of the class approach is accepted,” continued Le Vinh, “many other things become immediately clear. Before, cases where fathers or brothers or other near relatives had been arrested, tortured or killed by the Diem police were viewed as some sort of natural calamity; now they are seen in their true context. And virtually no family has been spared such oppression. The old, fatalistic ‘will of God’ explanation was seen as no longer valid; the new remits start to see the real face of their oppressors and the latter’s foreign protectors. It is absolutely essential, however, that the first to speak among the new recruits tells the truth and does not invent a lot of rubbish to sensationalize his experiences. The truth is good enough because the accumulation of even seemingly trivial cases of oppression and exploitation makes up an easily recognizable pattern.”

It was obvious that arousing the class feeling of land-hungry peasants was not a problem, especially when tackled in such clear, simple terms as outlined by Le Vinh and when practice followed so close on the heels of theory in land-distribution and rent-reduction policies in the liberated zones. But how could the instructors arouse national feelings among young peasants, many of whom had ventured out of their native villages for the first time in their lives when they joined the NLF? To this question, Le Vinh replied:

“All our young people are proud of being Vietnamese. They are proud of their ancestors who fought and won against all foreign invaders. Even though they are often illiterate, they know of such things from legends and poetry, from temples to bygone heroes, from itinerant bards and theater groups. It is not difficult for them to grasp that they are worthy defenders of the traditions of their ancestors. Even the very young still have memories of the French occupation and of the Japanese before the French, and those a little older remember the French before the Japanese. Some, especially from the cities, have some illusions that the Americans are ‘different’. But the more Americans that come and the closer they are to the home areas of the recruits, the easier it is for them to see that the Americans are more brutal and rapacious than any foreign invader in history. The Americans themselves are our best instructors in awakening national feelings.”

“Is five days of political instruction really sufficient to turn out an ideologically motivated soldier, ready for his first baptism of fire?” I asked.

“We find five days sufficient to give him a new outlook or to greatly reinforce his class convictions in case those had already been aroused,” replied Le Vinh, “but of course education does not end with those five days. Even during the next 10 days when they are being taught how to use a rifle, recruits are reminded why and for whom the rifle is to be used. Subsequently, life in the army itself is a school for political as well as general education, starting from learning to read and write. The further they advance in general education, the more deeply the young soldiers enter into political and ideological questions.”

The general line for political education, he explained, was drawn up by the NLF’s Military Affairs Commission which is actually the Front’s embryo Ministry of Defense. But it is left to the political officers of the headquarters of the various units to apply the line according to their own initiative and specific, local conditions. In routine army life, three hours a week are devoted to political education. Many hours are also devoted to discussions of newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, or of political questions that have cropped up during the study of geography, history or any other subject in the general educational program. Any soldier can take the initiative in taking up with the political officer any problems arising from something he has seen or heard, or even thought about. The problem may be dealt with on an individual basis, or the political officer may think it important enough to make it the subject of a special, general discussion. “Everything possible is done,” said Le Vinh, “to ensure that not a single soldier shall have a single doubt as to ‘why and for whom’ at any stage in his development. In this way everyone moves forward together, including the instructors, because they are always learning from life itself, and their own training is constantly enriched by new problems, new thoughts, new contributions brought to light by the influx of new recruits and the constant loosening of tongues and inhibitions in the minds of the older ones. Apart from the organized classes under instructors, the soldiers also carry on their own education.”

The regular Liberation Armed Forces are built up on the “three threes” system, the basic units being a “trio,” three “trios” plus a leader forming a ten-man squad; three squads plus a leader forming a 31-man platoon; three platoons plus some supporting units of automatic and heavy weapons forming a company, and so on through battalions and regiments to a division formed of three regiments. Every evening when not engaged in operations, the “trios” discuss the events of the day, which often involves criticism and self criticism of the three members’ activities at squad level. Every two weeks there is a meeting at platoon level and once a month at company level. At the latter meeting, the company commander presents a report on the unit’s activity during the previous month. Members of the company can express their opinions and make criticisms, with commanders and men on an absolutely equal footing.

“Praise and criticism are expressed at the same time by the company commander,” Le Vinh explained, “but criticism is handled ‘lightly’ in order to encourage the positive as the main means of getting rid of the negative. This is the law of our political development. But the rank and file are encouraged to criticize their unit commanders very frankly, because in this way commanders and men increase their knowledge. As time goes on, unjustified criticism fades away, but anyone criticized must stand up and answer back. It does not mean he must admit the criticism is justified, but at least he must give a satisfactory explanation for his action or attitude.”

He pointed out that the Liberation Army is a revolutionary army still in the course of being formed and stabilized. When our conversation took place, in early 1965, commanders were elected by the rank and file. Then the armed forces were still in the stage of a sort of “growth and split” development.[1]

Confidence between men and commanders was an absolute essential but this had to be established not on mystical faith in rank or role but on performance. If elected commanders did not live up to the rank-and-file expectations, if the real qualities of leadership were lacking, then they could be changed at the criticism and self-criticism meetings. But I was assured by Le Vinh that this very rarely happens in fact. Such a change of leadership had not taken place in the various units I visited, although I did hear of a few rare cases in other units. (In one of these instances a very successful action had been fought and the NLF forces achieved a victory, but they had initially been caught completely by surprise due to overconfidence and a resultant lack of vigilance by a company commander. The fact that he behaved impeccably in the fight that followed and that the fight was won did not save him from subsequent dismissal by a majority vote of the men he commanded.)

If a unit member is proposed for a position that he feels beyond his capacities, he can refuse, but not if the reasons he advances seem hypocritical or due to an exaggerated sense of modesty.

“In our approach to political education,” Le Vinh said, “we reject the concept that the masses are simply ‘cannon fodder’ or a ‘herd of sheep’ who will blindly follow their leader. We also reject the idea that technique is everything and man is nothing. We pay the greatest attention to every one of our recruits or soldiers; we follow him through and help him over his difficulties whether they are material, moral or ideological. We want men who know exactly why they do what they do, who act together as one man when the occasion demands, but each one of whom is a separate being bringing his own experience, his own intelligence to bear on the concrete problems to be solved. This makes unity a creative, living concept and not just a slogan.

“Emphasis is always on the Front, ” he continued, “on the greatest possible unity of all sections of the South Vietnamese people as the surest guarantee for victory, but we emphasize also that unity in itself is not enough – there must also be correct leadership. The more deeply we enter into discussions of our own recent past, our victorious struggle against French colonialism, leading up to the battle of Dien Bien Phu – and don’t forget that many of their elder brothers and fathers either took part in that victory or in supporting actions – the more we have to explain about the Vietminh[2] in the past and the vanguard role of the Communist Party within the Vietminh. They easily understand that when the party takes things in hand, the successes are always greater. We explain the party’s role under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership within the Vietminh in the August 1945 revolution, and the role of party cadres in the resistance struggle that followed. Sometimes it is difficult for those from newly liberated or enemy occupied zones to understand this at first, because of the intensive anti-Communist propaganda to which they have been subjected. But when they see how we live and work together and that there is absolute unity between what we say and what we do and that party cadres in our struggle today are the most energetic and devoted combatants, always in the forefront of the struggle, then they soon understand the role of the party.”

“Do the young recruits ask to join the PRP?”[3] I asked. “We encourage them to enter the Liberation Youth Association,” Le Vinh replied, “and a very large proportion of them are in this very important mass organization of the Liberation Front. Virtually all recruits from the liberated areas are already members of the LYA, and they come to us after having served for a while in local self-defense units in which most LYA members in the liberated villages are enrolled.”

I asked Le Vinh if he could say a few words about the guidelines laid down for political officers in their work. Could he, in a few words, explain the essence of the theory that guided them in their work with the rank and file, including, of course, political education within the armed forces? After a few moments’ thought, he said: “I am not a leading cadre. I do not have the necessary references here to reflect in a completely faithful manner the ideas of our leadership. But my own approach is based on the following concepts as I have understood them from my superiors.

“It is a universal truth that it is people who make history. The revolution must first politically awaken the people and this we try to do at every possible level, including those first five days of simple explanations to new recruits. We must arouse people by awakening their class consciousness, we must give them a political outlook. People have to be educated and organized but we must absolutely avoid giving them the idea that ‘we’ the cadres or ‘they’ the leaders are making a revolution. A revolution cannot be handed out as a ‘gift’ to the people. It is the masses themselves that make the revolution; it is the masses that write history and in our case they are doing this by armed struggle as all other ways were closed to us. But what is armed struggle? It is neither a beginning nor an end in itself. The classic definition is that armed struggle is a continuation of political struggle by other means. We revolutionaries accept this definition. It is precisely the case in South Vietnam and even the simplest peasants can see that this is so through their own experiences.

“Political struggle, extremely bitter political struggle in our country, merged sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly into armed struggle. In many areas people started taking to arms spontaneously. So it is clear also that the armed forces are the instrument of the revolution and not the revolution the instrument of the armed forces. The army, as our experience of the armed struggle against the French showed, is also an instrument of the party, because if there is no party, there is no clear ideology to guide the struggle. If there were no Front, what would be the subsequent role of the armed forces even if they managed to win victory without a party, without a Front? That is why we insist from the very first days on ‘why and for whom’ we have taken up arms, and our troops are never allowed to lose sight for a moment of the answers to these questions. But to awaken them fully, to gain the absolute confidence of the masses and learn from them, we the cadres, and this applies to the leadership also, must live with the masses, breathe the same air they breathe, understand their most fundamental aspirations and, above all, carry on ideological education. But always based on the fact that it is the masses themselves that make the revolution. This is not just a propaganda phrase,” Le Vinh insisted. “The masses had already started to carry out armed, revolutionary struggle in a spontaneous and uncoordinated way before the party and Front moved in to give them scientific, organized leadership.

“The ‘why and for whom’ line of our education prevents any tendency toward militarism’s and it obviously finds its application in virtually every activity of our troops, starting with their relations with each other but especially with their relations with the people. Complete identification with the people in any area where our troops are stationed or operating is an absolute imperative and anyone involved in the slightest violation of the ‘why and for whom’ concept in relations with the people would be severely criticized. We are a people’s army, devoted to helping the people themselves successfully carry out their revolution. That is why we have total support from the masses wherever we go, whereas the enemy finds only total hostility… This support from the people and the warm, friendly feelings they display to us is a confirmation for newcomers to our ranks that we really are sincere and that we are on the right track.”

I asked him if he had studied Vo Nguyen Giap’s People’s War, People’s Army, but he said he had not although he had heard some extracts read over Radio Hanoi. “There may be some copies at Headquarters,” he said, “but I have never seen them.” I asked because what he had said about political struggle merging at first with spontaneous and then into organized armed struggle had been emphasized by Giap in a passage discussing the situation on the eve of the anti-French resistance war: “At the time of the party decision stressing the necessity of preparing for armed insurrection based on the political movement of the masses,” wrote Giap, “numerous semi-armed and armed organizations had already made their appearance and with these the masses gradually moved forward from large-scale political struggle into armed struggle…”

I mentioned that Giap’s account of the earlier situation in Vietnam seemed similar to that in the South in 1959-60, except that no party decision had preceded the beginnings of armed struggle in the South. Le Vinh replied:

“What was common to both situations is that there cannot be a successful revolution unless the people are ready to make one, and if the people are ready to make a revolution, you cannot stop them. All the experiences in the North as in the South prove that it is the masses alone that carry out a revolution, but that correct leadership is necessary to guide them to victory. Political education within the ranks of our armed forces is an integral part of that correct leadership.”

He went on to discuss the situation in various newly independent African states where even when progressive forces had assumed the leadership, they had been overthrown by the armed forces because they had simply taken over the latter intact from the former colonial power, together with “their reactionary, colonialist, bourgeois ideology,” as Le Vinh expressed it. “Perhaps if the leaders had conducted an intensive ‘why and for whom’ educational program they could have awakened the class and national consciousness of the troops,” he said, “but in any case, from what we have heard they would have had to change the officers, who all come from the exploiting classes and would never change their class outlook, never accept total devotion to the cause of the people or the sort of complete equality between officers and men that we find natural and is one of the great sources of unity within our ranks and between us and the people.”


[1] The “growth and split” development of the Liberation Army is discussed in the following chapter.

[2] “Viet Minh” is the Vietnamese abbreviation of “Vietnam Independence League”, founded in May, 1941.

[3] People’s Revolutionary Party, which is the Communist Party of South Vietnam.

NEXT: Chapter Three – Building an Army

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.