Vietnam Will Win: Self-Defence

Self-defense. Photo Wilfred Burchett.

During the 1968 Lunar New Year offensive, NLF attacking forces were immediately able with remarkable facility to set up defensive positions in numerous cities, which they quickly turned over to local, self-defense forces, enabling the spearhead of the attacking force to be withdrawn for action elsewhere. The task of the self-defense forces, the hard core formed mainly from underground NLF cells established in the cities during years of patient organizational work, was to defend the positions secured and to transform them into NLF military bases inside the cities for use as jumping off points for further waves of attacks. In one great bound the NLF had jumped over what the Americans considered insuperable obstacles at the approaches of the cities and had seized what were considered impregnable positions. Their forces were implanted inside the cities in such a way as to require virtually no supply lines or transport; their arms, munitions and food were secured in those first few hours when they seized almost all the arsenals and munitions depots, distributing the contents to the future self-defense forces.

Several scores of thousands of arms were seized and distributed within the first 24 hours of the attacks (hundreds of artillery pieces and heavier weapons for which the NLF had no use were destroyed to deny their use to the enemy). Machinery from the arsenals for making or repairing light weapons was also seized and in the days that followed, this equipment was distributed to hundreds of tiny workshops in the cities and throughout the country. Of the 140 towns and cities attacked, the NLF leadership had designated certain priorities and within each town and city there were priority targets. Attacks on the US. Embassy and Thieu’s presidential palace in Saigon, for instance, were diversionary, while priority targets like the huge Thanh Tay An arsenal, near Tan Son Nhut airport, were seized and 5,000 weapons, from this one installation alone, were distributed to the future self-defense forces.

Another priority target was communications (the cutting of all major roads, the blowing up of strategic bridges and the destruction of planes, helicopters, military vehicles, trucks and river craft) aiming to paralyze military movement and isolate the cities at least temporarily, preventing the enemy from rushing reinforcements to any one spot. Time was thus gained for the self-defense forces to dig in, consolidate their positions, link up these positions with trench networks and tunnels and build strong points and combat nests in order to create solid positions from which to continue the armed struggle in the cities. The priority target in Saigon was the “Chinese city” of Cholon, with more than one million population. Cholon is the main location of rice-husking mills and therefore the greatest rice storage center in all of South Vietnam. All warehouses were seized and steps immediately taken to set up big reserves of foodstuffs for the self-defense forces (stocks were also distributed to the population in case the Americans started bombing the storage depots as part of their usual tactics to prevent foodstuffs falling into “Vietcong” hands). Within the first few hours of the attack against Saigon-Cholon, the self-defense forces had stocks of arms, ammunition and food, sufficient for many months of combat. The same was true in most other cities marked down as priority targets. In the main target cities, the self-defense forces were firmly established in one key sector or another, consolidating their positions and where necessary establishing a line of communication with NLF rear bases.

The conception of “self-defense” centers is an original idea, one of many developed by the Vietnamese people for the conduct of guerrilla warfare, and it is inseparable from the whole conception of “people’s war.” Self-defense or auto-defense was utilized during the anti-French resistance war, but on nothing like the scale on which it has been used more recently in the South. Self-defense in the cities is exclusively an innovation of the South. Although the stage of encirclement of the cities had been reached in the anti-French resistance, the Geneva Agreements obviated the necessity for the actual assault on the cities. Auto-defense in the cities is but an extension of a system already perfected in the self-defense villages.

Auto-defense has been extremely important in South Vietnam and the resistance struggle could never have reached its present stage of assaulting cities without the formation of self-defense units in the liberated villages and the integration of whole groups of fortified villages into self-defense zones.

The establishment of self-defense units and zones was an inevitable and logical development within the South Vietnamese conception of people’s war. The self-defense concept is inseparably linked with the political unpopular aspect of the armed struggle and plays a vital supporting role of overall political-military activities. Self-defense mobilizes the creative initiative of the people for developing new techniques, tactics and even weapons. This creative energy reaches full fruition only when an entire nation is engaged in the struggle.

The self-defense concept has been developed in the very specific conditions of South Vietnam, including such factors as the establishment by the adversary of village “self-defense” units as an anti guerrilla measure and the building of anti guerrilla fortifications around the “strategic hamlets,” which facilitated their transformation into anti government “fortified villages,” defended by the weapons and often some of the personnel of the original anti guerrilla “self-defense” units. But the basic idea of self-defense villages and zones presumably could be adapted anywhere the people have taken to arms in a nationwide liberation struggle. Success obviously depends on the struggle being waged not partially but on a large scale; on careful political work to lay a solid groundwork in which the widest possible unity is forged around determination to wage a resolute, long-range struggle. The self-defense zones have to be either large enough or have natural conditions to permit a certain mobility of the defending forces within the zone itself, or must be linked to a solid base area into which they can temporarily withdraw or maneuver.

The Vietnamese experience with self-defense is largely unknown abroad and has nothing in common with the failures of auto defense in Columbia and Bolivia analyzed by Régis Debray in Revolution in the Revolution. In saying that “today self-defense as a system and as a reality is liquidated,” Debray is apparently referring to the concept of self-defense when utilized in complete isolation and as the primary strategy used in a revolution. For example, in Bolivia the tin miners who played a key role in overthrowing the oligarchy then established themselves in an almost autonomous and heavily defended but politically isolated zone, against which government forces could prepare at leisure and finally in May 1964 launch a devastating attack supported by aircraft and U.S.-trained parachutists. Debray accurately analyzes the weaknesses of such a concept of “self-defense” in isolation but the conclusions are incorrect that: “self-defense therefore reduces guerrilla warfare to a tactical role and robs it of all revolutionary strategic significance…” and “… even if it temporarily ensures the protection of the population it endangers it in the long run…”

A revolutionary war, like a revolution itself, is a process of constant development, sometimes at a snail’s pace, sometimes in great bounds ahead. In a previous chapter there were illustrations of how a simple propaganda act of scrawling up slogans was transformed into political action; political acts were transformed into armed struggle. Similarly passive defense was transformed into active defense and defensive operations were transformed into offensive operations. Units which started their military career in 1959 by preparing spiked traps around their villages later became veteran battalions which stormed into cities at the end of January 1968, or which tore elite U.S. parachute units to pieces in the battle of Dak To in November 1967. There was nothing static about self-defense units or self-defense zones in South Vietnam. They were in constant development and played an active role of vital, revolutionary strategic significance.

At the beginning of the struggle in early 1960 in the old revolutionary bases of the Ca Mau peninsula, self-defense took the form of “passive violence,” according to Nguyen Tu Quang.[1] “Since the Diem authorities were using extreme forms of violence against us, we decided the only recourse was to counter violence with violence. As protection against the large-scale military sweeps, people started defending their villages and homes with traps. They did not prevent movement on the roads at this stage… If the enemy came through the village and went straight on, nothing happened. But if the troops started moving into houses or around the pigsties and fowl pens or into the gardens and orchards, they started falling into spiked traps… This was one of our earliest forms of self-defense and for a time it was extremely effective. When the enemy started getting tougher, we started making all sorts of explosive booby traps-they were still more effective.”

Confirmation of the effectiveness of such self-defense measures was reported in the New York Times[2] in a dispatch from Da Nang by Joseph Treaster, who wrote: “Few United States Marines in South Vietnam question the thesis that booby traps and mines are the guerrillas’ most valuable weapons. Despite a growing effort in the past two years, the Marines have been unable to decrease significantly the effectiveness of the wide variety of devices that explode suddenly and fatally, often when the enemy has long disappeared.

“Booby traps and mines account for 50 percent of the casualties among the 25,000 men of the First Marine Division and for 25 percent of those suffered by the 74,000 Marines in Vietnam…” To reduce casualties, Treaster states, a special “Vietcong Booby-Trap School” had been set up from which marines must graduate before coming to Vietnam. “Part of the graduation,” he continues, “is a walk through a ‘Vietcong’ village.

“An intruder who opens the main bamboo gate pulls the detonator on an American-made mortar shell. A trip wire a few feet down the main path rattles a can full of rocks to warn of his approach. Further down the main path are examples of guerrilla ingenuity found in dense jungles: a large bamboo square fitted with large spikes and set to fall between two trees, a supple length of bamboo with six spikes rigged so it will whip into the midsection of a man, and several carefully camouflaged holes…”

“Stick to the main road and no harm will befall you,” people told the Diem troops in the early days of insurrection, “but move off it and you’ll be in trouble because there are spiked traps everywhere. The Vietcong were around here last night.” When “accidents” happened, none would appear more sympathetic than the villagers who had in fact laid the traps. “Ah, poor young man. We warned you, and now look what’s happened.” While binding up his wounds and giving him tea the villager might say: “But why did you come burning our houses anyway. The Vietcong said you would do this but we didn’t believe them…”

When a group of villages had developed enough spiked traps to make it costly for troops to enter houses or pillage orchards and fields and the soldiers started using artillery to demolish the hamlets, then self-defense – still passive – reached out further to “mine” the roads with spiked traps. And in the highland tribal areas it was natural to use poison on the spikes and then to move from the “passive” use of spikes to the “active” use of poisoned arrows from their crossbows combined with “passive” animal traps.

Y Bay of the Sedang minority, a political cadre of the Autonomous Minority Movement of the NLF, spoke about events in Kon Plong District of Kontum Province as early as 1957. “There was a battalion from the Diem 22nd Division stationed at Longlek. Once they sent a unit to one of our Sedang villages to take a pig, but it was the day after one of our festivals. There had been a big feast and there was only one pig fit to eat left in the village. The woman who owned it refused to let the troops take it. One soldier grabbed it by the head and she grabbed it by the tail. There was a real tussle; then the woman drew her knife and slashed the soldier’s hand. He reached for his gun, but a big crowd gathered round with knives and crossbows. The unit withdrew. The enemy didn’t come back for a long time and this incident had a big effect on all our Sedang people, not only in that village but throughout Kon Plong. The Diem authorities started sending agents to survey the situation but we set traps for them and few ever got back to report. Then they sent troops and we had losses, people were arrested, tortured and killed, buffalo shot and houses burned down. We had greater losses between 1957 and 1959 than during the nine years of the anti-French war.

“In 1959 our people could stand it no longer. They rose up and destroyed the enemy post Mangden, killing the district chief and wiping out a platoon of troops that had behaved very brutally. A new district chief was sent and a meeting arranged with one of our tribal leaders. The district chief said: ‘president Diem will send an army of a million men to punish those who attacked the post.’ ”

Y Bay continued: “We have already got an army of a million waiting for them. You could not crush our people with your Mangden post or your Longlek post and even if you send a few thousand troops against us, this will change nothing. We have a million defenders on duty day and night, in sunshine or rain, well dug in where your men will never find them and can never shoot them.” He was talking of the thousands of steel-hard bamboo spikes set in a wide variety of traps which uttered the approach to every village, man-sized versions of those they had perfected in generations past for use against wild beasts.

“From December 1960 to June 1961, our hamlets were constantly under attack by troops from the Longlek post. During that period about 60 of them were killed in our traps and we had collected most of their arms. In June 1961 we attacked the Longlek post and wiped it out completely. Since then [we were talking in early 1964], Kon Plong District has been a liberated zone. Our people picked up all sorts of tactical tricks. We started setting our traps on the roads. Once we set an ambush on the left side of the road, but we had devices for making noises on the opposite side. When they turned towards the noise we fired poisoned arrows into their backs. At 150 feet, our crossbows never miss.

“In one of our villages, the enemy burned down most of the houses, but left one as a sort of watch tower. When the officer leaned out of the window next day to look around, a device dropped down and sliced off his head So that house was burned down too. But troops kept away from that area for a long time. Everybody in our villages has an allotted task. The men use their guns and crossbows. Women and children sharpen the bamboo spikes and the older children lay them out in our minefields.

“At first we just protected our villages with an occasional attack on a post. But then we sent out our best sharpshooters to surround the enemy posts and prevent their troops from moving out. We let them go out to obtain water, but if they started moving toward the villages then there was a poisoned arrow for the head of the column and the first one or two following him. In the end the Longlek post was abandoned and the enemy pulled all the way back to Quang Ngai Province…”

The whole area of which Y Bay was speaking is now a solidly liberated area and most of the young men who started their military activity by sharpening bamboo stakes are now veterans of the regular NLF armed forces who stormed into Kontum city at 2 a.m. on January 30, 1968. Over the years, passive self-defense in Kon Plong district, which started with a fight over a pig, had developed into active pursuit of large-scale enemy units.

In general, “passive violence” was already widespread in 1959-60 and was a prelude to the self-defense concept which followed the widespread uprisings against the “strategic hamlets” system.

Persons with whom I spoke who had taken part in the early stage of the resistance struggle usually emphasized certain steps in the evolution from passive to active defense and developments within the framework of “auto-defense” itself. The main lines of these developments and different steps were as follows: first, defense of houses and fields was extended to the tracks leading from the main roads to the hamlets and then to the main roads themselves; in the next phase, explosives were used in addition to the spiked traps; this was followed by the dramatic turning point at which guns recovered from the victims were used, first by the armed propaganda groups and then by the self-defense units, which soon started ambushing and counterattacking raiding forces; and finally the time was reached when enemy troops would be pushed back into their posts and full-time encirclement of these posts was maintained. It is important to note that the change from one phase to another never occurred in isolation but in whole groups of villages at a time, so that none could be singled out for special reprisals.

Once the self-defense forces had enough firearms for a whole group of such villages there was never any question of their sitting around waiting for the enemy to come to their particular hamlet before they took to arms against him. The self-defense activities of hamlets were first coordinated at village level[3] and village activities were later coordinated at district level. Although the primary tasks of the self-defense forces were to defend their own hamlets and villages and to neutralize nearby enemy posts, in the case of large-scale enemy attacks they coordinated their harassing activities and ambushes with actions of the NLF regional troops and the regular NLF army, as the latter gathered strength. The self-defense forces were an excellent training school for recruits for the regional troops and later for the regular army, providing a constant supply of manpower for the latter. They were in constant process of development; after every successful action there were more arms available. Technique and tactics improved, as did coordination between hamlets, to such an extent that in some districts an elaborate network of underground tunnels linked every hamlet.

In Cu Chi District of Gia Dinh Province, at the gateway to Saigon, which I visited in early 1964 and again in late 1966, virtually all hamlets were interconnected with such a tunnel system into which the self-defense forces could withdraw in case of overwhelming force and within which they could maneuver to outflank the enemy, striking from the least expected places at the most unexpected times, to disappear underground again to explode electrically controlled mines or ambush from underground firepoints within the maze of tunnels and communications trenches of which they were the undisputed masters.

The most difficult moment for the self-defense units was the first period after formation. Normally an armed propaganda unit helped to demolish their “strategic hamlet” and get a self-defense unit organized, then moved off to deal with some other problem while the self-defense unit was on its own awaiting the inevitable enemy reprisal, especially in the early days when the Diem regime tried to stamp out the first sparks of revolt at all costs.

What usually happened, especially after the NLF was formed and resistance was scientifically organized and coordinated, was that the NLF command at district level carefully selected a target “strategic hamlet” where a solid political base had been established. With the collaboration of trusted elements within the hamlet a supported uprising would be staged, various reforms (outlined in an earlier chapter) would be instituted and a self-defense unit set up. Delegates from the hamlet would immediately be sent to inform other hamlets in the area what was happening while at times delegates arrived from other hamlets demanding NLF support for an uprising. Usually before the Diem authorities had time to react against the first uprising, there were simultaneous actions in a dozen or more other hamlets, with a total of anything up to 50,000 people involved. Such large scale uprisings spread over a large area could only occur if the people were politically ripe for such a move. In the case of the group hamlet uprisings, whatever weapons the Diem authorities had put in the hands of local Civil Guards or other paramilitary units in and around the hamlets automatically passed into the hands of the new self-defense units. The local district commander simply did not have enough troops at his disposal to cope with the situation, especially as steps were taken to ensure that he had an exaggerated account of the size of the NLF supporting troops. (He could never gamble on such accounts not being true because on some occasions when the NLF forces were really strong, they spread rumors that they were only a handful in order to lure district troops into ambush.)

In my book Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War, I mentioned a typical action in the coastal province of Phu Yen where, after a “model” strategic hamlet at Ky Lo in Dong Xuan District was liberated, delegates arrived asking for NLF support for uprisings in their hamlets in neighboring Son Hoa District. Support was readily lent, although the NLF cadres had not had time to organize political bases in these particular strategic hamlets. Almost simultaneous uprisings took place in another 13 hamlets, as a result of which almost one-third of Phu Yen Province was liberated, with important self-defense detachments immediately set up. Within the 16 months that followed, no less than 55 operations had been launched by Diem troops, all of them thwarted by the self-defense units, sometimes in coordination with regular NLF troops. The main result of the 55 operations was the liberation of most of the rest of Phu Yen Province.

Sometimes uprisings in the hamlets were coordinated at district level, sometimes at provincial level. The self-defense units set up as a result of uprisings in Dong Xuan-Son Hoa Districts were strong enough for this area to be considered from then on an important guerrilla base which soon linked up with other solidly NLF-controlled areas in the highlands to the west.

Effective self-defense units are not something that can be set up under coercion, as the Americans have learned at great cost. Every effort they have made to create so called “self-defense” units, aimed at repression of the population, has ended with the arms passing into the hands of those they were intended to repress. The guns must be in the hands of people who have something to defend, something more than their own pay or skins.

The self-defense units set up during the campaigns to destroy the “strategic hamlets” had these immediate aims: to use the guns to defend the new, free life; the right to live in their former villages, cultivate their old fields and protect the new ones received under land reform; freedom to practice the cult of their ancestors; to resist the tax collectors and landlords’ agents and those who protected the latter; to resist at all costs being herded back into “strategic,” “new life” or some other type of concentration camp hamlets.

These aims were very easy for members of the self-defense units to grasp. If the task at first seemed limited to defense of their own homes and fields, the self-defense recruits soon saw the necessity of going further afield, at first to pin the enemy down in nearby posts and then at an appropriate moment to take the initiative in wiping out those posts in coordinated actions. In the process of taking on these broader tasks, a self-defense zone was transformed into a guerrilla zone, an area in which the guerrillas were complete masters at night (and usually during daytime) but in which locally based Saigon forces could also penetrate in daytime if they came in force. As the situation developed, it was easy to grasp that if, in coordination with other self-defense units, they could wipe out the enemy’s local forces, the guerrilla zone could be transformed into a guerrilla base in which they were masters day and night and the enemy could penetrate only by using his main-force units. When the call went out for recruits from the self-defense forces to serve with NLF regional troops to encircle enemy posts at district or even provincial level and be ready to oppose and counterattack the enemy’s mopping-up operations, there was no lack of volunteers. Concepts broadened and the necessity to engage the enemy’s main-force units by building up NLF main-force units, especially after the direct commitment of US. combat troops, also became clear to everyone. Every attack by U.S. planes speeded up the flow of recruits and demands to go still further afield to hit the bases where the planes were stationed self-defense with rifles and light automatic weapons was obviously not sufficient against planes; the best defense was to attack them on the ground. The self-defense units produced natural guerrilla leaders and fighters of exceptionally high morale because every step they had taken had been so clearly right, so clearly in defense of their interests, those of their neighbors and those of the nation.

The self-defense units are actually the base of the pyramid on which the whole structure of the NLF armed forces rests. They are the most concrete expression of people’s war. They are of the people, for the people and appointed by the people. It would be difficult to imagine a more democratic form of armed forces or a more perfect form for the tasks imposed by the resistance struggle. They represent an answer to the NLF’s seeming lack of mobility due to its lack of a modern transport system and American monopoly of air power. While the Americans have to fly their troops (and the munitions, food and even water to supply them) scores or hundreds of miles for an operation, the self-defense forces are always on the spot over the entire face of South Vietnam, surrounding every U.S. base and outpost, and they are ready for speedy concentration if necessary with sufficient equipment on their backs to give immediate battle to the enemy’s mobile forces. They can count on continuous replenishment of supplies by the local population. The self-defense units have proved capable of holding up U.S. main unit attacks or severely slowing them down until NLF regional troops arrive to wage coordinated actions with the self-defense units, and if necessary in cooperation with the Liberation Army’s regular forces.

During the 1965-66 and 1966-67 American dry season offensives, self-defense units bore the brunt of the American operations. They ground offensives down to a halt by harassing operations and ambushes, forcing the attackers to employ roads and trails where traps had been prepared well in advance, planting mines from unexploded U.S. shells and bombs in the path of tank columns, launching night attacks and preventing the attackers from penetrating the main base areas where the regular NLF forces were building up for the 1967-68 operational season. In their first two years of offensive operations, U.S. forces rarely came to grips with the NLF regular troops, although the main avowed aim of the “search and destroy” operations was to find and wipe out these main-force units. This was because of the solid organization of the “self-defense” troops and regional forces with which they closely cooperated.

The establishment of even partial NLF power in the cities, with another four million population from which to recruit, ensures an extremely rapid growth of urban self-defense units. The latter act as a powerful pole of attraction for city youth, who have been resisting by all possible means conscription into the Saigon army, and also for individuals and units within the Saigon army. Possibilities of desertion were greatly facilitated by the move into the cities. If the first great wave of some 200,000 desertions was mainly from among the Saigon army’s regional troops, it was certain that the example of the self-defense units in the cities would be a further powerful stimulus for the Saigon regulars to desert.

It is clear that the self-defense forces in South Vietnam are playing a major role in revolutionary warfare.


[1] See Chap. 10

[2] March 31, 1967.

[3] Most villages are comprised of four to six hamlets.

NEXT: Chapter 13 – The People’s Revolutionary Party

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.