Counterinsurgency in Vietnam

18 Dec

Counterinsurgency defined Successful counterinsurgency programs consist of an overall policy or methodology of initiatives which when implemented can be quantified as either effective or ineffective. Each component of a counterinsurgency program or policy is key to its overall success and as such would suffer defeat were it delineated to a solitary strategem. Counterinsurgency as defined by the Army-Marine Corps “Joint doctrine” is “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency. Insurgency is defined as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.”[1] The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs adds: “As such, it is primarily a political struggle, in which both sides use armed force to create space for their political, economic and influence activities to be effective.”[2] These definitions correlate to the ‘population-centric approach’ found in the US Government Counterinsurgency Guide: “The population-centric approach shifts the focus of COIN from defeating the insurgent organization to maintaining or recovering the support of the population. While direct military action against the insurgent organization will definitely be required, it is not the main effort; this approach assumes that the center of gravity is the government’s relationship with and support among the population. It can be summarized as ‘first protect and support the population, and all else will follow.'”[3] The aforementioned attributes to counterinsurgency highlight my contention that it is in working with the local or indigenous population that is essential.

“Human Rights” ensured: “Winning of hearts and minds” In addressing the Forum topic “What is THE BEST counterinsurgency tactic?” I would postulate that human rights (of the locals or indigenous population) stand at the forefront as a leading counterinsurgency tactic; for example, “winning their hearts and minds”, first coined by former US President John Adams in 1818.[4] As noted by Dr. Salev Kepp in Best Practices in Counterinsurgency: “The failure of counterinsurgencies and the root cause of the insurgencies themselves can often be traced to government disregard of these basic rights, as in Kuomintung, China; French Indochina; Batsita’s Cuba; Somoza’s Nicaragua; and Soviet-oocupied Afghanistan, among others.[5] As stated in the Counterinsurgency manual published by the United States Army and United States Marine Corps in December of 2006, “every insurgency is contextual and and presents its own set of challenges”.[6] Keeping this in mind, at the heart of every insurgency is an indigenous population that becomes the object of manipulation. It is this population, irrespective of historical era or locale, that must be “won over” by counterinsurgent forces. While the politics, culture, weapons, religions, or geographies vary throughout history, the single constant are the indigenous people whom are the focus of the insurgency.

Intelligence: A close second Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.) in his article A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations cites intelligence as a key factor towards success in the US-led counterinsurgency efforts against the ‘Viet Cong Infrastructure’ during the Vietnam War. His experience was as commander of a 92-man ‘Provincial Reconnaissance Unit’ tasked with eliminating VCI insurgents in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. In the Colonel’s own words: “This intimate knowledge of the VCI (Viet Cong Infrastructure) led to many highly accurate operational leads and the elimination of several important VCI cadres during my tour there. While I was the US adviser to the Tay Ninh PRU (Provincial Reconnaissance Unit), approximately two-thirds of the VCI the PRU captured or killed were uncovered by the intelligence developed by the PRU’s organic system.”[7]

Clausewitz on Counterinsurgency: What he might have written In Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War, he spoke on the character of contemporary warfare: “… these cases have shown what an enormous contribution the heart and temper of a nation can make to the sum total of its politics, war potential, and fighting strength. Now that governments have become conscious of these resources, we cannot expect them to remain unused in the future, whether the war is fought in self-defense or in order to satisfy intense ambition.” [8] Clausewitz speaks of the non-military population as “resources” which will be used in the future as we see today by both insurgents and counterinsurgents alike. In his closing Clausewitz speaks on the use of these resources, or people, in order to “satisfy intense ambitions”. It is through these ambitions that insurgents are given purpose. Were Clausewitz writing on warfare today his views on counterinsurgency might have given a counterinsurgency framework to classical strategic thought.


[1] Headquarters Department of the Army, “Counterinsurgency” Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5 (December 2006): 1. [accessed October 16, 2011].
[2] Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. “US Government Counterinsurgency Guide” (January 2009): 2. [accessed October 16, 2011].
[3] Ibid.,
[4] Salev I. Kepp Ph.D., “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency”, Military Review (January 2009): 9. [accessed October 16, 2011].
[5] Ibid.
[6] Headquarters Department of the Army, “Counterinsurgency” Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5 (December 2006): Foreward. [accessed October 16, 2011].
[7] Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations Central Intelligence Agency (June 2008) [accessed October 16,2011]. [8] Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds., Carl Von Clausewitz: On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 220.

Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. “US Government Counterinsurgency Guide” (January 2009): 1-67 [accessed October 16, 2011].
Finlayson, Colonel Andrew R. USMC (Ret.) “A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations” Central Intelligence Agency (June 2008) [accessed October 16,2011].
Headquarters Department of the Army. “Counterinsurgency” Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5 (December 2006): 1-100 [accessed October 16, 2011].
Howard, Michael and Peter Paret, eds. Carl Von Clausewitz: On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Kepp, Salev I. Ph.D. “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency”, Military Review (May-June 2005): 8-12 [accessed October 16, 2011].

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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in The Vietnam War


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