The Vietnam War

The big turning point in lost contemporary wars was the Vietnam War. It was waged by the United States, replacing France, which had just been defeated in Diên Biên Phu (1954).

Việt Minh advantages and the American adversary’s mistakes

The Việt Minh victory was due, among others, to its ability to ensure logistics far from its epicenter: all the material was brought over through several hundred miles of jungle on bicycles loaded with about two hundred kilos and pushed by men on foot. Such an exploit supposed an exceptional mobilization capacity.

Other factors were at play, particularly the mistakes made by the United States and their ally, Ngô Dinh Diêm. The latter, brought into power by the United States, was a Catholic, hence necessarily part of a minority. It was not long before he alienated all the sects and other religious currents, including the Buddhists, through a narrow policy of rejection. The Việt Minh had gained control of parts of southern Vietnam, confiscated big landowners’ land, and distributed it to the peasants. Ngô Dinh Diêm returned the land to them.

In 1956 (the year when there was supposed to be a vote on possible reunification), Diêm made the capital mistake of getting rid of elected village councils and replacing them with his Saigon agents. The villages’ autonomy had always been guaranteed, whatever the regime. State authority “stopped at the bamboo fence surrounding the village.” Diêm’s agents, foreign to the villages, distinguished themselves by their corruption and authoritarianism. They would be the first targets of the future Việt Cộng, which would then be able to have influence in the rural areas. The Communists came in as defenders of village autonomy and were soon to have the villages under their control. The National Liberation Front was officially born at the end of 1960.

Between 1961 and 1963, US advisers (they were sixteen thousand under John F. Kennedy’s presidency) applied to Vietnam the “Strategic Hamlet” experience that had been effective in Malaysia. The idea was to regroup the population in order to isolate it from the guerrilla.1 But Việt Cộng officers had already blended in with the population and the hamlet experience was a failure. In September 1963, however, US Commander General Paul D. Harkins reported that the United States was winning the battle of the Mekong Delta. This was the year when the South Vietnamese army, with US approval, got rid of the cumbersome Diêm whom they had brought to power.

One year later, out of the eight and a half thousand strategic hamlets, more than seven thousand had been broken up. In addition, in a total of sixteen thousand hamlets, ten thousand village chiefs had been killed by the Việt Cộng. War correspondent Bernard B. Fall provided a political explanation of this (1961) by noting after his investigation that three-fourths of the villages were no longer bringing in tax receipts. In other words, they were no longer controlled by the Saigon regime.

In 1964, General William Westmoreland replaced General Harkins and in July, the number of US advisers (some of which were taking part in the operations) had risen to twenty-one thousand five hundred.


Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense, declared that military action could essentially be completed by 1965. That was the year, in fact, when the Vietnam War became a full-fledged US war. The marines landed at Da Nang. General Westmoreland was confident, US fire power was considerable, and air control was massive. US technology was sure to be victorious, all the more so that the war was being waged assertively by the United States, confident that it was morally right and that this would prevent South Vietnam, and through the domino effect Southeast Asia, from falling under the Communist yoke.
Given that the assistance that North Vietnam had been providing to the South since the 1960s via Cambodia had to be stopped, the United States decided on a gradual escalation of air strikes north of the Seventeenth Parallel. The idea was to force the North to cease its assistance or else they would pay a very heavy price, that is, the destruction of all the infrastructure patiently built by Hồ Chí Minh’s regime (despite some serious agrarian policy mistakes that ended up causing a revolt in the Nghệ An province, the effects of which would be the subject of a correction campaign).2

Hanoi’s response to this air offensive was to move urban officers to the provinces and districts, and the industries to provincial workshops. The regime was determined to stand, whatever the cost. The destruction was significant.

In the south, the Việt Cộng forces suffered considerably under the deluge of US fire. The tonnage of bombs combined with the use of napalm, phosphorous bombs, fragmentation bombs, the free-fire zones, and so on, took enormous amounts of lives among combatants and civilians, but the Việt Cộng were not eradicated.

At the end of 1967, after two years of bombings and counterinsurgency operations carried out by the United States and their allies, General Westmoreland announced that the final phase would soon begin.

The Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was launched in South Vietnam on January 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese lunar new year. It involved thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals as well as more than twenty US bases. Until early March, Huế, the precolonial capital, remained completely under the control of the Việt Cộng, who proceeded to liquidate the regime’s agents. With painstaking efforts, US troops eventually regained control of the city. In Saigon, in a highly spectacular way, a sacrificed a Việt Cộng commando broke into the US Embassy and held its ground for many long hours. Việt Cộng battalions led an attack against the presidential palace and occupied the radio station. It took US troops nearly one week to regain control of the capital.

On the strictly military level, this direct confrontation was a failure for the Việt Cộng. But it was a considerable political success. As the offensive was unfolding, US and Western media described it as a disaster for the Saigon regime and proof of the failure of the US war.
The Tet Offensive marked the turning point of the war. After that, it became honorable in the United States to be against the war in Vietnam. US public opinion had been misled, the Việt Cộng was not in its death throes. The North Vietnamese had done all it could to get US public opinion on its side (visits of Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, and so on).
Never, before or after Vietnam, was war shown so freely; never has public opinion been so well informed during a conflict. Criticism was liberally expressed in the media (Walter Cronkite and his daily reports). In fact, after the Tet Offensive, the center of gravity of the war was largely US public opinion, in a country where, at the time, people expressed themselves at liberty. This would no longer be true with the Patriot Act in the wake of September 11, 2001, no more than it would be ten years earlier during the Gulf War, when the only images shown and commented on were those aired by CNN, which was ruling over all information.

A long period of negotiations followed the Tet Offensive. The resounding publication of leaks from The Pentagon Papers by the New York Times at the end of 1971 dealt a very hard blow on US authorities.3

Lessons of the Vietnam War

Mobilizing the whole of the nation for a colonial-type war seemed counterproductive. This type of conflict can, in theory, only be engaged in with professional troops. When the war ended after a grueling but short period of intensive bombing (late 1972 to early 1973), the United States had lost more than fifty-eight thousand soldiers and officers. A great many were wounded for life and traumatized. Politically speaking, the “Vietnamese syndrome” prevented any reaction in 1975 when the North Vietnamese pushed around an extensively trained and well-equipped South Vietnamese army, which had no desire to fight and save the Saigon regime.

This was a total political defeat. Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, declared in 1995, thirty years after the military intervention in Vietnam of which he had been one of the architects: “I had never been to Indochina and did not understand its history . . . its culture . . . .” It would have sufficed for him to read Bernard Fall.4

The belief that technology was the answer to all and ultimately solved everything had not factored in the undoubtedly most important aspect of asymmetry, which was the prerequisite of having previously constituted a substantial social base and agreed to pay the price of war for the long haul. The major asymmetry was ideological. This is what is usually known as the moral factor. What matters is less the actual content of the ideology than the total motivation that it can generate.


The end of imperial Europe

Great Britain was the first to take note of the change, the effects of which it had already been able to measure in India. India became independent—with all the ensuing religious problems (Kashmir). As for France, defeated in 1940, it had intended to keep its empire in order to preserve its status. And in the immediate post-war period, repression was applied in the colonies with a severity that was every bit as cruel as that of the pre-war period: Sétif massacre in Algeria (1945), Madagascar (1947).

From the Indochina War to the Algerian War

The independence proclaimed by Hồ Chí Minh in August 1945 in Hanoi in the vacuum between the north occupied by Chinese nationalists and the south occupied by the British troops was not ratified. Reconquest began in 1946. The Việt Minh had already established, especially in north, organized political bases. The Vietnamese, although Communists, were also nationalists and were combating a foreign expeditionary corps. But times had changed.
Like the Chinese, the Việt Minh organized village militia, provincial militia, and regular units. The fact that they were fighting against foreigners, even if these had local allies, showed the national character of their struggle, and, with time, won over the support of an increasing part of the population.

Starting in 1950, backed by Communist China, which in October of the previous year had taken over, the Việt Minh began to carry out large-scale offensive operations. These would be very costly, but lessons would be learned from them, and the offensives, starting in 1953, were better prepared and made it possible to thwart the best colonial troops. The process was the same as in China: coordination of partisans with regular troops, and control and support of the population. The latter allowed the routing of logistics during the battle of Diên Biên Phu. The lessons of the war, on the French side, would not be learned until later.1

The Algerian War burst out shortly after the end of the Indochina War. Already in Tunisia and in Morocco, there had been unrest and, obviously, independence was moving in.
The Algerian Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (CRUA), founded by nine members who would become famous, went into action on November 1, 1954. This very small minority committee intended to engage in battle despite the reservations of the nationalist parties, including the one led by Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj. A series of terrorist attacks marked the beginning of the insurrection. These were passed off as banditry, but the following year, the turmoil spread and the very recently established National Liberation Front (FLN) was soon joined, in early 1956, by the other nationalist parties, moderate or not. A harsh power struggle arose between the FLN and Messali Hadj’s Algerian National Movement (MNA). There was an attempt to set up a coordination of the movements at the Soummam conference. In vain. Exclusions would follow, and the FLN became the only organization representing Algerian nationalism.

In France, “available” forces were called to arms. The war, starting in the summer of 1956, now involved the contingent, and mandatory draft would be extended from eighteen to twenty-seven months. The insurrectionary war was mostly waged in the Aurès Mountains and in Kabylie. The number of katibas (combat units) increased and required search and cordon operations. To isolate the rebellion, the authorities put up electrified lines in 1957 at the borders, east and west. In Algiers, paratroopers inflicted systematic repression intended to dismantle the FLN’s underground infrastructure. Blind terrorist attacks were responded to by torturing suspects.

Under pressure from the army, France’s Fourth Republic made way for the rise to power of General de Gaulle. Senior officers considered that they had learned the lessons of the Indochina War and sought to turn the insurrectionary-war techniques back against the insurrectionists and the population, which they attempted to rally to their cause. But a Muslim population with a lower status had no interest in rallying around the myth of French Algeria. Military initiative was snatched from the rebels in 1960, but in December that same year, the Algerian population held a massive demonstration in the capital for independence. As General de Gaulle had admitted the principle of self-determination, a small part of the army attempted a putsch (1961), which failed because of the president’s determination and the greater share of the army’s refusal to support this act of sedition.

The Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) went underground and attempted to assassinate the president. Public opinion in mainland France was tired of the war and was won over by the slogan “Peace in Algeria.” The last few months of the war were chaotic (including on the mainland), between the FLN, the OAS, the army, and the intelligence agencies. The chaos engendered massive departure of the Algerian French, while the majority of Harkis, Muslim Algerian loyalists who had fought alongside the French army, were left stranded and out in the cold.

Won from the military point of view, the Algerian War was lost from the political point of view. For France, the Indochina War and the Algerian War were “retardant battles,” hence useless.

Less and less effective counterinsurgencies

The essence of what is called “decolonization,” that is, the emancipation movements, through violence or not, of the colonized peoples, ranges between 1945 and the early 1960s. The balance of these years is controversial, but over time, counterinsurgencies tended to fail, and most of all, the spirit of the times was changing, with: the Declaration of Human Rights in San Francisco (1948); the Bandung Conference, where recently independent countries, especially Asian, expressed their determination to take their full part in history (1955); the Suez Crisis (1956), where Great Britain and France were forced to give up their last imperial-type expedition, and so on. On the other hand, in the Philippines, the United States were victorious against a “Marxist-Leninist” guerrilla after having granted the country independence (1946), while the insurrection remained concentrated in the island of Luzon.2

In Greece, under English domination, the Communists, deprived of Yugoslavian sanctuary and logistics shortly after the break between Stalin and Tito (1948), were defeated. In Cyprus, forty thousand British troops did not succeed in crushing the few hundred men using terrorism under General Georgios Grivas. They nonetheless prevented the island’s union with Greece and ultimately brought a moderate Cypriot archbishop to power. In Kenya, a settlement colony, Great Britain repressed the Kikuyu insurrection, which was poorly organized, badly armed, and had no external support. Pacification was successfully achieved between 1952 and 1956.3 Finally, we know the reasons for the victories of counterinsurgency in Malaysia in historical circumstances that will never happen again.

The Chinese of Malaysia had fought against Japan without support from China, and they constituted, at least part of them, a Marxist-leaning movement based on a few hundred thousand “squatters,” that is, on the category least integrated into the Malayan economy and society. The Chinese community (thirty percent) was essentially made up of merchants and did not take part in the insurrection.

The first phase of the British counterinsurgency—based on good knowledge of the country since the mid-nineteenth century—was conducted with severity (1950-1951) and included: regrouping of the populations involved (the squatters) in highly supervised “strategic hamlets” intended to isolate the population from the insurrectionists; and collective punishment in the event of an infringement in order to push people into denunciation. In 1951, the guerrilla was at its height and even managed to assassinate the British representative in Malaysia.

The second phase was of a very different nature. The British sought to gain the sympathy of the regrouped populations by distributing land, improving their living conditions, and doing away with collective punishment. The idea was to win over people’s “hearts and minds.” At the very least, they won over people’s stomachs …

Isolated, the rebellion, estimated at eight thousand men with no external support or sanctuary, grew weak. Above all, in a country where seventy percent of the population was Muslim and the elites were conservative, the British had had the intelligence to promise independence as soon as the insurrection had been cut down. Which is what happened.
Where, since then, have there been such favorable conditions?

The mobilizing ideology

From beginning to end, the “mobilizing ideology” plays an essential part. This fundamental aspect cannot be overstated. Whatever the nature of the ideology, it has to be so highly motivating for the combatants and those who support them that they will consent, in its name, to risking their life and to losing it.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet troops were in Berlin and occupied all of central Europe and part of the Balkans. Europe, exhausted, went from being a major player to become an issue, while the European colonial empires were at the end of their rope. In Asia the colonizers had simply lost their prestige. Had they not been defeated by the Japanese in 1942-1945, in Indochina, in Indonesia, in Malaysia (the fall of Singapore in 1942 had been a traumatic experience for Great Britain) and all the way to Burma? It was during the war, in a chaotic context, that liberation movements, whatever their nature, were able to organize.
All respect for the colonizers had been lost among the colonized. In Asia, the former were thenceforth seen as illegitimate. They had been contested in the inter-war period by elites encouraged by the Bolshevik Revolution, especially in Asia, but the masses had not responded. In 1948, the Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in San Francisco. This was a turning point. Should it be recalled that the United States was opposed to European colonialism? In the wake of World War I, the League of Nations had granted the right to self-determination only to Europe. In the wake of the elimination of Nazism based on racial superiority, could the latter still be used against the colonized peoples? In the wake of World War I, the Japanese delegation had asked the League of Nations to include an article condemning racism. This had been opposed by the United States. Black people in the United States, now renamed African Americans, would not be granted civil rights for another forty years.

Chapter 5 – The end of the colonial world

From guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare

Mao Zedong, without having formulated it theoretically because his innovation was unorthodox under Marxist theory, focused mobilization not on the proletariat—which in China was cadaverous and had been demolished during the urban insurrections led by the left wing of the Party—but on the impoverished peasantry. During his experience on the ground, he found that it could be mobilized as long as it was given good leadership.

So he applied this unorthodox line, and drafted officers who blended in with the peasants in the villages and worked over time on spreading propaganda and mobilizing the people; this would allow him to transition from guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare. The latter used the same methods: surprise, mobility, and harassment. But with a different goal, which was to constitute, progressively, not irregular but regular forces, and not to weaken a regular army but to seize power though a war of destruction. The peasant insurrection organized as a guerrilla was one step of the plan; it was intended to be used as back-up for a regular army being constituted. It thus played the part of an army of partisans, since its role was to support the regular army, which would deal the final blow when the adversary had been weakened.

Mao Zedong’s innovation, which was to convert guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare in order to seize power, would not be perceived until well after his victory in 1949. The only ones to have understood the originality of the Chinese revolutionary approach and methods were the top Vietnamese officers in contact with China during its civil war. They would be able to put these lessons to work during the Indochina War, inflicting the Diên Biên Phu defeat on the French colonial forces in 1954.

The victory of 1949 was unexpected. Who, two years earlier, would have predicted Mao’s triumph? US assistance to the nationalist troops was considerable. Stalin, for his part, had advised Mao to set up a coalition government with the Kuomintang. Mao’s contribution, through his writings and the practice of his armed forces, in which General Zhu De’s action was far from meager, was both political and military: mobilizing the population thanks to officers organized as an underground political infrastructure; changing, over time, its weakness into strength through a lengthy war; winning over to the cause the prisoners from the nationalist army and turning them into propagandists of choice; using tactical defense under an overall offensive-strategy framework intended ultimately for nothing less than suppressing the adversary. In a civil war, there can be no compromise; power can be seized only if the enemy is floored.

The Japanese aggression (1937-1945) allowed the Chinese Communists to show themselves as patriots and revolutionaries fighting against foreign invasion and at the same time for social justice in the countryside. The Kuomintang was also fighting, perhaps even more so, against the Japanese, who, given their numerical inferiority, were battling with relentless rigor and practicing a policy of terror.

On his side, Mao was determined to carry out an extended phase of strategic defense, given his inferior resources, but his political objective remained offensive since he claimed military victory to be the expected outcome. Throughout the war, he had to articulate the partisans’ actions with the army’s in order to combine tactical defense and strategic defense. On several occasions, Mao ordered evacuation of the ground because what was most important was to preserve the armed forces. Withdrawal and dispersion proved to be necessary against the destruction campaigns initially perpetrated by the Kuomintang, then by the Japanese when they decided to practice a policy of intense repression.

Revolutionary warfare consists in combining agitation and propaganda, leadership of the masses and armed struggle. The coordination role of political commissars was crucial. As war chief, Mao used irregular-warfare methods against the Kuomintang before moving on to regular army operations when he had the means to do so, then moved back to partisan warfare against the Japanese oppressor, and after defeating the Japanese, back to partisan operations combined with a general counteroffensive carried out by a regular army against an adversary whose morale was broken. The strategic defense based on time and space (in the case of China) would gradually impose a favorable balance of power by multiplying tactical successes exhausting the adversary. As for the general offensive, it consisted in concentrating resources for the decisive clash.

In the case of China, there was a first civil-war phase until 1937, then a foreign-war phase (1937-1945), then a return to civil war (1947-1949). The revolutionary-war model was then initially adopted by the Việt Minh, then increasingly imitated by organizations not connected to Marxist-Leninist ideology. When the Taliban dispense justice in the villages, they are practicing a model inspired—whether they know it or not—by Mao Zedong. Indeed, irregular warfare is not won only at a strictly military level. It is mostly won through administrative control of the populations.

This is where the Western failure of the past fifty years lies, from Indochina/Vietnam to today.

Breaking the status quo

For Asians, from India to China in particular, World War II would be a fabulous catalyst and would change the status quo. Many in Asia and elsewhere were not happy with the colonial status. Japan demolished the United States in the Philippines in 1942. The Dutch, who were in Indonesia, occupied Indochina and beat the British in Malaysia. Singapore fell in 1942. The chaos generated by the war encouraged all those who wished to put an end to their subjection.

The Japanese had demonstrated that the order imposed by the “whites” could be challenged. The disorder brought about by the war allowed nationalists as well as “Marxist-Leninist” revolutionaries to organize the conditions of a future liberation, in most cases by the force of weapons.

The turning point of the 1930s

In Morocco, although Abd el-Krim’s insurrection had been crushed in 1926, “pacification” operations were extended until 1934. In Nicaragua, the United States defeated Augusto Sandino’s insurrection (1927-1933). During this period, two organizations would stand out for their use of terrorism in their attempt to make a national cause triumph. One was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), from 1890 to the 1930s. The IMRO would perpetrate the most spectacular attack of this half a century against the Sofia Cathedral in Bulgaria, killing nearly one hundred eighty political leaders and international representatives during high mass. But politically, it would fail. The other organization was the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA) (1919-1921), led by Michael Collins who managed, shortly after World War I, to wrest the independence of Ireland (Eire), except for Ulster, where the majority of the population were Presbyterian protestants who had migrated to Ireland from England centuries earlier.

Outside of the North West Frontier, where insurrections were chronic, the major feature of the British way was to use primarily its police force. It was only when the latter failed to maintain order that the army intervened as a last resort. In India, the country was held by seventy thousand British soldiers for two hundred fifty million inhabitants. Very quickly, Gandhi’s passive-resistance movement gave protests a unique style. Riots were rare: during the Moplah Rebellion in 1921 and at Peshawar in 1930.

A colonial power dominating a considerable share of the world’s Muslims while having, through their reading of the Old Testament, particular bonds with the Jewish religious tradition—which was not the case in the Catholic states—Great Britain was in an ambiguous position. The ambiguity had already been expressed in the very terms of the Balfour Declaration (1917), in which a “national home” was to be provided for the Jewish people without encroaching on the prerogatives of the local populations.

In 1920, Arab enmity to the Jews was very clear; these were perceived as foreigners in every way, and culturally closer to the British than to the Arabs. The situation became worse after 1933, when some sixty-five thousand Jews emigrated to Palestine, including many from Germany. Riots broke out against the British, and in 1936, attacks were perpetrated against the Jewish settlers and were followed by a general strike of nearly one week, showing the extent of the movement of rejection.

It became necessary to resort to arbitration by the Peel Commission (1937), which proposed a partition into two states, a Jewish state in north and an Arab state in the South with, in the center, a buffer zone controlled by the British. Neither of the parties agreed to the Commission’s proposals. Armed hostilities increased while Arab volunteers came from Iraq to bolster the Arabs in Palestine. A British officer, Orde Wingate, trained units of the Jewish armed group Haganah to protect the Jewish settlements. Order was nonetheless restored. A conference held in London committed to restricting Jewish immigration and considered granting independence with no partition, which satisfied the Arabs temporarily and raised Jewish indignation.

The last act of the British Mandate would be played in 1944-1947, in an impassioned climate in which the Jewish side was determined to use force to compel Great Britain to change its policy. In the end, the destiny of Palestine would be entrusted to the United Nations, which would decide on a partition plan that the Arabs would reject. By winning the war (1948-1949) against four Arab armies (Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, and Syria), Israel would ensure its right to existence.

The great Paris Colonial Exhibition (1931) symbolized both the pinnacle of the colonial period and its swan song. In Vietnam, the Yên Bái uprisings of the 1930s were brutally repressed. Protests were being heard in France. The young André Malraux prefaced Andrée Viollis’s explosive report, Indochine SOS (Gallimard, 1936).

But in the Far East in 1937, the situation was already changing radically. The Japanese, who had been in Manchuria since 1931, were engaging in an overall attack on China. The Chinese Communist Party had suffered serious reversals in urban areas (1927) and had retreated to rural areas. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang tried in vain to destroy the Communist Party in 1930. The annihilation campaign was followed by three, better organized ones between 1931 and 1934. The last campaign forced the Communists to withdraw to Shaanxi in the north. The pressure from the Japanese led the Chinese nationalists to impose an anti-Japanese alliance on their leaders.

During the Communists’ retreat, known as the Long March, Mao Zedong became the unquestioned leader of the party apparatus (1934-1935). It was during the period extending from 1936 to 1938 that he innovated on the ground and managed to change the Communists’ guerrilla warfare into revolutionary warfare.

The Japanese were not, however, seeing the Communists as the main adversary. The Kuomintang seemed more dangerous to them, and in fact the Communist guerrillas had launched only one major offensive, in 1940. In 1941-1942, the Japanese unleashed a fierce repression policy for which the Communists paid a heavy price, as they lost one-fourth of their troops.


Effects of the Great War

Already, shortly after World War I, while the colonial system was at its peak, harbingers of its possible decline had appeared, to which perhaps out of pure sufficiency, not enough attention was paid. This was the case for the Rif insurrection.

Abd el-Krim inflicted a severe defeat on the Spanish forces at Annual, in the Spanish Sahara (Rif region). About twelve thousand men were killed (1922)! In the years that followed, the Rif insurrectionists went largely beyond the perimeter held by Spain. In the spring of 1925, it opened the road to Fez. Out of some sixty-five outposts, the French troops had to evacuate about thirty of them in haste and lost a dozen. That year, Abd el-Krim’s forces amounted to twenty thousand men and ten thousand back-up troops. They had about one hundred 75 mm field guns and machine guns taken from the enemy. To oppose this advance and counter Abd el-Krim, no less than a hundred thousand men were needed, with support of artillery and aviation. Abd el-Krim surrendered the following year. But what was new was the extent of the means henceforth necessary to win, in singular contrast with those needed before the Great War.

During World War I, the western front was the main theater—the eastern front had collapsed as testified by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk while the Gallipoli (Dardanelles) Campaign had been a costly failure— in a classic conflict, where belligerents discovered just how much fire was lethal, and that applying the ‘attaque à outrance’ (all-out offensive) doctrine got nowhere while devouring men.

Guerrilla warfare, at the time, was playing only a very marginal part in secondary theaters. Two figures stood out in it: Thomas Edward (“T.E.”) Lawrence and Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. The first belonged to the winning side. “To the frontal offensive at all costs that prevailed at the time, the irregular soldier that was Lawrence substituted a dynamic use of space, thus changing into an advantage the weaknesses of the Bedouins, who were unfit for the cohesion of a disciplined shock troop. . . . His advantages: accurate intelligence to prepare effective raids, surprise, material superiority at a selected point (machine guns, mortar), and mobility.”1

Lawrence, a British agent dispatched by his state to try to exploit to the advantage of Great Britain the anti-Ottoman revolt being led by the Sharif of Mecca, carried out his mission remarkably well, with creativity and courage. Thereafter, he would transform it into a literary work.

The second character, a Prussian officer, arrived in Tanganyika, then a German colony, with about two hundred German officers and two thousand local back-up troops, to face down one hundred fifty thousand men of the British army.2 Using guerilla-warfare techniques, falling back when necessary to close-by Mozambique, he finished the war unvanquished and did not surrender until several weeks after the Armistice. He was welcomed in Germany as a hero. His testimony, a factual report, is very interesting but does not have Lawrence’s literary genius. Moreover, he belonged to the losing side.

When World War I ended, the two major colonial states divided up most of defeated Germany’s possessions: Tanganyika, the African southwest, Cameroon, and Togo in Africa, and all its island possessions in the Pacific.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement and Kemalist Turkey

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which had planned a three-way division from which Bolshevik Russia was now excluded, was applied in its main features. In 1920, the Ottoman sultan signed the Treaty of Sèvres. This treaty was a compromise between what had been provided by Sykes and Picot, and US President Woodrow Wilson’s will to add the granting of Armenia. And so a state, cut out on a map, was granted to the Armenians who had survived the mass killings of 1915-1916, which would be later designated as genocide.3

The Ottoman Empire, reduced to Turkey, was severed in the northeast of the future Armenia (which the survivors hardly populated anymore and did not have the means to defend except in the event of a US mandate, as was President Wilson’s intention) and in the southeast of Cilicia, which came under French protectorate.4 As for the southwest, it came under the authority of Italy, a late-coming ally. The straits (to which the Russians had aspired) were controlled de facto by the British Empire. Meanwhile, the Greeks, concentrated on the Ionian coast, wished to widen, with military means, the settlement area that they had occupied around Smyrna for nearly three thousand years…

The treaty was accepted by the sultan, but Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Dardanelles, having gathered a national parliament in Ankara and having armed forces at his disposal, was opposed to it. The colonial dismemberment left to the Turkish state only a portion of territory in the northern center of the country.

Two years later, Mustafa Kemal reversed the situation by the force of arms. The Armenians were easily driven back around Erevan; the French, deprived of military means, were forced to leave Cilicia. The Greeks started an offensive with no logistics or political cohesion and collapsed while Smyrna went up in flames.

Mustafa Kemal established an officially homogeneous nation state, based on the European model—just like in its time Meji’s Japan had done. A population exchange of Greeks for Muslims was organized following the Treaty of Lausanne, giving birth to modern Turkey (1923). The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and Mustafa Kemal declared that Turkey was the exclusive country of the Turks. This is when the “Kurdish question” arose, involving about twenty percent of the population, whose only alternative was to assimilate or revolt.
In 1928, Turkey adopted a secular constitution, and Islam ceased to be the state religion. From 1925 to 1937, the Kurds rose up and were repressed with the fiercest severity; they were deported and their region was left to deteriorate economically while being most of the time under siege.

The British and the French in the Near East

During the war, the British had suggested the prospect of an Arab kingdom in the Near East. Faisal I, the Hashemite, would finally have to be content, not with Syria, which the French wanted at all costs, but with Iraq. Contrary to the Turks, the Arabs had no means to impose their will.

Iraq, which geographically covers Mesopotamia, was formed by the British out of three vilayets (provinces): Basra, Shia; Baghdad, mainly Sunni; and Mosul. This latter province was added to Iraq because Great Britain (unlike France) knew that it was an oil-producing area. It was Kurdish in its majority and included many Turkmens. From the start, the Kurds and the Shias went into dissidence while the British relied politically on the Sunni Arabs (approximately twenty percent of the population), a logical choice in a Muslim world, Sunni in its large majority and dominated by Great Britain from Egypt to India. Militarily speaking, the British back-up troops were Assyrians who, in the 1930s when the country had become independent, would pay a heavy price for their collaboration.

The severe casualties of World War I determined the British to utilize aviation, of very recent use, to subdue the rebellions. The Royal Air Force, in the early 1920s, was used in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Darfur (Sudan), and in Somalia. The insurrectionists, initially surprised and distressed, learned to disperse in order to minimize their losses. In Syria, the French had to face the Jabal al-Druze revolt in the 1920s. It should be pointed out that it was France that established the Alawite state.

The Bolshevik Revolution facing resistance

On its side, the Bolshevik Revolution was fighting off with strength and determination, every attack on what it considered to be the correct line: the peasant rebellion in Tambov (1921), that of Kronstadt (1921) paradoxically led by working-class sailors, guerrilla warfare in Daghestan in the Avars (1920-1921), the Dashnak insurrection of Armenians opposed to the Sovietization of their republic (1920), and Finnish guerrillas in Karelia (1921). And, of course, the Bolsheviks struggled to put down Makhno’s massive anarchist insurrection in Ukraine (1919-1921), with which it had to make do for a while.

Many revolts were attributed to the Kulak land-owning peasantry, whereas resistance was, depending on the area, ethnic and often religious or was activated by brutal collectivization.5
In Central Asia, a Muslim revolt led by the Basmachi broke out; its most active phase went from 1920 to 1923, then it continued with less intensity until the late 1920s. It was during this revolt that the Turkish leader Ismail Enver Pasha was killed, he who, shortly after the end of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, had offered his services to Lenin then gone over to the insurrectionists’ side. His dream had been to found a Turkish-speaking empire in Central Asia. He was killed in 1922. The Soviet counterinsurgency was led by Mikhail Frunze, who knew the societies involved well, and by Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich, who published his conception of counterinsurgency at the end of his campaign.6 Neither of the two hesitated to strike without a second thought, all the less so that the Bolshevik Revolution was being threatened by more or less archaic counterrevolutionaries who were using Afghanistan as a sanctuary.


The oppressor’s values

The first generation, in countries with a state tradition like Egypt, China, and Vietnam, could find no other response to the challenge of colonization than to take refuge in religious (Muslim) or moral (Confucian) values. In fact, these resistance ideologies were not good for taking up the challenge. Might the emperor have lost the “Mandate of Heaven”? Was the Muslim leaders’ faith perhaps not strong enough? In any event, the elites often collapsed and it was in fact people from more modest backgrounds (provincial scholars among the Vietnamese, for example) who resisted.

The following, urbanized generation, among which some spoke the colonizer’s language—after having studied in London, Paris, or Geneva—was better informed. It now knew that the colonizer’s superiority was not due only to its weapons. The new elites attributed this superiority to their institutions: political parties, deliberative authorities such as parliament, a constitution, and so on. The early twentieth century was the time of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1904-1911), the Young Turk revolution (1908), the Xinhai Revolution in China (1910) and, a little later, in Egypt, the foundation of the Wafd Party. These headways were more or less successfully achieved, but did not seem to be the key to the problem.
The third generation—including among others Gandhi, Hồ Chí Minh, Zhou Enlai, Sukarno, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—is the one to be credited with having understood the role of modern nationalism. It grasped the importance of a body of emancipatory ideas, and they saw no reason why these should be an exclusively European prerogative. But these avant-gardes were very much a minority, lacking grounding in the masses. How could these be mobilized?

The role of ideology

In eastern Asia, the Bolshevik seeds of anti-imperialism resonated among the people and led to some severely repressed workers’ uprisings in Canton and Shanghai in the mid-1920s. Marxism, in its Leninist version, offered a powerful innovation: the vanguard party. Lenin, in What Is to Be Done? (1902) calls up the need for a vanguard, a party of professional revolutionaries made up of intellectuals and semi-intellectuals intended to lead and organize the labor movement, which according to Lenin, was spontaneously more trade-unionist than revolutionary.

The image given of the world was otherwise undoubtedly a simplified one, but easily comprehensible and, above all, a mobilizing one. After many failures, the Chinese Communist Party, against the backdrop of the war against Japan (1937-1945), succeeded in changing into a daunting force and in ultimately being victorious in 1949, to everyone’s surprise.

The effects of Leninism had been much less convincing in Western Asia. The Baku Congress (1920), which portrayed itself as anti-imperialist and invited peoples to free themselves from colonial subjection, went practically unheard in the East.

In India, Gandhi managed to mobilize a mass movement all the more difficult to counter that it was nonviolent. There were protests in Great Britain after troops fired on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar in 1919 and killed about four hundred demonstrators. This third generation, which included nationalists and Marxists (especially in eastern Asia), called the established order into question in increasingly organized ways and would turn against the colonizers the nationalist ideology that had been so useful to the latter for imposing their domination.

Chapter 4 – The “clash of civilizations”

This expression was popularized by Samuel Huntington to indicate, shortly after the Cold War, that conflicts would henceforth be played out with Islamists and Confucians.1 Actually, the clash of civilizations was related much more to what had been felt in the past, in the Asian and African worlds.

Only Japan was able to come up with an appropriate response to the danger of white imperialism, which was to learn from the European school. This was helped by its insularity, its national cohesion (all Japanese Catholics, previously evangelized by the Portuguese, perhaps three hundred thousand of them, had been eliminated), and by Emperor Meiji’s ability, with the support of two samurai clans, to impose a revolution from the top on a highly disciplined society.

Elsewhere, the clash was experienced with distress and incomprehension. Why were these foreigners so powerful? Nonetheless, foreign domination not only brought humiliation and exploitation, it also spread, willy-nilly, radically new ideas. This was admirably summarized by a long, relevant text by Maxime Rodinson, who wrote:

“Europe, at the same time that it was digging its iron heel heavily into the peoples of the continent, was also showing something else. It was the oppressor’s much-hated country. But at one time or another, it revealed a model, even several models of liberation. To the elites crushed by despotism and hopeless before it, the West exhibited a model of government in which all subjects could make actions in favor of their interests and aspirations felt institutionally. To all those who had been broken by so many centuries of resignation, it gave the example of a world of perpetual protest. As this face of the Western world unveiled, it was understood that fighting for a better state or society was possible.2

Discovery and adoption of the oppressor’s values happened gradually, which means that several generations can be distinguished within the resistance movements.