Twenty Years ago

This book is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Fall (1928-1967), an exceptional participant observer of the Vietnam War, which cost him his life. Over the years, all of his analyses were relevant. He was never heeded.

“The fact that yesterday’s victims can become torturers makes one optimistic about the adaptability of the human species.” G. C.

In the nineteenth century, colonial wars were not much more than a degraded form of war compared to conflicts among industrial nations. There are few theoretical writings on colonial wars other than those of French Army officers Joseph S. Gallieni (1849–1916) and Louis H.G. Lyautey (1854–1934) and the work of British Army Major-General Sir Charles E. Callwell, Small Wars (1896).

How, between 1830 and 1940, were some scant European troops able to defeat Asian or African armies in much higher numbers, with virtually no exception, whereas since World War II, Western armies have seldom managed to overcome Asian or African troops, often fewer in numbers?

The weaponry available to insurrectionists in the colonies or semi-colonies in the wake of World War II is not enough to explain the post-1945 reversals.

The success of national liberation wars can be credited to the ideas introduced by the colonizers, which the colonized, once these ideas were assimilated, then turned against their rulers. It took, among other factors, at least three generations for the Asian world to discover and integrate Europe’s major nineteenth-century ideology, that is, modern nationalism, and it is no coincidence that liberation movements called themselves “national.”

Right after World War I, the insurrection led by Abd el-Krim in the Rif region (1922-1925), after having been a disaster for the Spanish in Annual, would require no less than a hundred thousand men for France to crush though Abd el-Krim’s army comprised a scarce thirty thousand well organized soldiers equipped, inter alia, with 75 mm field guns. At the time, however, European troops engaged in this type of operation were fully supported by the colonial powers. The last colonial war, that of Abyssinia (1935-1936), was waged with enthusiasm on the Italian side and the blessings of Pope Pius XII.

On another front, the principles of revolutionary warfare designed by Mao Zedong were being developed, while the series of Western defeats in East Asia—the United States in the Philippines, the Netherlands in Indonesia, Great Britain in Malaysia, and France in Indochina—put an end to “white” domination, which up to that point had been complete except in Japan. Meanwhile, ideas were evolving, and under the umbrella of nationalist or Leninist parties, local patriotisms morphed to radical nationalisms. Was the fight for freedom against the Axis powers expected to be only for the freedom of the Western nations? The old imperial conceptions based on the white man’s racial superiority were demolished. The days of industrial nations subjugating people in a state of inferiority in the name of social Darwinism and civilization were over. Violent decolonization followed, punctuated by retarding battles in Indonesia, Indochina, and Algeria. Sometimes retreat was conducted in an orderly fashion, as from India or Africa, but not in Portugal’s case. Since the end of the Cold War, it has become easier to measure just how much the consequences of decolonization are far from being exhausted.

Gerard Chaliand, excerpt from the foreword to La Décolonisation armée contemporaine (et ses conséquences), by Guy Mandron, 1995.