Deep into the roots of war
War Comes to Long An by Jeffrey Race
Reviewed by Jason Johnson
The United States wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to a deluge of literature on insurgency, civil war, and counter-insurgency. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, more work has been produced on counter-insurgency than over the previous 40 years combined.
One book that has stood the test of time is Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province, which was re-released this year with new forewords and an analytical conclusion by the author. First published in 1972, the book remains a seminal read for academics and policymakers concerned with these ever-evolving inter-related subjects, as well as for those more specifically interested in the Vietnam War.
Outside the academy the book has long received strong recognition across the political spectrum. Not only is it a mainstay in the curriculum of all senior service schools for the US military and leading US universities that train future diplomats, but even the most scathing critic of modern US foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, once wrote that it was the “best account of the origins of the insurgency” in South Vietnam.
The book is based on events in Vietnam’s southern Long An province, located near Saigon [now Ho Chi Minh City), during the period between the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 and the escalation of the US’s intervention that took place in 1965. After an initial stint in Vietnam as a lieutenant with the US military in 1965 and 1966, a 24-year-old Race returned to Vietnam from late 1967 to mid-1968 to conduct research in the area.
In the book’s preface, Race explains his inspiration for carrying out micro-level research was motivated by his belief that at the time there were no convincing explanations for the rise of the insurgent movement in South Vietnam. Then there was a widespread belief that its rise resulted simply from communist influence and infiltration from Hanoi, and was provided extensive weaponry from foreign communist powers.
High-ranking Vietnamese officials claimed that the opposition National Liberation Front (NLF), or what the Americans commonly referred to as the Vietcong, mobilized the peasantry through a vicious program of terrorism and forced recruitment. Some US academics and officials even believed South Vietnamese peasants were prone to adopting communist ideology because it resonated with their more communal, Confucian way of life.
These explanations were often provided by people out-of-touch with the grassroots’ dynamics of the war. Fluent in Vietnamese, Race dug deeper by sifting through primary documents and interviewing hundreds of people, including local, provincial and national-level Vietnamese officials, American government officials, members of the NLF – the military organization of what Race refers to as a “revolutionary movement” in South Vietnam – and ordinary residents of Long An.
The result was an innovative and authoritative account that explained how the revolutionary movement, with relatively meager human and material resources, was able to outmaneuver a dramatically more powerful government in Saigon backed by US military might.
Race’s research revealed a disjuncture between local-level interpretations and provincial and national-level takes on the relative success of the NLF. Non-local interviewees mentioned that corruption, inefficient governance, and a lack of government aid limited government effectiveness. They also claimed that peasants were deceived by both infiltrators from Hanoi and the NLF, and viewed revolutionary fighters as criminals and terrorists.
Race is highly critical of these interpretations, but he did not altogether dismiss them. He emphasized the important role of northern communist leadership and the NLF’s reliance on selective violence and coercion, noting even that some important fighters had criminal backgrounds. But the author also convincingly argued that the NLF’s assassinations, threats, and kidnappings were epiphenomena of a comprehensive program of social change that the Communist Party and the NLF used to tilt grassroots sympathies in their favor.
The communist leadership’s use of “pre-emptive” policies such as land redistribution, progressive tax reform, and decentralization of political authority appealed to the majority of peasants. All of Race’s informants involved with the movement, as well as many local-level government officials, highlighted these policies as reasons for the movement’s mass appeal. In sharp contrast, Vietnamese and American officials were utterly unaware of, or simply preferred not to recognize, the progressive policies of the communists that ultimately underpinned their victory.
Race’s research argued that the Communist Party’s relatively successful efforts to recruit and motivate people drew from the contingency of such policies. That is, if one wanted to receive land, one had to support the movement. Similarly, if a young man wanted to avoid the government’s national draft, he would receive protection from the NLF so long as he was willing to fight on its side when called.
For Race, the Saigon government’s decision to use non-localsoldiers was another crucial policy mistake that served to diminish young men’s motivation to fight for the government. This played directly into the hands of the revolutionary movement’s recruitment efforts, where preference was often given to those hailing from less privileged backgrounds.
Out of local touch
The over-centralization of government decision-making was one of many policy flaws that hampered Saigon’s efforts to win over the population, the author argued. Though the government had its own land redistribution policies for the peasantry, decisions were made at the national level and often on the basis of inflexible laws. On the other hand, the communists’ village-level agent was given great authority over not only land distribution but also other matters such as taxation, justice, and military recruitment.
Meanwhile, the US military’s use of traditional warfare against the movement’s guerilla tactics often proved counter-productive. Large-scale and indiscriminate violence resulted in a dramatic number of casualties among revolutionary fighters and civilians, feeding into the sympathetic environment that revolutionary fighters used to operate freely over wide areas under supposed government control.
United States and South Vietnamese officials’ assessment that modernization and development – the forerunner of today’s “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency strategies – could undermine support for the revolutionary movement was ultimately off the mark. Race found that those people unsympathetic to the government were more than willing to accept its aid, but this did not sway them away from the movement.
The issue, Race argued, was that government aid programs were incremental, not distributive. Put otherwise, the government’sprograms reproduced existing socio-economic hierarchies, while the revolutionary movement, both in rhetoric and practice, aimed to dismantle these disparities.
Initially, Race’s findings were poorly received by US officials. The Pentagon ignored many of the factors that Race argued were critical to motivating peasants in South Vietnam and instead stood by the notion that no guerilla enemy could withstand its conventional military power. Indeed, most counter-insurgency literature from that era posited that a numerical superiority of troops would prevail against any opponent.
The empirical evidence from the Vietnam War showed that those assumptions were deeply flawed and it is now commonly accepted in mainstream theory of civil war and insurgency that indiscriminate violence is an ineffective means to win a war.
Some still argue that the US lost the Vietnam War because of the US government’s decision to gradually withdrawal troops – a decision pundits claim was pushed by a hostile media and subsequent loss of domestic support. Those arguments have some merit, but the crux of War Comes to Long An remains largely unchallenged by experts of the Vietnam War. Many of today’s leading comparativists researching civil wars and insurgencies still look towards Race’s seminal study – and for good reason.
By studying the material, security and symbolic motives influencing individual interests and actions through in-depth local level research, Race overcame what award-winning civil war expert Stathis Kalyvas refers to as the “urban bias” of civil war research, or the tendency of insurgencies to be explained through the lens of urban intellectuals and practitioners even though most violence takes place in rural areas.
This bias was particularly problematic in the Vietnam War, as foreigners who covered the war could not speak Vietnamese and relied heavily on Vietnamese and American officials for explanations. Race’s bottom-up focus also allowed him to steer clear of the related problem of urban intellectuals’ inclination to use ideology or the overarching cleavage wrought by conflict as an explanation for individual motivation.
Though members of the NLF were generally ideological communists, Race found that the vast majority of peasants were not. Nor could a legitimacy crisis or nationalism provide adequate explanations for understanding the motivations of grass roots people.
To be sure, NLF recruiters lured peasants on side through appeals that the South Vietnam government lacked legitimacy because it represented a feudalist system backed by an imperialist foreign power. Although Race claimed this narrative served as a useful legitimizing theme, he argued that contingent policies were far more significant in motivating peasants who supported, or were at least neutral to, the communists’ aspirations.
Despite stinging revisionist arguments that US and South Vietnamese government officials failed to understand the significance of these insurgent policies, readers will not find a discourse of condemnation of either government officials or revolutionary fighters in Race’s timeless book. Both were portrayed as individuals trying to do what they believed was right at a certain point in time.
Race’s concern for objectivity deserves high praise, but it was his empirical findings in Long An that first turned the heads of academics, policymakers, and others grappling to understand the Vietnam War. Nearly 40 years later, War Comes to Long An still holds enormous value to anyone interested in civil war, insurgency, and counterinsurgency and the US’s new generation of wars.
War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province, Updated and Expanded by Jeffrey Race. University of California Press February 2010. ISBN: 9780520260177. Price: US$26.95, 368 pages.
Jason Johnson is an independent researcher and consultant covering southernmost Thailand. He is currently based in Pattani province, southern Thailand, and may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org