A reviewer of Senator Fulbright's Indictment of President Johnson's policy in Viet Nam has pointed out that "it is possible to argue that the false starts of American policy in Asia and elsewhere have been at least as much due to the illusions of liberalism as to the 'arrogance of power'."[i] Obviously, particular policies and actions may be judged as making a bad situation worse, but they may not be the cause of its being bad in the first place. Much of the hawk-versus-dove dispute stems from shared misconceptions about communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia and therefore also about the resulting counterinsur-gency actions-misconceptions which form part of an ethos largely inapplicable to that troubled region today.

In this article, it is proposed to put aside this debate over the rights and wrongs of Viet Nam and the counterinsurgency effort made by successive American administrations and to dwell instead on certain counterinsurgency dilemmas. They are intractable enough to tax the most statesmanlike minds. It is doubtful that these problems involve ethical issues; therefore, choosing the right solution cannot be said to confer any special righteousness upon the solver or wickedness upon one who makes an unsuccessful choice. Furthermore, the article does not try to offer solutions but rather attempts to delineate a few of the more perplexing and practical dilemmas faced by those governments dealing with communist insurgents.

All measures of defense taken by a government can be represented as a choice between evils, in so far as it stands to gain nothing by them, only to avoid defeat, and this invariably at considerable cost In the broadest sense, counterinsurgency is a branch of defense and therefore inherently also a choice between evils. In Southeast Asia the defense is against communist revolutionary warfare, and the choices present themselves to the governments of the region as a series of acute dilemmas, precisely because war and revolution are intertwined, yet may demand different solutions. Naturally, the communist strategists try to make things as difficult as they can, deliberately contriving to add to the dilemmas of the government they wish to overthrow. This makes it harder for the defense to choose a solution and to pursue it consistently; the result is often vacillation and hesitation, muddle and even chaos. And in the longer term the strength of the defense will be dissipated and worn down as much by its own efforts and consequent internal strains as by the damage the insurgents can inflict on it directly.

A well-known and much discussed military dilemma illustrates the nature of the problem. Should the primary military effort be directed to search-and- destroy operations, the usual military strategy, or to the more passive secure-and-hold tactics? If the former, the elusive enemy may lead the pursuing force a long chase without itself being destroyed, while no permanent friendly base can be established because adequate forces will not be available to protect it. Yet if too many forces are allocated to secure- and-hold operations, the enemy may also secure and hold his area, and this may result in the de facto loss of part of the country-an outcome the counterinsurgent government is trying to prevent. The debate over this dilemma in Viet Nam need not detain us here, but the problem will be faced in other areas where insurgency breaks out.

The dilemma of the police chief faced with civil disturbance is a familiar one. Usually the margin of error in judging the precise degree of force to employ in restoring order is very narrow; and if, after it is all over, he seems to have used either too much or too little he stands to be roundly condemned.

This dilemma, which has arisen many times in Southeast Asia in the past, is a crude one when compared with the more subtle applications of the underlying principles developed by the Marxist-Leninists in recent times. These turn mainly on "front" tactics. The communists will try to penetrate and dominate other organized bodies, such as peasant coöperatives, women's organizations, schools and trade unions; and in Viet Nam use has been made of certain religious bodies. Because of the very nature of fronts and the lack of accurate intelligence, it is often difficult to tell which are true voluntary organizations of the people and which have been cleverly subverted or created by the communists for their own ends. The communists may, of course, allow organizations they dominate to continue their overtly useful functions, and yet mobilize them skillfully for certain unannounced objectives. Some of the activities may serve to promote communist goals but they will be portrayed as normal protest-strike demonstrations, mass protests and even sit-ins. These may not only sap a government's resources but also, and even more importantly, lead it into unfortunate actions which cause it to lose support at home and abroad. It seems to be almost a rule of public opinion that people are more prone to believe that a government is deliberately repressing worthy causes than to believe that these causes are being exploited for undisclosed political ends. If an organization is found to be a communist front, what is the best way of dealing with it, both in terms of effectiveness and with regard to worldwide and local psychological impact?


Dilemmas in other fields hamper the actions of governments, regardless of whether the states are newly emancipated or have never been colonized and whether or not they seek foreign aid and advice. At the head of the list are those which arise as a result of the communist strategy of trying to gain power first in the countryside. In most of the countries of Southeast Asia the issues involved here are very complicated and include long-term political factors as well as immediate administrative ones. Southeast Asian countries exhibit only to a limited extent the characteristics of the modern nation-states of the West Their traditional notions of government rest on the dichotomy between central sovereignty and peripheral self- administration. Frontiers were not conceived as fixed lines until modern conditions produced maps requiring sharp definition or the state developed into a more identifiable entity. In China itself, the state consisted historically of a central throne whose authority in local affairs tended to diminish with distance; beyond the borderlands lesser states and petty principalities reflected China's image to a greater or less degree. Some broad areas between the various realms were in effect rulerless, inhabited by minority peoples lacking a central authority of their own but lending allegiance from time to time to one neighbor or another. Sometimes an energetic prince, or the Son of Heaven himself, would impose his authority for a time, but radical changes in the political balance were rare and short-lived,

Colonial administrators tended either to step into the shoes of traditional rulers, usurping their sovereignty outright, or to leave them undisturbed except to establish a paramount suzerainty which similarly found a place in local tradition. In either event, the relationship between subject and ruler remained essentially unchanged-especially over such matters as taxation (or tribute), labor and military service, and, in most of Southeast Asia, the regulation of irrigation.

All this is fully understood by the communists of Southeast Asia, if not by their "revisionist" brethren in Europe. After the general failure in the 1930s to achieve "proletarian revolution," the Asian communists formulated the idea of capturing the periphery and working back toward the centers of power. In other words, the revolution would now seek its "contradictions" and exploit conditions and issues in the borderlands and the outlying villages where a political vacuum prevailed and where the Leninist dynamic of struggle could be cultivated. "Contradictions" were not to be found exclusively in class conflicts, but wherever any type of social tensions could be built up-in religious differences, minority grievances, tribal rivalries, local ambitions or personal feuds. The revolutionary apparatus would find its bases far from the capital and gradually work inward against the government in the hope that after a number of years it would be strong enough either to assault the capital itself or bring the government to its knees in a protracted struggle. The application of this doctrine of "using the countryside to surround the towns" was perfected in the lands of Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s.

The first of the dilemmas it poses is that if urgent steps are taken by the government to fill the political vacuum in the borderlands by providing officials who can promote the welfare of the people as well as enforce law and order, the communists can represent this response as a policy of oppression. Because of the tradition of local autonomy and suspicion of outsiders, problems will arise even where officials are able and dedicated, which of course they frequently are not. On the other hand, if no such steps are taken and the area is left unoccupied by government forces, the vacuum, though relatively harmless in the past, will provide a field in which the revolutionaries can operate unhindered and where in addition they can claim that the government is ignoring and neglecting the people.

The second dilemma arises when a government resolves the first and decides it must take action in rural areas. In addition to the general need for modernization and public welfare felt in underdeveloped countries, defense of the state and the people in the face of a Marxist-Leninist bid for power necessitates new administrative undertakings. Should these be organized by the central government or entrusted to village or local government? If the administration is undertaken from the center there may be problems. Officials, possibly many from new agencies, with no experience and no precedents, little local knowledge and no established relationships, may descend on village leaders and the rural population. The resulting inefficiency may be compounded by resentment against the intruders; and there will be opportunities for corruption which may be difficult to detect in the novel situation. The whole attempt may become raw material for communist propaganda and blackmail.

Yet if the task is left to local authorities, in order to foster local government, inefficiencies of another sort are almost bound to occur: policies may not be fully understood; there may be no control to ensure that policy, if understood, is properly carried out; and almost certainly local officials will be inadequately trained to formulate and execute programs in accordance with the overall policy and strategy. Furthermore, there may be local corruption, which is no less reprehensible and no more acceptable publicly than under a centralized system and, in any case, is equally helpful to the communist cause.

While most governments usually resolve the first dilemma by deciding that some action must be taken in the rural areas, the second one is not so easily determined. There is no body of principle or experience to help a government decide to centralize or decentralize its effort, or to determine what the blend should be. The uncertainty often leads to switches of emphasis from one to the other with consequent loss of momentum and continuity-all to the advantage of the communists.


Another dilemma which receives considerable attention because of its ideological implications stems from a government's desire to obtain support while engaging in activities which may not be popular but may be necessary. It is assumed in the West that popular support can be won and held only by arousing mass enthusiasm for a cause. The communists, like most of the governments they are trying to overthrow in Southeast Asia, know that this assumption is largely untrue in their type of society. They aim to obtain total support in practical matters as they bring areas progressively under their control. They want to leave no time, energy or material resources for allocation to private priorities, no opportunity for individuals to opt out. More often than not, individual actions spring from fear or the hope of personal gain and less frequently from principle or belief. Even in the dedicated cadre, ambition and personal needs may be powerful motivations. The greater the anxiety not to be the odd man out, the more total popular support can be made. The involvement is often slow and subtle; contributions in money or kind, performance of errands and collection of intelligence grow ultimately into full commitment and enrollment in fighting units. In many cases, in Southeast Asia at least, conversion to the communist cause follows subversion to the movement

Southeast Asian governments have a tendency, strongly encouraged by the Western world, to hold elections in order to prove that they are popular with the people and thus preferable to the communists, who also claim popular support. But parliamentary democracy is still relatively new to most people in Southeast Asia, and conditions of insurgency are not generally propitious for introducing it. If the elections are completely free, in the sense that the government does not vet the candidates (as communist governments vet theirs), then the insurgents can put up their own men and let it be known that, even though the government may guarantee secrecy of the individual ballot, there will be trouble for constituencies which do not elect them. What would actually happen in a Southeast Asian country that did try to introduce parliamentary democracy during counterinsurgency operations is a matter for conjecture, for it has never yet been achieved. It remains a dilemma how much democracy should and can be started or expanded by a government while it is engaged in a protracted conflict with a strong monolithic enemy.


Dilemmas also exist in development, both economic and social; in practice they are difficult to separate from those that are political, and they are even more numerous. That the social and economic development processes summed up in the word "modernization" are good in themselves is not seriously disputed. But in practice, ordinary peasants often resent the details of its realization because of strong local beliefs, traditions and leadership which run counter to modern ideas. This dilemma is generally ignored or denied.

To many Western observers communist insurgents owe their hold over the masses to their promises to redress such grievances as social neglect, ethnic discrimination or economic exploitation. There is truth in this view, but it is only one among many factors. Many Southeast Asians, including ignorant peasants, understand better than Westerners that the communists who come into their midst are interested in their grievances not so much to right them as to exploit them as pretexts for seizing power. Moreover, not all alleged grievances are real; hence their redress is unlikely by itself to avert or halt a communist insurrection.

And yet, whatever the truth about "popular aspirations" and "popular support," a government which proposes to rule by consent of the ruled, signified even in the most general and vague fashion, must offer positive attractions of some kind. The political philosophies of ancient China and ancient India, which between them have shaped the outlook of Southeast Asia, are at one with modern Western thought on this point. The need for a government to appear responsive and popular would seem to be greater than ever when it inaugurates a new régime-one recently emancipated from colonialism, or seated in power by a coup d'état, or incorporating in itself unfamiliar institutions such as an elected parliament and a ministerial organization.

One path that may seem to avoid the dilemmas reviewed so far is to offer free social services or free bounty; that is to say, to make the fruits of development available to the outlying population without drawing on local resources and without introducing any measure that smacks of control. It is this contention and this policy which have provided, after the requirements of military defense, the most plausible argument in favor of massive American aid to the countries of Southeast Asia which are menaced by communist insurgency and unable to afford such a remedy for themselves. Yet it leads straight to yet another dilemma involving governmental civic action, perhaps the most confusing of all those considered here.

To see clearly its implications, we need to look again at the manner in which the communist fights. It is true that at times he fights like a boxer, but at other times he is more like a wrestler. The secret of wrestling is to fell one's adversary, not by means of his weakness and one's own strength, but by means of his strength, which by cunning and skill can be turned against him. In its early stages, a communist insurgency usually draws most of its money and its material resources, including weapons and ammunition, from or through the population it is subverting or intimidating. In Southeast Asia, especially in the borderlands, the population has been accustomed by centuries of experience both to a host of petty exactions, material and otherwise, and to buying off bandits and secret societies. It is a tradition that insurgency prospers on. But substantial external aid across a friendly frontier can be expected only after the insurgency has become sufficiently well established to make good use of such aid and to be able to cover up, through enforcing silence on its own people, the source of supply. It is a widespread misconception that because the inspiration, and even the direction, of an insurgency may be external, the source of supplies must also be external; or conversely, that when supplies clearly are local, it follows that the direction must also be indigenous and not from outside.

In reality, the Marxist-Leninists of the East not only take pride in winning power with a minimum contribution from their own side, but have found from experience that this is a more reliable road to victory. Besides concealing the directing hand, it leaves the door open to repudiation of unsuccessful insurgencies-like the one in Malaya. Also, surprising as this may sound at first, it has the psychological merit of appearing more convincing in peasant eyes.

It is the probable, not the desirable, that commands peasant support If the conflict appears to be between two forces both sustained logistically from afar, then the outcome is likely to turn on the size of the investment each backer is prepared to put into it. What each will amount to cannot be told until the day of decision, so the peasant in his rice field will be cautious about committing himself. If, however, it is clear that one side is dependent on supplies from afar, and that the insurrectionists can leech off a fairly constant proportion by purchase, theft or capture, then it becomes only a question of patience and endurance (the true meaning of "protracted" in the Chinese phrase translated as "protracted war") until the cleverer insurgents exhaust the morale and the resources of their opponents.

The dilemma facing the defenders, who frequently cannot tell friend from foe? is now plain: whatever is done in the hope of convincing peasants that they have a vested interest in the victory of the established government, whatever improvements are made in social services or however much outright bounty is distributed, it will be seen that the insurgents are also benefiting; and thus the operation will be stripped of some of its persuasiveness. If measures are taken to avoid this situation, in which the insurgents are actually being supplied by their opponents-and they are most difficult and costly-they may be so oppressive or so poorly executed as to spoil the desired effect on the population. The dilemma is clear but not easily resolved: how to gain active popular support and help the people without helping the insurgents also.


The dilemmas inherent in civic-action programs are compounded when one considers foreign aid. In the first place, what we have just said about a Southeast Asian government's efforts to win the peasant's heart by providing benefits applies with even greater force to schemes visibly financed by a distant nation. The foreigners may leave at any time; they cannot play as enduring a role as that of the insurgents, who are local actors. Furthermore, foreign aid is just as subject to the leeching-off process as are the government's locally derived resources, and it may even be used as a means to avoid tax collection. This merely deprives the peasant of an excuse for not contributing to the insurgents' exchequer, for whatever he does not pay to the government he will be expected to pay, as a levied "voluntary" contribution, to the insurgents.

Another difficulty with foreign aid for an already harassed government is that it places on the administrative machinery an additional burden which in nearly every case is more than can immediately be borne, "Foreign aid corrupts," we are often told by critics. But corruption is unhappily a superficial symptom of the deeper problem resulting from accelerating the adjustment of the native culture, the native bureaucracy and traditional relations between administrators and administered to modern ways. Modernization is made both more difficult and more urgent by the communist challenge. A remedy may be sought in setting up parallel government agencies alongside the traditional ones, to operate in fields and at a tempo designed to meet that challenge and make use of foreign technical advice. But the psychological result will be that the impermanence of the operation will be emphasized in the public mind. Two additional dangers are that the ad hoc agencies will encounter envious opposition from the traditional bureaucrats, and that they themselves will acquire a vested interest in the perpetuation of the insurgency they are being employed to terminate.

There are no preordained outcomes to revolutionary warfare: recent history contradicts the faith of Mao Tse-tung in his own historical "science." Insurgency is a form of struggle which presents almost endless fresh chances to both sides. So long as the defense is alive to the true nature of the dilemmas described here, and is not diverted by falsely romantic views about how Marxism-Leninism works, the ability to match cunning with skill remains. If the difficulties are not understood, they are insuperable; once they are understood they can be resolved. All the dilemmas are practical and as neutral in an ethical sense as the laws of physics; only pragmatic statecraft and the instincts of the indigenous leadership can spot the means of solving them, case by case, moment by moment. And yet, idealism has played its part. Without it, American aid would not have flowed to developing and harassed countries and we would have no policy in Southeast Asia to argue about; the Marxist-Leninists would probably long since have had their way by default. Perhaps, in the end, the hardest of the dilemmas of counterinsurgency turns out to be the most ancient political dilemma of all: how to marry idealism to statecraft.

[i] Coral Bell, "Power and Anguish," International Journal (Canadian Institute of International Affairs). Toronto, v. XXIII, n. 3, 1968, p, 475.

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