PAVN: PEOPLE'S ARMY OF VIETNAM by Douglas Pike (Presidio: $22.50; 430 pp.)

"PAVN," the story of the People's Army of Vietnam, could easily have been an esoteric book appealing mainly to military historians and Vietnam War buffs. To Douglas Pike's credit, he has made the subject accessible to the general reader. More than that, his themes in this work go well beyond the narrow field suggested by the title. Pike is concerned here to describe the strategy and tactics Vietnam's communists used to defeat the United States and its Saigon allies. The clarity and forcefulness with which he achieves this goal makes "PAVN" one of the two or three most significant books to emerge from the war.

In the first chapter ("The Prussians of Asia,") Pike, who was the chief U.S. civilian analyst in Vietnam, elucidates the military heritage that marks each Vietnamese. "The alarums and excursions of war," he writes, "echo like an endless drum roll down the corridor of Vietnamese history." As the American nation expanded inexorably westward, so Indochina's history has witnessed the relentless Vietnamese march to the south, "a brutal expansion of empire over the bodies of the Cham, the Khmer, and various tribal peoples of the Highlands. The Vietnamese fought the Siamese, the Burmese, and, of course, eternally, the Chinese."

This perspective conveys a healthy reminder that the French colonialism and American containment effort that shaped Vietnam's affairs for a century provided little more than a brief hiatus in the two millenia flow of native Vietnamese expansionism. Whatever the venality of French imperialists or the ignorance of American strategists, their efforts at least bought a respite for Vietnam's Khmer, Lao and Thai neighbors. With the Westerners gone now, the essential dynamic of Vietnamese history has reasserted itself. Pike's essay into Vietnamese militarism suggests the odds against the re-establishment of Cambodian or Laotian independence, the relaxation of tension between Vietnam and Thailand, or indeed social amelioration within Vietnam itself. Historically, this has been a nation of warriors, not builders.

While Pike's analysis of Vietnam's armed camp mentality provides insight into the likely future of that poverty-wracked land (and that of her unfortunate neighbors), it is his description of Vietnam's unique method of waging war that is more significant, and more frightening. "People's war," or "national liberation war--" whichever it is called, the strategy behind it enabled the Vietnamese communists to defeat both France and the United States, nations inestimably more powerful than themselves. Moreover, says Pike, against this strategy there is no proven counterstrategy. And in this, "there is ominous meaning for the world."

In Vietnamese, people's war strategy is called dau tranh ("struggle"). Dau tranh is divided into two parts: armed dau tranh and political dau tranh. Neither can be used successfully alone, only when combined--the marriage of violence to politics--can victory be achieved. Armed dau tranh is the revolutionary violence program--military action and other forms of bloodletting. Political dau tranh is the systematic subversion of the enemy society.

Political dau tranh is the more complex. It includes a constant and determined effort to organize dissidence, protests, and riot in order to shred the social fabric of the enemy from the inside. It seeks to project a universal perception of (1) revolutionary implacability, and (2) the justice of the revolutionary cause. This last involves co-opting the motivating ideals operating in the enemy society. "Rally all who can be rallied," as the slogan put it, "Neutralize all who can be neutralized." Political dau tranh thus exploits the vulnerability within the enemy's own system.

What distinguishes political dau tranh from standard wartime propaganda is its comprehensiveness. Prior to Vietnam, propaganda was regarded only as an adjunct to the battlefield. But, according to Pike, Vietnam's communists came to understand that the war could be won away from the battlefield. Once the enemy's home front had been immobilized politically and morally, the bludgeon of military dau tranh could strike like a hammer against an anvil.

Pike's thesis is that in developing the concept of dau tranh the Vietnamese have revolutionized the art of war, giving it an entirely new "conceptual framework." In this framework, psychological warfare has parity with armed warfare. The entire people are now the battlefield, and communication--the art of projecting an image--is the weapon.

To specialists familiar with the constant refrain of internal party directives to "stimulate the enemy's internal contradictions," there is nothing controversial about this thesis. As Truong Nhu Tang, the Viet Cong minister of justice put it, "it was the minds and hearts of the American people that had to be motivated and exploited. Here were the internal contradictions we had to stimulate first of all."

To appreciate what Pike is saying, general readers need only recall the Tet Offensive. A catastrophic military defeat for the Viet Cong, Tet nevertheless was a brilliant psychological victory because it realigned the perception of the war in the United States. Tet began the process which ended seven years later with the American administration reneging on its most solemn promises of aid, rendered politically and morally helpless as PAVN smashed an ally of 20 years out of existence.

Astute readers may take issue with Pike's emphasis on political dau tranh as the key factor in the communists' success. Harry Summers, the Vietnam War's leading military historian, is not the only one to argue that a wiser American military strategy in Vietnam would have led to a different end result. But Summers' lesson is for military planners, whose job is to win wars against opposing armies. Pike is speaking to the rest of us, who willy nilly have become the target of choice for those who wage people's war.

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