All Too Real
An Intellectual Biography of Bernard Fall Offers Clues on How to Wage Irregular War in the Future
By Benjamin Van Horrick
Name: Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare
Author: Nathaniel L. Moir
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date of publication: April 1, 2022
In 1967 a college professor was killed on a Marine patrol in South Vietnam. Why was Professor Bernard Fall in Vietnam with a combat unit? Nathaniel Moir’s superb new intellectual biography of Fall, Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare (2022), documents the extraordinary scholarship of Bernard Fall, an academic whose field research shaped America’s understanding of Vietnam, while attempting to inform America’s military intervention. The intellectual biography of Fall’s provides today’s military professionals and academics a template for how each group can benefit from one another while influencing how America wages irregular warfare in the future.
Fall was no battlefield tourist. As a veteran of the French Resistance and a researcher at the Nuremberg trials, Moir agues Fall’s early exposure to violence and industrial-scale atrocities allowed him to first recognize and diagnose Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare. After years of study, Fall distilled his understanding into a simple equation: “RW=G+P,” or “Revolutionary Warfare equals Guerrilla Warfare plus Political Action.” The aims of the Viet Minh were revolutionary in that they pursued both the defeat of a colonial empire and a break with the traditional Confucianist social order. As Moir explains, “In an important sense, guerrilla warfare without ideology and political motivation is only about the tactical application of warfare. In a period of conflict and revolution, politics and ideology without tactical application through irregular/partisan/guerrilla warfare tactics is an ivory tower.” Because of his experiences as an outsider, combatant, and researcher, Fall recognized the interconnected nature of Revolutionary Warfare in Vietnam. His intimate knowledge of the internal social dynamics of wartime France and the workings of a “system of competitive control over a society”[i] meant that Fall knew how futile the additional use of force in Vietnam would prove to be. Much like the more modern insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, competitive control of the populace through social networks in Indochina—not superior firepower—proved decisive.
While other observers lumped the Vietnamese conflict into the Cold War narrative, Moir’s painstaking research shows how Fall’s fieldwork cut through ideological assessment revealing the ground truth of Vietnam. The United States did not recognize revolutionary warfare was occurring in Vietnam, which constricted America's strategic aims and tactical options. Rather than addressing revolutionary warfare, America chose overwhelming forced which proved futile.
Although an academic, Moir's prose is clear, crisp, and accessible. The precise structure of the biography provides needed context without bogging down the reader with excess details. Moir presents the connection between Fall's lived experiences and the conclusions he drew in Vietnam in an easy-to-understand manner, even if the reader is not well-versed in the Vietnam War or irregular warfare. Moir's work complements the vast canon of Vietnam War history, explaining how Fall's extraordinary life enabled his insights into the Vietnam War. Fall's enormous impact on the conduct of the Vietnam War remains relevant for current practitioners of irregular warfare as they diagnose conflicts in the future and debate prudent policy decisions.
Moir’s work serves as a roadmap for how the military and academia can work together again to gain historical, cultural, and societal understanding when devising political and military actions. As an Army reserve PSYOP officer and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, Moir offers examples of how Fall bridged the gap between combatants and academics. The military's need to leverage academia grows more urgent due to the increased complexity of the operational environment. One recent example of an academic who shaped military decision-making was Carter Malkasian, who served as advisor to Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan at the tactical level, then advised senior US Military leaders. Attempts such as the Human Terrain System attempted to integrate academic expertise at the tactical level during the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). However, the program raised questions regarding its ethics and effectiveness. Military units, for example, questioned the Human Terrain System program’s utility, while anthropologists questioned the professional ethics of deploying academics in a war zone. Falls influenced provides a powerful example for those in uniform and those in academia who seek to influence the military’s force employment, particularly in an increasingly complex future operating environment that places a premium on scholarship to guide informed action.
Moir’s book on Fall arrives at a critical junction for the DOD as it determines how and when it will wage irregular warfare in the future. As the DOD pivots to Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO), Fall’s fieldwork and writing can influence existing force design initiatives for waging irregular warfare in the future. One such future opportunity for waging irregular warfare resides with the Marine Corps' Stand-In Forces (SIF) concept. The Corps defines the SIF as “small but lethal, low signature, mobile, relatively simple to maintain and sustain forces designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area.”[ii] The mere presence of the Marine SIF serves as a deterrent against aggression within the INDOPACOM region. Armed with the proper cultural, historical, and linguistic understanding to influence actors in the region, the SIF can reach the concept’s full potential by persuading neutral actors in the region and strengthening ties with existing partners.
The SIF’s utility is not limited to the execution of Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) but can serve as a persistent forward presence to stabilize partner nations and strengthen existing ties. Placing the SIF within a partner nation can assist with regulating partner nations that remain susceptible to malign influence. Much like Special Forces detachments, the SIF can help prevent the destabilizing of a partner nation, address local political grievances, and advance American interests. The success of the SIF concept relies upon secure access, basing, and overflight when conflict escalates. The persistent presence of a culturally aware SIF contributes to the long-term regulation and stabilization of a partner nation, deterring major adversaries while maintaining the health of the partner nation. When conflict escalates, America can leverage the relationship built between the SIF and partner nations. Fall’s work highlights how fostering political stability, understanding internal politics, and redressing legitimate political concerns within a partner nation strengthens alliances for all partners. The full potential of the SIF and Force Design 2030 rests upon equipping Marine units with the latest technology and educating these forces on the importance of waging irregular warfare. The SIF can shape the delicate political systems of the partner nation and bolster security force cooperation. The SIF must retain the capability to wage irregular warfare, while preparing for LSCO.
Moir’s examination of Fall’s scholarship and resulting insights about irregular warfare offers academics and military practitioners an example of how their work can inform one another, while influencing the sensible application of irregular warfare. The past twenty years of conflict offer both groups with fruitful case studies of irregular warfare, offering critical lessons on its utility and limits. Fall’s dogged search for insights to guide informed action in Vietnam continues to provide students and practitioners of irregular warfare a powerful example of how they can advance America’s vital interests.
[i] Nathaniel L. Moir, Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare (S.l.: Oxford University Press US, 2022), 17.