Historian Charles R. Shrader borrows a quote to describe the First Indochina War between Viet Minh and French Union forces as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” His research backs up the quote in the sense that poor logistical support can defeat an army.
There’s no doubt about the depth of Shrader’s research; it’s evident in the seventy pages of notes in his book, A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 (University Press of Kentucky, 488 pp., $60, hardcover and Kindle).
The book is based on “declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material,” as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies, Schrader says. Viet Minh sources are limited to contemporary documents captured by the French, POW interrogations, and the writings of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Maps, tables, figures, and photographs abound to support the text.
The book’s first half explains the influence of Vietnam’s terrain on troop movements. Most of the fighting took place in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin. The rugged terrain stymied the development of a system of highways, railroads, and waterways capable of supporting large-scale military activities such as those used in World War II.
Shrader goes on to discuss the disproportionate sizes of the opposing combat forces, then explains how their logistical systems were organized and operated, and compares the opposing transportation systems. He presents detailed summations of the dependency for war supplies that the Viet Minh had with what was then known as Communist China and the French Union with the United States.
Helicopters were scarce and used primarily for medical purposes. Poor weather conditions, widely scattered airfields, limited numbers of aircraft and aircrews, and constantly improving Viet Minh antiaircraft capability minimized the effectiveness of the French Union air force. The Viet Minh had no air support.
The book’s second half describes the war itself and how logistical factors influenced the outcome of combat operations. Initially, a series of political and military actions forced the Viet Minh to find refuge in the countryside while the French occupied the cities. From there, differing military philosophies pitted the mobility of the self-sufficient individual Viet Minh soldier against the mobility of the technologically dependent French Union army.
What began as mere ambushes by the Viet Minh grew into head-on collisions with the French. The titles of Shrader’s chapters tell the war’s story: “The Campaign for the Lines of Communication,” “The Limits of Aerial Resupply,” “The Triumph of the Porters.”
Logistically the French relied on mechanized transportation and awaited air and sea supply shipments from France, which were often four months away. Meanwhile, day by day, Viet Minh porters carried supplies on their backs from the border with China.
Shrader presents a continuous string of eye-opening stories and facts. For example, the French Union employed a third of its infantry forces in Indochina keeping roads and waterways open to traffic. Both sides had about ninety battalions in Tonkin, but the French assigned sixty-four of theirs to protecting lines of communication and rear areas, leaving only twenty-five battalions for mobile offensive operations.
Basically, the French Union’s logistical effort went mainly toward resupplying posts where the troops protected trucks and boats from ambush in order to resupply themselves. Meanwhile, dispersed groups of Viet Minh porters moved nearly unopposed along trails hidden in the jungle.
Accounts of the Viet Minh invasion of Laos and of the battle of Dien Bien Phu are as fresh and interesting as if they occurred yesterday. “The Viet Minh refused to recognize the theoretical limitations on their logistical capabilities,” Shrader says, “and they frequently surprised the French by their rapidity of movement, their ability to concentrate men and supplies undetected, and their logistical stamina.”
The Viet Minh proved decisively , he says, that “even in the mid-twentieth century, a lack of superiority in material could still be overcome by the intelligent application of sheer manpower and a determined will.”
Reading this book saddened me—again. Much of what Shrader tells us reminded me of the American war in Vietnam.
Every fact in his book was available before the United States committed itself to the Vietnam War and then more or less duplicated the French Union’s effort. What more is there to say?