Vo Nguyen Giáp: Svechin’s Operational Artist
By Dustin E. Lawrence
In the cauldron of World War I, fire and steel had reduced the old paradigms formulated by titanic figures in military history. Modern weapon advances had expanded the battlefield, which had become less dense but more lethal. Following the Great War then the subsequent Russian Civil War, Russian officers and thinkers deliberated these new realities in preparation for the next modern war. This cohort greatly expanded the intellectual understanding of warfare. One of these voyenspets to rise through the discourse afterwards was General-Major Alexander Andreevich Svechin, who during a series of lectures at Moscow’s Academy of the General Staff in 1923-1924 first coined the term, “operational art.” Ironically, one of the greatest operational artists by Svechin’s own standards was first stepping into the classroom then, albeit over 4,000 miles southeast of his lecture hall. Fourteen years later Vo Nguyen Giáp received his law degree and began teaching. Over three decades after Svechin’s lectures in Moscow on May 7, 1954, Giáp decisively defeated the French Union Forces at Dien Bien Phu. Through Svechin’s lens, Giáp’s victory provided history a master class on the most exacting approaches to operational art.
Svechin described operational art as the bridge between tactics and strategy. It was how the senior commander strings a series of tactical successes into operational “bounds,” linked together by the commanders intent and contributed to strategic success in a given theater. Using this framing, Giáp clearly fits as the operational artist during the French Indo-China War. Serving as the de facto commander of Vietminh Forces, one hand firmly controlled the tactical action of his ten divisions, while the other maintained a grip on the political situation in Hanoi. Yet, he linked these two worlds through his intent and operational objectives.
In effect, Giáp was Svechin’s “integral great captain.” He would have relished such a moniker. Once, after a teacher accused him of acting like Napoleon, Giáp exclaimed “I’m going to be Napoleon.” Like the colossus of the nineteenth century, he would intimately champion the strategic goals of his nation. Giáp played a crucial role in the nationalization of Vietnam from his early days as a law student, when he passed in and out of French confinement as he espoused national communist principles. Unlike most great captains, his military positioning arose from this activism in the political sphere. Svechin argued the “integral great captain,” relied on the “strategist – commanders in chief” to prepare the country for war diplomatically, militarily, economically, socially, and politically. This role rested with Ho Chi Minh, who during Dien Bien Phu served this role from across the globe to negotiate politically, allowing Giáp – then the defense minister – to control operations from the field.
One persistent theme through Svechin’s work is the dynamics between continuity and change. Heavily influenced by Hans Delbruck and the Hegelian dialectical, he emphasized the evolution of warfare and cautioned against closed systems based on past experiences. Standing against the reliance on outdated principles, he held that techniques or the operational approach (to use a contemporary term), must be applicable to the age in which its conceived. “Successful action most of all,” Svechin wrote in his capstone work Strategiia, “must be proper to its place and time and therefore it must agree with the contemporary situation.” Even with his musings on Napoleon, Giáp’s operational approach to Dien Bien Phu embodied this philosophy. As the operational artist, he displayed flexibility, changing approaches as the situation demanded. After mustering a sizable force to Dien Bien Phu, and staging it for a general attack, he transitioned to an approach more akin to siege warfare. Giáp stood down the ready troops from their attack positions and ordered thousands of shovels forward. “The situation had changed,” he remarked. The strangling of French Forces with his newly acquired anti-aircraft batteries and undertrained but numerically superior artillery allowed him to tighten the noose and shift the dynamics of the operation. Had he committed his six divisions to a general attack before March, the costs of the attack may have played into French hands and weakened the ideological adhesive holding his Army together. In February, Giáp ordered pamphlets distributed through an information operation targeting the T’ai troops holding the French strongpoint of Huguette. On 17 March, they abandoned the French. And after sapping trenches around French positions through April, he judiciously acquired French strongpoints ahead of an all-out assault on 7 May. Throughout the course of campaign, Giáp directed a range of techniques ranging from the medieval to the thoroughly modern.
At the heart of Svechin debates is the strategy of offense or defense, and attrition verses annihilation. While a significant collection of Western literature simplifies Svechin’s position to favoring attrition over annihilation, the subtle nuances of Svechin’s work speak to balance between the two approaches informed by situational variables. Svechin’s often cited perceptions of World War I, brought conclusions weighted on the side of attrition. However, again reflecting his dialectical reading of history, Svechin wrote “Military actions may take various forms: destruction, and attrition, defense and attack, maneuver, and positional warfare. Each of these forms significantly influences the strategic line of conduct.” Giáp’s attack on Dien Bien Phu does not only reflect an offensively minded commitment to the destruction of French Forces there. It is a culmination of defensive actions around the Gulf of Tonkin and attritional attacks on the French lines of communication. These various approaches by the operational artist amount to condition setting for his final assault in May 1954. Conditions that led to the destruction of French forces in the region. The approach ironically mirrors the often-pegged attritionalist’s comments on annihilation. The strategy of destruction, Svechin wrote, “strives to avoid fencing and has a single means to do this: the constant and energetic development of its own blow directed at the most vital center of the enemy; the more concentrated and massive our own fist, the sooner the enemy is forced to orient his own action to ours, i.e., in the old saying ‘we will dictate the operational laws to our enemy.’”
Giáp concentrated around 49,000 Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu at a time when he had nearly 80,000 first-echelon troops available. Converging multiple lines of operation across difficult terrain with mainly porters to move the heavy equipment was nothing short of operational mastery. Through Svechin’s lens, the artist’s brilliance comes from audacity of his actions. Strategiia noted that this approach comes with risk, requiring decisive leadership to recognize the moment and have the moral courage to act. Giáp converged this combat power, which included his most exquisite assets provided by the Chinese, because the massing of French Forces at Dien Bien Phu ahead of negotiations in Geneva presented that “vital center.” Giáp’s decision to double down and draw an additional 10,000 Vietminh from Laos to the Dien Bien Phu valley after the March 13 attack, speaks to this courage and leadership.
Lesser artists may not have seized this opportunity. Svechin acknowledges that a strategy of attrition can yield the initiative to the enemy. While it provides more assurances, it requires more time. “The limited blows by which a strategy of attrition of attrition is carried out, constrain the enemy to a far lesser degree (than a strategy of annihilation),” he noted. “The enemy has the fill capability of pursuing of pursuing his own objective in this game of operational deployments.” If Giáp, had not chosen to mass on the French forces at Dien Bien Phu, he may have ceded a vital position by which the French could interdict his own forces. If the losses at Na San swayed him to continue building combat power instead of conducting a general attack, the nationalist would have still had solid footing at the Geneva negotiating table. However, the strategy of attrition Svechin wrote, “is generally chosen only when a war cannot be finished in one stroke.” Given the grinding nature of the world wars, it was evident to Svechin these opportunities are rare and it was clear to Giáp that he had such an opportunity.
The strategy of annihilation or destruction, Svechin established, is the loftiest military approach, which is why he focuses on the more grounded attritional approach. Destruction requires, “extraordinary victory,” premised on “splitting every link between (the enemy’s) intact fragments and capturing the communications that are most important for the armed forces.” In effect, Giáp accomplished this feat at Dien Bien Phu. In Strategiia, Svechin offers only two exemplars to succeed the difficult approach of destruction - Moltke the Senior and Napoleon.
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Davidson, Phillip. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Kipp, Jacob. “Two Views of Warsaw: The Russian Civil War and Soviet Operational Art, 1920-1932.” In The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War. Edited by B. J. C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
McLean, James R. “Fire Support: Assessing the Adversary at Dien Bien Phu.” In Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939. Edited by Roger J. Spiller. Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1992.;lk
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Stone, David R. “Misreading Svechin: Attrition, Annihilation, and Historism.” The Journal of Military History 76 (July 2012): 673-693.
Svechin, Alexander Andreevich. Strategy. Edited by Kent D. Lee. 1927. Reprint Minneapolis: East View Publications, 1992.
 Jacob Kipp, “Two Views of Warsaw: The Russian Civil War and Soviet Operational Art, 1920-1932,” in The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War,” ed. B. J. C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy, (Westport, CT: Praeger,1996), 59-61.
 Alexander Andreevich Svechin, Strategy, ed. Kent D. Lee, (1927 repr; Minneapolis: East View Publications, 1992),
 Giap was given the nicknames “the General” and “Napoleon” by his fellow students because of his constant referencing and personification of the French Emperor. Throughout his life he would regularly reference Napoleon to reporters. Cecil B. Currey, “Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap,” (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 1999), 34.
 Ibid., 41-45.
 Svechin, 100.
 Kipp, 62.
 Howard R. Simpson, Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, (Washington: Brassey’s Inc., 1994), xxii.
 Phillip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 239.
 David R. Stone, “Misreading Svechin: Attrition, Annihilation, and Historism,” The Journal of Military History 76, (July 2012): 674-675.
 Svechin, 240.
 Svechin, 243.
 James R. McLean, “Fire Support: Assessing the Adversary at Dien Bien Phu,” in Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939, ed. Roger J. Spiller (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1992), 121
 Stone, 683.
 Mclean, 126.
 Svechin, 248.
 Ibid., 247.
 Ibid, 242
 Ibid., 241-244.