Guerrilla Wars

Full Program Description

Guerrilla Wars
Revolution succeeds through guerrilla warfare
Original broadcast: Monday, June 28, 1999 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)

"The impact on the soldier was a psychological impact -- every time you put your foot down, you didn't know whether you were going to [lose] a leg, a limb, or a life. . . . In the six months before I took over [the 'hard luck' battalion], it had had 600 casualties -- killed and wounded all from mines and booby traps; it had never met the enemy."
-- Colonel David Hackworth, United States Army, remembering 1966 Vietnam

In 1958, a small band of Cuban rebels ousted President Batista and took control of the country. Fidel Castro and his rebel force found success by drawing their strength and support from the common people, promising them land and social justice in exchange for their loyalty, and by relying on guerrilla tactics -- waging war in people's hearts and on the battlefield.

While Cuba riveted US attention, there was a parallel war taking place in Asia: A communist-led nationalist movement launched a struggle against the colonial French in Vietnam, eventually defeating and expelling them from the North. Fearing the whole country might quickly fall to communism, the US sent advisors to "prop up" the South Vietnamese Army; by 1963, US personnel in Vietnam numbered 12,000.

Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the first American combat troops. US forces would eventually reach a total of 600,000. Trained to fight a conventional war, the US was unprepared for the Viet Cong's hit-and-run tactics, facing sabotage by unlikely soldiers, booby traps, and ambush.

Exhausted by political conflict at home and the efforts of fighting a losing land and psychological battle, US troops finally began to withdraw in 1973. Some 58,000 Americans had died -- and the peasant armies of the Viet Cong humbled a "superpower" on the world stage.

In 1978, half a continent away, the Soviet Union's support of a communist uprising in Afghanistan triggered a similar conflict: Afghan guerrillas, or Mujahideen, retaliated with a holy war. Ten years and some 50,000 Soviet casualties later, Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops. Here, too, guerrilla tactics of a "people's army" would prove vital in deciding the outcome of war.

The people remember: Cuba, Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, Vietnam War, napalm, Agent Orange, Afghanistan, Mujahideen (Soldiers of God), "scorched earth" policy.

Guerrilla Wars is produced and directed by Bill Treharne Jones. Series senior producer is David Espar. Series executive producer for WGBH Boston is Zvi Dor-Ner; Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC.

Alfre Woodard narrates.

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