In Indochina the situation was different but in 1945 when the French forces under General Leclerc began the re-occupation of the French colonies after the Japanese surrender Leclerc warned his 9 superiors about the dim pros- pects of a protracted guerilla war. His warnings were disregarded and for eight years his successors tried to gain a military victory over the Viet Minh. Ulti- mately the war imposed unacceptable costs upon the French and with defeat in battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French accepted tint the war was lost - in spite of the fact that the military defeat in itself had involved only a very minor proportion of their field forces. It was subsequently left to the Americans with their much larger resources to repeat the same experience. Here the decisive point was the Tet offensive in 1968, which although a tactical disaster for the FNL and the North Vietnamese became a strategic victory as it hit the Ameri- cans at a moment when they were convinced that the enemy was actually beaten and the war won. What followed was a delaying action by the Nixon administra- tion using the American military presence and (potential) superiority to negotiate a withdrawal 'with honour'.
It is now suggested that the role played by the metropolitan armed forces has more frequently been that of a 'caretaker' or 'custodian over law and order' rather than that of defender of the status quo and the guardian of the colonial system as such. In this caretaker capacity it has fallen to the armed forces to pro- vide for an orderly transition, to make a transfer of power possible (rather than to prevent any such transfer), to gain time and freedom of maneuvre for the politi- cal decision-makers, and also in order to make political settlements acceptable to national constituencies as well as the international community.
In this sense the role of the armed forces also had the characteristics of a 'force in being', the real usefulness of which was often determined by it never actually being put to the test.
But even in the case of Indochina - where the armed forces were put to use to defend the colonial system - it is far from clear that the nationalists or the lib- eration movement really won a military conflict. It is in the nature of what is frequently referred to as the 'asymetric conflict' - between the superior (quantita- tively and qualitatively) forces of the metropolitan power and the nationalists or rebels - that the latter do not necessarily have to win in a military sense. Henry Kissinger described the American war effort in Vietnam as follows:
"We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attribution; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerilla warfare: the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win." 10