The fabled bookish General Vo Nguyen Giap was a revolutionary commander who, unlike others, left a revolutionary legacy. The pocket books of those who speak of “legacies” are scanty, filled with romantic reflection and the moment of suicidal release, but Giap was able to mould together an army, a formidable fighting force that triumphed despite assertions that it was low brand and aspirational. Just as Leon Trotsky of the Bolsheviks manufactured, with much guile, the Red Army, then Giap wove, banded and gathered units that challenged the imperial powers of the day.
Such efforts began humbly, those 34 men who gathered in northern Vietnam in December 1944 even as Imperial Japan was being pushed back. Cecil B. Currey, one of Giap’s many biographers, describes the beginnings in some detail. Every people’s army is bound to be humble fare and these famous few had but two revolvers, a light machine gun, 14 flintlocks, some of which reeked of the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904-5. Antiquity is not necessarily a bar in conflict.
It is worth remembering that, while U.S. Senator John McCain, who shed years of his life and strength in the Vietnamese prison system, can speak of admiration, it is fitting that the feelings were not always mutual. The late Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defence, found Giap bewildering in his efforts to examine the record of the Vietnam conflict. Giap seemed to have the upper hand even after the fact. The strategist on the ground was always better than the manager in the boardroom.
Soldiers will often try to find common ground. They are the agents entrusted with the task of butchering each other. In “peoples” wars and struggles, the butchering is more intense, the respect more problematic. The entire dehumanisation strategy of the Vietnam War, replete with “gook” narratives and subhuman motifs, should not be cast aside. The Indochina conflicts provided daily assaults on the laws of war, a sequence of continuous massacres – of the industrial and more conventional type. My Lai, napalm and Agent Orange tend to speak volumes about what “nobility” was at stake, the imperial nose caught in the local trough. It is not the honour of the conflict but its cankerous dishonour that haunts combatants and activists alike.
Just as the conflict on the Eastern front during World War II was waged between enemies who considered each other on the lunar edge of civilisation, effectively mediocre specimens of other races, then the United States and its warriors preferred to see a more primitive sort of warrior in Indochina. The Cold War continued the nasty habits of the Second World War, just with another language. In the U.S. example, President Kennedy’s trigger happy liberalism took the form of sponsorship for authoritarian regimes against a celebrated vicious communist option. His efforts would ultimately fail.
Giap’s triumphs share a common thread with those other Asian forces of the 20th century who won victories against Western powers. They involved combat not merely with weapons but with perceptions. Battles are often won in a cerebral way, much like a seduction is won in words before any deed is enacted. Giap was the greatest seducer of battle. He wooed his enemy. He seduced them into believing that greatest weakness which masquerades as strength: prejudice dressed up, rendered decent.
His critics admired and cursed his threshold in battle – his armies were able, and willing, to sustain huge losses. “Any American commander who took the same losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight,” claimed Giap’s counterpart, an envious U.S. General William C. Westmoreland. Westmoreland’s reflections on the losses his own forces inflicted were somewhat threadbare.
Giap was an echo of a very specific history. He, along with North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh – dead by the year 1969 – and former prime minister Van Dong, were a sacred trinity overseeing the Vietnamese state. Their bogeymen were colonial masters whose yolk had proven to be all too rich. It came in the form of French self-assuredness and American certainty. Easily forgotten is the role he played, like so many communist revolutionaries of the colonial context, against Imperial Japan.
Their efforts to rid the country of all three powers were spectacular. Giap’s name is much like a secular Moses in the context of engineering the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Hundreds of miles of trenches were dug. French air supplies began drying up, deterred by anti-aircraft guns. Just as Moses brought tablets of rules, Giap brought the message that colonial powers like France could be defeated.
The formula was devastating. When that counter-revolutionary power in the form of the United States started replacing the French presence in the manner of not so quiet Americans the program repeated itself. For the United States, it would continue to repeat itself.
Giap made it past the century mark, dying at 102. And his passing managed to make it into an era where 140 characters in a message matters – the hot house and speculation that is social media. Twitter and Facebook, despite being heavily censored by the Vietnamese authorities, flooded the channels of mourning. State run agencies were lethargic in releasing an official statement on his passing. Journalists of state agencies were furious. Even in death, Giap could baffle and change the record.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org