The Hero Of Dien Bien Phu: A Short Tribute To General Vo Nguyen Giap
Originally published on Countercurrents
“Successes send weak souls to sleep; they spur strong souls on.”
When a band of Vietnamese communists overran a garrison of French Far East Expeditionary Corps in Dien Bien Phu on May 1954, it created shockwaves across the world. It pricked the sensors of military minds in the West, even as it reinforced the thoughts of revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara that successful guerrilla wars against colonial and neo-colonial forces can be waged. If the brains behind this historical victory were to be sought, it would be this diminutive person called Vo Nguyen Giap.
It is, I would say, Hegelian irony that General Giap is popularly called ‘Red Napoleon’. Unlike Hegel’s vision of the French leader as the world-soul on a horseback, the Vietnamese General who played crucial roles in campaigns against the Japanese, the French and the Americans cut no grand picture in appearance. A person with a keen desire for social change, witnessing close relatives fall prey to the cruelties of French colonial rule, he joined the resistance movement young. After a brief career as a teacher of history, he began creating it. But this article is not so much about the man’s life as it is about the relevance of his thought.
Giap’s most popular statement is his observation on armed struggle. “Violence is the universal objective law of all thorough national liberation revolutions, of all revolutions which are truly popular in character.” While being a Vietnamese nationalist, Giap was profoundly Universalist in orientation. He did not wax on the particularities of the Vietnamese people, but rather focused on what the superior knowledge of the Leninist revolution of the USSR, and the French and American revolutions before that, could teach the Vietnamese in liberation of their country. And, he believed that “Marxism-Leninism never disowns the history and the great constituent virtues of a nation; on the contrary, it raises these virtues to new heights in the new historical conditions.” The race-gender-sexuality pseudo-radicals of today would, of course, call him a totalitarian, an upholder of metanarratives and whatever.
It was not idealism alone that fuelled Giap, but a cold and pragmatic assessment of the forces at home and the forces abroad. The Vietnamese war against the US was not just won, as some leftists romantically put it, by peasants with pitchforks, but rather by the ability of the Vietnamese leaders to adopt the right military strategy and tactics as according to time, their understanding of the Sino-Soviet relation and receiving help from both powers, and their recognition of the strategic importance of a rear base. As Giap observed in the context of Dien Bien Phu, “a strong rear is always the decisive factor for victory in a revolutionary war.”
The strategic directive of the Vietminh to apply “dynamism, initiative, mobility and rapidity of decision in the face of new situations” was to General Giap a military art “whose characteristic is to defeat material force with moral force, defeat what is strong with what is weak, defeat what is modern with that is primitive, defeat the modern armies of the aggressive imperialists with the people’s patriotism and determination to carry out a thorough revolution.” A down-to-earth realist, he implored revolutionaries to “strike to win, strike only when success is certain, if it is not, then don’t strike.”
Critics of Giap generally pick on the fact that the Vietnamese lost so many in their war of liberation. Many of the obituaries for Giap in the western media have referred to the criticism of Giap’s nemesis, US Army General William Westmoreland, who followed a strategy of attrition (simply called body counts) against the Vietnamese rebels. The good General, with his deep concern for the loss of Vietnamese lives, said of Giap “Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius. An American commander losing men like that would hardly have lasted more than a few weeks.” Leaving aside the criminal irony in Mr. Westmoreland’s observations, no less a person than Martin van Creveld, a leading military historian and strategist of contemporary times, said emphatically in his book The Changing Face of War that “Cruel as it sounds, history shows that a tenth of the population dying in a protracted struggle is not necessarily too high a price to pay to fend off the yoke of a foreign power”. Indeed, freedom never comes free.
The real tragedy, as far as Vietnam is concerned, is not the atrocities of French or American imperialism. It is rather the 1979 invasion of Vietnam by China; the latter’s response to the former’s deposing of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Though the Chinese got a miserable drubbing at the hand of the Vietnamese, this event raises a lot of questions on both the practical and ethical possibilities of ‘Socialism in One Country’ (SOC). Though ‘Permanent Revolution’ is only an ideological pipedream, the regression of countries that adopted the SOC model into state capitalism – quite brutal in many cases – must compel activists and ideologues on the left to seriously rethink what was wrong in the original theory in the first place.
This is all the more necessary now at a time when ‘revolutions’ and ‘springs’ in the middle-east and elsewhere are simulated by Western powers or have been hijacked by them, at a time when counterinsurgency has become a highly professional academic discipline, at a time when obsessing about identities, ‘lived experiences’ and particularities is an intellectual fashion, and worse, to take from Oscar Wilde who wrote this well over a century ago, at a time when “it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”
But even this rethinking, this military art of asking the right questions, requires strategic formulation. We need to know who the enemy is, we need to know on what grounds is his superiority, and we need to know how to pull him into a terrain where we can strike to win. And let us learn from the man who defeated the best military minds at their own game. Comrade Hero of Dien Bien Phu.
*All quotes of General Vo Nguyen Giap have been sourced from “The Military Art of People’s War: Selected Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap”. Edited and with an introduction by Russell Stetler, published by Monthly Review Press, London, 1970.