The Vietnam Lesson
Vo Nguyen Giap, the celebrated Vietnamese patriot who centralised the importance of independence and national liberation in the 20th century has now joined his ancestors. He passed away on October 4, 2013 in Hanoi at the age of 102.
We want to join the people of Vietnam and the rest of the world to remember the spirit and sense of independence and unity that was displayed by General Giap.
Gen Giap and Ho Chi Minh are remembered as citizens of the world who opposed colonial rule. Vo Nguyen Giap was born August 25, 1911 in central Vietnam's Quang Binh Province at a moment when France was seeking to firmly establish colonial domination over the society.
For the peoples of Africa the struggles of the peoples of Vietnam for independence have similarities and many lessons for the independence and solidarity of humans everywhere. Vietnam officially became part of the imperial expansion of France at the same moment as the imperialist partition of Africa.
For centuries, the peoples of Vietnam had jealously guarded their independence from militarily superior neighbors. France had officially claimed political and economic control over the peoples of South East Asia in a moment when it was necessary for France to find ways to project economic and political power after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-1871.
In the period of imperialist expansion across the planet, 1870-1920, France imposed military and economic control over Indo-China, following the combined western military foray into China and the Sino-French war (1884-1885).
With the British in India, the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in the rest of what was called Indo-China, imperial Europe set out to contain and dominate China.
Africans will note that these wars in Asia were going on at the same time when the imperialists were meeting in Berlin to partition Africa. French Indochina was formed in 1887 and included the territories and peoples who today live in what is called Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The political fortunes of these societies were to be sealed in the long wars for independence and resistance against imperial Western forces.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu
It was at the battle of Dien Bien Phu where Gen Giap led the Vietnamese army to victory over the imperialist French military in 1954. There are three very good reasons for freedom fighters to remember this epic battle.
The first reason is that the Vietnamese demonstrated superior military and political strategies, so that despite military and logistics support from the US, France was decisively defeated. The second reason was that many of the Africans who had been conscripted into the French army fought against the Independence of the Vietnamese.
Some of these fighters were to be later elevated and supported in military coups to undermine African Independence. One such leader was the “Emperor” and General Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.
The third major reason was that after Dien Bien Phu, France decided to make a stand in Africa to defend its status as an imperial power. Educated by his people to fight against colonial rule, Giap joined up with Ho Chi Minh at an early age to confront imperialism.
Together they had built and consolidated the Vietnam Independence League, which the imperialists hated and sought to crush.
His own family had been tortured and murdered by the French colonialists in the period of the last capitalist depression. When France was weakened by the second imperialist war, the Japanese colonialists took over the region in order to intensify its war of colonial domination over the entire region.
Giap returned to Vietnam from China in 1944 and worked to repulse the Japanese.
France sought to re-impose domination over Vietnam when Vietnam had declared its independence in 1945 after defeating Japan in September 1945; Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
After the Second World War, France attempted to reestablish control over Vietnam and challenged the peoples of Vietnam to stand up and fight for their Independence.
The Vietnamese took up this challenge and decisively defeated the French, driving them out of South East Asia. Giap had studied the military history of Asia and Europe and had learnt the positive and negative lessons from offensive warfare in World War II.
He understood the importance of political will in battle and at Dien Bien Phu the army of the Vietnamese people called Viet Minh surprised colonial French forces by surrounding them. Giap was disrespected by the French generals, especially Henri Navarre who believed that a person such as Giap who had not studied in a military academy could stand up to the “superior” French forces.
As one writer Jules Roy wrote about this epic battle at Dien Bien Phu, France believed in their blind service “to the most stupid imperialism in the world, which disguised its refusal to lose its dividends and markets as a crusade against communism”. Giap had not studied at a military staff college but had in his own words “studied in the staff college of the bush”. Giap brought to this battle against French colonialism the combination of guerilla and conventional warfare.
The patriotic Vietnamese forces, who wore sandals made of car tyres and lugged their artillery piece by piece over mountains, managed to encircle and crush the French troops in a bloody engagement.
Digging miles of trenches, the Vietnamese dragged heavy artillery over steep mountains and slowly closed in during the 56-day battle that ended with French surrender on May 7, 1954. In the book on this battle by Jules Roy, “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu”, the reader is exposed to the mediocrity of the French generals who sought to cover up their incompetence with ideas that the French were superior to the Vietnamese.
French generals were humiliated and despite the military defeat, the sense of white supremacy never allowed them to accept the idea of the Independence of the people of Africa and Asia. One such French imperial military commander was Gen Marcel Bigeard.
His career is important in the history of imperial domination in so far as he went on to fight to preserve French imperial domination in Algeria and also lost there. Gen Marcel Bigeard became an inspiration for US military officers and right up to his death in 2010 he kept up a healthy communication with Gen David Patraeus of the US military.
Giap’s victory over the French weakened imperial rule in Africa, Asia and Latin America and inspired national liberation forces everywhere. From the point of view of Third World solidarity, this defeat of France in Dien Bien Phu in 1954 gave added impetus to the meeting of the anti-colonial forces at Bandung in 1955 and inspired the peoples of Algeria and Egypt to fight for Independence.
The seizure of the Suez Canal and the demands by the peoples of Egypt for Independence in 1956 were significantly influenced by the inspiration from Gen Giap. Interviewed much later in life he said of the epic battles, “We had to use the small against the big; backward weapons to defeat modern weapons. At the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory.”
Defeating the US
It was this same principle that guided Giap and Ho Chi Minh to stand up to American imperial forces. After the defeat of France, the US moved in to impede the unification of Vietnam by undermining diplomatic efforts at Geneva while supporting puppet regimes in what was called Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The big and heavy US generals adopted the same arrogance to Giap that that been the position of the French military and political establishment.
As the Minister of Defence and chief military strategist for the peoples of Vietnam, Gen Giap was responsible for co-ordinating the resistance to US military bombings and occupation of Vietnam. US generals made the cardinal error of underestimating the military and political skills of Gen Giap and Ho Chi Minh.
The battles of the United States against the Independence of Vietnam represented a turning point for the history of the United States. Firstly, it was in Vietnam where the US military establishment learnt that superior technology and weaponry cannot guarantee victory.
Secondly, the attempt to crush the Independence of Vietnam created a financial and monetary crisis from which the United States has not recovered. It was primarily because the US became overstretched from the wars in Indochina when it had to end the convertibility of the dollar to gold (the cornerstone of the Bretton Woods agreements of 1944).
The international financial system has not been stable since this change of fortunes for the military and financial establishment of the United States. The United States military continued to underestimate the brilliance of Gen Giap and had approached the wars against the Vietnamese as small skirmishes where the mighty US would test its high tech weapons and bombs in preparation for more important battles in Europe against the Soviet Union.
For the strategic thinkers in Washington, the battles in Vietnam were simply a proxy war for the war against the communists in Moscow. For the Vietnamese however, they were no puppets of Moscow and were fighting dearly for their national Independence.
The history of the crimes of war against Vietnam needs to be written in many languages so that the permanent war machine of the US can be vigorously opposed. Millions of tonnes of bombs were dropped on the Vietnamese peoples in one of the most sustained bombing campaigns of any war; and chemical and biological weapons were used against the people.
Gen Curtis LeMay boasted about the massive bombing campaign that “we’re going to bomb them (the Vietnamese) back to the Stone Age”. LeMay advocated a sustained strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnamese cities, harbours, ports, shipping, and other strategic targets.
In 2010 when I visited Vietnam, we were scheduled to visit Gen Giap but this visit was later cancelled because in his 99th year, he was not in the best of health. When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and one of the most striking features of the Vietnamese memory of this war is their call for forgiveness while never forgetting the criminal actions that were carried out against innocent civilians.
Edward Herman in his summation of the lessons of the US war against the people of Vietnam noted: “The final toll in Indochina will never be known, but it continues to grow. The death toll may be as high as four million; the numbers injured and traumatised also run into the millions.
“Since the formal conclusion of the war in 1975, thousands have been killed and wounded by some of the millions of unexploded bombs still littering the ground. “There are also many victims of the ecocidal Agent Orange programme, and the land destroyed by that and other chemicals may never recover.”
That Gen Giap and the Vietnamese believed in forgiveness is one more important lesson that the peoples of the world can take away from the people of Vietnam. In the aftermath of this epic struggle, the society of Vietnam was unified and this unification in 1976 laid the necessary foundations for economic transformations.
The history of the struggle of the Vietnamese people and their victory over US imperialism is an inspiration for those who want another world beyond capitalism. The failure of the US militarists who believed they could subdue the Vietnamese people is everywhere evident in the vibrancy and focus of Vietnamese citizens.
Yet, even today, the US militarists cannot accept their defeat, writing reams of books to find excuses for their defeat. Instead of celebrating the military genius, the United States Army School of Advanced Military Studies of the United States went into overdrive to teach their officers how to “teach judgment”. The arrogance of Henri Navarre and the French officer corps had been inherited by the US military strategists who wrote books upon books without grasping the basic fact that Giap was teaching them.
Colonel Huba Wass de Czege the articulator of “teaching judgement” groomed the next generation of US generals who thought that certain officers should receive a “broad, deep military education in the science and art of war”. Up to the present the officer corps of the United States continue to ignore the lessons taught by Gen Giap and continue to mumbo jumbo such as “systemic operational design: learning and adapting in complex missions”.
Gen Giap represented the vibrancy of a people who gained confidence from the knowledge that they were able to withstand the military might of the biggest military machine on earth. In the process, the Vietnamese pointed to the fact that political mobilisation and heightened political consciousness can be a counterweight to imperial military and economic might.
This failure of the US has been manifested beyond the battlefield into the ideology of development versus transformation. On the walls of the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, the Vietnamese display the words of US military henchman turned director of World Bank, Robert McNamara: “We were wrong, terribly wrong, and we owe it to a future generation to explain why.”
France was defeated at Dien Bien Phu and tried to make a stand in Africa. Today, the United States is invoking the so-called war against terror to maintain a military posture that is inconsistent with the financial and economic capabilities of that society.
In the last years of his life Gen Giap became a fervent environmentalist and linked the security of the planet to environmental repair.
Citizens in all parts of the world who want a new relationship with other humans and with the planet earth can learn a lot from the long life of Vo Nguyen Giap. – Pambazuka News
Horace G Campbell, a veteran Pan-Africanist is a Visiting Professor in the School of International Relations, Tsinghua University, Beijing in China. He is the author of “Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya: Lessons for Africa in the Forging of African Unity” (2013).