Vo Nguyen Giap, 1911-2013

The death has been announced in Hanoi of Vo Nguyen Giap, the self-taught general who drove the French out of Vietnam. His generalship at the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu, freeing the North from colonial rule and then later forcing the Americans to abandon their support for the various regimes in South Vietnam, was largely responsible for the eventual re-unification of the country under a communist government in Hanoi.

Giap is probably not as well known as the events in Vietnam in which he was pivotal, but the impact of the American experiences in south-east Asia on popular culture has been immense. Much of that popular culture output, either in film, music or literature largely arises from the experiences of US forces under pressure from Vietnamese units under Giaps strategic and tactical direction. Whilst the US experience in Vietnam may well dominate news coverage of Giaps death, it was his role in the defeat of the French in 1954 that had already sealed his place in twentieth century history.

Giap was central to the French decision to abandon its IndoChine territories. The battle of Dien Bien Phu, where Giap’s supposedly disorganised peasant army managed the logistical and tactical challenges of besieging and pounding a stronghold of crack French troops into submission, has lent itself to some of the best battlefield literature of the twentieth century. The material – Giap’s naive Vietnamese army, the difficult terrain, the French and colonial paratroopers, the Foreign Legion and its mishmash of European exiles, the long range commando teams, the US pilots and the dehumanising experience of both sides in the midst of the ever-shrinking battlefield make for compelling reading. Notably, one of the main French commanders at Dien Bien Phu, Marcel Bigeard, only died in 2010.

Dien Bien Phu was a salutary lesson in the realities of colonial adventure in the mid-twentieth century and exposed a lesson that the neo-colonial powers like the US were extraordinarily slow to grasp (read Michael Herr in Dispatches on the frequency with which it was cited in the 1960s). Bizarrely (in retrospect), the French were lampooned for the speed with which they disengaged from south-east Asia. Even in French terms, the lessons learnt from Giap in post-war colonialism were rapidly forgotten once they got back to their northern African holdings. The legacy of territories and political entities carved out in the western retreat from its various colonial adventures continues to be a major undercurrent in todays news.

Here is a brief reading list worth keeping an eye out for (presuming some will be dusted off and pushed the front shelves of bookshops over the next week). Windrow’s is the best overall review (its only a few years old and has the advantage of hindsight). Similarly, Simpsons has more of the benefit of hindsight and distance. The near contemporary accounts written by Bernard Fall and Jules Roy effectively recount the story from behind the lines (Roy) with all the high-level gossip, and from deep in the trenches (Fall). The bloodiest account is Grauwins – he was the chief medical officer during the battle (it’s rare but worth reading). Giap himself has also written about the battle in his book, Ðiện Biên Phủ, but I’ve never seen it in translation.

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow

Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu by Bernard Fall

Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot by Howard R. Simpson

The Battle of Dienbienphu by Jules Roy

Doctor at Dien-Bien-Phu by Paul Grauwin

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  • Harry Flashman

    “The battle of Dien Bien Phu, where Giap’s supposedly disorganised peasant army managed the logistical and tactical challenges of besieging and pounding a stronghold of crack French troops into submission, has lent itself to some of the best battlefield literature of the twentieth century.”

    Indeed it has and as you suggest the actual realities on the ground were somewhat different than the myth that has subsequently grown up.

    It was the French colonial forces who were badly organized, insufficiently supplied, poorly equipped, ill trained, stupidly led, greatly outnumbered and far from their base who were routed by superior numbers, better logistics, higher morale, internal lines of communication and better training.

    The Vietnamese Goliath not surprisingly crushed the French David, the roles were not reversed as is sometimes supposed.

    Giap was a master strategist in the first war against the French, not so good against the Americans where he won only through US stupidity and in spite of his own massive strategic errors.

  • wild turkey

    It was the French colonial forces who were badly organized, insufficiently supplied, poorly equipped, ill trained, stupidly led, greatly outnumbered and far from their base who were routed by superior numbers, better logistics, higher morale, internal lines of communication and better training.

    Harry, check out the March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. She has a well researched narrative of the entire european involvement in indo-china and the point you make above is in broad agreement with her analysis

    …. actually though i would have thought it was the french colonial goliath v the native david. in war size ain’t everything. agility is

  • BluesJazz

    wild turkey

    ‘Street without Joy’ is a classic book on the conflict. Up there with Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ as brilliantly written in my opinion.

    Vietnam has since succumbed to capitalism, and supplies the USA/Walmart with sweatshop consumer goods. So, a pyrrhic victory?

  • BluesJazz

    The US military studied the book:
    http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/articles/04summer/cassidy.pdf

    And the classic film ‘Battle of Algiers’ is recommended viewing at West Point, Sandhurst and Langley.

  • Greenflag

    So was it worth 3 million dead ?

    Overwhelmingly Vietnamese with French(90,000) , Americans (56,000), Laotians (30,000) and South Koreans , Aussies , New Zealanders and Thailanders making up the total .

    Not to worry it was all out in” bongo bongo” land anyway , Now you’d never think the linked gobshite below had a mother and yet like the 3 ,000,000 dead of Vietnam or the millions more since then in wars from Iraq , Afghanistan, Iran , Rwanda , India , Pakistan , Israel, Egypt , Jordan Syria , Northern Ireland , Cyprus , Nigeria all the dead , East Timor ,Ethiopia etc etc they all had mothers .

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2398985/Bongo-bongo-land-UKIP-politician-Godfrey-Bloom-says-companies-sack-pregnant-women.html

    Gobshites like this Bloom and his ilk will only ever learn when their head is in a basket looking up at a guillotine and wondering for a few secs before the light finally goes out ‘Was it something I said or did ?”

    European ‘territorial ‘ colonilaism has now been replaced by the modern neo conservative financial control off shore mechanism by which the myth of a ‘free market ‘ is peddled to consumers in the west whereas the profits are made further east and south and then transferred several times a day if necessary to avoid any taxation . When large corporations like Bank of America others don;t pay tax and when a multi millionaire USA Presidential candidate pays less tax as a percentage than his secretary then you don’t have a democracy . You have a kleptocracy .

    So General Giap made it to 102 – Having dispatched the French and the Americans should be enough to warn the Chinese not to mess with Vietnam – But they will – Its all part of the great game and they never learn -no none of them .

  • Gopher

    Though I have always admired Giap’s ability to strategically and tactically evolve and his understanding of the importance of logistics the butchers bill he was often prepared to pay operationally, was horrific.

  • gerald

    R.I.P

    Also recommended is the excellent “Tunnels of Cu Chi” by Tom Mangold

  • Greenflag,

    Why do you think that the Chinese will embark on expansion by conquest?. They are not known for it, I believe, apart from the wars between the States a few thousand years ago which produced the unitary State..

  • wild turkey

    Blues Jazz

    Streets without Joy: an excellent book

    Dispatches: the fucking sound track. believe me. i was there

    a Pyrrhic victory? hard call that one. at the time of the conflict, who could know what would occur 30/40 years down the line. but the elegant and astute and patient Vietnamese, in seeing off both French and Americans, saw off once and for all the pretensions of classic colonialism….

    but as you rightly point out with reference to Walmart, it is mega powerful banks, and their multi-national corporate clients, rather than nation states who now roll the loaded dice and implement the neo-colonist agenda.

    to lay that at the door of the Vietnamese who fought off both the french and americans, would be a bit unfair.

    mahalo

    mister joe, spot on comment. since the inception of what we now call China, the Chinese have been more than content to consolidate the inherent strength and power of the middle kingdom.

  • sherdy

    US statesman, John McCain apparently admired Giap for his tactical abilities.
    Would it actually take much of a brain to outwit the Republican senator?

  • BluesJazz

    wild turkey:

    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/2996.Michael_Herr

    I met Tim Page in Belfast about 15 years ago when he was doing a slideshow (remember them?) at Ormeau Baths arts centre-now closed.
    He had a beer or 2 with us in Katy Dalys and talked about Sean Flynn and love of helicopters.
    He was desperately nostalgic about the war in a kitschy apocalypse now way and very proud of his Air Cavalry patch.

  • Harry Flashman

    “the butchers bill he was often prepared to pay operationally, was horrific.”

    As is so often the case with Asian generals, be they Chinese in the Korea War or the Japanese in the Second World War.

    Occasional strokes of genius but usually strategic thought was limited to sending lightly armed infantry in their tens of thousands with nothing more to protect them than sheer courage and numbers, usually to be mown down in their tens of thousands. They make the generals of the Western Front look like tactical geniuses by comparison.

    Another small point but we appear to have over-looked the dreadful nature of the Communist regime Giap fought for, with millions of men, women and children murdered, imprisoned, enslaved, tortured, raped and sent into exile.

    A bit like writing a hagiographic eulogy to Von Manstein or Guderian and conveniently omitting to mention their loyalty to the Nazis.

  • Gopher

    Quite, Lost Victories and Panzer Leader whilst fascinating reads are almost works of fiction due to their glaring omissions and exercises in justification. It bemuses me notwithstanding their technical ability how writers eulogize over those pair.

  • Greenflag

    @Mr Joe,

    Why do you think that the Chinese will embark on expansion by conquest?.

    I did’nt say that Joe .Messing can mean other things apart from military conquest .The Tibetans could probably tell you the difference .

    When North Korea collapses it’ll be interesting to see whether China permits the New Korea to extend to the current North Korea /China border or will they (Chinese ) create a new border further South .?

    With Pres Obama being seen as unable to attend regional Asian countries due to the Federal Shutdown the message sent to Asia will be – Forget about the Yanks and pay more attention to China.

  • Greenflag

    @ Harry ,

    “A bit like writing a hagiographic eulogy to Von Manstein or Guderian and conveniently omitting to mention their loyalty to the Nazis.”

    Not all German generals saw themselves as loyal to the Nazis . The nazis were a political party which never got the majority vote in pre war Germany . They got just enough to grab power by using their paramilitary Brown shirt thugs to intimidate anyone who would oppose them As they set about grabbing all power and delegitimising any potential opposition .

    Not unlike our present day neo con corporate fascists who prefer government policy to conform to their particular agenda s. They don’t use thugs though to do the dirty work . They use finance and lobbyists and tax starved bankrupt governments to get their way .

    How else can one explain current GOP behaviour .You’d never think President Obama won two elections with comfortable majorities over these gobshites and they still don’t get the message .

    As for an alternative to Obamacare ? the last time the Republicans considered a major initiative in Health Care for All was in Nixon’s time .