Thursday, September 1, 2011

Vo Nguyen Giap: The Vietnamese Centurion

Image: Vo Nguyen Giap in 2008 by Ricardo Stuckert. From Wikimedia Commons.

The General who baffled two world superpowers has passed his 100th birth anniversary. Vo Nguyen Giap, the nemesis of the French at Dien Bien Phu and the leader of the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) during the Vietnam war, celebrated his 100th birthday on August 25, 2011.

General Giap is known as a leader who never backed down even against obstacles seemingly impossible to overcome. Born in 1911 to a well to do family, he rose to prominence as a superb military tactician, a fact supported by the defeat of superpowers at the hands of the VPA. Despite being marginalized in political matters during the last few decades, he is highly respected in Vietnam because of his achievements.

Giap had become a Communist while studying at the University of Hanoi in early 1930s. When France outlawed Communism in 1939, Giap fled to China where he met with Ho Chi Minh. He returned only in 1944. By that time, his immediate family had been arrested by the French and had been executed. Such was the regard for human rights the colonial masters had at that time.

Yet, Giap carried on.

In 1945, when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared independence, he was appointed as the Minister of Interior. Soon, the Viet Minh forces were at loggerheads with the French troops in Indochina.

Giap played a vital role in the anti-colonial war. The poorly armed Vietnamese troops continuously harassed the better armed French colonial troops using guerrilla tactics.In 1953, the French established a fortified position at Dien Bien Phu, straddling supply lines of the liberation fighters. It was an invitation to positional warfare, which is anathema to the guerrillas. But, Vo Nguyen Giap was not a man to back down. With the help of the supplies from the USSR and People's Republic of China (PRC) and mainly with the help of the Vietnamese populace, the VPA launched the attack on the French fortifications. Some diversionary attacks elsewhere helped the Vietnamese to prepare for the offensive on Dien Bien Phu, which started on March 13, 1954. They battled for position after position. Guerrillas isolated the fortified area from the outside, blocking roads and using anti-aircraft weapons received from the Communist allies to the North to hinder French air traffic. The last French troops surrendered on May 7. It was an ignominious defeat which brought down the French rule in Indochina.

Vietnam War

Vietnam was separated to two parts, North and South, pending elections to unify the two. However, the elections were never held, mainly due to the opposition of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which argued that a free and fair election will never be held in the North. Thus began the struggle for Vietnam. Once more, it was a matter of guerrilla tactics. The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, with the support of the North Vietnam and her allies waged a war to unite Vietnam. Against them were the capitalist camp led by the United States. Regular forces of North Vietnam, USA and her allies were soon embroiled in the conflict. Extensive bombing of North Vietnam and even other areas in Indochina was carried out by the U.S. Still, General Giap did not back down. Mainly using guerrilla tactics, aided by the extremely favourable terrain and generally supportive people, the Vietnamese fought on against the military might of the superpower across the Pacific Ocean. The United States and her allies won almost all the battles and yet were resoundingly defeated in the war. Most of all, the U.S. lost in the home front where anti war sentiments gave rise to radical student protests largely unseen in the country till then.

May be it was Giap himself who summed up the Vietnam war in 1997, when he met his erstwhile opponent Robert McNamara. "The U.S. lost in Vietnam...", he told McNamara, "....because the U.S. did not understand Vietnam". What he could have told is that perhaps the U.S. did not understand General Vo Nguyen Giap.

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