In 1996, when I visited Vietnam, I was honoured to be in the presence of General Vo Nguyen Giap. Though I was then a senior minister in the Cheddi Jagan government, I had still held the position as vice-president of the International Organisation of Journalists (IOJ), and it was in that capacity that I was invited to Vietnam. My good friend Earl Bousquet from St. Lucia, was on the IOJ executive committee, so he and I travelled together.
The government and the Vietnamese federation of journalists wanted to thank IOJ for its support for Vietnam during the protracted US war of aggression that culminated in 1975. At the Appreciation and Award Ceremony, General Giap made a surprising entry. Clad simply in a white, long-sleeved shirtjac and pants and shoes to match, the aged General was escorted on stage by a bevy of girls ‒ all in white traditional dresses also. We gave him a standing ovation that was to last until he exited the hall. Though he was waving his arms, he appeared frail, and had to be fetched up the stairs as he passed us, with the angelic brigade still at his side.
I thought that he might have passed away, as I have since heard nothing about him, except that he was replaced on the Politburo many years ago. Then I saw the news of his death: Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century, died on October 5, 2013 at the age of 102.
Most people in this part of the world would not have heard about General Giap. But in Vietnam, he is revered in much the same way as the country’s revolutionary hero and statesman, Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho). His passing would be mourned by all who came to love him as an extraordinary strategist, courageous warrior and peacemaker in Southeast Asia.
In my sojourns, I have been to the mausoleum of V I Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square, and looked with awe at the embalmed body of the tiny man who “shook the world” with the October 1917 Russian revolution. I saw the remains of the anti-fascist resistance leader Georgi Dimitrov in Sofia, Bulgaria; China’s maximum leader Mao Tse Tung in Beijing and the serene profile of Ho Chi Ming, in the city that bears his name.
For me, mausoleums of those great leaders and museums of others like George Washington, would always remain sacred shrines for their respective people, as each has left a unique legacy. As an example, Uncle Ho’s teachings on revolutionary morality would forever be a reminder that leadership is not about self-enrichment and cronyism.
Though I was to follow their life’s struggles with admiration, none of their writings on warfare had created a greater impact on me than those of General Nguyen Giap, most of which I read after the war had ended. He wrote in stiff language, using heavy Marxist-Leninist ideological phraseologies. But his message was always from experience ‒ his experience of defensive wars against powerful forces from Japan, France, United States and China.
So, you could image how excited I was, standing beside Earl Bousquet, watching General Giap passing us and, waving with a broad smile.
As my good fortune would have it, I would also always cherish my meeting with Madame Binh, the extraordinary woman commander of the South Vietnamese liberation army, who was then the Vice-President of Vietnam. She came unannounced to our bungalow just when we were having breakfast. Earl and I rushed to greet her, and asked if we could have photographs with her, and she smilingly gave us the nod.
We readily recalled Nguyen Thi Binh, popularly known as ‘Madame Binh,’ when she headed the Paris Peace Talks and, after 1975, when she became minister of education. She was elected vice president of Vietnam in 1992 and again in 1997.
I tried to picture her in the profile of the Viet Cong girl in straw hat, rifle slung over her shoulder, that was embossed on a silver button during the war years. But her image was as popular as that of the youth leader, Nguyen Van Troi, who set himself ablaze in protest against the war. That protest was also dramatized by icons like Martin Luther King Jnr, Jane Fonda, Mohamed Ali, (anti) war hero, John Kerry (now Secretary of State), and countless others at rallies and sit-ins in the US itself.
Now, before us in person, Madame Binh did not look the image of the legendary guerrilla fighter that she was. Clad in a green and black traditional dress, she looked like an unassuming mother, who wanted to know whether we were enjoying Vietnamese food. And, standing close to some cooking utensils that were on the breakfast table, she gave us hints on how to make Vietnamese soup with shredded chicken, and explained the importance of a dash of lemon juice in the brew. For me, she epitomized the grace and simplicity of a truly great fighter.
So seeing General Giap on that occasion too, was a rare treat. Born on August 25, 1911 in a peasant family, Giap was to be a self-taught fighter and military leader at an early age, resulting in him being jailed when he was just 18 for alleged subversive activities against the French colonialists. After he was freed, he read law at Hanoi University.
I doubt that he ever practised law. His forte was politics and, as he was to write later, war was the continuation of politics. From his writings, it is clear that Giap was an ardent student of all wars, especially wars against feudalism in East Asia. But his unique contribution to military science was his strategy for uprisings and wars with a popular character. He militarized politics with his formation of worker-peasant alliances into broad national united fronts.
Giap was able to develop charters for the combination of legal and semi-legal forms of struggles, shifting skilfully from political to military methods, and converting mass political organizations into revolutionary armed units. Thus, from the anvil of practice, he mastered guerrilla warfare, which other revolutionaries like Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara emulated, but with limited success.
From an early age, I romanticized with ideas of serving in the armed forces and fighting for a just cause. But I was refused admission into our own police force and newly-formed army. So during 1967, whilst attending a conference in Mongolia with then youth leader, Feroze Mohamed, I asked a group of Vietnamese whether I would be welcome to fight in Vietnam. I cannot say whether it was from sheer impetuosity or adventurism that I did so, but I got a polite “no” as answer, and an advice to raise instead solidarity with Vietnam in my own country. Some other youths whom we had met during that visit, did go to Vietnam, among them was the affable Rafael Varona from Puerto Rico, who was to die in a bombing raid.
General Giap was leading the armed resistance in Vietnam in a war that eventually took the lives of over one million Vietnamese and Americans, with thousands incapacitated from the effects of napalm and Agent Orange chemicals. Still today, for victims as well as freedom-loving peoples the world over, Vietnam is a painful memory.
I was to see the rice fields dotted with concrete tombstones and graves as I made a long trip from Ho Chi Ming City to Ha Long Bay (Dragon Bay), an odyssey through thousands of tiny rock islands and caves, in a part of the bay that was enveloped in a magical mist. Earl called it, the passage to heaven!
For Giap, wars were a personification of country. He saw “the spirit of just wars” as a mission to “defend the mountains and rivers of the country.” He wrote that in a just war, revolutionaries must fight barbarity with justice and humanity. He was to imbue people’s wars with the core principle of the libertarian constitution of the United States, as wars “by the people” and “for the people”
Giap was adept in the operational art and tactics of warfare, and proved that he could beat any force on the ground. No doubt, learning from defeat in Vietnam, the US changed tactics and has opted since for pre-emptive strikes, from relative safety in the air, instead of putting boots on the ground.
Just as he was a war strategist, Giap was also a peacemaker and laboured at the negotiating table for an end to the Vietnam War. When the end came, he turned his proverbial sword into a plough, when he served as a state official overseeing family planning, science and technology, and became a man both of ideas and action. Though he lived a full life, his writings will survive him, as would be his ideal of making “every citizen a soldier” and every real political party, “a fighting front” for the people. A fond farewell, General!
Moses V Nagamootoo