The General who won wars with barefoot soldiers and bicycles
Great military commanders have an aura unattainable by others. The last World War threw up a clutch of names that still reverberate in the halls of history—Patton, Montgomery, Rommel (The Desert Fox), Eisenhower, MacArthur, even Tojo, Yamamoto, Yamashita. The Cariappa name glittered in the Indian sky because he was the first commander-in-chief. In glamour value, Thimayya and Manekshaw were the heroes. While acknowledging the grandeur of these legendary generals, we need to recognise that the grandest of them all was General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam’s most revered idol after Ho Chi Minh and a military genius who led his country to victory in both the Indochina War of the 1940s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. He died last week, aged 102.
How easy it is to say that he led his country to victory. We have to remember what the country was and who the enemy was to realise the monumental nature of Giap’s achievement. Vietnam was among the most deprived countries of Southeast Asia, suppressed as a Chinese colony for a thousand years, then invaded by Chinese dynasties for another thousand years, then colonised by the French in the 1850s.
During these centuries, the country produced great heroes and heroines who resisted the invaders not only with courage but with imagination. The methods they used and the traditions they set were all that the Ho Chi Minh generation had to build on.
Small wonder that American writers called the Vietnamese fighting forces the barefoot army.
And who were the enemies the barefoot soldiers confronted? The French, the Japanese, then the French again and finally the mighty American war machine. The Japanese disappeared when they lost the war. The French gave up only when they were humiliatingly defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the barefoot army that famously carried heavy artillery to hill tops on bicycles.
For the Americans, the Vietnam war was the longest they ever fought. It was also the only one they lost. It was a war in which America used inhuman weapons like napalm bomb and Agent Orange, the chemical that destroyed forests and caused genetic defects among people. American decision-makers like President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were convinced that the Vietnamese did not stand a chance. The American approach to war and Vietnam was crystallised in the personality of a Lieutenant Colonel named John Paul Vann, the central figure in a book on Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. “To Vann,” writes Sheehan, “other peoples were lesser peoples: it was the natural order of things that they accept American leadership. He assumed that America’s cause was always just... To him all communists were enemies of America and thus enemies of order and progress”.
It can be argued that this mentality was the cause of America’s defeat in Vietnam, and of its continuing defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. Gen. Giap never underestimated the enemy. Like Ho, he came from Vietnamese aristocracy, not the working class. And, like Ho, he started out as a nationalist, not a communist. Giap was a college teacher who loved to read and write. His 1975 book Unforgettable Days is a highly readable account of the 1945-46 period when the French and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China competed to control Vietnam.
Giap’s real success was that he built an army out of nothing. He had only 5,000 guerillas to start with. In a little over one year, he built a force of 100,000 men. He achieved a sort of miracle by training farmers in the countryside to function as soldiers when the need arose.
The weaponry at Giap’s disposal was an odd collection of left-overs from the French and the Japanese. He even devised ways to rummage the cargo holds of old Japanese ships lying at the bottom of the sea.
It was ingenuity, tactics and above all the strength of will of an entire populace that helped Vietnam achieve the impossible. Vo Nguyen Giap faced heavier odds than the World War commanders did, so his triumph was greater than theirs. Giap will be remembered as the general of generals.