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Publication Date : 10-10-2013
One of the great post-World War II independence icons has breathed his last
Aged a sprightly 102, general Vo Nguyen Giap has finally laid down his gun for the last time.
In the hustle and bustle of 2013, there isn’t much room for remembering an old fighter. General Giap didn’t tweet, he wasn’t a judge on Vietnam Idol and didn’t leave behind a multi-billion conglomerate that will be fought over by his family.
What Vo Nguyen Giap was at the time of his death on 3 Oct 2013, was arguably the last surviving icon of the post World War II anti-colonial struggle.
You can make a case for Fidel Castro and even Robert Mugabe, but to me, it is Vo Nguyen Giap.
In a 30-40 year period during and after World War II, few countries experienced as much turmoil as Vietnam and Giap was at the heart of a lot of it. He will go down in history (for those of us who still care about that sort of that thing) as the mastermind of Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu was the scene of a famous victory where Giap whose Viet Minh forces had only recently metamorphosed from guerilla troops into a conventional army, besieged and overcame a sizable French Army.
The victory in May 1954 paved the way for the Geneva Conference which led to France withdrawing from Indochina.
Its ramifications were greater than that because it showed that a determined local force could inflict humiliating military defeats on occupying European colonialists.
At that point in 1954, numerous nations in Asia and Africa, including our own, were pressing for the right to self-determination and there is little doubt that Giap’s victory was a clear warning sign to colonial rulers to speed up their withdrawals.
Giap himself enjoyed a unique position. Far from being militarily trained, he had been a teacher and a journalist before taking up a prominent position alongside his former schoolmate Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam’s underground left-wing movement.
The Japanese occupation of Indochina in 1941 meant that would be revolutionaries had to take up arms, and Giap began a career in guerrilla warfare in the mountains of northern Vietnam.
Over the course of time, Giap and his Viet Minh troops were to battle the Japanese, the French, the South Vietnamese, the Americans, and even in 1979, the Chinese.
Throughout it all, Vietnamese resolve never wavered, despite massive losses.
For Giap the struggle was more about national liberation than anything else. While the likes of US General Westmoreland questioned his military strategies, saying that Giap sustained untenable losses, his determination to pursue his course was undeniable.
In 2007, I spent two weeks traipsing around modern Vietnam. Like modern day China, we now see the paradox of rapid capitalist expansion in the name of Communism. But while the tourist destinations of Ha Long Bay and Sapa may have their attractions I was still most taken with the legacy of Vietnam’s wars.
I was frankly a bit mortified at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for surely no Marxist wants to be mummified like a pharoah. But it was also intriguing to walk through the ruins of the ancient palace at Hue, and recreated the morbid excitement of the Fall of Saigon at the Independence Palace.
Giap was slowly eased out from power after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, despite remaining as deputy prime minister of a unified Vietnam until 1991. He spent his last years as a respected maverick, more and more out of touch with a nation on the fast track to industrialisation and consumerism.
When all is said and done, its clear that the imperialism that Giap fought against now exists in different forms, but he was also one to look to the future. In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal US Senator John McCain said that when he met Giap in the 1990s, the pair “clasped each other’s shoulders as if we were reunited comrades rather than former enemies”.
He also found that Giap was not excited about recounting former glories but was rather more focused on building bridges saying “You and I should discuss a future where our countries are not enemies but friends.”
So time eventually caught up with Vo Nguyen Giap, and he has slipped away into the great beyond. The pros and cons of the various Indochina Wars can be debated long into the night, but let it never be said that the legacy of General Giap will be forgotten.