Saturday, October 5, 2013

Võ Nguyên Giáp RIP . . .

. . . or rot in hell depending on your point of view.  Dead at 102.  Outlived his counterpart Robert McNamara.  Outlived his fall guys, Generals Navarre and Westmoreland.   But then Giap had two things going for him that Navarre and Westy did not: 1] it was his backyard whereas his enemies were over 10,000 miles from home, and 2] he had a sanctuary, his enemies did not.  He also outlived two other of his victims.  He was still Defense Minister when Vietnam beat Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and General Xu Shiyou's PLA.  Too bad for his country that he was too old and retired from military affairs in 1988 when China occupied Vietnam's Johnson Reef and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers.

 He was self-taught in matters soldierly.  He did not turn to a military life until his thirties.  He went to High shool in Hue, college in Hanoi, and did further study in Paris and China.  Started his adulthood as a teacher and a journalist unlike Navarre who graduated from Saint Cyr, and unlike Westmoreland who was an honor graduate of West Point.  But even as a younger man he read extensively of Napoleon (especially of his mountain campaigns), Sun Tzu, the American Revolutionary War, and then later he read Mao.  And what Wikipedia and Vietnamese sources will never divulge, he also had some military training from an American OSS team.  Giap is the short dapper one in the white suit and my father's dark fedora hat two down on the right from a young Ho Chi Minh in shorts.  The American soldier between them is US Army Major Allison Thomas head of the OSS training team.

General Hal Moore, who co-wrote "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young" about the battle of Ia Drang, said that Giap was " ... one of the greatest military commanders of the 20th century".  Westmoreland called Giap a butcher in a 1998 interview in George magazine: "Of course, he was a formidable adversary . . . but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men. By his own admission, by early 1969, I think, he had lost, what, a half million soldiers? He reported this. Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius."  Both Moore and Westy may both have been right, sour grapes or not.

Giap's birthplace, Quang Binh, is the province just north of the DMZ which took the brunt of America's air war against the north: thousands of tons of bombs more than any other province in the north.  LBJ had no restricted targets in the North Vietnamese panhandle where Quang Binh was located.  Not just B-52 arclights, and Navy and Air Force Alpha strikes, but it was also a dumping ground for any returning American aircraft that could not get to their primary target for weather or any other reason.  The photo below shows Giap congratulating workers of the transport boat team on Gianh River just a few mile north of the DMZ in 1968.  I first thought it was staged, but now I think not.  He is one of their native sons, not some Hanoi bigwig.  He is talking to them in their own drawling central Vietnamese dialect, which is as different from the harsh pronunciations of the north and the tonal patois of Saigon as is the speech of an Iowan farmer from Brooklynese or Dallas twang.  They are liking him for being just a country cousin like they are and a local boy made good.

 There is an interesting story that the spot he was born in was under the shadow of a jackfruit tree.  Or interesting to this vet anyway.  The jackfruit (mít in Vietnamese), although a sweet delicacy, has some martial arts overtones in central Vietnam.  They have a thick pale green rind with thousands of sharp hexagonal spines.  There is an old ballad from that part of the country about a blind hero using jackfruit rinds as some type of brass knuckled fist coverings during a Vietnamese boxing match.  So I suspect that story may be apocryphal, sort of like Washington's cherry tree.   Anyway if there is a good Viet restaurant in your neighborhood try the jackfruit salad or mo' better try the dessert of sweet ripe jackfruit in coconut milk if they have it.  You won't regret it!


  1. mike

    Very good post. As to weighing the opinion of Hal Moore versus Westmoreland, well I would go overwhelmingly to Moore.

    Funny that Westy would castigate Giap because "he persisted in waging a big-unit war", when Westy, himself, could not embrace any other approach. And yes, it resulted in Giap suffering" terrible losses to his own men", but that's by Westy's "body count" metric of success, which, by 1998, had been proven to be a meaningless metric, one created by Westy to claim "progress".

    I tend to agree with Lewis Sorely's low opinion of Westy. Well, not exactly agree. I hold the guy in even lower esteem.

  2. Mike,
    Giap/Minh had another thing that the westerners lacked.
    This was legitimacy and history was on his side.
    One does not fight a colonial war and pretend that it's about democracy yada yada.
    Another reason hw won was that his uniform badges/tabs and scare badges didn't weigh him down and tire him out.

    1. But I thought fruit salad was good for a soldier!


  3. Updated that first photo that was taking forever to load, I think the problem was that it uploaded from a URL in Vietnam.

    Aviator 47 - Thanks for that Sorley/War College link. And yes, Hal Moore was a pretty astute guy. Reportedly he was Shwartzkopf's mentor when he was an instructor at West Point

    Ranger - Giap had only five awards. And I rarely found any photos of him where he was wearing them. Meanwhile Westy wore 36 medals and decorations. Make that 50 if you include all the Oak Leaf Clusters on his three DSMs, three Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, ten Air Medals (WTF??). Not sure what scare patch he wore but he held the CIB, Army Aviators Badge, Master Parachutist Badge & ARVN Parachutist Badge and Glider Badge. Additionally at West Point he graduated as first captain—the highest graduating rank—and received the Pershing Sword, which is given to the most able cadet at the academy. And then won the Knox Trophy

    It has been written of hi that his academic record at West Point was poor. But I find that hard to believe. To be assigned as an artillery officer in the 1930s prior to computers, you needed to be able to do trig functions in your sleep. That was no career field for a dummy.

    James - I was serious, try the jackfruit salad. It is better than ten air medals.

  4. mike- I can comment on Westy's Aviator Badge. He did the "General Officer Qualification Course" (1/3 of the normal flying hours to earn wings as a copilot only rating) while Chief of Staff, Army during "off duty" time. Had an instructor brought in on TDY and flew out of the Pentagon helipad. Soldiers Magazine had a picture of him in PT shorts and T-shirt sitting in a Huey as part of an article about his seeking wings to "add command support" to Army Aviation. He was shown in PT garb to emphasize how he "rushed from the gym to squeeze in his required instruction". Meanwhile, as a flight instructor, my job included impressing upon students the importance of Nomex flight suits, sleeves rolled down and gloves worn and setting that example.

    The day before that magazine issue was distributed on post at the Primary Helicopter Training Center where I was stationed, our CG appeared on our closed circuit TV to all students and permanent party stating that the picture was a PIO shot, and surely the CSA was not going to fly in gym clothes.

  5. I updated the first paragraph of the post to show Giap's two other victims: Pol Pot and Xu Shiyou.

  6. Al -

    What if any were Westy's initiatives when he became Army Chief of Staff? If any? I realize that was a tough time with RIFs and acquisition cutbacks.

  7. The only one's I can remember were allowing longer sideburns and allowing beer vending machines in barracks. ;-)

    Nothing substantive in terms of doctrine or force structure occurred on Westy's watch. As Sorely noted, he was more of a "Good Will Ambassador" to troops in CONUS and the general community than a functioning C of S. He spent an amazing amount of time at ribbon cutting ceremonies at new Army facilities around the country, for example.

    Westy was responsible for meeting the challenges of the impending end of the draft, but this was not his initiative, but one he had to respond to during the last two years of his term as C of S. Thus "getting in touch with the troops" was a reasonable element of improving recruiting and retention, especially in light of the generally negative attitude of the the population towards the military. He implemented the very high profile VOLAR (Volunteer Army) tests at selected installations to consider policies and changes that would make service life more conducive to recruiting and retention. I would note that Gen Hal Moore was responsible for the VOLAR project at Ft Ord, a basic training post. There were, indeed, many "quality of life" lessons learned via VOLAR.

    Unfortunately, many commanders at non-VOLAR posts saw this simply as "the wave of the future", not careful studies, and motivated by the impending deep RIFs, jumped on the VOLAR bandwagon in willy-nilly style, to pad their "resumes" for survival purposes. For example, since UCMJ stats were one of the many metrics at the test posts, discipline slackened across the board to produce "good numbers" which were, of course, indicative of lower enforcement, not improved behavior. Westy was oblivious to this. In 1971, we actually had a newly assigned O-6 Director of Training at the Primary Helicopter Training School suggest, among his "VOLAR items" (we were not a VOLAR post), that we allow flight school students "a couple of mistakes" in pot smoking to improve both graduation rates and UCMJ stats!

    Much of the "damage" inflicted by VOLAR was probably due to Westy simply being unable to grasp the requirement of the AVF in totality (personnel, doctrine and readiness) and provide the Army with a clear sense of direction. Thus, we went off in a stuttering downhill direction for a few years.

  8. Thanks Al -

    Sounds sort of like Admiral Zumwalt's beards-for-bluejackets and barracks-beer-machines policies during the same time frame.

    But at least Zumwalt also pushed against racism and sexism in the ranks. He took a lot of heat for that at the time. And I believe his policy of a few high-quality ship classes and larger quantities of low-cost ship classes were good for the Navy and good for the taxpayers and the country.

  9. Is there a link between Giap's strategy and the Taliban of today?

    Below is a link to an April 2008 Asian Times article where a Talib spokesman says yes.


  10. I think the conclusion of the article you link to, tho, mike, is pretty much "no"; the Talibs lack almost everything that made Giap's plans work.

    Reminds me of the sort of things you'd read where some interviewer would quote a salafist verbatim as predicting the imminent arrival of the new Caliphate behind the triumphant advance of the jihadi forces sweeping out of the Middle East as their forebears had in the 7th Century.

    The only problem was that in the real world his conquering armies consisted a bunch of raggedy-assed wannabes and never-weres roaming the Hindu Kush...

  11. FDChief -

    You are right that they do not currently have the wherewithal. But are you suggesting that they are beaten? I don't think so, not yet. They look to be still be in the second phase of the model pushed by Giap (and Mao), i.e. guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Giap's use of those three phases was never clearcut, the phases overlapped, and many times went forward and back. I would not expect them to go seriously into the third phase of conventional large unit warfare until American firepower is gone. And you know that will happen. So do they.

    And although they lack the the heavy artillery and rockets, T-54s and PT-76s, MIGs, and radar guided SAMs that Giap had, they do have some other things going for them :

    1] like Giap they have perseverance - they have been at this for how long now? 12 years? and a long time before that against the Russians. America does not have the will or the treasure to stay there for the 50 to 100. We are leaving next year, aren't we?

    2] they have a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan when needed.

    3] they have tens of thousands of fresh recruits from Pakistan with the prospects of many more.

    3] they have a powerful ally and armament provider in the Pakistani ISI.

    4] it is their backyard. Our tame Pashto allies may rule Kabul and a few big cities after we leave, but the Talibs will roam the countryside at will.

    5] they have unlimited funds from friends in high places on the Arabian peninsula. Our tame Pashto allies may have a mountain of American dollars now but a) graft and corruption makes that a molehill and b) that American funding will disappear sometime in the future.

    6] they appear to have unity of command, which their enemies do not.

    Hmm, all of those sound familiar to me and any other Vietnam vet.

    So when the inevitable happens, the former Northern Alliance folks - Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara - will probably be abandoned like we abandoned the Kurds back in 1991. Maybe Iran and the former Soviet -stans will help them out. They are going to need a new Massoud.

  12. I think the big difference, mike, is that they won't have enough conventional force behind them to do a tank-through-the-gate-of-the-former-U.S.-embassy kind of thing. Not saying they can't win, just that it will probably be a lot more like the original slow-motion collapse of the Najibullah government after the Soviet departure in '89. And, much like the Sovs were, I think we'll end up being OK with that.

    As long as there's enough time for the place to sink back into obscurity, the U.S. public will have forgotten completely everything that our military did over a decade in this misbegotten land...

  13. You are probably right on that, I don't quite see the Pakistanis giving them armor and heavy artillery.

    But they may not need it, if the regime, Karzai or his replacement, can play the part of a necromancer bringing the Taliban into the fold and back to a position of some influence. The official name of the country is already "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan". Not that fa from the former Talib name of "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan". The Parliament already has some members who are associates of the Taliban. And reportedly negotiations are one of their top priorities as they are concerned about a renewed war with the Northern Alliance after our withdrawal.

    But a peaceful integration of the Taliban into a secondary role is doubtful to my mind. We should never underestimate the violent extremism and hate of religious fanatics. They will never endure for long women or Shias or Dari speakers in Parliament. I foresee them trying to tear their country apart again. And they can do that without heavy weapons from Pakistan. They just have to subvert some of the ANA and AAF.

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