For over two weeks since General Vo Nguyen Giap passed away on Oct 4, 2013, there have been heated discussions about his life and influence in Vietnam and in the world. Why such a phenomenon? Following are just a few remarks from one personal perspective.
There are different opinions about General Giap, his character, his roles during the wars and in peace, and his influence or legacy for future generations in Vietnam. Depending on the individual’s sociopolitical stance, we can notice two main contrasting views:
1. He is considered a talented military leader and a national hero, even a saint or idol in Vietnam history. People compare him to legendary heroes and founding fathers in Vietnam history such as Ly Thuong Kiet, Tran Hung Dao, Nguyen Trai…. The whole nation and many Vietnamese communities in the world mourned him at such a high level as found only at the funerals of great Vietnamese historic figures like Phan Chu Trinh, Ho Chi Minh…. He is looked up as a beloved and a genuine nationalist, an excellent follower of Ho Chi Minh, and one of the founders of Vietnam after 1945. Without him, there would not have been the decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu, which forced the French colonialists to withdraw from Vietnam in 1954. He was also instrumental in building up the Vietnamese People’s Army from its first blueprint as "armed propaganda brigades" in 1944 with only 34 people. No one denied his role as Commander in Chief throughout the war against the US, even though, with Le Duan and Van Tien Dung’s presence in South Vietnam, he had no longer directed southern operations since 1972.
Crowds of people, children and youth born in peace times as well as old veterans in remote areas from the North to the South, tried all they could to come to Hanoi or Quang Binh to pay tribute to the famous General. During his funeral procession from his house in Hanoi to his burial place in Vung Chua, Quang Binh (a distance of 437km), despite the scorching sun, a sea of people waited in long lines wherever possible to show their admiration and respect to him the last time. Many could not hold back their emotions, including soldiers in duty at his burial site.
2. On the other side, his enemies regard him as a merciless general towards his own soldiers and towards prisoners of war at the front. To them he only focused on the final victory, and never concerned about the high price Vietnam had to pay for the prolonged wars in terms of human lives and national economic and cultural developments. Those who are against the current regime in Vietnam have exploited his image and his death as the last glowing vestiges during the sunset of communism in the region and in the world. Protesters against the Vietnam Communist Party and current government leaders think he remained a powerless weakling silently pushed aside by his comrades (Le Duan, Le Duc Tho, Le Duc Anh ….) from 1960s through1980s. Democratic activists and political reformers consider him a respected but too defensive patriot after the war. Despite his talents and wise vision, they think he had no significant roles or contributions after April 30, 1975. Those advocating for a peaceful transition into a new democratic Vietnam regret losing him as an intellectual supporter for their movements.
All comments and criticisms aside, General Giap remains a historic Vietnamese figure with a huge and lasting influence and a unique legacy in national and international history.
At the national level, to younger generations he left a legacy of an idealistic character with his honesty, integrity and consistency in serving the nation. He was faithful to his ideal and the national cause till the end of his life. Throughout his life he continued to share his visions in many national issues with government leaders and his people during wartime (Dien bien Phu 1954, Tet Offensive 1968, Summer 1972, Spring 1975, the war against China in 1979, Central Highlands and the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands since 1990s) and in peace (land reforms in the 1950s, and current problems about national security, educational, scientific and economic development, policies about oceanic research, boxite extraction, etc.). These are pragmatic lessons for political and military leaders to study and apply. His pragmatism, responsibility and discipline are models for good leadership. In adversities, his open-mindedness, tolerance and empathy, and especially his wise tactics in dealing with internal and external affairs should be thought-provoking to political leaders, including those against him.
At the international level, he has been admired and respected by both his former enemies, fighters in movements for national liberation and independence, and peace-loving people around the world. Among foreigners attending his funeral were US veterans and peace-loving fighters. Politicians from France and the USA all expressed their respects and sorrows at his death. He is always an inspiring fighter for national liberation against foreign aggression. His books on war tactics and strategies have been translated into many languages and are currently used in military academies in many countries.
The General’s long-lasting legacy and final message to both the Vietnamese people and current government leaders was probably his decision about his burial place. With this last choice he seemed to imply that as a son of his homeland fighting for his national independence, at the end of his life, he wanted to be buried like other ordinary soldiers and citizens in his own homeland. Many years before his death he had chosen a burial place in a remote area close to high mountains looking toward the vast sea. It is located at Vung Chua-Dao Yen, Quang Binh Province, the narrowest and the poorest region in northern Central Vietnam. It is so remote that there is almost no decent road to get access to this burial place for a well-known historic figure like him. Until the day before his funeral, many soldiers and workers had to work hard to build the road to welcome the hero back to his homeland. The week before his death, the region and its neighboring areas in Central Vietnam had been struck by a seasonal typhoon, which flooded a huge area and killed many villagers. The General lived and died with his people, and he remained faithful to the ideal of the Vietnamese People's Army to the end of his life. That is why he chose not to be buried in Mai Dich Cemetary, where selected Communist Party and government leaders were often buried.
One important question remains: “Why so many Vietnamese people mourned General Giap?” When asked about the reasons of their emotional behaviors, many sincerely expressed their deep respect toward him. To them, he was a faithful and dedicated public servant with high dignity, honesty, and integrity till the end of his life. He was a simple person with an exemplary life and character that they truly admire and love. Moreover, he belonged to the long-gone generations of high-minded people who out of patriotism had joined and had been trained in the wars for national liberation and reunification. It is possible that the people have a strong need to express their patriotism and personal emotions toward a legendary figure who passed away at a time when Vietnam and many of its traditional values seem to be quite vulnerable. Attending his funeral is a legitimate and politically-safe way for the people to express their desires, aspirations and concerns toward the future of their nation, and to send a strong protest message against many corrupted leaders at all levels. What the Vietnamese people desire at present is honesty and transparency from their leaders, and a civic society with freedom and democracy in which the people’s voice is well respected and listened to attentively. When they mourned General Giap, they also mourned for themselves, and for the betrayal of current leaders against the national ideals that many generations had sacrificed their youth and lives fighting for. Their mourning is fundamentally an expression of concerns and sorrows for the gloomy future of their nation.
Documentaries about General Vo Nguyen Giap
1-Duong Kach Menh/The Revolutionary Way
2 Tu nhan dan ma ra/Born from the People
3 Chin nam lam mot Dien Bien/ The Nine-Year Making of Dien Bien Phu
4 Cuoc dung dau lich su/ A Historic Encounter
5Tien len toan thang at ve ta/Forward and the Victory is Ours
6 Nguoi anh ca cua Quan doi Nhan dan VN/The Eldest Brother of the Vietnamese People's Army
Anh Vuong Ngo. Tolerance Helped the General to Overcome Life Adversities. Oct 14, 2013
Anh Vuong Ngo. Tolerance Helped the General to Overcome Life Adversities. Oct 14, 2013
Chi Trung Nguyen, The Last Article on General Giap Oct. 15, 2013
Duong Que Pham. Ups and Downs (Waves and Winds) in General Giap’s Life
General’s Giap’s last letter to businessmen and women. Read by Quoc Trung Duong on Oct. 6, 2013 at the Club of Vietnamese Industrialists and Businessmen and Businesswomenhttp://infonet.vn/Kinh-doanh/Doanh-nghiep/Buc-thu-cuoi-cung-cua-Dai-tuong-Vo-Nguyen-Giap/114292.info
Hang Lien Nguyen. The Gaps in General Giap’s Lifehttp://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/forum/2013/10/131013_nguyenlienhang_view_on_gen_giap.shtml
Larry Berman. General Giap Understands His Enemies
Meeting between General Giap and McNamara
General Giap and People in Thai Nguyen Province - Some Memories about the War Against the French Colonialists