By Scott Sharon
One of the last great military tacticians of the 20th century, General Vo Nguyen Giap, died last week at 102. The Vietnamese commander was the architect behind the wars against French colonial forces in the 1940s and 1950s, and later against the South Vietnamese and American war machines. As Ho Chi Minh’s second-in-command, Giap led his troops to victory in such infamous battles as Dien Bien Phu and the Fall of Saigon. In addition to serving as a high-ranking officer, Giap was also a journalist, interior minister, defense minister, and military commander of the Viet Minh, the predecessor to the Viet Cong. At the time of his death, Giap was the last of Vietnam’s old-guard revolutionaries.
Giap joined the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1931. Together with Ho Chi Minh, he organized the Vietnam People’s Army, a ragtag unit in North Vietnam, to fight the occupying Japanese Army. According to The Washington Post, their weaponry was antiquated and limited in scope, and they were outmanned by what remained of the once-mighty Japanese Imperial Army. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Giap’s unit expanded rapidly to 5,000 men and secured modern weapons supplied by the OSS (the CIA forerunner). With the fall of Japan, the Vietnamese Communists, now called the Viet Minh, turned their sights on the French.
“There is a contradiction that exists in a war of aggression whereby you have to disperse your forces to occupy a territory but rally your mobile forces for offensive action. We took advantage of this contradiction and forced Navarre to disperse his forces," Giap said.
Giap explained how exactly this strategic military decision played a critical role in his army's success.
"We ordered our troops to advance in a number of directions, directions of key importance to the enemy although their presence wasn't significant. So the enemy had no choice but to disperse their troops. We sent divisions north, northwest, toward the center…other divisions went in other directions,” he continued.
With the ousting of Vietnam’s longtime occupier, the country celebrated a major triumph over a colonial Western power, and Giap’s status was elevated to one of a national hero. Vietnam was later divided under the Geneva Convention at the 17th Parallel into the Communist Northand the Democratic South in 1954– elections to be held two years later in order to unite the country. When elections were cancelled by the U.S. and South Vietnam, North Vietnam began to intensify its guerilla warfare against the South. In 1959, the North Vietnamese government approved military operations against the South using the Viet Minh, later referred to as the Viet Cong.
The driving force behind North Vietnam’s struggle lay in a fierce determination to secure an independent, Communist Vietnam. Militarily, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong didn’t stand a chance against their enemy’s superior firepower. Yet their undying conviction to press on in pursuit of a united Vietnam and their willingness to sustain heavy losses allowed them to endure years of intense U.S. bombings. According to a NPR article, “[In] the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory.” Ironically, Giap once admitted to Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow that the North Vietnamese were not strong enough to drive out 500,000 American soldiers. Their true aim was to break the U.S. military's will to fight.
In addition, the North Vietnamese were fighting on their own soil and knew the terrain much better than the Americans. This geographical advantage allowed them to perfect the guerilla tactics that Giap had employed to defeat the French a decade before. With the creation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the late 1950s, and its expansion in 1965, Giap’s forces had established a major supply network to transfer weapons, equipment, and other necessary materials to Viet Cong and NVA soldiers in the South.
For his brilliant strategies in warfare, Giap has been compared to other famous generals like Erwin Rommel and Douglas MacArthur. Giap’s forces mastered tactics of hitting the enemy in small, repetitive attacks, then retreating into the mountains and attacking from multiple directions at once to further confuse their opponents. Though Giap never attended any military academy, his informal education was instrumental in defeating hundreds of thousands of French soldiers and half a million American soldiers, and eventually achieving freedom for his people.
The United States military would be wise to learn from Giap’s long and distinguished career. Guerilla warfare, now a feature common in most conflicts, is a means to defeat a superpower or, at the very least, wear a military to the point of exhaustion. On the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Giap reflected to foreign journalists, “If a nation is determined to stand up, it is very strong.” The car bombs, suicide attacks and roadside explosives employed by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not that far removed from the methods employed by Viet Cong fighters. While today’s Islamic fighters are motivated by a strict religious ideology, rather than a political or territorial agenda, both extremist groups have incorporated the strategies that continue to frustrate American armies.
The combined military deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan don’t come close to those killed in Southeast Asia, but the numbers should provide a cautionary tale. Warfare is no longer fought along conventional lines, and America would be prudent to heed the General’s warning, “Any forces that wish to impose their will on other nations will certainly face failure.”
Scott Sharon is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]