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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha >
Lessons from the Vietnam
War for Tamils: An Overview and a Few Personal Thoughts
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
On April 30th, Vietnam celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of then Saigon [now, Ho Chi Minh City]. While I collected materials to contribute a commentary, the murder of defence analyst D.P.Sivaram in Colombo on April 29th, made me to give priority to prepare and present his lengthy essay on Tamil militarism. Thus, now I present a few lessons from the Vietnam war for Tamils.
Fourteen months before the fall of Saigon, in February 1974, Ronald Spector [then a historian in the Current History Branch of the Center of Military History, Department of Army, USA] noted,
Though hundreds of authors, academics and journalists have presented the Vietnam War from their own rather specialized [and sometimes limited] perspectives, nothing can equal for an overview, other than hearing the bottom-line versions of two opposing Generals [Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap and Gen.William Westmoreland] of that war, who are both in their 90s now. I present their interviews, recorded in 1998, below for reading and reflection.
Though 30 years have passed since the fall of Saigon, the events which percolated in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and the first half of 1970s are still too near by history’s time-scale; as such, even living legends Giap and Westmoreland, who experienced first hand combat action have something in their hearts which they are reluctant to reveal. Further clouding of details on the Vietnam war had resulted due to Cambodian tragedy of Pol Pot (who was supported by post-Mao leadership of China) and Vietnam’s intrusion into Cambodia in 1979 to chase out Pol Pot, thus straining the relations between Vietnam and China.
The prevailing popular take on the Vietnam war, that Vietnamese won the war, and Americans lost for the first time in Asia is somewhat simplistic, akin to the abridged high school edition of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ novel.
The then North Vietnam received considerable amount of side support from China to an extent that the war more or less turned out to be a proxy American-Chinese war, a continuation of the Korean war of the early 1950s. [See below, for a little more details on this issue.] I was alerted to this fact by one of my Chinese co-workers, Dr.Rong Zhu Cheng, in the 1990s. If technically [on paper] Vietnamese won the war, their victory was a pyrrhic one and they are still paying the price of extensively damaged environment due to the defoliation [Agent Orange] experiments of American army.
Apart from China, Vietnamese victory resulted also from ‘military support’ provided to them by the then Soviet Union. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to state that the Vietnam war was indeed a ‘World War III’ [though it has not been tagged as such] in the Asian soil. The real victors of the Vietnam war, in the economic front, were Japan and Singapore whose economy leap-frogged that of other Asian nations, because (1) they serviced the American needs; and (2) the war didn’t take place in their territories.
Frankly speaking, in the second half of 1960s, for average Tamils living in the Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the moniker ‘Vietnam’ didn’t mean that much, other than routine news reports they heard from the radio and read in newspapers and magazines.
I’m pretty sure that millions of Tamils spent their lives without even knowing the names of Gen.Giap and Gen.Westmoreland. If I’m not exaggerating, the ‘Vietnam’ moniker tagged itself in the Tamil psyche from a popular drama called, ‘Vietnam Veedu’ [Vietnam House] scripted by Sundaram – a machine operator turned script writer - and staged for the first time in 1965 in Madras, which was later transformed into a Tamil movie, with the same name Vietnam Veedu (1970) starring Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini. I remember reading a carping comment by a leftist Tamil academic, castigating the Madras entertainment industry catering for Tamil middle class and perverting the heroic Vietnam liberation struggle of peasants, into a stage and movie production depicting the petty squabbles with a Tamil Brahmin family of Prestige Padmanabha Aiyar.
My interest in Vietnam war was ‘sort of’ kindled by my American mentor at the University of Illinois, Prof.John W.Erdman Jr. He did military duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s, when he was in his early 20s. I met him for the first time in January 1981 in Colombo when he visited for an international conference seminar. Subsequently, during my stay at Illinois (1981-85), I have infrequently listened to his Vietnam battle-field experiences.
When the curtain closed on Vietnam War in 1975, Eelam Tamils had not experienced any such war. Now, 30 years later, Eelam Tamils have witnessed the fury of war and can feel the same with Vietnamese. Thanks to the self-educated expertise of LTTE leader Pirabhakaran and tutelage of the late Sivaram, Eelam Tamils also have gained rudiments of understanding on battle field strategies and tactics. Thus I feel that the thoughts of Gen.Giap and Gen.Westmoreland are of relevance to Eelam’s future as well.
In the two 1998 interviews presented below, while Gen.Giap provided his version of the battlefield strategy, Gen.Westmoreland stressed the ‘hand-cuffing’ he faced at the theater of war, due to the ‘back-seat driving’ strategies adopted by the American democracy [politicians at the Washington DC and the news-media residing in the New York].
Gen.Westmoreland’s complaint is a valid point for Eelam Tamils to take note as well. Two many cooks spoil the broth, as the old adage notes. While the Sri Lankan-LTTE war was on, from 1986 to early 2002, those who led the Tamils were LTTE and not anyone else.
By virtue of their performance in the island’s battle-field, LTTE gained ground literally and figuratively. Check who are now croaking about ‘Tamil democracy’ in Colombo, Chennai and New Delhi, while foul-mouthing the LTTE’s claim as sole representatives of Tamils? None other than the coterie of token Tamils [the tweedledum and tweedledee, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Douglas Devananda] and fence-sitting politicians [Anandasangaree and Muralitharan aka Karuna], in the role of propagandists for India’s underground diplomacy and brown-skinned Buddhist Aryan jingoism.
The two ‘special’ interviews of Gen.Giap and Gen.Westmoreland appeared in the November 1998 issue of now-defunct George magazine, whose editor in chief was John F.Kennedy Jr. (1960-1999), the only son of President John F.Kennedy. Gen.Giap provided this exclusive interview to John Kennedy and W.Thomas Smith Jr. spoke to Gen.Westmoreland. I’d note that for historical perspectives, though we learn something from the first hand experiences of these two opposing Generals, even these two versions should not be considered as the ‘Last words’ on the Vietnam war.
The Master Mind: The
George Interview by John Kennedy
In the heart of Hanoi, in a rambling French villa enveloped by hydrangea and ginkgo trees, lives the diminutive, elderly man who broke the mighty armies of France and the United States and sent them packing, battered and bewildered, from his country.
Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap is the founder and former leader of the People’s Army of Vietnam, the man who prevailed in one of the most unlikely victories in military history by crushing the French at Dien Bien Phu and, years later, confounding the Americans at Khe Sanh. “All people must fight”, says Giap of the traditional Vietnamese philosophy of warfare. By mixing that principle with the relentless political indoctrination of his troops, he forged a potent fighting force that consistently triumphed against overwhelming odds. It remains among the elite infantry forces in the world today.
Giap was born in one of the poorest areas of central Vietnam to parents of modest means. His father was a scholar who had for years been active in anti-colonialist politics against the French. By the time Giap was ten, his father had died in a French prison. By Giap’s thirty-second birthday, both his wife and his sister-in-law, who were imprisoned for their political activities, had died at the hands of the French.
When he was finally introduced to the future Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh, in 1940, Giap was recognized as one of the leading military minds in the Vietnamese communist movement. The old revolutionary was impressed by Giap’s knowledge of military history and by his ruthless determination. He entrusted Giap with an unlikely mission for a man with no formal military training: the creation of a communist army force inside Vietnam to expel the French.
Within four years, Giap was conducting guerrilla strikes against French outposts. But the culmination of the war for independence came years later, in 1954. After a bloody, 56-day siege of the seemingly impenetrable French fortress at Dien Bien Phu, Giap’s peasant army overran the base. All told, the French lost 11,500 men (including prisoner-of-war casualties) and suffered not only the loss of its “jewel of Indochina” but a colossal national humiliation.
Giap had always believed that a disciplined guerrilla army could defeat a conventional one, no matter how well armed. The battles with the French had proved him right, and in the “American War”, Giap again displayed a preternatural ability to exploit his enemy’s weaknesses. Perceiving that the U.S.military was ill equipped to achieve the political objectives needed to secure a lasting military victory, Giap adapted his tactics accordingly.
Of the Americans, Giap once said,
And so he fought on his own terms, not on the Americans’, engaging the enemy when and where it least expected. He involved every able body in the war effort so that the Americans, thousands of miles from home, never felt safe. And he prolonged the war as long as possible so as to drain the enemy’s resources and morale, while U.S. domestic opposition to the war festered.
In time, Giap was successful, as he knew he would be. He told a journalist at the height of the war, in 1968,
The rap against Giap has always been that he was careless with the lives of his soldiers. General William Westmoreland himself says that Giap willingly took losses no American general could even approach and still maintain a command. Indeed, Giap once offered to an observer,
It was hard for me to reconcile that reputation with the avuncular man with the piercing eyes and easy smile, whom I met on the eve of his eighty-seventh birthday. He was surrounded by his eldest son and daughter, his second wife, and a bevy of admiring aides.
Today, the man who shared jasmine tea and sweet green-bean cakes with me is focused on a different legacy – once as an advocate of a postwar rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States. “You see,” Giap said, patting my knee, “I was once the general of war, but now I want to be the general of peace.”
Kennedy: How on earth did your vocation as a professor prepare you for a career as the supreme military commander of Vietnam?
Kennedy: What was the difference between fighting the French and fighting the Americans?
Kennedy: The US and Vietnam were unlikely enemies. Ho Chi Minh quoted the Declaration of Independence in his speeches, and the Americans provided technical assistance during the fight against the Japanese in World War II. Did you ever think that you would wage war against the US?
Kennedy: You say that the war against the United States was as much a political war as it was a military one. What do you mean by that?
Kennedy: What do you mean when you say that France and the US were defeated at the moment they were militarily at their strongest?
Kennedy: Much has been written on how the Americans were ill equipped and ill suited to fight a land war in Southeast Asia. What’s your opinion?
Kennedy: During my visit here, I’ve been surprised at how little hostility there is toward Americans. Why?
Kennedy: How can reconciliation be best achieved?
Westmoreland: An Old Warrior Sounds Off by W.Thomas Smith Jr.
William Childs Westmoreland is the last of the Old Guard southern commanders. He is aging warrior with a genteel manner and the same predatory eyes that once glared beneath the familiar ‘jump wings’ and four stars of his trademark sateen cap.
As the former commanding general of the U.S.forces during the debacle in Vietnam, he has often borne the tarnished image of an entire era in American military history. But he makes no excuses, short of acknowledging a political misunderstanding of military operations. Instead, he focuses on the sterling accomplishments of the individual soldiers who served under his command.
At 84 years of age, Westmoreland enjoys a quiet existence; he has chosen to maintain a low media profile. Like another southern general, Robert E.Lee, who a century earlier lost his own life-defining war, Westmoreland has retired to a life of long morning strolls and wading through reams of daily correspondence. He has an aversion to reporters, rarely granting interviews. In his own words, “I am now under the command of Mrs.Westmoreland.”
Smith: Frederick the Great once wrote, “It is the ground gained and not the number of enemy dead that gives you victory.” Did we not violate this basic maxim in Southeast Asia with search-and-destroy tactics and body counts?
Smith: Is that why we failed?
Smith: How do you consider your counterpart in the field, General Giap?
Smith: You mentioned the Tet Offensive of 1968. Looking back 30 years later, was this the beginning of the end of US involvement in Vietnam?
Smith: Do you have any regrets about the war?
Westmoreland: No. I am a soldier, and we were obligated to go. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine can look back upon their service in Vietnam with great pride. And they can be sure that despite the final failure of the South Vietnamese, the record of the American military forces, of never having lost a war, is still intact. I have no doubt about this and no regrets.
Conclusion & a Few Personal Thoughts
For those interested in learning more, I provide below details of a few articles – arranged chronologically - which have appeared in academic journals during the past 30 years that focus on the varied angles of the Vietnam War. Among these, I found the statistics provided in Robert Graham’s 1984 article entitled, “An infantryman’s view of our failure” quite interesting. He served as a ‘Grunt’ (the military jargon for foot soldier). To quote him,
Ziaoming Zhang, in 1996, providing a Chinese perspective on the Vietnam war, concluded his essay as follows:
If a few among the younger generation of Tamils living in affluent nations become interested in military science and pursue their research on the 20th century wars, it will be a good tribute to the memory of D.P.Sivaram who was a pioneer in this field for the past 15 years or so.
Ronald Spector: Getting down to the nitty-gritty – military history, official history and the American experience in Vietnam. Military Affairs, Feb. 1974, pp.11-12.
George Quester: The Guerrilla problem in retrospect. Military Affairs, December 1975, pp.192-196.
George Herring: American strategy in Vietnam – the postwar debate. Military Affairs, April 1982, pp.57-63.
Robert Graham: Vietnam – an infantryman’s view of our failure. Military Affairs, July 1984, pp.133-139.
Christopher Lovett: ‘We held the day in the palm of our Hand’ – a review of recent sources on the war in Vietnam. Military Affairs, April 1987, pp.67-72.
John Gates: People’s war in Vietnam. Journal of Military History, July 1990, pp.325-344.
Xiaoming Zhang: The Vietnam war, 1964-1969 – a Chinese perspective. Journal of Military History, October 1996, pp.731-762.
David Adams, Cole Barton, Lynn Mitchell, Alan Moore and Victor Einagel: Hearts and Minds – Suicide among United States combat troops in Vietnam, 1957-1973. Social Science and Medicine, December 1998, vol.47, pp.1687-1694.
Elizabeth Scannel-Desch: Lessons learned and advice from Vietnam war nurses – a qualitative study. Journal of Advanced Nursing, March 2005, vol.49, pp.600-607.