The multiple meanings of General Giap

The newspaper headlines tell us that Viet Nam this week is mourning the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap. In reality, something much more complex and interesting is taking place.

General Giap was, of course, a key figure in the political and military history of Viet Nam and indeed is a figure of world-historical importance. News of his death, first broadcast via Facebook rather than Viet Nam’s state media, was greeted internationally with laudatory remembrance from many quarters, begrudging respect from others, and intransigent disdain from those still fighting the Viet Nam wars.

Within Viet Nam, General Giap’s death has called forth an utterly fascinating process that is perhaps in some respects best understood as a kind of reconciliation. Reconciliation in Viet Nam is, until this day, a lightening-rod term that refers to a process of coming to terms with the past – a process which has sadly yet to occur. And I do not mean to suggest that the General’s passing will initiate the kind of grand conciliatory process than many reform-minded Vietnamese desire.

What is occurring is a much more atomistic kind of reconciliation in which individuals, families, and communities are each coming to terms with a man who will forever be associated with the grand sacrifices Viet Nam has embraced on its proud and painful path to the present.

Until the latest hours of his death, General Giap and his aura were enormously complex. Hailed as a a brilliant tactician by his admirers, General Giap’s military tactics were nonetheless roundly questioned and even reviled by those who worried he took the loss of human life too lightly. As I am not an historian, I will not attempt to evaluate Giap as others have.

What I am more struck by, at present, is the spectacle that is unfolding this week in Viet Nam. A small part of what is interesting is occurring within upper echelons of the Communist Party of Viet Nam, whose leaders will solemnly mark the passing of a figure whose stature dwarfs their own, and who in the years leading up to his death raised concerns about haphazard development and the politics of self interest. There is no use in simplifying matters, General Giap’s legacy is contested even within the Party.

What is perhaps most interesting is what is occurring on the streets of Hanoi and indeed in the “Vietnamese street” everywhere, from the General’s home province of Quang Binh to various localities in southern Viet Nam to the overseas Vietnamese diaspora. There, individuals, families, and communities are all coming to terms with the General’s passing in their own way.

In Hanoi, where thousands waited in the street to pay their last respects, the mood was at somber, electric, and unscripted. Parents brought their children, even as today’s parents and children learned about the General mostly in schoolbooks. Those with more years showed up in large numbers accompanied by their friends in some instances and their own children and grandchildren in others. A ridiculous pop star chided for jumping the queue nonetheless felt a need to show. While a peasant in his seventies rode his motorbike in from Son La province hundreds of kilometers way, both to protest his admiration for the general and to let the masses know state compensation promised to him more than twenty years ago had yet to materialize.

The mood by all accounts was one of respect and admiration. But each person was making their own sense of General Giap’s multiple meanings.

This weekend the General’s life and legacy will be honored in a ‘National Funeral,’ said to be one-level higher than a state funeral, and perhaps meant to escape the inescapable politics of the moment. General Giap was a remarkable figure who means and will continue to mean different things to different people. All that is certain is that the passing of General Giap marks the passing of a pivotal figure. One whose passing forces Vietnamese to contemplate their fractious past and look forward to their collective future.


Reflections on General Giap

In January of 1990 I sat in a cold conference room in Hanoi with a group of 30 other Western students awaiting the arrival of Vo Nguyen Giap. The group was in Hanoi for but a week; a brief stop on a nine-month academic tour of 20 countries themed “Peace Studies around the World.”

The Norwegian intellectual Johan Galtung, our escort on this tour, had through his worldwide contacts managed to schedule more than 250 meetings with policy makers, intellectuals, and emminent persons around the world in an experiment in peace education. The assumption underlying this venture was the notion that direct exposure to the world’s varieties of political economy, combined with the above-mentioned discussions, and lectures in conflict and peace studies would generate a unique and valuable educational experience.

Sitting in Hanoi that day my fellow students and I were largely and perhaps even shamefully ignorant of the person we were awaiting.  When the General arrived, dressed in his military garb we students stood to form a reception line, each shaking hands with this world historical figure about whom we knew precious little.

We then listened to General Giap deliver a rather long and dry speech about experiences and ideas 20 year-olds such as ourselves could barely grasp. Later that evening Professor Galtung caused great consternation among the American students among us when he appeared to suggest we should offer some form of apology for the acts of our country’s government; acts whose disastrous arc was already decided before we were born.

I had no way of knowing at the time that some two years after that cold day I would take an active interest in Viet Nam and in the country’s process of market-reforms and reintegration into the regional and world economies in particular.

Since 1992 and after 1997 in particular I have remained intensively engaged with ongoing processes of social change in Viet Nam. I have been especially interested in the political economy of well-being, approaching that theme through analysis of the nexus of the country’s political, economic, and welfare institutions.

In so doing, I have gradually grown more familiar with Viet Nam’s history. Though I still possess a very limited understanding of the American War in Viet Nam, I have nonetheless gained some understanding of Viet Nam and even of the significance of General Giap himself.

This week, Viet Nam’s state will stage a state funeral for General Giap. The ceremonies, rare in Viet Nam, are likely to elicit a range of emotions from across the political spectrum. Whether state authorities in Viet Nam desire it or not, the passing of the General marks an inflection point in Viet Nam’s contemporary history.

Long after the funeral of the General has passed we will still have time to contemplate Giap’s significance, his role in defeating the French and American armies, his controversial disposition with respect to the value of human life in the span of great wars, his post-war isolation, and his very late interest in improving the social responsibility and accountability of the Party and state he devoted his life to.

For now, however, his death has caused everyone in Viet Nam and those with connections to the country to pause. For Viet Nam’s authorities the moment is inevitably an awkward one. For while Viet Nam’s political elite will no doubt earnestly reflect on Giap’s death, the reality is that the General’s passing brings their own performance under a microscope.

General Giap and his colleagues’ most impressive achievements were, of course, on the battlefield.  After the war Giap was sidelined and elected to remain silent while the likes of Le Duan ran the country’s economy into the ground. By the late 1980s, even figures like Truong Chinh had begun to recognize the necessity of reform.

Since the late 1980s Viet Nam has experienced two decades of rapid economic growth, but has yet to break free from the shackles of a political system in which too often loyalty to Leninist principles (and more recently, personal interest) is placed above the national interest.

In any culture, deaths of major figures provide occasion for reflection. In 1925, the mourning of the death of Phan Chu Trinh was among the most important events in the development of Vietnamese anti-colonialism. Over the next few days we will all reflect further on Giap’s life and its significance for Viet Nam; past, present, and future.