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.