Lessons from the Vietnam War for Tamils: An Overview and a Few Personal Thoughts

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 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,

"To reconstruct the military history of our Vietnam involvement promises to be a difficult task, in some ways a more difficult task than the writing of the Army’s mammoth history of World War II.  At the end of that war the enemy governments had collapsed and historians were granted virtually unlimited access to their records at all levels.  In addition, former enemy officers and officials were available for interrogation by historians and cooperated willingly with their interrogators.  Vietnam is different."

Gen. Giap 2005

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 the Cambodian tragedy of Pol Pot (who was supported by the 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 the 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 a 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 an extensively damaged environment due to the defoliation [Agent Orange] experiments of the American army. 

Apart from China, the 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] on Asian soil.  The real victors of the Vietnam war, on the economic front, were Japan and Singapore whose economies leap-frogged that of other Asian nations, because (1) they serviced American needs; and (2) the war didn’t take place in their territories.

Frankly speaking, in the second half of the 1960s, for average Tamils living in 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 for catering to the Tamil middle class, and perverting the heroic Vietnam liberation struggle of peasants, into a stage and movie production depicting the petty squabbles with the 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 infrequently listened to his Vietnam battle-field experiences.

When the curtain closed on the 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 the Vietnamese.  Thanks to the self-educated expertise of LTTE leader Pirabhakaran and the tutelage of the late Sivaram, Eelam Tamils also have gained the rudiments of understanding of battlefield 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 in 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 of as well.  Two many cooks spoil the broth, as the old adage notes. 

Gen Westmoreland, from George magazine 1998

While the Sri Lankan-LTTE war was on, from 1986 to early 2002, those who led the Tamils were the LTTE and not anyone else.  By virtue of their performance in the island’s battle-field, the 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 to be the sole representatives of the 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 the 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

[courtesy: George, Nov.1998, pp.88-89, 92 and 132]

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, "We’ll beat them at the moment they have the most men, the most weapons, the most hope of winning. Because all that strength will become a millstone around their necks." 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, "We’ll take as long as necessary, 10, 15, 20, 50 years, until we achieve total victory…We’re not in a hurry, and we’re not afraid."

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, "Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world…So the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represent really very little."

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?

Giap: Because like all Vietnamese, I wanted independence, and in Vietnam, we have a saying, "The enemy comes to the house, and even the women fight." So when I am asked, "Who was the best Vietnamese general?" I say, "The Vietnamese people."

Kennedy: What was the difference between fighting the French and fighting the Americans?

Giap: The French thought that because they had governed Vietnam for nearly a hundred years, they understood the situation, and they were resolved to win. But exactly at the moment the French had assembled their strongest military force and were sure of victory, they failed; at the siege of Dien Bien Phu, in 1954. Many French generals and ministers came to Dien Bien Phu before it fell – so did some American generals. And they all said that Dien Bien Phu could not be destroyed. Then it fell. [Smiles]

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?

Giap: The Vietnamese and the Americans have had a long history. President Jefferson, when he was minister to France in Paris, met the son of a Vietnamese king. He wanted some seed rice to take home with him to the United States. During World War II, a group of Americans, commanded by Major Allison Thomas [an OSS officer], parachuted into the war zone and worked with us as we fought the Japanese. If such cooperation had continued, there would have been no war between the United States and Vietnam.

General de Gaulle came to Phnom Penh in 1963 and said, "We have lost the war, and therefore America should not enter it." But the Americans answered, "France is one thing, America another. America has gigantic strength, and therefore we will win." And at the moment when American strength was greatest, when they were sure of victory, they too failed.

When your father was president, I was commander in chief, and I had to very carefully research his thoughts and policies. I originally believed that his plan was to use military strength to help the Saigon government stop the communist movement. But now, by way of historical documents, I have learned that some time later President Kennedy had rethought this and didn’t want to support the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in Saigon. He wanted the United States to be involved in the Vietnam War only to a certain extent. If that unfortunate event – the death of your father – had not taken place, things would have been somewhat different, not as they were under Johnson and Nixon.

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?

Giap: As Chairman Ho Chi Minh said, there is never a strategy that is purely military. So our strategy included everything – political, military, economic, diplomatic aspects. And it was not a war fought solely by the military; it was fought by the whole people. This is a point that American generals and politicians didn’t understand.

Kennedy: What do you mean when you say that France and the US were defeated at the moment they were militarily at their strongest?

Giap: Compared with China or with America, Vietnam is a small country. Our population is not so great. But in a thousand years of independence, every single Chinese dynasty attacked Vietnam, and everyone lost. Because the Vietnamese have a way of fighting that is all our own.

In the 1960s, I went to the Soviet Union to seek aid, because at that time the US B-52 bombers were attacking quite heavily. At the meeting in Moscow, the entire Soviet politburo was assembled, with [Soviet president Leonid] Brezhnov and Prime Minister [Alexey] Kosygin. Kosygin asked me this, "Comrade Giap, you say you’ll defeat America. So I want to ask you, how many mechanized infantry divisions do you have compared to the Americans? And tanks and jet aircraft – how many have the Americans?

I replied, "I understand your question, comrade, about the comparison of forces. It’s the basis of Soviet military science, an outstanding science that has defeated many enemies. But if we were to fight your way, we wouldn’t last for more than two hours." After our victory, I had occasion to return to Moscow, and I met Kosygin again. He shook my hand and was very surprised. "Great!" he said. "You comrades fight very well."

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?

Giap: I read some speeches made by American Gis about how the war was fought. A first lieutenant said, "When you go out on the battlefield [in Vietnam], only then do you know what the war is like. The leaders above us don’t understand. We search for the enemy everywhere and find nothing,but when we think there is no enemy, then the enemy appears. There are no front lines, yet the front lines are everywhere. We see a person and are afraid. We see a child and are afraid. We see a leaf shaking, and again we are afraid."

Kennedy: During my visit here, I’ve been surprised at how little hostility there is toward Americans. Why?

Giap: Recently, an American war veteran came to see me, and I received him very warmly. He said, "I don’t understand that previously I came here to attack Vietnam, and yet you receive me like this." And I said, "Before, the Gis came here carrying Thompsons, and so we received them as people carrying guns. Now you come as tourists, and we receive you with the spirit of hospitality." And the man began to cry.

I also received Admiral Zumwalt, the commander who ordered the dropping of Agent Orange. He told me that his own son had suffered because of that chemical. "I was just doing my duty," the admiral said. And I said, "I understand." So, now the question is, How can we make our two peoples, both of whom love peace, come closer together?

Kennedy: How can reconciliation be best achieved?

Giap: Every American citizen who has goodwill should do something to make the relationship better. We must understand each other better, especially the younger generation. I’ll make one more point. Perhaps the most painful legacy of the war is the effects of Agent Orange. As humanitarians, we have a shared responsibility to help Vietnamese victims overcome these difficulties".

********

General Westmoreland: An Old Warrior Sounds Off

by W.Thomas Smith Jr.

[courtesy: George, Nov.1998, p.93]

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?

Westmoreland: On the battlefield, you move to physical objectives on the ground. You capture a hill. You capture a city. We were limited in our ability to pursue the enemy. We also had the secondary mission of training the South Vietnamese to fight their own war. We had to tutor and motivate them so they could take over the war. It was their country that was in jeopardy, not ours.

Smith: Is that why we failed?

Westmoreland: First of all, no nation should ever put the burden of war on its military forces alone. Society itself must be willing to pursue the war. Now, that having been said, remember we – I’m speaking of the military – did not lose a single battle against those people. But it was difficult for us to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese. They were short on leadership.

Smith: How do you consider your counterpart in the field, General Giap?

Westmoreland: The outcome of that war has been attributed largely to some special military genius on the part of the enemy. Much of that genius was attributed to who you say was my counterpart, General Giap. But in reality, Giap was not my counterpart. My position was never as exalted as his. I was a soldier obeying orders, a field commander acting within the restraints of my own country’s government. Giap, on the other hand, was an influential member of his own government. He was playing a political as well as a military role. He may have been my adversary but certainly not my counterpart.

Of course he was a formidable adversary. Let me also say that Giap was trained in small-unit, guerrilla tactics, but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men. By his own admission, by early 1969, I think, he had lost, what, a half million soldiers? He reported this. Now, such a disregard for human life may make for a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius.

An American commander losing men like that would hardly have lasted more than a few weeks. He also believed that United States military losses were far greater than what was reported. And he deluded himself by believing there would be an uprising by the South Vietnamese people during the Tet Offensive. He also deluded himself at Khe Sanh into believing that he could promote a big-unit battle against a remote outpost away from the civilian population and win. At Khe Sanh, we had overwhelming fire superiority. And the result was that Giap’s losses were terrible. Khe Sanh is where the myth of General Giap’s military genius was discredited.

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?

Westmoreland: The enemy was soundly defeated. He suffered some 32,000 killed and 5,800 captured. We lost 1,001. South Vietnamese and Allied Forces combined, around 2,000. On anybody’s terms, this was a striking military defeat for the enemy. Their defeat was so great that it took them years to recover. But the newspaper and television reporting gave the impression, if not of American and South Vietnamese defeat, then of an endless war that could never be won. And the only attack aimed specifically at an American installation in Saigon was the US Embassy. That particular target was hit for psychological effect. It worked. And the American reporters helped achieve it. This influenced the president and his advisors so much that they ignored the maxim "When the enemy is hurting, you don’t diminish the pressure, you increase it."

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.

*****

A Few Additional Details

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,

"At our peak strength in 1969, we had 549,000 Americans in Vietnam. Many individuals have questioned why that many men, coupled with our awesome technology, did not suffice to win. Victory was not, however, just a simple matter of numbers and technology. The 549,000 figure was very misleading because the American Armed Forces operated with a huge logistical tail. For every Grunt in the field, there were approximately seven men in the rear supporting him. These included cooks, clerks, supply people, maintenance men, truck drivers, military policemen, entertaining personnel, headquarters’ staffs, and men running PXs. There were also combat support personnel such as artillerymen and pilots, who often saw action, but were not Grunts. Thus, out of a total of 549,000 Americans, there were at best 70,000 infantrymen. Many of these logistical people were necessary. Still, there was too much ‘fat’ in the American Military machine. It could have functioned effectively without some of this support."

Ziaoming Zhang, in 1996, providing a Chinese perspective on the Vietnam war, concluded his essay as follows:

"During the Vietnam War, China played an important role in Hanoi’s victory over the Americans. Unfortunately, since the deterioration of Sino-Vietnamese relations in the late 1970s, Hanoi now attempts to deny China’s role in the war. Hanoi’s own part in achieving victory has been inflated while China’s involvement has been downplayed. Any attempt to comprehend the Vietnam War suffers from this distortion. So also do those who have raised questions concerning the wisdom of American restraint in Washington’s conduct of the war. As both past tragedy and future danger lie in contemporary ignorance, today’s scholarship must endeavor to construct an objective history of the Vietnam War."

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.

Select Literature

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.

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Posted May 16, 2005