The obituaries for Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese general who died at the age of 102 on Friday, typically describe him as “legendary,” “revered,” “charismatic” and “a national hero.” Sometimes it takes two or three paragraphs before the reader learns that this “military genius,” this “red Napoleon,” lauded even by former POW in Vietnam, Senator John McCain, as “a brilliant military strategist,” also earned for himself a few other, less admiring appellations.
“Ruthless” was one of them; but then all generals are ruthless to some extent or other, sending as many men to their deaths as they deem necessary in order to achieve victory. The word scarcely captures the utter disregard for human life which was Giap’s trademark in blood.
The North Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh once warned the French that “even if you kill 10 of us for every one of yours that we kill, even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.” It was Gen. Giap who made good on that claim. In the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which he masterminded, he lost an estimated 8,000 of his soldiers to 2,000 of the French, and still he won. And in the battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, Giap sacrificed over 10,000 men to the 500 U.S. Marines killed, more than a ratio of 10 to 1, though neither side could be said to have won.
Giap himself summed up his philosophy of sacrifice for the cause: “Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die on this earth. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little.”
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1964 until 1968, observed that “[a]ny American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would not have lasted three weeks.”
Indeed, the Western notion of what constitutes “acceptable losses” in war, based ultimately on a tradition which places a high value on human life, was a handicap in fighting an army which placed virtually no value on it.
It is fitting that Giap’s death occurred on Erev Shabbos, parashas Noach, the parashah which portrays perfectly the mentality Giap represented. In his commentary on the Dor Haflagah, the Generation of Dispersion, Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the motto of that generation, “Naaseh lanu shem — Let us make a name for ourselves,” meant that instead of coming together to serve Hashem, they organized for their own purposes, their own cause. Instead of the collective serving as a means of expression for the individual, the individual became the servant of the collective.
When that happens, Harav Hirsch points out, certain natural barriers to extremism are swept away. “Whereas the individual must ultimately realize the limitations on his capacity, on his power, this is not the case with the collective. For it is really strong, it really has power. It easily comes to regard itself as the purpose of its existence and the establishment of itself as its mission…”
“If a man had a fatal accident at the building [of the tower of Bavel], they did not take it to heart, but if a brick fell to the ground, they sat and wept and wailed: “When shall we get another one up into its place!”
How many died hauling artillery up to the hills above Dien Bien Phu? Did anyone cry over them, or did they only weep over the lost mortars and howitzers?
Communism was the ultimate cause for the generation fighting on the side of Ho and Giap. Every resource of the nation — human, military, industrial, political — was thrown into it, and no price was considered too great to pay.
Perhaps, if the massive sacrifices had produced the free and just society they had promised, it would have been possible to say that the price was very, very high, but it was worth it. But that is not at all what happened.
The aftermath of the relentless warfare was bleak and disillusioning even to some of its most passionate adherents. When, years after the American withdrawal, journalist Stanley Karnow visited Vietnam, he was shocked at what former communist cadres had to say about their nation recently unified under communist rule:
A senior health official in Saigon who had been a North Vietnamese agent during the war burst out passionately, “I’ve been a communist all my life. But now, for the first time, I have seen the realities of communism and it is failure — mismanagement, corruption, privilege, repression. My ideals are gone.”
The chief press relations officer in Ho Chi Minh City disclosed that his own wife and daughters were living near Los Angeles, having fled with the hundreds of thousands of refugees. “Open the doors, and everyone would leave overnight,” he confided to Karnow.
In more recent years, the government of Vietnam, not unlike those of China and Russia, has undergone a transformation. The ideals of the communist revolution are indeed gone; they have turned to capitalism and democratic freedom for the answers to their problems.
Little is left of the obsolete ideology but an authoritarian shell and the countless graves of the fallen.
Giap lived to see it all. In August 1991, he was ousted after Vo Van Kiet, a Western-style reformer, came to power.
In his final years, Giap was described as “an avuncular host to foreign visitors to his villa in Hanoi, where he read extensively in Western literature, enjoyed [classical music] and became a convert to pursuing socialism through free-market reforms.”
There was never a trace of remorse, no confession — nor perhaps even any realization — that he was responsible for heinous crimes against his own people and others.
Some 2.5 million lives — 58,000 of them American — were lost in Vietnam, and it was in large part due to the implacable ruthlessness of Gen. Giap. He was one of the most evil figures of the 20th century, a century not lacking in evil figures.
The promise of the communists ended in ashes. But the promise that memsheles zadon taavor min haaretz — that evil rule shall pass from the earth, has been in a small part, fulfilled.