Write it down: General Giap and Robert McNamara

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led North Vietnam’s armed forces to victory in its wars with France and the United States, died today in Hanoi, at the probable age of 102. I have little to say in praise of military men, or for that matter of the unfree Vietnamese regime he helped to build (and which sidelined him circumspectly in later life). But this man defeated two great powers — one of them the greatest power in the world at the time, at any time. No other people struggling for liberation from colonialism had to fight so many masters, so long, against such overwhelming odds. Whatever else can be said of Giap, he contributed to human freedom in his terrible century.

His death reminded me of his counterpart Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense during the war, perhaps his most brilliant yet somehow stunted opponent. McNamara resigned his office in 1968, announcing it even before the Tet debacle. He was in despair over the war, yet he could never bring himself to denounce it fully, or, over the wasteland of ensuing years, to evaluate his role in moral rather than technical terms. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote, a quarter century after; even then no one quite knew whether he thought it wrong to lose the war or to lose all the other things we lost. In 1997, at 81, McNamara returned to Vietnam for a conference bringing together US and Vietnamese strategists from the conflict. (He met for an hour with Giap, who delivered a propaganda monologue and declined conversation.) The New York Times published a long article on his sojourn — his power walks through Hanoi at dawn, his persistent refusal to countenance certain questions:

Feelings were not on McNamara’s agenda. ”That’s not what I’m focusing on,” he declared before the trip. ”I may not tell you how I’m feeling.” And he never did, even when questioned about the thoughts that were running through his head as he walked around this city, among these people. ”I try to separate human emotions from the larger issues of human welfare,” he replied. ”Human welfare requires that we avoid conflict. I try not to let my human emotions interfere with efforts to resolve conflict.”

McNamara (center) in a cabinet meeting with Lyndon Johnson (left), 1968

McNamara (center) in a cabinet meeting with Lyndon Johnson (left), 1968

There’s one part of the article that’s stuck with me ever since. McNamara and several US colleagues

agreed that casualties did not seem to weigh heavily with North Vietnam, either in diplomacy or military planning. ”Was there any consideration of the human cost in Hanoi as they made these decisions?” McNamara asked. ”Is the loss of life ever a factor?” He noted that while 58,000 Americans had been killed, the most authoritative estimate — in a September 1995 article by General Uoc [Nguyen Dinh Uoc, head of the Institute of Military History] — put the number of Vietnamese deaths at 3.6 million. ”It’s equivalent to 27 million Americans!” McNamara exclaimed. …

”Were you influenced by that loss of life?” he asked [veteran Vietnamese leaders] in the conference. ”Did it move you to probe the negotiations?” Considering that a man responsible for so many casualties was accusing his enemies of caring less, the Vietnamese responded with exceeding courtesy. At first, when McNamara asked [former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach] the question over lunch, “the answer was, They paid no attention whatever to the casualties,” McNamara reported triumphantly. ”What I thought was — and I was wrong — that a very high rate of casualties would lead them to be interested in trying to find a less costly way of achieving their objectives — i.e., negotiations.” But all he had got was the standard line that the cause was worth any sacrifice, based on the often-quoted mantra of Ho Chi Minh: ”There is nothing more precious than freedom and independence.” 

McNamara found these values, this stubborn insistence, baffling. And this leads to the passage that despite all my efforts I can’t forget:

To explain this to himself, he remembered seeing, during World War II in China, a worker fall and get crushed by a huge roller flattening earth for an airfield. The Chinese laborers laughed. There were some people to whom life was not the same as to us, he reasoned as he stood one evening in the hotel lobby. ”We’d better understand that and write it down.”

This is the man who calculates that he killed more than three and a half million women, men, and children. He is surprised that others let him kill them. Those people don’t see life the same way he does. He doesn’t laugh, he just acts, and measures others’ morality by observing their reactions. We’d better understand that and write it down.

6 thoughts on “Write it down: General Giap and Robert McNamara

  1. The killer have the freaking nerve to ask ‘why do you still against me after I kill your whole family?!’

    The question should be ‘why can Americans be that blood thirsty?’ How could you travel half way around the world and kill 3.5 million men, women and freaking innocent children just to force them to do as you say?!

    And you still have the nerve to bitch about ‘unfree Vietnam’! Whatever it is, it’s still 3.5 million times better than the kind of fucking freedom and democracy which the fucking US of Assholes brought to Vietnam 40 years ago!

  2. <>

    What the fuck is wrong with your head?! Nobody let McNamara kill that many people, he’s and the fucking US of Assholes just did it for your imperialistic ambition. You have no fucking right to get into Vietnam and kill even one person, period! Understand that you fucked head?!

  3. An old Chinese saying goes: “Men of humanness can hardly be generals”. Although Confucianism says Humanness is the first virtue that everyone should have but when Chinese go to war, they chose men that have cool hearts. These men are good for war time but not good for peace time. When peace time comes, the king may reward these generals and let them retire. Thus when we discuss about war with people influenced by Chinese culture, losing human lives is not a criterion to evaluate their success in war. What more important is with all the loss to win a war, is what have they achieved for their nations, for their ideology.

    General Vo Nguyen Giap lived long enough to see his dreamed Soviet paradise collapsed. In recent years, several young and old Vietnamese realized that the US did not send troops to South Vietnam to occupy Vietnam forever as the communists told them but to fight against communism. When they understand the reason why the US involve in Vietnam, they draw the conclusion that it is not worth to fight for communism, since they see communism is no good, and they regret that generations of North Vietnamese were wasted for nothing.

    • You are a shameless dog of the imperialists. The Vietnamese did not fight for Soviet socialist paradise but for independence and unification. Vietnam has no problem of being friend with the French or Americans. In fact, Ho Chi Minh did send many letter to the US in 1945-46 asking for friendship. Fighting communism was just an excuse for the imperialistic US to get into Vietnam and put her under its total domination. That bull crap! The imperialistic US just can’t settle with a friendship relation. It wants total domination, a master/slave relationship. That’s the problem.

      It’s the freaking imperialistic minds in the US that wasted 58,000 dead US soldiers and hundred thousands more become psychos for nothing! Vietnam did get independence and unification from her loss.

      The US did not need to waste any lives and still have a friendly relationship with Vietnam like today if it just accept Ho Chi Minh request in 1945!

      The blood is in your fucking imperialistic master’s hands and the slave dogs, not General Giap you brain-dead dog.

      • The number of Vietnamese deaths in the Vietnam war was likely 3 to 4 million. However McNamara was only partly responsible: General Giap was also responsible for the high number of Vietnamese deaths.

        The conflict was between the North Vietnamese (supported by the USSR and Cuba) and the South Vietnamese (supported by the USA and South Korea). Both sides murdered innocent civilians and held the belief that the enemy would surrender if it suffered a high casualty rate.

      • <>

        WTF! US troops FLY half way around the world and start a war by dividing a country and it is Giap’s fault?!

        So if I kick your door down and kill half of your family, your family deaths are your fault?!

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