HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 22, 2007
The “Goat-bearded, Mongoloid-Trotsky,
Tubercular Agitator Ho Chi Minh” Redux

John R. Guthrie


“One year, two years, three years, five years, ten years, twenty years ...
we will be happy to accommodate you.”

N. Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van re fighting in Vietnam


I’ve had a casual acquaintance with Los Angeles Times book editor David L. Ulin for several years. On reading his review of the re-issue of the David Halberstam’s 118 page political meditation Ho concerning North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, I felt compelled to take a look. Ho was originally published in 1971. Prior to his death in a traffic crash in Menlo Park California in April, 2007, David Halberstam updated it with a new introduction.

Quite aside from providing a biographical précis of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century, Halberstam’s perceptive work gives pause for reflection concerning the current dilemma of the United States as regards our wars of the moment.

The French envisioned a definitive battle that would end the war. French heavy artillery and infantry and were dug in an isolated valley overseen by the rugged hills in Vietnam’s Northwest corner, the place called Dienbeinphu. The Vietnamese, according to the French, had no artillery. If they did, one French official stated, these little yellow men would, in fact, not know how to use it. But the Vietnamese forces carried in artillery, including antiaircraft batteries, in separate components. Each piece was hauled agonizingly up to redoubts high above the valley. After the battle began, artillery rained down on the French like the monsoons. The French artillery commander committed suicide after the first night of combat. General Henri Navarre, as embittered and imperceptive in defeat as he was in battle, went home and wrote a book blaming everyone but himself and advocating the replacement of France’s “traitorous” Fourth Republic by a military dictatorship. During the American war in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, at once as earnest as the Eagle Scout he was and as bamboozled as French commander Henri Navarre before him. Westmoreland likewise set out to fight the wrong war in the wrong setting at the wrong time, all the while maintaining a charming yet deadly innocence of the nature of the of the enemy. In Iraq, Saddam’s immense stores of artillery disappeared shortly after the American invasion. It is not too far-fetched to compare the Green Zone, isolated not by rain forest and rugged hills but by increasingly hostile residents, overseen not by hills but by the buildings of the city of Baghdad to Dienbienphu. The thing that the Iraq insurgents currently lack that Ho possessed was a general of the stature of Vo Nguyen Giap.
     
The hostile forces in both current theaters have developed much of the furtiveness of guerilla wars. The French colonialists in Hanoi berated their “cowardly” opponents who refused to “come out and stand and fight.” U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan used loudspeakers to broadcast this same challenge while aligning the bodies of dead enemy fighters toward Mecca and publicly burning them. Similarly a Marine colonel in Iraq issued the same challenge, accusing the invisible enemy of cowardice for not being available for battle on his terms. This suggests not only the frustration of the soldiers involved, but implies a continued basic confusion concerning the sort of wars they are fighting. “Stand and fight,” proved to be a calamitous tactic over two hundred years ago for the redcoats of the American Revolution.

The strategy and tactics of Ho and his personal demeanor provide telling contrasts with that of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is characterized by Halberstam as being seen by his fellow countrymen as “the beaming father figure of his people, the man of constant simplicity, the soft-spoken Asian who seemed gentle, indeed almost sweet, sometime self-mocking….” He dressed in the simple garb of the peasants and avoided uniforms and military pomp. One could make the case, however, that unlike Bush in his Lenny Riefenstahl moment on the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, Ho Chi Minh paid his military dues several times over against both the Japanese and the French. Yet he wanted no heroic bronze memorials, wrote no memoirs, and needed no collections of his sayings. His simple frame house now stands behind the presidential palace. This modesty of temperament provides a telling contrast to the bloviates of the contemporary American hierarchy: the strutting and arrogant Donald Rumsfeld who loved to be on camera like Peter loved the Lord, our pompous and unrepentant neocons; Wolfowitz Tenent, Feith, Perle; Lewis "Scooter" Libby; Dick Cheney who lies with the same facility with which most people breath; Rice with her foolish and ill-considered invocation of a mushroom cloud; such eminences as Paul Bremer, the Bush proconsul to Iraq who once enthroned, fired a hundred thousand heavily armed men, leaving them on the streets of Iraq with no resources with which to feed their families.

“(I)f others were wary of crossing a stream during a torrential downpour, then Ho himself would find the best place to ford and cross over; when the French bombers appeared, Ho would scurry and hid in the field like the other peasants; when food supplies were low and starvation seemed a possibility, it was Ho who first cut his own rations to the survival minimum.” Cut his own rations? Who in the American hierarchy even believes there is a burden to be shared? The citizenry is urged to deal with these troubled times by going shopping. Tax cuts for the rich are legislated. The machinery of our military industries spin their gold for the corporate elite. The war is fought on credit, thus disguising the true costs and passing them on to another generation.

First daughter Jenna Bush recently traveled to Central and South America as an intern with UNICEF. There she discovered poverty in the person of a young Panamanian woman with AIDs. She returned to garner a book deal concerning this revelation. I have no wish to disparage this 25-year-old for her epiphany, for her good intentions or her good deeds. Hopefully she represents a commendable eleemosynary mutation in the Bush family gene pool. Yet in a recent interview concerning her new book, Jenna, earnest and fresh-faced, said in response to the question of why she wasn’t serving in Iraq. "Obviously I understand that question and see what, what the point of that question is, for sure," she said. "I think there are many ways to serve your country. And I think … what's most appropriate for me to do is to teach or to work in UNICEF and represent our country in Latin America…I think if people really thought about it, they know that we would put many people in danger. But I understand the point of it. I hope that I serve by being a teacher."

Of course, Jenna. Some serve in the mud squalor, pain and misery of a distant and lonely place, others by sitting upon a silken pillow and sewing a fine seam. Such is family tradition, and ordained, one is lead to believe, by the natural order of things and certainly much more fun. Yet I can think of a young woman of my knowledge, one of sterling character, also earnest and fresh-faced, who gained admission to medical school, graduated with aplomb and served in the U.S. Army, all without riding in on anyone’s coattails.

Ho’s Vietnamese strategy was, Halberstam tells us, above all “based on the people.” The army was a people’s army; one which walked among the people and one that belonged to the people. The orders from Ho were very simple: the army was to work side by side with the population in the fields, help with their crops, and give them courses in literacy. Above all, Ho said, the army must honor the population—then and only then would they become one and inseparable. Our own military is induced to sign on and deal with Iraq by signing and reenlistment bonuses for certain elite specialties, up to $100,000 and for lesser personages, $35,000 incentives. And then there are the 160,000 “private contractors,” tens of thousands of them mercenaries in the truest sense that we have fielded at horrendous expense, thus enabling the administration to wage an unpopular war without the messiness of an involved populace; war, in a sense, on the sly. Thus the American war in Iraq is ultimately a war in which the U.S. citizenry’s relationship to the military is all too often that of any warm blooded creature to a bloated tick.

Bush’s ill considered and tragically conducted wars recall the Vietnam war in that, “(t)he domestic forces that Vietnam helped create tore at the very fabric of American Society."

The administration counsels “patience” re Iraq. For the French in Vietnam it was perennially “le dernier quart d’heure,” for the Americans in their turn, there was the ever-elusive “light at the end of the tunnel.”

After the shattering French defeat at Dienbeinphu, one of the small number of those who survived was a French paratroop captain renowned for his courage who said, “It was all for nothing…I let my men die for nothing.” One wonders, as the decades roll by, the casualties mount and United States political and moral capital continues to wane, who at last will have the courage to look beyond their arrogance and greed, their bitterness and self-delusion and say, “It was all for nothing…I let my men and so many others die for nothing?”


John R. Guthrie served early on as a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman. He garnered a formal education to include medical schooling following Marine Corps service. In addition to years of private practice in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia, he served in the US Navy reserve as the commander of a shock-surgical group.


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