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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994

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An Officer and a Gentleman:

General Vo Nguyen Giap as
Military Man and Poet

Cecil B. Currey

Outstanding generals in the western world have been known more for their victories and personalities than for their erudition or interest in aesthetics. This is not a criticism but simply a matter of recognizing their orientation. Despite the fame of fighting war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Thomas Hardy (1840-1920), Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) and others--none of whom ever sought or desired flag rank--battlefield realities seldom heighten poetic sensitivities.

We know the reputations of famous generals and recall snapshot images of them. We can recall pictures of Erwin Rommel's begoggled and dust-caked face as he stared from the open hatch of a desert tank. We can visualize Douglas MacArthur striding unarmed along trench parapets facing out into No Man's Land during the Great War, wearing about his neck a long hand-knit muffler and brandishing a swagger stick in his fist.

If we are no personally old enough to remember those desperate wartime days, we can still see George C. Scott in the movie role of Georgie Patton, slapping a hospital patient who suffered from combat fatigue, called today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pictures abound of Dwight Eisenhower's broad smile and friendly way as he endeavored to orchestrate joint allied efforts in the European Theater and to smooth over jealousies and ruffled feelings.

Those who know a little about British leaders of World War II have read accounts detailing how Field Marshal Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery stockpiled men and matèriel before launching a military campaign until he was ready to advance toward enemy lines--in the words of General Patton--"like a fighting white rabbit." Americans rejoiced as they learned of the exploits of Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, the great Russian general, as he led the eastern drive toward Berlin and the final destruction of Hitlerism. U.S. citizens were impressed by the taciturn solemnity and ineffable dignity of the American wartime chief of staff, George Catlett Marshall.

Many readers will recall later years in which television news reports showed the snowy crown and carefully pressed and tailored uniforms of William Childs Westmoreland as he led U.S. military efforts to pacify enemy fighters operating within the Republic of Viet Nam. During the Recent Desert Storm, television repeatedly brought us images of the poise and gracious, easy professionalism of General Colin Powell and the brusque mannerisms of General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, Jr.

A list such as this of famous recent military leaders could easily be lengthened. The results would not change if their numbers were increased or if we selected western generals from any other earlier time period. They reflected what was expected of them by their peers, their leaders, their society.

Authors have provided us with much information about these fighters and, sometimes, they have written accounts of their own. We know their rise through officer ranks until they received the coveted stars of a general. We know their campaigns and their casualty figures, their exploits their achievements, and their victories. Inevitably, however, western generals were (and are) men of practical bent--individuals who mastered the art of moving masses of men, varied military units, and mountains of supplies at the proper time and into the appropriate place on a battlefield in such a way as to overpower enemy forces. They have become eminently successful practitioners of the art of war. Further, they have often possessed a sometimes canny awareness of political realities, enabling them to protect and advance their own careers and their rise to flag rank. Their success in this has sometimes even allowed them to move from the realm of military matters into national politics.

Anyone reading historical accounts of the careers of these men inevitably comes to the conclusion that, while they were great military captains, they were also primarily individuals with a limited grasp of ideas apart from the application of tactics. Their own writing--whether autobiographical or analytical--bear out this view. We certainly do not think of them as scholars, or as cultured members of their own society, nor has anyone suggested that they ought to be so. We have been content to allow most generals to remain military craftsmen. We have sought nothing more from them than that they be capable of achieving battlefield victories.

Even a moment's reflection makes clear that few of our great military captains have been well-rounded men with broad knowledge, skilled in any area other than that which has enabled them "to cry havoc" and allow them to "let slip the dogs of war." There have been some few exceptions. Dwight Eisenhower, in later life, found contentment as a gentleman farmer at Gettysburg and derived pleasure from producing amateur oil paintings. George Catlett Marshall made an successful transition from high military command to cabinet level direction of America's foreign and defense policies within a profession not noted for its literary achievements. His greatest writing, and it will long live in memory, was his 1947 proposal that became known as the Marshall Plan.

Rommel's 1937 publication of infanterie Greift An (The Infantry Attacks) pretended to be no more than it was--a military textbook on tactics. Patton died in 1945; the posthumous 1947 publication of his War As I Knew It was a disappointing, uneven book that, while it bespoke the general's wide reading, failed to provide any evidence of a cultured man. Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe was dull and pedantic. British Field Marshall Montgomery's two best-known works, Memoirs (1958) and The Path to Leadership (1961) frantically extolled his own virtues and gave little hint that he eschewed not only military innovation but imagination. Published in English in 1971 as The Memoirs of Marshall Zhukov, the Russian general's work is singularly devoid of any material other than what is necessary to describe his role in military history. Westmoreland's A Soldier Reports left much unexplained and nowhere tended toward artistic merit. Nor has any resounding note of literary merit flowed from the pen of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Schwartzkopf's recent autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero, despite the efforts of his writer, Peter Petre, fails to achieve more than an exciting, action-packed story, which is, after all, what was intended.

Only MacArthur, as well-educated as any, had a penchant for pithy phrases, some of which will long be remembered, as when he spoke of the "mournful mutter of musketry" or called the minds of academy cadets to "duty, honor, country," and revealed that "old soldiers never die." The Reminiscences of this imperious and pretentious man, published in 1964, are a pleasure to read.

Asian military captains have had an alternate role to play within their societies. They are expected to be more than battlefield victors, in part, perhaps, to offset the blood they had shed, for soldiery has never ranked very high among the professions of the East. We have read of Chinese warriors who were artists, and who, with brush and ink, could produce simple ideograms of startling beauty. We know of Japanese generals who were adepts in the traditional tea ceremony of their land or who left memorable inscriptions in the three lines and seventeen syllables of haiku, or who quietly cultivated the stone and sand gardens within the walls of their home. On the field of battle they might be filled with blood-lust; in the quiet of their homes they sought harmony with nature.

For the last several years I have been studying the career of Senior General [D'ai T'o'ng] Vo Nguyen Giap. It is he of whom I will speak here. I have met and talked with Giap, interviewed his compatriots and buried myself in the requisite sources. I have recently completed a manuscript biography of him, and thus know him and his background fairly well. He is not a nice man, but then neither were other warriors from Attila the Hun and Timur the Lame to Napoleon, Zhukov, Patton and MacArthur. Nice men do not become legendary generals; they teach Sunday school classes or become professors of history or military chaplains.

Giap is best known for his fanatical obsession with freeing his homeland from western domination and uniting it under the communist rule of Ha Noi; for staggering battlefield losses he was willing to absorb in furtherance of those ends; and for his skill as a logistician as he moved men and supplies across impossible terrain in sufficient numbers to accomplish his goals. His icy exterior overlay a temper so fiery the French described him as a "snow-covered volcano" and, sometimes, even Ho Chi Minh had difficulty keeping him within bounds.

There is, however, another and less well known aspect of General Giap. Insofar as westerners are familiar with his prolific writings, we are apt to recall the turgid prose, repetitive, clichéd harangues, slogans, occasional fictions and sweeping generalizations of People's War, People's AmyI (New York: Praeger, 1962), or Big Victory, Big Task (New York: Praeger, 1967).

His voluminous speeches, regularly given to captive audiences, were stultifying, with titles so awesome they could have been drafted only by a communist or by a college professor preparing for a presentation at a major history conference. One such address, given in 1971, is much like many others he offered. Giap labeled it: "Let Us Step Up the Task of Reviewing, Studying, and Developing Vietnamese Military Science as a Positive Contribution to Defeating the U.S. Aggressors." It had an introduction and five lengthy parts and liking the sound of his own voice, he went through each portion with meticulous care so those in the audience would not miss any of his thoughts on the subject. His audience was undoubtedly aghast with appreciation at his thoroughness and we can imagine how their brows must have wrinkled in anticipation as he neared the end of his lengthy tirade.

Many of his publications have similar titles: The Party's Great Experiences in Leadership Over Armed Struggle and the Building of Revolutionary Armed Forces (Ha Noi: Su That Publishing House, 1961), "The Brilliant Victories and Great Power of the People's War in the Local Areas" (Ha Noi: Hoc Tap, Vietnamese Studies #8, Aug 1969), Victory of the People's War Against the War of Destruction in the Towns and Industrial Centers of Socialist Viet Nam (Ha Noi: People's Army Publishing House, 1972), or Viet Nam People's War Has Defeated the U.S. War of Destruction (Ha Noi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1969).

There is, however, another and less well known aspect of General Giap's public declamations. Although he normally felt it to be his duty to extol the virtues of socialism (one wonders how his mind escaped total paralysis as he spewed forth such nonsense), and call for objectives such as "one hectare per laborer, three hogs per hectare," when the setting was right and he wished to do so, he could speak with beauty and grace, his words suddenly devoid of their usual communist jargon.

He has a real ability as an orator, a writer, a poet, and he has occasionally called upon that talent. In 1980, in a visit to a historical site in Hai Hung province to celebrate the sixth hundredth birthday of Nguyen Trai, one of the comrades of the famous Vietnamese hero, Le Loi, Giap reminisced about his own days as a warrior. He told how he had drawn inspiration from the example of Nguyen Trai.

In his graceful tribute to Nguyen Trai, Giap said that he, like the ancient poet, was "very proud of his beautiful country with its imposing mountains and rivers, its abundance of produce, proud of its old civilization and unique lifestyle, proud of its brilliant and heroic history of resisting foreign aggression." His choice of words was better that day, free from the constraints of mind-numbing cant that usually beset them. Then he rose to even greater heights.

Remembering his life in the back country wilderness of Viet Nam as he and his Viet Minh warriors fought the First Indochinese War against the French, Giap told how "the mountains and rivers [then] appeared fresh and new." He elaborated, in a lyric moment of memory: "The chirp of a bird, the petal of a flower, a gentle breeze, a few drops of rain, a gust of wind in the spring, all of these could stir the soul of a poet." And in that moment, for at least the second time in his life, this pur et dure Communist doctrinaire became a poet. In Haiku-like lines, he declaimed:

Talents were like leaves in the autumn,
and heroes appeared like the dawn."

and again:

When a herdsman played his flute,
The moon rose higher in the sky.

"Literature," Giap said that day in closing his tribute to Nguyen Trai, "can and must elevate a man's soul." It was one of his finest hours.

My interest in these matters came about as a result of long years of acquiring war poetry and reading to my students the verse of soldiers of the Great War. Over time I added examples from the American Civil War, World War II and the Viet Nam war. Then while researching the life of Vo Nguyen Giap, I came across a paper in his file at the Indochina Archives (University of California, Berkeley) that provided for me a new dimension to him whom I studied. Inside a slim volume by Viêt Ph'o'ng entitled We Fight Yankees, Therefore We Exist ([np: np, nd]) appeared a reprint of a poem said to have been found on the body of a dead northern Vietnamese soldier. The man had recopied it from some other source and, because it bespoke emotions within his own heart, kept it with him. The page was charred and bloodstained when found on his body. The soldier's copy indicated it had been composed by Giap.

The poem expresses a man's romantic, emotional statement of longing for an absent loved one, yearning for reunion, while simultaneously declaiming the necessity of fulfilling his warrior's responsibilities of battle and possible death.

Giap might well have written such sentiments. He had experienced romantic tragedy in his own personal life.

In early 1939, Giap married the diminutive Dang Thi Quang Thai, daughter of his good friend and benefactor, Professor Dang Thai Mai. In after years, friends observed that he was never happier in his life, before or after, than during those few months which followed his wedding.

As war broke around them, Giap and Quant Thai kept their heads down and tried to maintain a reasonably normal life. In May 1939, four months before the German war machine exploded across the fields of Poland, Giap and Quang Thai conceived a child. On 4 January, 1940, Quang Thai gave birth to a baby girl. Giap have his daughter the beautiful name of Hong Anh, or "red queen of flowers."

Those quiet days lasted only a few months. In April, 1940, the communist party's Central Committee decided to send Giap and a comrade to safety in China where they might there plan for the launching of a future guerrilla movement within Viet Nam. Quang Thai was to remain behind.

The newlyweds said their good-byes on the bank of Ha Noi's West Lake one Friday afternoon, 3 May 1940. Giap taught at the private lycée, Thang Long [Rising Dragon] in the city. By leaving on a Friday, he would have the entire weekend to make good his escape from the watchful eyes of the French colonial Sûreté Nationale de l'Indochine's Deuxieme Bureau. Only when he failed to show for classes the following Monday morning would anyone begin to raise questions about his absence and even then several more hours would pass before police could be notified and an alarm raised.

Giap held the baby as he and Quang Thai walked beside the lake. He urged his wife to go underground as quickly as possible so no harm would come to her or Hong Anh. Quang Thai cried quiet tears as they slowly walked back from the lake down Co Ngu Road. At last they broke apart and went their separate ways. They would never see one another again.

Like many others before and since, they paid in blood for their devotion to a cause. In May 1941 Quang Thai was arrested by the 2eme Bureau in her home town of Vinh, chief city of Nghe An province. Only moments before the police arrived, she entrusted Hong Anh, now one-and-a-half years old, to Giap's mother.

The French took Quang Thai back to Ha Noi and jailed her at Hao Lo [literally: the Oven] prison, known years later by American flyers as the "Hanoi Hilton." She was tried before a military court for conspiracy against the security of France and sentenced to life imprisonment. While in Hao Lo she was tortured to the edge of sanity and perhaps beyond. Unable to endure the pain any longer, she allegedly killed herself while in her cell by swallowing her giai rut, a kind of soft belt material. U.S. intelligence sources later claimed she died another way: the French hung her by the thumbs and beat her to death.

Giap had no chance to communicate with Quang Thai after his flight from Ha Noi in 1940. Throughout the years of the war he lived in hiding in the far northern reaches of Viet Nam as he developed ways of combating the Japanese and French. It was not until 15 April 1945, when he traveled to Bac Giang for a meeting of the Central Committee that he received word of his wife. He later wrote that he looked forward to the meeting: "I thought I would at last have news from my family from whom I had not heard for all these years. I had written letters but didn't know if they ever arrived and I was thinking it would not be long until I had news."

Terrible news awaited him at Bac Giang. An old comrade, Truong Chinh, casually turned to him during a group conversation and, as an example of the danger in which they all lived, recalled the case of Giap's wife: "Thai was caught because she didn't have time to find someone to care for the baby. She died in prison before we could do anything."

Giap felt his blood chill. He finally asked, "You say Thai is dead?"

"What?" Truong Chinh replied. "You didn't know?"

Giap sat quietly, speechless for long minutes. Then he silently rose and left his fellows, desperate to find a way to accept the idea of the death of his wife. He later wrote that he looked forward to the meeting: "I thought I would at last have news from my family from whom I had not heard for all these years. I had written letters but didn't know if they ever arrived and I was thinking it would not be long until I had news."

Terrible news awaited him at Bac Giang. An old comrade, Truong Chinh, casually turned to him during a group conversation and, as an example of the danger in which they all lived, recalled the case of Giap's wife: "Thai was caught because she didn't have time to find someone to care for the baby. She died in prison before we could do anything."

Giap felt his blood chill. He finally asked, "You say Thai is dead?"

"What?" Truong Chinh replied. "You didn't know?"

Giap sat quietly, speechless for long minutes. Then he silently rose and left his fellows, desperate to find a way to accept the idea of the death of his wife.

Those were Giap's experiences with personal heartbreak. From them he might well have drafted the lines which are attributed to him in the dead soldier's copybook. He thus becomes, unexpectedly, another example of the Eastern general who knows more than the art of war.


The earth bore you here.
To bring beauty.
The earth bore me here
To love you deeply.

In love people kiss.
The sweetness they would not miss.
My heart is passionate for you
Still I must go to battle.

My love, it is possible
That I may die in combat
The lips torn there by bullets
Might never be kissed [again] by yours.

Even if I die, my love,
I love you, though I am unable
To kiss you with the lips
Of a slave.

—Vo Nguyen Giap

My thanks to Ho Thi Xuan Hong (whose name means "Spring Rose"), Nguyen Hai Quoc, and his father, Nguyen Khac Niem, for their translation of Giap's poem.

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