Dec 1 2013

Nursing a Grudge Over Giap

Vietnamese general’s obit recalls imperial grievances

General Vo Nguyen Giap

The New York Times blamed the Vietnam War’s death toll on General Vo Nguyen Giap’s “willingness to sustain staggering losses against superior American firepower.”

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon persuaded South Vietnam through back channels to withdraw from peace negotiations just as a breakthrough was imminent. Under a Nixon presidency, “they would get a much better deal,” he secretly promised through a campaign adviser (BBC, 3/22/13).

With the peace process stymied, Nixon narrowly defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He then expanded the conflict throughout the region via secret, illegal carpet bombings over Laos and Cambodia, overseen by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon presided over four more years of war and the deaths of over 20,000 US soldiers—more than a third of all US fatalities registered during the conflict. In 1973, Kissinger ultimately signed a peace accord that was achievable in 1968.

Within the Western establishment, Kissinger and Nixon have been largely absolved of their disregard for the disastrous human consequences of their machinations. Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, and has since been sought out for his wisdom by successive US administrations—most recently Obama’s, with regard to Syria (Huffington Post, 9/11/13).

The New York Times (1/2/07) wrote reverently that Kissinger “remains a towering figure in international relations,” with “firsthand experience in the anguishing decisions about withdrawal from Vietnam.” The Times (4/24/94) also eulogized Nixon in an obituary as “a man of high intelligence and innovative concepts whose talents, especially in international affairs, were widely respected by both friend and foe.”

North Vietnam’s eminent military commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who was instrumental in driving both France and the United States out of Vietnam, unsurprisingly received less-than-sympathetic treatment from the New York Times (10/5/13) when the centenarian passed away on October 4, 2013.

The paper of record’s obituary, written by Joseph Gregory, conveyed numerous condemnations by Giap’s critics, who “said that his victories had been rooted in a profligate disregard for the lives of his soldiers.” Gregory included US Gen. William Westmoreland among those critics, politely omitting Westmoreland’s famously racist remark that “life is cheap in the Orient.” The piece even quoted a paratroop colonel from France—the colonial power that controlled and plundered Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from the late 19th century until 1954—who concurred: “To Giap, a man’s life was nothing.”

Gregory did admit that “the indiscriminate bombing and massed firepower of the Americans caused heavy civilian casualties and alienated many Vietnamese,” but he emphasized the suffering not of the Vietnamese, but of US leadership:

To historians, [Giap’s] willingness to sustain staggering losses against superior American firepower was a large reason the war dragged on as long as it did, costing more than 2.5 million lives—58,000 of them American—sapping the United States Treasury and Washington’s political will to fight, and bitterly dividing the country in an argument about America’s role in the world that still echoes today.

In Gregory’s analysis, Vietnamese “willingness” to withstand US brutality on their own soil is the noteworthy factor for the prolongation of the conflict—not US leaders’ unremitting war of attrition, whose aim was to kill as many “enemies” as possible, however ill-defined the category.

Perhaps Times editors recognized that the piece had gone too far in reflexively channeling US elites’ delusions of victimhood in Vietnam. Five days later, to the paper’s credit, it allowed its op-ed space to directly refute Gregory’s deceitful narrative. Nick Turse (10/10/13), author of a recent book on the Vietnam War, wrote the corrective, “For America, Life Was Cheap in Vietnam.” He explained how concrete US military policies, like measuring success by body counts, dehumanized the Vietnamese and “couldn’t have been more callous or contemptuous toward human life.”

“Without a true account of our past military misdeeds,” Turse concluded, “Americans have been unprepared to fully understand what has happened in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.”

If the Times is to learn from its coverage of General Giap’s death, its future obituary for Kissinger will not simply include fawning tributes to his statecraft, but also chilling evidence of a mentality far more callous than that which is attributed to Giap—such as Kissinger’s matter-of-fact relay of Nixon’s genocidal bombing order on Cambodia in 1970 (New York Times, 5/27/04): Use “anything that flies on anything that moves.”

Keane Bhatt is a Washington, D.C.-based activist for social justice and community development. His blog for NACLA, Manufacturing Contempt, takes a critical look at corporate media’s portrayal of the Hemisphere.

Extra! December 2013