Owei Lakemfa

May 7, 2010

As heroic as the Vietnamese

By  Owei Lakemfa

WE had to destroy the town in order to save it.” That was the United States Air Force officer’s response to the American destruction of the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre, in the Mekong Delta city with 35,000 inhabitants. Save it from who?

The Americans were trying to save the town from its inhabitants who had rejected attempts to re-colonise them. It was the Cold War era and the United States was ready to bomb Vietnam out of existence if that was the only way it could ‘save’ it from going communist. The word for the horrors the Americans created in Vietnam is genocide.

But the Americans and their allies in the country were militarily defeated. Last Friday, when the 35th anniversary of the defeat rolled by, the Vietnamese celebrated wildly and even invited their friends from Cuba to Russia. In contrast, the Americans were not enthusiastic.

To them, Vietnam was a nightmare they want to forget. It was not just the humiliation of their otherwise proud military, but also, the socio-political upheaval it caused and the scares of the war that refused to heal . The Vietnamese still live with the health effects of the napalm and other chemical bombs the US dropped on them.

In that war, a total of 9,087,000 American military personnel participated. In April 1969, there were 543,482 American troops on the ground. A total of 58,202 US soldiers lost their lives and 75,000 of them were severely  disabled. Sixty one per cent of the Americans killed were 21 or younger, with  Paul Rabber, at 16, being one of the youngest. About three million persons died in that American misadventure

The Second World War (WWII) was supposed to be the most ferocious, but the Americans dropped at least twice the amount of bombs  dropped on Hitlerite Germany. While 2,700,000 tons bombs were dropped on Germany,  the US which flew 1,899,688 sorties in Vietnam, rained 6,727,084 tons bombs on that country.  Some 3,500,000 acres of Vietnamese soil with their inhabitants were sprayed by the Americans with 19 million gallons of defoliants whose radioactive effects will last for 100 years.

The war harvested ten million Vietnamese refugees, including 900,000 orphans.
But all these did not make the Vietnamese give up the struggle to liberate their country from foreign enslavement.

They have an unconquerable spirit; it is perhaps the only Third World country to have militarily defeated three world powers. It used to be a colony of China, but at the battle of the Bach Dang  River, it defeated the Chinese and got independence in AD 938.

Then  in 1884, France seized Vietnam. During WWII, Germany occupied France. In 1941, the legendary Ho Chi Minh( real name, Nguyen Tat Thanh) led the Vietnamese to stop the German ally, Japan from occupying the country.

Eventually, the Americans defeated Japan. The elated Vietnamese declared independence on September 2, 1944 only for France to reappear claiming that Vietnam remained its colony.  The French sent an estimated 200,000 troops to retake Vietnam.

The defeat of France was secured at the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu, one of the most tactical and stunning victories in military history. It pitched a modern, war tested military against a rag-tag army. The French had settled a tenth of their  troops near Dien Bien Phu in valleys surrounded by huge hills; it was an impregnable fortress, or so the French generals thought.

They never imagined that any army in the world would pull heavy military equipment, including armoured cars up  such hills, maintain a well oiled supply route to the hills, defend themselves against aerial bombardment and then attack such fortress; it was simply a crazy idea. But that precisely was what the Vietnamese did. Led by the military genius, General  Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese laid siege in a bitterly fought battle.

Of the 20,000 French soldiers in  Dien Bien Phu, 5,195 were injured, 1,729 were missing and only 3,431 returned home safely; the rest perished. The Prisoners of War taken included the two French commanders, Christian de Castries and Pierre Langlass.

The French ran; a peace agreement in Geneva  temporarily separated the patriots of the north and the pro- France fighters in the south. National elections were to hold in 1956 which would reunite the country. But Ngo Dinh Diem who had seized power in the south refused to allow the elections which Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh was popularly called, was likely to win.

The pro-election and reunification group  in the south, called the Vietcong, began a guerrilla struggle to overthrow Diem. An internal coup removed Diem and between 1963 and 1965, there were over a dozen governments due to coups and counter-coups.

The US did not want elections either fearing that the expected victory of Uncle Ho would make a united Vietnam go communist. So it began propping up the southern junta by sending in ‘military advisers’ who soon got involved in the civil war. These American ‘advisers’ were to evolve into the millions of American soldiers sent to kill or die  on the plains of Vietnam.

The north under Uncle Ho supported the southern guerrillas supplying them needed materials. Later, the supply routes passed   through neighbouring Cambodia and Laos which became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

It was an unwinnable war for the Americans and their allies. With the American casualties mounting, anti-war protesters on the streets and a powerful force like Mohammed Ali, then the World Heavy Weight boxing champion preferring to go to jail rather than sign up for Vietnam, time was running out for the American establishment. On January 27, 1973, the US under the Paris Accord, recognised the sovereignty of a unified Vietnam.

Two years later, on April 30, 1975, the patriotic Vietnamese entered Hanoi, the southern capital and the Vietnamese war came to an end. Hanoi was renamed Ho Chi Minh city in honour of Uncle Ho who had passed on in 1969.  No people have ever been more heroic than the Vietnamese.