Vietnam’s Wars

V.G. Kiernan

  • Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path by Thomas Hodgkin
    Macmillan, 433 pp, £25.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 333 28110 1
  • Death in the Ricefields: Thirty Years of War in Indochina by Peter Scholl-Latour, translated by Faye Carney
    Orbis, 383 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85613 342 6
  • Hollywood’s Vietnam by Gilbert Adair
    Proteus, 192 pp, £7.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 906071 86 0

It was a happy inspiration for a writer who has spent many years studying Africa to transport himself to the other end of the world and look at the evolution of a totally different society, though one equally in the end herded by Western guns into a new era. Hodgkin brings to his task a mind trained by long observation of pre-modern communities, and sensitive to the divergences and novelties pointing towards a dénouement far removed from anything to be found in Africa, south of Algeria at any rate. He has had the benefit of much expert guidance and counsel, both Western and Vietnamese, but he is conscious of multiple difficulties, and ready to admit puzzlement at many of the things he encounters on his long road, instead of professing to have explanations for them all. It is valuable to have obscurities in the record identified, even if they cannot at present be cleared up. The result is a fine achievement, an outline and analysis of Vietnam history such as Jean Chesneaux’s Contribution à l’Histoire de la Nation Vietnamienne, with a similar viewpoint, provided for French readers a generation ago, but enriched by subsequent research.

It stops at 1945; its keynote is ‘the August 1945 Revolution in the context of four thousand years of Vietnamese history’. This revolution is held up as ‘an extremely important event in world history’, the first overthrow of a colonial regime by a Communistled movement. Hodgkin has been reproached with looking at the country’s history backward, seeing it all as a highroad leading towards socialist revolution. But any attempt at interpreting the past must incur some risk of seeing it too much in the light of the present; and what Hodgkin not unreasonably singles out as dominant features of the past emerge undeniably as contributors at least to the unique performance of Vietnam in our own lifetime. Whether 1945 is quite so significant a moment in itself may be another question. The Japanese were collapsing, the French were not yet in a position to reassert themselves. The real struggle was still to come. Still, it might be said that the fall of the Bastille, or the Bolshevik seizure of power, were also only starting-points.

A useful series of maps, a chronological table and a glossary, help the reader to follow the deciphering of the earlier age, a palimpsest overwritten with Chinese influences yet preserving a sturdily indigenous character throughout. Hodgkin has to wrestle with problems of periodising, but broadly three pre-modern divisions stand out: a semi-legendary pre-history; nine centuries of Chinese rule, from 43 to 939 AD; and a feudal-bureaucratic monarchy, run as China was by a hierarchy of mandarins, a good specimen of an Asian type of state with intriguing likenesses and unlikenesses to European models. At its most energetic it shows affinities with Late Medieval and Early Modern absolutism in Europe about the same time. ‘The long reign of Le Thanh long (1460-97) marked the climax of the development,’ with the central apparatus and the bureaucracy trained on Confucian lines reinforced against ‘the oligarchic element’. There is a further odd parallelism between the troublous times that followed and the crisis of 17th-century Europe. An old speculation about harvests – and therefore everything else – depending on shifts of sunspots offers an appealingly simple key to all such coincidences.

It becomes clearer and clearer that nationalism, and the nation state, did not grow up in Western Europe alone, but had counterparts elsewhere – above all, in the Far East, where they constitute one of that region’s many curious points of kinship with Europe. Vietnam, Korea, Japan were all nations long before they learned to read Western books; so was China, even though its unwieldy bulk left the national idea more amorphous. In Vietnam a national consciousness. Hodgkin writes, ‘was certainly emerging during the early medieval period’, or the tenth to 15th centuries, with roots much deeper. The country’s names for itself were oddly various, and ‘Viet Nam’ seems only to have begun coming into use about 1800, displacing the old Chinese ‘An Nam’, or ‘Pacified South’, a legacy of China’s overlordship.

Nationalism was incubated by prolonged efforts to throw this off, and modes and means of early warfare form one of many interesting strands in the book’s earlier chapters. China had a telling weapon in the crossbow – its invention; Indochina had the elephant. Vietnam often resorted to guerrilla resistance, drawing in the mass of the people and imparting lessons that leaders fighting the French and Americans found it worth while to ponder. As to the size of armies in the field, historians have learned to be suspicious of assertions in old European annals, and numbers quoted by Hodgkin like 150,000 and 300,000 men may call for similar pinches of salt. Kings and their chroniclers everywhere went on something like the same principle as the angler in Three Men in a Boat, who, resolved to be more moderate than others, counted every fish he caught as ten.

In 1285, there was a Mongol invasion, and in the early 15th century renewed attempts by the Chinese, now under the new and expansionist Ming dynasty, to gain control. These further toughened the national fibre. So also, it may be, to an extent not allowed for by Hodgkin, did the long-continuing pressure southward towards the Mekong delta. Vietnam was attacker as well as attacked, and this was in part a species of ‘people’s imperialism’, motivated by land-hunger, much like the earlier flow of the Chinese people southward from the Yellow River. The outcome has been a country with dozens of ethnic minorities, though totalling only 13 per cent of the population – and mostly pushed back into the hills.

It may be that minorities within a country’s boundaries themselves help to stimulate national consciousness in the majority; Britain, France, Spain may all be examples of this. A fact brought out by Hodgkin is that the minorities were not always on bad terms with the Vietnamese people, but repeatedly took part with them in risings against oppressive governments – as subject tribes in the Asian border-lands sometimes did with Russian peasant rebels – and also in barring the way to outsiders. To all this collective character-building must be added the harsh environment emphasised by Hodgkin, with its hurricanes, droughts, floods, need for water-control. It bred qualities akin to those of Virgil’s Roman peasantry, that dura gens, or, from the same etymology, Burns’s dour Scots.

Women have not been a minority anywhere in the world, but they have nearly always had a status not unlike (hat of a depressed nationality, in Vietnam they seem from early days to have had a relatively better place, and freedom of activity prefiguring their part in this century’s war of liberation. Trung Trac in the first century AD was a Vietnamese Joan of Arc, the most celebrated of a bevy of heroines of the conflicts with China; She is pictured on horseback, like Joan, a sword in each hand. Here, too, one may conjecture that the southward push and its frontier spirit counted, making for a treatment of women as partners instead of menials. At any rate, a late 15th-century law-code discussed by Hodgkin gave women a right to property, and not merely a share in inheritance but, what is far more exceptional, an equal share.

It was a sad sequel to all pre-socialist struggles of peoples against invaders that they were only exchanging foreign for native exploitation. Vietnam’s story was a warlike one indeed, an alternation of external strife with peasant risings, such as were part and parcel of the history of all the Far Eastern lands and of their preparation for stern modern ordeals. Hodgkin goes into the diverse categories of land tenure: the oldest and most basic was joint ownership of land, and its periodical redistribution, by the village commune, as in old Russia. This was manifestly the foundation of village solidarity, and the most elemental motive for readiness to act together, which made the village a microcosm of the nation. Survival of common land here, by contrast with China, was connected, one must think, with the lesser development of commercialism, while in China a money economy made land a commodity bought and sold like others. But common lands were perpetually being encroached on by powerful individuals – the same process of erosion that put an end to them in England. Governments made at tempts every now and then at agrarian reform, to protect cultivator against magnate, as they did at times in Europe, but with no effect beyond a very limited and transitory one.

Finally, a dynasty was overthrown by peasant risings swelling into the full-scale Tay Son rebellion of 1771, remarkable in scale and sweep, and inviting comparison with the Taiping rebellion seventy years later in China. Like this too, it ended in inadequate reforms, feuds of ambitious leaders, ‘feudal degeneration’, as Hodgkin calls it. But one weighty factor at least in the restoration of the old order, as he shows in detail, was French assistance, stage-managed by the missionary bishop Behaine, ‘a single-minded, devoted, hard-working, early imperialist’, dreaming of a Christian empire in the Far East. Up-to-date forts and arsenals were constructed under French direction, war ships and cannon supplied. It must have been the first decisive impact of fire-power on warfare in Indochina, in 1802, the Nguyen dynasty returned to the throne, ‘essentially a counter-revolutionary regime’. A dozen years later, the Bourbons returned to Paris in the baggage-train of the Allies.

It could only be an interim government before the French take-over, for which it paved the way; we have here a case of neocolonialism as precursor of imperialism instead of its successor. Frenetic efforts were made to modernise the country by compulsion: towns were reconstructed, roads and fortresses built, by massive use of corvée labour, kept at its tasks by flogging, which provoked fresh revolts. It is a picture oddly similar to Mehemet Ali’s contemporary Egypt, and the outcome was equally dismal. For all the Afro-Asian autocracies, as Hodgkin says, the vital thing wanted to enable them to face Western intrusion was not Western equipment but drastic revision of the social and political order – ‘a problem by its nature insoluble’. It is tempting to see in the gloomy hypochondria of the Emperor Tu Duc the reflection of a hopeless situation.

French occupation was pushed on by men on the spot like Francois Garnier, another with ‘mystical visions of imperial greatness and of himself’, and men in Paris like the premier Jules Ferry, whose brother-in-law was one of the capitalists scenting profit in the coal of the northern region, Tonking. Like all imperialists, the French required local collaborators, who for long were hard to find except among the numerous Christian converts. Religion – autochthonous, Buddhist, Confucian – crops up often in Vietnamese history and in this book, but Hodgkin does not supply an answer to the question why, on this nationalistic soil, there was such a ready welcome for Christianity, as there was in 16th-century Japan, but never so extensively in China. More anomalous still are the novel sects that sprang up out of Western intercourse, hybrid faiths, one of them with Victor Hugo ensconced in its pantheon. Possibly the same receptivity, of a people perpetually forced by necessity to innovate and borrow, helped to make Vietnam in our century so open to Marxism. But the events of the French occupation may suggest that popular feeling in China against Christian converts, culminating in the Boxer rebellion of 1900, was well-founded enough.

French rule in Indochina was in almost every way much worse than bad. A factor malignant wherever found in the colonial world was the influx of European settlers and land-grabbers. British India was fairly free from this, but fostered another parasitic element in native landlordism, which in Indochina, unlike Algeria, survived side by side with the plantations of the colons. Jackals from other countries flocked in after them, a frequent accompaniment of imperialism: a plague of Indian and Chinese usurers and traders, the Chinese soon in control of the rice trade. The French made use of them, and they of the French. This could happen because Vietnam, like some Indian provinces but not India as a whole, lacked a strong mercantile class of its own. Why this should have been so, and why urban life had developed so much less than in China or Japan, is a conundrum the book might have given more attention to. Vietnam may have been too busy fighting. From a socialist point of view, the absence of a vigorous commercial class was to be an advantage: it meant that the bourgeois component in the modern national movement would be much smaller than in India.

That represented by the intelligentsia, on the other hand, was outstanding, as it Was during the French conquest. Men of letters seem to have been closer to the people than in the great majority of colonial regions; most of them lived in the countryside instead of in towns. Poetry had evolved long before prose, and formed a medium of communication between learned and unlearned such as in modern Europe we can only by an effort imagine. Ho Chi Minh thought it worth while to write a national history in verse, more readily memorised by simple folk than prose. Hodgkin gives translations of a number of the poems with which scholar patriots helped to rouse the peasant masses and concentrate their embitterment. He maintains that the long-drawn-out resistance to the conquest, ‘in the face of increasingly sophisticated and brutal techniques of colonial “pacification” ’, though crushed, was not useless, as some have held, because later nationalism owed much to ‘the deposit of heroic memories which it left behind’.

To illustrate the early phase of the modern national movement Hodgkin traces the chequered career of a prominent revolutionary and writer, Phan Boi Chau, whose wanderings and plottings and failures bear a resemblance to Sun Yat-sen’s: he too began by collecting a band of progressive students in Japan, and he too had to take refuge abroad most of the time. He was one of a throng of pioneers, groping for the right path, doomed to defeat, which oftener than not meant immediate execution, if not worse. One of the most serious blots on the French imperial record was the use of the foreign Legion, active in Indochina from the conquest onward, and implicated in a great deal of the most brutal repression. After both world wars it consisted largely of Germans,

No wandering exile went through so many peregrinations as Ho Chi Minh – a pseudonym, one of a list long enough for a whole underground committee, so long that he must surely have found it hard at times to remember what his current name was, or which of his many languages he was supposed to be talking. Much of this extraordinary life Hodgkin has found to be still obscure, but there were seven years of youthful roaming about the Western world, followed by steady political work with the emerging Communist Party in France after 1918, then in Moscow, then in Canton. In 1928-29 he was in Thailand, operating with the Vietnamese community there in the guise of a Buddhist monk, by name Thau Chin. He returned in 1920; after the Yen-bay rising that year he escaped, was arrested in Hongkong, tried and sentenced, and successfully defended by D.N. Pritt in an appeal to the Privy Council. He came back again in secret in 1941, to reorient the Communist Party which had been growing out of confused beginnings. Like Lenin, he had acquired an ascendancy over the membership that no length of absence could efface. Before long, he was off to repair contacts with friends in China, where he was promptly laid by the heels and spent two years in uncomfortable jails, finding solace in traditional fashion by distilling his experiences into a long cycle of poems in classical Chinese. Such was the man who, on 2 September 1945, as head of a united-front provisional government, read out in a square in Hanoi Vietnam’s declaration of independence.

Scholl-Latour is not a scholar but a well-known television reporter in West Germany, where his book has deservedly found many readers. It is concerned with his experiences in the Far East; in between times he spent years in Africa. He has, indeed, as many journeyings to look back on as Ho Chi Minh, some not without their spice of danger. The world of journalism, he observes, ‘has its fair share of pompous fools, half-educated morons and incurable drunks’. He himself is very definitely none of these things. He writes with detachment, but with visible fidelity to a liberalism imbibed, as he says, in student days. He went out to Indochina first in 1945, with the first reinforcements sent to restore French authority. As Hodgkin writes, ‘in colonial matters, the Gaullists were for the most part Bourbons,’ and during the war had made amicable contact with their countrymen in Indochina, collaborators with the Japanese; their goal was liberation for France, not for French colonies.

They were misled into expecting a warm welcome from the people, by ‘so-called experts – those incorrigibly foolish colonial representatives’, as Scholl-Latour denominates them, or ‘old hands’, in the English expression often used. His account confirms, if any confirmation were needed, that the war France was quickly plunging into was a sale guerre in the very fullest sense. High Commissioner in 1946 was the Gaullist admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, before World War Two abbot of a Carmelite monastery, and a faithful heir to the fire-eating missionaries who helped to effect the French conquest: one of the book’s rich netful of human beings brought to the surface by the tempests of the time, like strange deep-sea fish. In Paris the left-wing press dubbed him ‘the Bloody Monk’. Among his minions were a special force of policemen, of the modern race of Inquisitors, many of them Eurasians, with ingenious methods of torture.

In 1965, Scholl-Latour returned to Indochina after 11 years’ absence, and could compare the American style of conducting a colonial war with the French. In many ways they were similar enough – in the employment of professional experts in torture, for instance. Scholl-Latour, however, was struck by the easy time American soldiers had of it by contrast with the ‘appalling’ conditions French troops had been made to undergo (the great majority of them were expendable Senegalese, Algerians – who went home to join in a revolution of their own – and Legionaries). Only one GI in twenty was ever in touch with the enemy; wounded men were promptly whisked away by helicopter to excellent hospitals. Much of the fighting was done by Special Forces, among them the élite Green Berets, many of whom, he discovered, were recent immigrants into the USA, or social misfits. In other words, they had a good deal in common with the Foreign Legion. Other hearty killers were the South Korean auxiliaries. ‘Any prisoners they took were finished off with a brisk karate chop.’

Their opponents seem a different, higher species. A militant French bishop in the south is quoted paying tribute to the leader of the Viet Cong guerrillas in his diocese, who had been fighting for a dozen years, existing in fox-holes, trenches, forest nooks. ‘Compared to the likes of us he’s totally selfless and idealist – you could almost say he’s a saint.’ One of the author’s adventures was to be captured, with some other newsmen, by the Viet Cong, not very far away from Saigon. They were decently treated, allowed to take photographs and make notes before being released, and could not help being impressed by the austerity of their captors’ diet of rice and salt, relieved only by interminable chanting of patriotic songs at night after long discussion meetings. Their commitment to the cause was ‘almost religious in intensity’.

Back in Saigon, he felt ‘like a visitor from another planet in the midst of this den of iniquity’. All through the wars, while soldiers met in jungle battle, men and women were meeting in bar, bed and brothel, in encounters where the invaders could win easier triumphs. It was an enormous collective act of rape. Saigon was the grand centre of corruption, with special red-light areas for black Gls not omitted. ‘The sight of this Sodom and Gomorrha set up by the descendants of the pious Pilgrim Fathers was enough to make any Vietnamese become anti-American, whether he was Communist or not.’ It was the same in Laos when America intervened there and the CIA gathered a horde of miscellaneous adventurers. ‘Their arrival brought a whole army of Siamese prostitutes over the Mekong border,’ followed by ‘a swarm of transvestites’.

Scholl-Latour was not too strait-laced to deem Cambodia before it was caught up in the war the nearest approach to his ‘vision of an earthly paradise’, devoid of sexual taboos or sense of sin. He got to know Prince Sihanouk, and is convinced that he was anything but the ‘political clown’ detractors made him out; rather, ‘a master of political disguise’, fully alive to the perils surrounding his country. It was a steep come-down to his successor, the American puppet Lon Nol, who did his best to ‘assume the role of an Asian warlord’, but never seemed at ease in it, and left decisions largely to the court astrologers. A steeper decline still ushered in the Khmer Rouge, and a frenzy of indiscriminate killing. ‘Cambodia was at the mercy of a murdering army of zombies.’ Sinister forces must have been lurking in the depths, under a placid easy-going exterior. Earthly paradises are always likely to prove mirages.

Scholl-Latour saw Saigon again in 1976, a drab, disciplined city, all the old hectic gaiety banished – the roses and raptures of Western vice exchanged for the lilies and languors of Communist virtue. There was still a black market; and there must be some truth in the complaints he heard, from members of the formerly flourishing classes evidently, of uncultured northerners ruling the roost and carrying off consumer goods they had never been blessed with before. In the task of purifying the urban South, the North must have risked some infection from its impurities. He saw Hanoi too, and felt that the North was, though victorious, exhausted. He saw something both of the Vietnamese entering Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge, and the Chinese, prompted by an ancient, reawakening hegemonism, attacking Vietnam.

It may be hoped that the qualities engendered by Vietnam’s storm-tossed history will carry it through today’s trials as they did through yesterday’s. But it would be interesting to know what Scholl-Latour really makes of the human race, after all he has seen of it, from revelry in the mansion of a Thai prince – ‘In the evening we smoked opium while we waited for the girls to dance for us’ – to US paratroopers as night fell on a jungle battle loading ‘grisly parcels’, their dead bundled up in green plastic bags, into a helicopter, or to the cosy gathering of statesmen at Manila in 1966 to hear President Johnson announce his intensified programme of bombs and napalm.

Gilbert Adair sets himself to find out what Hollywood made of all this servitude et grandeur militaire. It made very little of it apparently, preferring to go on serving its standard fare of romantic trivialities: the paucity of war films has the negative import, he remarks, of Sherlock Holmes’s dog not barking. He examines in mordant detail one grandiose exception, John Wayne’s Green Berets, a glorification of those heroes with the aging director himself as colonel, which made large profits and aroused loud student protest. Its dishonesty, at a date when so much evidence about the true nature of the war had accumulated, lay in its determination to portray it in ‘simple-minded Manichean antitheses: good guys versus bad guys’.

In 1972, a critical film, Winter Soldier, was sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group formed in 1967 and growing steadily. By the 1970s, a film like Green Berets was inconceivable, but no rational comprehension of the war took shape: instead, Hollywood’s Vietnam dissolved into ‘a kind of phantasmagoric limbo’, a nightmare without beginning or end. This bore fruit in 1979 in the very ambitious and expensive Apocalypse Now, which also is discussed at length, as a brilliant technical performance, but a reduction of history to the fantasy of a crazy ex-colonel of the Green Berets, with a Cambodian temple near the Vietnam frontier for headquarters, still carrying on the war on his own.

A screen-writer who visited Vietnam in search of ideas was told by one officer: ‘These people don’t want to be free, but by God, we’re going to make them free!’ American semantic involutions and remoteness from world realities go back a long way. In 1913, the Ambassador in London astonished Sir Edward Grey by declaring that the US Army would be prepared to stay in Mexico, then going through a revolution, for two hundred years, and to ‘shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves’.