I recently visited Dien Bien Phu, a dusty nondescript Vietnamese border town near Laos. Here, French fantasies of re-colonialism were dashed by a Vietnamese peasant army. Visiting Dien Bien Phu is not difficult for a progressive anti-imperialist left liberal. There are no mixed emotions, at least politically. Who can begrudge Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party their great victory in Dien Bien Phu? Even the Americans thought the French were a lost cause. They refused to help France directly when Dien Bien Phu was about to fall.
I was taken around by a motorcycle taxi to the different battlefield sites. They included the hills and other the strong points which the Vietnamese inexorably took, despite a heroic French defence, the French Commander’s bunker, and the war cemeteries. The motorcycle taxi driver stopped on the way to the war cemeteries and bought sticks of incense. He made me burn them for the souls of the dead, French and Vietnamese. I was surprised that he wanted me to burn incense sticks for French souls as well. I should not have been.
The Vietnamese did not fight a xenophobic war. They fought an “internationalist war”. This may sound strange in these days of “identity politics” when your ethnic or religious identity is supposed to determine the side you are rooting for, or whether you live or die. In his official memoir of the war, General Vo Nguyen Giap commander of the Vietnamese forces, considered the mastermind of the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu, thanked the French people and the French Communisty Party for their support of the Vietnamese cause. Ho Chi Minh, the first President of Vietnam and founder of the Indo Chinese Communist Party, was also a founder of the French Communist Party.
Ho Chi Minh’s bedroom and study are still as they were on the day he died. The books near his bedside include one on New Zealand Verse, another on the Indian nationalist leader Veer Savarkar, another on the history of Vietnam, another on Marxism and several other titles I could not read clearly. These books were written in English, German, French, Russian and Vietnamese. He read all these languages, and spoke many of them. No party hack, however sophisticated, could have put such an eclectic collection of books together after his death. It had to be his.
The Museum of Women in Hanoi described the support they received from women’s groups in the West opposed to the war. The Vietnamese highlighted, maybe even exaggerated, the international support they got from the people of countries who had sent troops to fight them – from France, the US and Australia. Peace activists traveled to Hanoi, and were welcomed as friends.
Watching the TV news of bombings in Baghdad every night, while visiting Vietnam, it was hard not to think about the current war against another US occupation. There are many reasons for Americans to oppose the US occupation of Iraq. It is leading to the loss of American lives. It is diverting resources away from fighting Al-Qaeda. It is exacerbating hatred of the US in the World. It is making the world less safe for Americans. There are also many reasons for Iraqis to oppose the occupation. It has yet to deliver stability to their country. It is contributing to sectarian violence. It is preventing Iraqis from taking charge of their own destiny. It is strengthening Islamic extremism in Iraq. And it is a foreign army.
These factors together may eventually lead to a parallel with Vietnam, when the costs of occupation – for the occupiers and the occupied – become less bearable than the consequences of a pullout. It is not clear that we are there yet – politically. In all the death and mayhem in Iraq, there is still a possibility that a democratic, secular multinational society may emerge from it. And it is not unimportant that Iraq’s neighbours – Iran and Turkey – still seem to believe that this is preferable to the alternative. This is not inconsistent with arguing the invasion was wrong, not just in international law, but for the people of Iraq. (The UN position.)
Whatever the similarities between the US occupations of Iraq and Vietnam, there is a critical difference in the attitude of the Viet Minh and the radical Islamists resisting the respective occupations. The former fostered and supported the creation of a peace movement from the anti-war movement in the US. They welcomed and highlighted the efforts of peace activists who came to Hanoi. The radical Islamists in Iraq are stunting the development of an antiwar movement. They are kidnapping and executing the very kind of people the Vietnamese welcomed and embraced.
[Last photo shows Harmeet Singh Sooden, a peace activist taken captive in Iraq.]