A first-hand insight into Vietnam's long revolutionary struggle

The 30 Year War: Memoirs of War
The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2009. 709pp.
Available from all Direct Action offices for $20.

It’s often said that history is written by the victors. But when it comes to the histories of the Vietnam War, it seems the Vietnamese side of the story remains peripheral in the West — in the litany of History Channel documentaries, museums and memorials and in the plethora of Father’s Day-angled military books that have just been published.

Take Sydney-based military historian Paul Ham’s new book, Vietnam: The Australian War. Its starting point is an apparent need to reassert Australia’s role in Vietnam, what he calls “the little-reported ‘Australian war’” and particularly “the big Australian battles — at Long Tan, Coral and Balmoral”. The Vietnamese figure only occasionally, and there’s no mention of their 80-year long struggle against French occupation that preceded Australian troops deploying in the country.

This US-allied-centric view of the conflict is reflected more generally in what is popularly understood in the West as “the Vietnam War”. For Vietnamese, of course, there was no “Vietnam War”. There was “the 30-year war”, which was in fact a series of anti-occupation wars beginning in 1945 in the wake of Japanese occupation with the newly established Vietnamese republic’s war against French reoccupation and culminating in final liberation for the entire country and complete US military withdrawal in 1975. The Vietnamese liberation forces faced an array of belligerent interfering and occupying forces during this period.

How refreshing it is to read a book that so thoroughly tells the Vietnamese side of this epic revolutionary struggle. The book’s reissue is also very timely. Its pertinence is both in relation to the comparisons being made between the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also in relation to the important anniversaries that occur this year.

Current debate

The similarities and differences between these US-led wars are currently at the centre of an important debate. Imperialism’s commander in chief, Barack Obama, told US Military Academy cadets at West Point on December 1: “There are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilised, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history.”

However, a growing chorus of military experts and advisers are now convinced that Obama is wrong — that the comparison is not only legitimate but also urgently needs to be understood. Take the paper “Saigon 2009” published in the August 20 edition of Military Review by Department of National Security Affairs Professor Thomas Johnson and Center for Advanced Defense Studies senior fellow Chris Mason. They argue: “Afghanistan is today’s Vietnam. No question mark needed. For those who say that comparing the current war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War is taking things too far, here’s a reality check: It’s not taking things far enough.

“For eight years, the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military re-enactment of the Vietnam war and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events is deeply disturbing.”

Political and diplomatic struggles too

The 30 Year War is written by 21 well-informed Vietnamese veterans and military insiders who capture the complexity not just of the long military campaigns but also the political and diplomatic struggle against the backdrop of the Cold War. The book’s descriptions of the international diplomatic efforts to extract concessions from the belligerents, overseen by Ho Chi Minh himself, is compelling.

I read the book at the same time as Perfect Spy, a biography of Time magazine Vietnam War correspondent Pham Xuan, who was a spy for the liberation movement who fed information from the US war room directly to General Giap and the National Liberation Front high command. Both books reveal the tremendous bravery and cunning of Vietnamese revolutionary military and political strategy and put to rest any misconception that the Vietnamese were just pawns on the Cold War chessboard.

In a riveting chapter entitled “A Big Trap”, for example, The 30 Year War describes the battle of Khe Sanh in early 1968, in which the liberation forces lured the allied military command into a false security that they had managed to build up and fortify an outpost in north central Vietnam when in reality the camp was being encircled and cut off.

The book offers a unique first-hand insight into Vietnam’s long fight for national liberation, justice and socialism. If I had to make any criticism, it would be that it is too detailed. You can be reading in-depth battle descriptions and have to read back to clarify who’s fighting who, when, where and how. It was perhaps written for a Vietnamese audience more acquainted with the history and political concepts, and the translation is in parts convoluted. Despite this, the book is revealing and instills an admiration for the Vietnamese people’s heroism and determination. Their struggle was an inspiration to oppressed and exploited peoples the world over. Its triumph was truly a victory for all humanity. This book elucidates the tenacity of that struggle.