One of the greatest
Ten days ago, one of the greatest military commanders of the 20th century passed away at the age of 102. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of Vietnamese forces against the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and an architect of the Tet Offensive against US forces in 1968, defeated two Western powers both possessing superior technology, equipment and complete mastery of the air over the battlefield.
With no formal martial training, he was considered by many as a brilliant military strategist who played a pivotal role in the decades-long fight for Vietnamese independence.
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In March 1954, I was a yearling (second year) cadet at the Philippine Military Academy. We didn’t get much news from the outside world in those days. For one thing, we were quite busy with academics or military training activities such as preparations for our familiarization trip to various installations in the country. Reading newspapers was a luxury of time that was reserved for more important things such as writing letters to girlfriends.
But I remember listening to news reports being shouted by the plebes at the mess hall and, for the first time, I heard about Dien Bien Phu. Apparently French forces in northwestern Vietnam were trapped in a place called Dien Bien Phu by Vietnamese independence fighters known as “Vietminh” led by a little known figure Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.
The French, under the command of Col. Christian de Castries had organized their defenses in a valley by setting up several strong points each allegedly named after former mistresses of De Castries (This particular report is probably fictional but it makes for interesting reading.) Because of these defense positions, the Vietnamese baptized the French garrison as the “Dien Bien Phu porcupine.”
When I visited Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, known as the Paris of the Orient, in 2011, I purchased a book written by General Giap: “Dien Bien Phu—Rendezvous With History.” In his memoirs, Giap mentions American efforts to assist the French in their predicament at Dien Bien Phu. He cites a passage in Richard Nixon’s own memoirs “No More Vietnams”: “Admiral Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that we use 60 B-29 bombers in the Philippines in night raids to destroy the Vietminh positions. He also devised a plan known as Operation Vulture, for accomplishing the same objective with three small tactical atomic bombs.” In the end, President Eisenhower decided to stop Operation Vulture.
After 55 days—from March 13 to May 7 (1954)—of continuous bombardment by Vietnamese artillery that had been hauled up to high ground overlooking Dien Bien Phu, the French surrendered, with their artillery commander, a certain Col. Charles Piroth, committing suicide for his inability to inflict counterfire on the Vietnamese batteries.
The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu meant the end of French influence in Indochina. It resulted in the partitioning of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Two countries emerged: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) and the State of Vietnam (South).
Twenty years later, the country would be reunited with the defeat of US and South Vietnamese forces. General Giap would describe the 1968 Tet Offensive that would signal the beginning of the end for the South Vietnamese government not as a purely military strategy but as an integrated military, political and diplomatic move that severely tested the will of the American people to continue supporting the conflict. As mentioned earlier, the architect of victory would again be General Giap.
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General Giap’s death has triggered mourning in Vietnam not seen since Ho Chi Minh passed away 40 years ago. According to Vietnamese government regulations, only people who held the very top positions are entitled to a National Funeral. An exception was made for General Giap, who was a step below as deputy prime minister. A two-day mourning period was declared (Oct 12-13). All high government officials including 60 general officers were in attendance at the funeral services.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, in a statement, said: “Giap was a great Vietnamese patriot, loved and respected by all his people for the prominent role he played in the independence of his country.” The government of Singapore expressed sadness on the passing of General Giap, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sending his condolences to his Vietnamese counterpart, Premier Nguyen Tan Dung.
It is not too late for our Department of Foreign Affairs to honor a distinguished Asian freedom fighter.
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During my career in government service, both in the military and civilian branches, I have been most fortunate in the choice of assistants who provided support and strength in the performance of our duties and responsibilities.
When President Cory Aquino appointed me commanding general of the Philippine Air Force in 1986, I had as my senior aide a young lieutenant belonging to PMA Class 1981. I did not know him personally, but I sensed that he was a professional who would be able to serve me just as he had done for others in similar assignments. I was proven right in my estimation and even after I had left the military service, he continued to assist me in many ways, both official and personal.
Today Maj. Gen. Edgardo Rene Samonte retires from the Philippine Air Force, capping a distinguished career as commander of the Air Education and Training Command based in Fernando Air Base, Lipa City. He leaves behind two sons who have chosen to follow in his footsteps: Lt. Ryan Samonte is a Scout Ranger with the Philippine Army, while Lt. Renmar Samonte is a student officer at the PAF Flying School, learning how to fly like his father.
Rene’s retirement reminds me of my other assignments. As Customs commissioner, I had several assistants who later turned out to be excellent administrators in government positions of great responsibility: Willie Parayno, Bienvenido Alano, and Romy Malig, all from the Philippine Navy, were the best and the brightest that anyone in a sensitive post like Customs could hope for.
As well, in my foreign service stint in Jakarta, Indonesia, I had two vice consuls who rose through the ranks and became ambassadors: Marilyn Alarilla recently retired as our envoy to Turkey, while Vic Lecaros is the newly appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic.
A few good men in government.
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