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The Invisible Country

A professor at Yale University and the Collège de France, a distinguished scholar of Southeast Asian civilization, Paul Mus died in 1969, his works almost unknown in France as well as the United States. His obscurity owed partly to the fact that his works did not fit into any current academic category, and a great deal to the fact that he simply did not care whether or not they were published. In the last few years he would refuse even to read over his own manuscripts, preferring to use his failing eyesight to continue writing. Hô Chi Minh, le Vietnam, l’Asie is the edited version of one of the dozens of handwritten manuscripts that were discovered in his study after his death. Annie Nguyen Nguyet Hô deserves considerable credit for her editing.

This book is about Vietnam only in the sense that Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? is about Vietnam. Mus’s subject is the intellectual landscape behind Ho Chi Minh and his revolution—a landscape that is largely invisible to Westerners. The book is a complement to Mus’s earlier work on the first Indochina war, Sociologie d’une guerre, but it is very different. A literary as well as a scholarly undertaking, it is less an intellectual history than a study of perception—an attempt to describe how the Vietnamese think about such central issues as legitimacy, historical continuity, democracy, and free will. Mus’s purpose is not to reduce Vietnamese culture to abstractions but to illuminate what actually happened during the Vietnamese revolution. What is the appeal of Ho Chi Minh to the Vietnamese? How have the Vietnamese assimilated Marxism-Leninism? For Mus the answers to these questions lie in the physical world and the culture that is lived rather than in the one consciously taught and learned about.

Because Vietnam lies at the crossroads—or the crossroads within the crossroads—of the two great Oriental civilizations, Mus, in order to reconstruct his landscape, has had to go back to sources as remote as Indian Buddhism, the rituals of ancestor worship, the structure of the Indonesian family, and the popular poetry of Ho Chi Minh’s native Nghe An province. Superficially the book seems to be a series of random reflections, but this is merely a measure of the breadth of Mus’s scholarship and his originality: the reader cannot see clearly where Mus is going until he has arrived. His book is full of brilliant distractions, or apparent distractions, such as a reinterpretation of the ways in which the Hindu gods are portrayed and a description of the ancient Chinese map of the world.

Mus was convinced that a Westerner is already lost from the beginning, that because the central ideas and symbols of Oriental thought have no direct equivalent in Western languages, to translate them correctly a Westerner must re-create the entire world from which those ideas and symbols come. The idea is hardly a new one to philosophers and anthropologists, but it is one that social scientists usually neglect in interpreting Oriental politics. As a result they tend either to miss the inner logic of events or to ignore those events which do not fit their own perspective. By reexamining—recreating—these central ideas and symbols, Mus clarifies such questions as the significance of Ho Chi Minh’s many aliases and the political differences between Mao Tse-tung, U Nu, and Ho Chi Minh. He also does much to explain the extraordinary strength of the Vietnamese resistance, ignorance of which permits Americans to speak of the “fanaticism” of the Vietnamese and to believe that they “put no value on human life.”

According to Mus one important source of that resistance is the view that the Vietnamese take of the relation between man and society. For the Vietnamese the individual is not an isolated being who travels through eternity in the metaphysical box of a “soul.” He is a part of his community, and his immortality comes from the continuous re-creation of that community on earth. The traditional Vietnamese community was, of course, the family—extended not only in life but in time through past and future generations. The rites of ancestor worship knitted the generations so that the relationship of uncle and nephew, of grandfather and grandson, represented not simply a progression but a unity in which the single term “ego” was merely a fraction of the whole. Mus quotes the formula of a French ethnologist: “Thanks to the rites, the Vietnamese believe in the dead—while Westerners believe only in death.” The ego lives as long as the continuity is maintained.

When Ho Chi Minh took on the familiar title bac or “uncle”—bac means the elder brother of the father, the respected head of the family—he was doing something very important. He was, as Mus shows, establishing the traditional relation of succession and unity, only in a different form: the nephews and nieces implied by the term bac included not merely his blood relatives but all of his countrymen. In doing so he was, as Mus writes, “decoding the Marxist revolution for the Vietnamese.” Ho was “rectifying names,” and his new name implied both a theory of history (revolution as a natural progression, the old society giving birth to the new) and a political doctrine (sovereignty resides with all the people, not just those of a certain family). In the future, or so Ho Chi Minh proposed, the community and the transmission belt of immortality would no longer be the family bound by the practice of ancestor worship but all the people bound by the practice of Marxism.

When they made “estimates of the Vietnamese Communists’ will to continue,” US officials would have done well to consider the analysis of Paul Mus. For, as he suggests, there is a superhuman, though not a supernatural, aspect to the Vietnamese resistance. Those who have accepted Ho Chi Minh’s political transformation see their fulfillment as individuals and their immortality as dependent on the survival of the community that has emerged from Marxist revolution. Conversely, the defeat of the resistance would mean alienation and a break in history for its members—a final, collective death for the dead as well as the survivors. American officials have counted every supply truck and measured every mile of roadway in North Vietnam, but they have never considered what is at stake for the Vietnamese.

In fact US officials will be more likely to read Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An, since, unlike the books by Marr and Mus, it deals directly with US policies in Vietnam. The book is an attempt to explain the success of the revolutionary movement from 1954 to 1968 by comparing the strategies of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Saigon government, and the United States. Race wisely concentrates on one critical province southwest of Saigon, but much of his analysis bears on the entire conflict in the South. His analysis is somewhat misleading—like one’s desk when someone else has cleaned it up, it has a tidiness that conceals a fundamental disorder. But there is still much to be learned from his book.

For those who consider Vietnam something more than a US policy question, by far the most important part of the book is its history of Long An province from 1954 to 1965 as seen both by the Communist Party cadre and by Saigon government officials. Race rightly warns that much of it is “journalistic material,”3 and his narrative contains some debatable points.4 But he has written a revealing account of the issues in the province and the outlook of the principal actors in the conflict. His interviews with the province chiefs of the Saigon government (who were then Diemist) are the most original part of his research. While the RAND Corporation and the like have interviewed thousands of NLF members, few American researchers have ever listened to the views of those people the US claims to support. The Saigon government officials are, in every sense, the lost people of the war. Race shows great sympathy for them even as he demonstrates how mistaken or irrelevant their views were.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, Race says, had “a comprehensive view of revolution as a stage-by-stage social process” based on such concepts as those of class, of contradiction, and of social force. These concepts, in his view, permitted its leaders to understand the balance of power not merely as a crude ratio of armed forces but as a sophisticated equation that included such factors as the economic situation, the quality of social organization, the state of morale, and the relations among the great world powers. In light of this analysis the party put forward redistributive social policies, such as land reform and a bureaucratic system of promotion by merit, that led a decisive proportion of the society to support them and allowed them to carry their armed struggle to victory without using outside force.

Race’s analysis of party strategies should not come as any surprise to serious students of revolution or Marxism-Leninism, for it deals with few attitudes and methods that are peculiarly Vietnamese. Yet his study is valuable in view of all the garbage that has been written about Vietnam, not only in the press but in documents marked “secret” and “top secret.” Race’s analysis at least permits him to refute most of the usual official shibboleths—particularly those explanations that assign communist success to a single cause: whether “the use of terror,” or “underdevelopment,” or “corruption in government.”

It also permits him to show the contradictions within the US-GVN counterinsurgency strategies. Race points out that the aim of conventional warfare is to destroy the enemy armed forces and to prevent their regeneration by cutting off their access to recruitment and resupply. The aim is a plausible one when the two armies draw on territorially and socially distinct bases, but it is not a winning strategy when there is a single recruitment and supply base, and that base has already been captured by the enemy. Without any social strategy to recapture this base, the US-GVN concepts of “security,” “control,” and “pacification” in Long An entailed the logically impossible task of concentrating all military forces everywhere at once.

The question Race’s book raises is, of course, how so many otherwise intelligent men—Vietnamese and Americans—managed to invent such nonsensical counterinsurgency theories and to propagate them for more than two decades. While Race does not answer that question directly, the titles of his two analytical chapters, “Lessons from Long An” and “Ignoring the Lessons,” suggest he believes they could have used some advice. Near the end of his book he states flatly that there were other strategies the Saigon government and the United States could have followed—the strategies of the Communist Party in Long An.

This suggestion is astonishing, for, unlike General Edward Lansdale, Sir Robert Thompson, and other professional tinkerers with the Saigon government, Race does not merely mean that ARVN soldiers should have been dressed up like Front cadre or that a new police force should have been organized. He suggests that the entire communist social and political program, as he interprets it, should have been adopted by the GVN. Taken to its not very distant conclusion, his argument is simply that the GVN officials ought to have turned communist and the American officials (for he completely ignores national distinctions when he discusses policy making) ought to have turned Vietnamese communist.

This absurdity—so startling in the midst of what appears to be a lucid explanation of why the counterrevolution could not succeed—illuminates the central error of Race’s approach. He sees the conflict as an essentially intellectual problem amenable to an intellectual solution. His analysis of the revolutionary strategies assumes that the Communist Party deduced its social policies—its land reform, its championship of the poor—from its theory of how to win a revolutionary war. The revolutionaries were more successful than the Saigon government, by his account, largely because they used a “preemptive” strategy, capturing the allegience of the countryside, as opposed to a “reinforcement” strategy. Here Race has not only got the cart dragging the horse but the cart dragging an imaginary horse. Revolutionaries do not create the dispossessed, but vice versa, and the purpose of revolutionaries is to make a revolution, not to defeat a counter-revolution.

Similarly, counterrevolutionaries do not adopt revolutionary strategies not because they are too stupid to do so but because it is contrary to their interests. This disregard for the facts leads Race to some odd contradictions, but allows him to avoid concluding that the US government has been guilty of something more serious than stupidity. Race says, for instance, that the Saigon government represented a tiny minority and that even in the years 1954-1958 it had little control over the countryside. How it has managed to survive for all these years remains a mystery in his book, for nowhere does Race mention the decisive factor of American aid or discuss the impact of the American presence on the Vietnamese.

Race concludes with the following sentence: “A decade and a half of killing and destruction in Long An provides evidence of the superhuman sacrifices which some men…will endure to redress their deprivation; yet it also provides a melancholy example of the lengths other men will go…to perpetuate their privilege.” This is all the recognition the soldiers of the Saigon government get for fighting an American-directed war. Had Race acknowledged the economic and military hold of the United States over Vietnam or the nationalist appeal of the revolutionaries, he might have arrived at a simpler explanation for US-GVN theories and strategies. That is: with the decisive majority of the Vietnamese opposing their foreign-supported government, the US fought the war in the only way it could—by attacking the “supply and manpower base” of both Vietnamese armies.

Similarly the US officials concerned with Vietnam have explained the war in the only way available to them as officials. To have admitted, as Race does, that the Vietnamese revolutionaries in Long An had gained the support of the population would have been to acknowledge the immorality of their own undertaking. To have replaced the nonsense words “security,” “pacification,” and “development” with the real names for US policies would have been to acknowledge the commission of war crimes as defined at Nuremberg.

Letters

Common Sense February 8, 1973

  1. 3

    Unfortunately he does not introduce a similar caveat when he uses GVN statistics.

  2. 4

    One of these points is his contention that the higher echelons of the Communist Party delayed its directive to initiate the armed struggle until it was almost too late for the lower echelons. When the directive finally came in 1959, the Diem regime (so Race argues) had nearly destroyed the Long An party chapter, and there was much resentment within the party ranks.

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