General Vo Nguyen Giap’s most difficult decision in his life

Sleepless night

Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, 25/01/1954. The night before the final battle, it was very late but the Commander in Chief of Democratic Republic of Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap couldn’t rest even for a moment. His eyes were glued to the map of Muong Thanh Valley, where Vietnam’s grand army would enter a pitched battle with the French. Giap had planned to win the battle quickly, ‘in 3 days’, he thought, and ‘we will defeat the French once and for all, celebrating our victory as well as the Tet Holiday (Vietnam’s Traditional New Year Holiday, often between the end of January and the beginning of February).’The guiding strategy was ‘Speedy Offense, Quick victory’ (’Đánh nhanh, thng nhanh). Heavy artillery had been readily deployed on hills around Muong Thanh, aiming at French. Soldiers were fired up, raving for the order to start the battle, to rain fire down on the enemy. And yet, the intuition of 10 years experience in ‘People’s War’ was telling him something was amiss in his ostensibly perfect plan. He was now unsure about the plan.

Meditate and Decide

Gen. Giap thought of what President Ho Chi Minh entrusted him with before the General led the army to battlefield: “ Commander in Chief, this battle you are general afar on battlefield. We entrusted this battle to you, you can decide as you see fit without having to consult the Politburo. This is a very important battle, we must win. We must not be reckless or impatient. Take no undue risk, only fight when victory is assured. When victory isn’t assured, do not fight. Failure means losing everything.’ Losing this battle means losing everything. Is there any possibility that the ‘Speedy offense, Quick Victory’ strategy would crumble?

Recent briefings from his aide general only corroborated his reservation. From Gen. Le Trong Tan: “My job is to penetrate to Muong Thanh […] I am determined but to get the job done, I will have to successively break 3 lines of defenses”. Gen. Pham Kiet, after assessing the field in person, voiced his concerned in even more direct and curt manner: “ Brother Van (Gen. Giap’s nickname), I am from the artillery regiment. Our artillery is now deployed in a very exposed position in the field. In day time, for sure we won’t be able stand the firepower of the French. I seriously suggest you reconsider the plan.’ (Years later, Gen.Giap held Gen. Kiet in very high regard for his candour and dedication in Dien Bien: “Only Kiet dared say something like that”).

Giap discerned 3 major challenges in executing his plan of ‘Speedy Offense, Quick Victory’:

First, his army was not big enough or nor did it possess enough battle prowess to succeed in attacking complex system of entrenched fortification as such in Dien Bien Phu. Not long before then, at a medium size entrenched fortification in Na San, Vietnamese soldiers couldn’t defeat the French and suffered heavy casualty. To attack the complex system of successive entrenched fortification in Dien Bien Phu then was an unrealistic task.

Second, this battle would require smooth cooperation between infantry and artillery. Yet, Vietnamese Grand Army at that time had not had ample training. Many artillery officers were still very inept.

Third, Vietnamese soldiers up to that point had only been used to guerilla warfare, fighting at night in terrain conducive to camouflage. They had virtually zero experience in combatting in a pitched-battle in an open field. This put Giap at a great disadvantage, especially in Dien Bien Phu, where the French army was equipped with advance weaponry: aircrafts, artillery, and tanks; not to mentioned the complex entrenched fortification system that even Gen. John O’Daniel deemed ‘impregnable stronghold’ when visited.

Aware of those 3 great obstacles, Gen. Giap realized that continuing his plan of ‘Speedy Offense’, victory could not be assured, his army would be in great jeopardy. Almost all regular force of DRV was then concentrated at Dien Bien Phu for the last battle with the French. One wrong move now would radically affect the outcome of the Indochina War. This battle, if lost, would be the crushing and woeful end for Vietnam’s War for Independence against French Colonialist that had prolonged for 10 years. To Fight or Not to Fight? In the afternoon of 26 January 1954 after a serious discussion with his subordinates on the same day, General Vo Nguyen Giap made what he later recalled ‘the most difficult decision in my life as a general’: To Postpone the Offense. Giap concluded: “ To assure our highest principle of ‘Only Fight when victory is assured’, it is necessary to change our plan from ‘Speedy Offense, Quick Victory’ to ‘Persistent Attack, Stead Advance’. Now it is decided that the offense be postponed. Soldiers on all fronts are ordered to retreat to our assembly location, and our artillery be pulled downhill.’

Victory at all cost

With the new strategy of ‘Persistent Attack, Steady Advance’, Giap lost no time and hurriedly made all the possible preparation for the new plan in the following 46 days. Specifically:

  • His infantry started preparing for and practicing the new tactic of ‘Peeling Layers’. There would be no direct confrontation. Vietnamese would not attack head on. They would dig and create a complex system of communication trench close to French’s entrenched fortifications. From those trenches, Vietnamese would be able to effectively attack the French and mitigate casualty at the same time.
  • Giap re-formulated his artillery formation. Regiments of Artillery would now be deployed in more tenable position, under cellars invisible to the French.
  • Enlist the support of patriotic civilians to prepare food supply and other logistical necessities for a prolonged campaign.

After 46 days of preparation, seeing that the time is ripe. 5.05pm, 13th March 1954, Gen. Giap ordered the initiation of the campaign: “ The historical campaign now commences. Artillery, Fire, Fire with all your might, Fire relentlessly.” With the motto ‘the first battle must be a victory’, Giap won his first battle after 6 and a half hour of relentless attack. All the French’s artillery and infantry at Him Lam Hill (or Beatrice as the French called it) was annihilated. The next 55 days and nights, with no rest, Vietnamese Grand Army kept on its ‘Peeling Layers’ tactic, surrounding and destroying French fortifications, one by one. The communication trench system of Vietnam was akin to layers of rope strangling tighter and tighter to the neck of the French. And on 7th May 1954, the rope was tightened to the very headquarter of Gen. De Castries – French Chief Commander at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnamese Flag flying on the bunker of De Castries has become a symbol of the end of Colonialism, a triumph of The War for Independence of the nascent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The victory at Dien Bien Phu cemented General Vo Nguyen Giap place in the Pantheon for greatest general of all time in world history. All of that would have not happened, had Gen. Giap not reconsidered his plan and made a courageous but sensible decision that January night at Dien Bien Phu.

Lessons

Open-mindedness

An open mind, not too attached to or confident about any plan or strategy – that was the mindset of Gen. Giap in Dien Bien Phu 1954. This open and perceptive mindset enabled Giap to listen to the concern of his subordinate, – Gen. Pham Kiet, who directly went to the battlefield to assess the terrain. Kiet was the only one that dared demand his Commander in Chief to reconsider the ‘Speedy Offense’ plan. (though many generals later admitted they shared the same concern at the time). Later in his life, Giap valued highly what Gen. Kiet advised him, helping him re-evaluate the situation and making the necessary adjustment in offensive strategy. An open mind and the ability to listen to his subordinates was one decisive factor in Giap’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

In our daily business and in life, we all can learn from Giap’s openness. The following are several tactics that may help us keep our mind refreshed and open:

[+] Learn to listen to others’ opinion. Learn to listen and comprehend the feedback people give us, even when you are sure that you are right, and that the other person knows nothing about the issue at hand. Even then, listen and try to comprehend the point of view of the other person. Doing that benefits you in at least 3 ways. First, it helps you understand better the other person, which in turn helps you handle that person better. Second, it helps you view the situation from a different angle, thereby, more likely to come closer to reality. No one can be confident that he could see the big picture of a situation in an absolutely objective light. Third, no one can say that “I have never been wrong, never made mistake”. So listen and reflect, who knows you may very well be wrong.

[+] Learn to use ‘constructive pessimism’ or ‘pre-mortem analysis’. Optimism, hope, positive thinking is not bad. Without hope about the future, it would be incredibly hard to keep on going in this harsh life. However, we must not let optimism cloud our judgment or breed overconfidence in our plans in life. Very often, optimism lures us into wishful thinking, into dreaming of a happy ending, oblivious to the dangers looming on the horizon. Learn from Gen. Giap, tell yourself: ‘This battle I could still lose, I may very well lose everything after this.’ Meditate upon the worst possible scenarios, ponder all that hinders our way to victory. Then devise strategy to preempt or counter those obstacles. In that way, thinking about the bad things can be come a kind of ‘Constructive Pessimism’ that brings us closer to achieving our goals.

[+] Appreciate those who are brave enough to speak out the ugly and harsh reality. Every organization needs person like Gen. Pham Kiet. Even in our daily life, each of us also needs friends who are able of telling us what we don’t want to hear, helping us questioning what we believe and hold closely to our heart. We should appreciate those people and be ready to listen to what they have to say, and question even our deepest conviction.

Positioning and Timing

In his poem ‘Learning Chess’(it’s Chinese chess here), President Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam wrote:

“ Wrong move, two rooks are wasted.

  Right time, one pawn still succeeds.’

Ho Chi Minh meant: the position of a piece is of great importance, either on chessboard or in real life. In position of weakness, even if strong as a rook still perishes. Conversely, in a position of strength and when the time is ripe, even as weak as a pawn still can decide the victory. Giap’s decision at Dien Bien Phu came from a serious consideration of ‘Position’ and ‘Time’, the power dynamic between the Vietnamese and the French.

On 25 January 1954, from a quick glance one may have seen that Vietnam had more men than the French, the morale of Vietnamese soldiers were very high, indeed they were itching for battles. Victory was ostensibly apparent. To win in 3 days seemed a piece of cake. But Gen. Giap was perspicacious in that he didn’t indulge in dreaming of a happy ending. Instead, he accepted and scrutinized the reality against his army at the time: that although he had more men, the French was in a strong and impregnable defense position, ‘Speedy Offense, Quick Victory’ was therefore impossible. Accepting the reality that his army wasn’t yet strong enough to defeat the French, that the time wasn’t ripe yet, Giap bided his time and spent the next 46 days preparing for his new strategy of ‘Persistent Attack’ and the ‘Peeling Layers’ tactic. Only when his new strategy was well geared up, Giap decided to begin the battle in 13th March 1954. In a stronger position when the time was right, Vietnamese Grand Army attacked relentlessly in 56 days and nights to the final victory.

Each of us can learn and apply the lesson of ‘Position-Time’ to our daily life. Learn to ask yourself: What kind of position I am in now? What is the power dynamic between I and the opponent? Is my position advantageous in achieving my goal? Is my position one of weakness or one of strength? If you are weak, avoid combat, retreat and conserve your force. Make yourself stronger first. If you are strong, ask yourself: Has the propitious time with conditions that best leverage my position come yet? The propitious time comes when you are in a stronger position (abundant force, concentrated, high morale), the opponent in a weaker position (lacking force, scattered, low morale). The lesson of ‘Position-Time’ once again showcases that history of war can teach us many lessons applicable to our lives in peace time.

Pick Your Battle.

Carefully pick your battle. ‘To fight or not to fight’ is not a decision reserved only for Generals have to make life and death decision. Each of us in our daily life has to face the very similar choices: to engage or not to engage in an activity, to meet or not to meet a person, to argue and prove that you are right or keep quiet and do the work. The only difference is that our daily decision is not always about life and death. Gen. Giap was in a situation where failure means demise. Hence, in any plan he had to very carefully try to minimize the usage of ammunition, the loss of his men, avoiding pointless bloodshed. At a closer look, our daily life decisions are a bit similar to that of a general. Time, energy, and money are finite to anyone, if used without care, we’ll have none to use when the moment calls for: out of money – nothing to buy food, out of energy – can’t work or think of anything but to rest, out of time – deadline comes and the work unfinished.

Therefore each of us can learn from Gen.Giap about his motto of ‘Only fight when victory is assured.’ Don’t fight unnecessary war, don’t fight war where victory isn’t assured. Learn to ask yourself: If I won this battle, where would that lead me? If this got done, would it bring me closer to my goal or just to satisfy the momentary temptation? Is victory assured here? If lost, would I be able to recover?

If a battle doesn’t propel us to our desirable object, we won’t fight.

If the right time hasn’t come yet, we won’t fight.

In general, most of the cases, it is advisable to adapt the motto: ‘only fight when victory is assured’. However, there are certain situations when the time has come, or when the reward is too big to ignore. We may consider taking the risk, and employ ‘Speedy Offense, Quick Victory’. Victory can be achieved if ample preparation is made. But remember: accepting risk but never gambling. Taking risk means you have calculated that even in the worst scenarios, you can still recover and keep fighting. Gambling means you don’t foresee the peril of losing, and losing means you lose everything, being the end of you.

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