Historical Dictionary



To this day, communist party accounts of the Indochina war focus on the heroism of the combatants and the glorious victory that they achieved on the battlefields leading to Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954. For the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the victory of Dien Bien Phu is a vital chapter in the party’s inevitable march towards complete victory in 1975 (nhat dinh thang loi) and an integral part of its nationalist legitimacy.

With almost a million and a half dead by 1975, the party has confirmed George Mosse’s myth of the experience of war by creating an elaborate national cult in honour of its “fallen soldiers”, complete with shrines for martyrs, war cemeteries, and monuments. Through an array of official publications, school textbooks, and documentaries, the party not only defines but also controls the meaning of the war.

To challenge the heroic myth of war in communist Vietnam is thus to invite the wrath of the leadership. And yet a veteran of the Vietnam War, Bao Ninh, did just that in 1991, when he dared to write of the “sorrow” of war and the indescribable suffering it inflicted upon soldiers and civilians. Instead of speaking of heroism, Bao Ninh spoke of the ugliness of war, the bloody dismemberment of comrades hit by American shells. He even questioned whether the party’s wars were worth it all in the end as communism gave way to capitalism in the early 1990s. Caught off guard by one of its own soldiers, the party lashed out, aghast that this heroic soldier could speak of such things, but worried that his account could undermine the leadership’s control over the meaning of the war. Thirty years earlier, another veteran, Tran Dan, had tried to describe something of the “reality” of the battle violence he had witnessed as a soldier-artist at Dien Bien Phu. With an eye on the competing Vietnam taking form in the south after the Geneva Accords, the party made sure that his account of Dien Bien Phu, published in 1955, stayed on nationalist cue. When he began to stray, the party shut him down for thirty years.

Until very recently, to write about the “real” face of war in Vietnam, above all that of the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu, is to challenge the most powerful myth of the regime – heroic, sacred, patriotic resistance (cuoc khang chien than thanh). See also CAO BANG; EXPERIENCE OF WAR, DIEN BIEN PHU; MYTH OF WAR, FRANCE; NASAN.