Saturday, February 7, 2009

Vietnamese Asceticism and Western Success

In the early days of any Communist regime, ascetics abounded. We in the West call them fanatics, but that isn’t always fair. Consider the PAVN, the People’s Army of Vietnam, when they were first being formed and heading toward their battle against the French at Dienbienphu. The following is from Jules Roy,’s La Bataille de Dien Bien Phu, 1963, translated in 1965 by Robert Baldick:

Page 102, discussing events of December 5, 1953: “Covering twenty miles a day, or fifty by night, the Vietminh divisions were advancing rapidly toward Dienbeienphu, marching along the sides of the road . . . Each soldier carried his weapon, sometimes a nonrecoil gun or a mortar tripod, a bag, a thirty-pound bundle of rice slung over one shoulder, his individual shovel, water bottle and a little salt in a bamboo tube. He marched from dawn to sunset, or vice versa, with ten minutes’ rest every hour. At night the distance covered was exhausting. On arrival, he dug trenches in which to take shelter and sleep, after washing his feet in a bowl of hot salt water. Not all the soldiers had footwear; many of them, like the porters, had only sandals cut out of tires, which sometimes hurt them. To drive away sleep and fatigue, they sang old songs devoid of the slightest suggestion of smuttiness. If it rained, they naturally chose the rain song with its refrain:

It is raining, our clothes are wet,

“But not our hearts.”

“If they met or passed a column of women porters, there would be an explosion of gaiety. The two parties would call out to each other, improvise verses and make jokes. Girls would shout, ‘Is my husband with you?’; point to certain soldiers, exclaiming joyfully, ‘There he is!’; and then, shamming vexation, go off sadly to the accompaniment of laughter. When two such columns halted together, the river bathing, the bivouacs and the nocturnal encounters were characterized by an astonishing innocence. It was like an outing of seminarists meeting a party of young nuns. Their church was a total devotion, body and soul to the fatherland, the sole object of love. In the People’s Army, the soldiers’ language, commonplace by nature and not given to sublimating the reasons for fighting, resembled that of children playing at war; the only sentiments expressed in it were a flawless discipline and a boyish fervor. If every group of porters wanted to deserve the roll of honor, every soldier’s ambition was to sacrifice himself. One begins by smiling, but ends up impressed by the results of this indoctrination.”


It is easy to admire such people and such sentiments. One can even excuse Westerners like Chomsky from getting caught up in the asceticism and dedication of these soldiers, But time has passed and we can see that what they brought to pass wasn’t worth all that dedication. They succeeded against the French and later against the Americans, but then, when it was all in their governments hands, they failed. Their government became Stalinistic in its brutality while the Vietnamese people starved. Consider the following New York Times Article written by Seth Mydans and posted April 13, 2000: He assesses the changes in the 25 years since the Vietnames war ended. Of course that should be clarified as 25 years since the Vietnamese fought against a Western nation. America gave up and pulled out, but the Vietnamese still fought “as it occupied Cambodia and fought off a punitive attack by China.”

Notice the photo of old Vietnamese soldiers in uniforms they presumably wore years ago seeming (at least to me) to look bewildered at what Vietnam had become.

Mydans writes, “The next difficult step for Vietnam in its reintegration into the larger world is the signing of a trade agreement with the United States that embodies the free-market prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund. It would open Vietnamese markets to perhaps $800 million a years in new investment and send a signal that Hanoi is ready once again to do business with the world.”

We know the pattern. Communism doesn’t work. All the admirable asceticism in the world isn’t going to make Communism work. The article at one point describes Vietnam as one of the poorest nations in the world with a per capita yearly income of $360 a year. This is an old article. Things have changed, and even if we didn’t know what they were, we could guess. Communism doesn’t work. If a nation wants to improve and become more successful, it needs to “Westernize.” Consider the following from the CIA Factbook:

“Since 2001, Vietnamese authorities have reaffirmed their commitment to economic liberalization and international integration. They have moved to implement the structural reforms needed to modernize the economy and to produce more competitive export-driven industries. Vietnam's membership in the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and entry into force of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in December 2001 have led to even more rapid changes in Vietnam's trade and economic regime. Vietnam's exports to the US increased 900% from 2001 to 2007. Vietnam joined the WTO in January 2007 following over a decade long negotiation process. WTO membership has provided Vietnam an anchor to the global market and reinforced the domestic economic reform process. Among other benefits, accession allows Vietnam to take advantage of the phase-out of the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, which eliminated quotas on textiles and clothing for WTO partners on 1 January 2005. Agriculture's share of economic output has continued to shrink from about 25% in 2000 to less than 20% in 2008. Deep poverty has declined significantly and is now smaller than that of China, India, and the Philippines. Vietnam is working to create jobs to meet the challenge of a labor force that is growing by more than one-and-a-half million people every year. The global financial crisis, however, will constrain Vietnam's ability to create jobs and further reduce poverty. As global growth sharply drops in 2009, Vietnam's export-oriented economy - exports were 68% of GDP in 2007 - will suffer from lower exports, higher unemployment and corporate bankruptcies, and decreased foreign investment. Real GDP growth for 2009 could fall between 4% and 5%. Inflation, which reached nearly 25% in 2008, will likely moderate to single digits in 2009.”

Vietnam is suffering economically as all nations are today, but the per capita yearly income was listed at $2,800 in 2008, and whatever it becomes in 2009, no one, I am quite sure, is going to advocate that Vietnam de-Westernize and return to a Communist economy. They are going to weather this recession like every other nation and get on with their plan to “succeed.”.

And so what would those uniformed Vietnamese veterans think today? Would they think they fought against the U.S. for nothing? In a certain sense it would seem so. We didn’t really want to fight against the Vietnamese, we just wanted them not to be Communist, and now, though they are still technically a Communist State, they bear little resemblance to the regime that was responsible for the Stalinist ruthlessness that alarmed us and the French before us years ago. Their government wants to enter into Western Success without giving up what they consider good about their Socialism. Good luck. No one has managed that very well so far. To become really successful, a nation needs to give up its totalitarian ways and allow the people to do what they like with their time and money, even if some of the things they do are not at all ascetic.

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