BOOK REVIEW / Lord of the jungle: Giap: The victor in Vietnam - Peter Macdonald: Fourth Estate, pounds 17.99

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TWENTY years ago Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho finally agreed ceasefire terms in Paris, bringing to an end the massive and prolonged US military intervention in Vietnam.

By the end of March 1973, all US troops had been withdrawn. Two years later Saigon was overrun by a disciplined Communist horde. The snuffing out of a few 'reactionary' enclaves apart - the last surrendered as late as 1992 - the Vietnam wars were over. Further conflicts lay in store: against the Khmer Rouge in 1978, and a Chinese punitive expedition in 1979. But by then the main issue, the independence of a unified Vietnam, was secure.

The Communist success was very largely the success of a closely knit team of all-stars, masterminded by Ho himself: Le Duan, Party Secretary and top dog after Ho's death; Prime Minister Pham Van Dong; the ideologue Truong Chinh; Le Duc Tho; and, of course, Vo Nguyen Giap, the strong right arm of the revolution. For more than 25 years Giap not only directly commanded the army, but also masterminded the unflagging guerrilla warfare that wore down his opponents. To him belonged the laurels of Dien Bien Phu and a host of lesser engagements. He licked the French, then busted the Americans. He has rightly been dubbed the doyen of Third World strategists.

Two remarkable facts strike one immediately. Born in Annam in 1912, Giap did not put on a uniform until he was gone 30. Second, until now, there has been no attempt at a full biography, but then, as Brigadier Peter Macdonald - 30 years in bomb disposal - acknowledges, there are intrinsic difficulties.

Mainly these have to do with the Confucian ethos that pervades Vietnamese socialism. This hybrid culture encourages neither anecdotes nor meaningful analysis of its revered leaders. For any profile we are dependent mainly on Vietnamese publications. Although many of these, including a string of monographs by Giap himself, have been translated, they are nearly all written in a heroic mode that admits of little or no criticism.

There are further problems. Even in Giap's classic exposition Dien Bien Phu, the hand of ideological correctness sits heavy on the page - early editions praise the Chinese for their support; later editions withdraw that.

Macdonald gives us what there is, but about Giap himself he tells us little that is new. What his book does achieve, in a good soldierly survey, is the most accessible account to date of the workings of the Communist forces. Dien Bien Phu, Tet, Khe San are well rehearsed; but of greater interest are Macdonald's forays into the structure and tactics both of the North Vietnamese army and of the guerrilla units operating outside the cities. These are tellingly fleshed out with veteran reminiscences which the author has gathered in situ.

Yet even within the necessarily confined scope of its enquiry, Giap has its shortcomings. There are curious lacunae. Giap's stunning 'Colonial Route 4' campaign of 1950, which prevented the French cutting off his Chinese supplies, is skimmed, while his equally vitalising victory at Hoa Binh is glossed in half a sentence. Conversely, a series of savage defeats inflicted by the French in 1951, when Giap's regulars palpably overreached themselves, are also given short shrift.

At times, too, Macdonald is cavalier with established fact. To give but one example, he tells us that in October 1955 'the majority of South Vietnamese voted that they should remain separate'. In fact, the referendum stipulated by the Geneva Accords never took place. The vote he refers to was about who should become head of state, President Diem or the Emperor Bao Dai.

The author also makes extensive use of previously published materials. Although he provides a bibliography, quotations in his text are unattributed. For the serious reader this can cause only annoyance. None the less, although Macdonald's book is in places less than scholarly, it still augments our knowledge of what went on, especially among the rank and file, behind the bamboo curtain.