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Theirs But To Do and Die

Dien Bien Phu and the twilight of the warrior.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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I would like to emphasize that, in my opinion and insofar as the free world is concerned, the French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu are fighting a modern Thermopylae.

Theirs But To Do and Die

Photo Credit: Getty

—General Walter Bedell Smith,
Undersecretary of State, April 19, 1954

Caution and cynicism are safe, but soldiers don’t want to follow cautious cynics. They follow leaders who believe enough to risk failure or disappointment for a worthy cause.

—General Stanley McChrystal,
from his retirement remarks July 23, 2010

Marcel Bigeard, who died on June 18 at the age of 94, was a paragon of a new type of professional warrior that arose during the Cold War. For while the United States and the Soviet Union (and their many allies) built large-scale militaries for an eventual hot war, what came instead were proxy wars in places like Vietnam and the Congo. These did not require the technology-laden and discipline-heavy units prepared to fight in the Fulda Gap, but instead small, mobile units of soldiers dedicated to an intense operational tempo. And they required resourceful officers, able to adapt the methods of guerrillas and willing to lead by example. Bigeard, who rose from the ranks to four-star general, was such a soldier: emphasizing physical fitness and endurance, preferring to live rough with his men, and a master of the topography of battlegrounds. He refused to carry a weapon into combat, feeling his job was to lead not to fight. (In the U.S. Army, men like Charlie Beckwith, the founder of Delta Force, and Richard Meadows, leader of the Son Tay Raiders, had similar careers and maintain similar legends.) 

Bigeard thrived in the dirty war (guerre sale) of the postcolonial era, amassing an extraordinary combat record at the head of paratroop units he trained to fight in his image and helping to develop the most successful counter-insurgency strategies of the postwar era. Yet his obituaries this summer were dominated by a continuing dispute within France over the use of torture during the Battle of Algiers in 1957—action sanctioned by the French government of the day. Such is the fate of even the greatest warriors in the West’s post-military popular culture. Nations are no longer grateful to “The Glorious Dead,” and soldiers are no longer heroes. Yet this does not change the fact that Bigeard can be spoken of in the same breadth as men like Leonidas, John Chard, and Anthony McAuliffe: leaders whom soldiers followed to the extremes of endurance. What Bigeard and the rest of the “para mafia” did at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu should be remembered in the way that the 300 Spartans’ defense of the Hot Gates has stirred boys’ dreams for 2,500 years. Few do so remember it, but among their number are the American generals who have been prosecuting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu passed from history into legend almost the moment it ended in the early hours of May 8, 1954. Popular conception is that colonialism’s days in Indochina were numbered, and there was nothing French soldiers could have done to arrest the forces of history. The Indochina War that ebbed and flowed after 1945 tends to be presented as either a small episode in the story of postwar Asian nationalism or the opening act of a long war that ended in 1976. These are handy tales for textbook writers and newspaper columnists, but the facts don’t support them. Even a cursory study shows that Dien Bien Phu was a viable military gamble and one that the French came close to winning. Indochina might just as easily have been another Malaya as a precursor to U.S. failure in Vietnam. As so often when political issues are intertwined with military, hindsight is blind.

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