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
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.
Photo Credit: Getty
—General Walter Bedell Smith,
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,
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.
The French in Indochina cooperated with the Japanese during World War II—taking their orders from far-off Vichy. In March 1945, the Japanese, fearing an Allied invasion, suddenly interned the French troops and administrators and took over the country’s defense. Ho Chi Minh had been sent by Mao to build up the Indochinese Communist party in 1941. He conceived of the Viet-Minh (a shortening of the words for “League for the Independence of Vietnam”) as a nationalist front for the Communists to hide behind until the French and Japanese had been defeated. Ho got arms from OSS operatives by promising to fight the Japanese, but all his efforts went toward organizing his cadres and assassinating nationalists who might potentially prove a rival to the Communists. They moved swiftly when the war ended, marching armed bands into Hanoi and proclaiming themselves the national government. The French had no trouble reestablishing themselves in the south of the country and outright war between the Viet-Minh and the French broke out in December 1946, when Ho ordered his troops to attack the French installations in Hanoi. He based his calculations on the Socialist party, which he assumed would be sympathetic to his aims, having come to power in Paris. He was wrong, and French troops rapidly routed the Viet-Minh in and around Hanoi.
So began the first phase of the war. The fighting was bloody and constant, but by 1948 the insurgency was waning. Ho and his main general, Vo Nguyen Giap, were reduced to hit-and-run tactics and acts of terror, but they weren’t wiped out and were invigorated with the Communist victory in China. Mao and Stalin both offered full support to the insurgency. Materiel and advisers poured in, and Viet-Minh soldiers were trained in China and organized into real divisions. In 1949, French troops were suddenly facing soldiers in steel helmets and armed with light artillery. That was the year, moreover, that the war became controversial in France itself. The Fourth Republic was unstable—20 heads of state between 1947 and 1958 and periods without any executive at all. In the wake of Mao’s victory, France’s powerful Communist party began to organize opposition to the war in Indochina: Stories of supposed French atrocities ran in its papers; dock workers refused to load ships bound for Indochina; and the party-adopted slogan—“Not one man, not one sou”—appeared as graffiti.
In the fall of 1950, Giap’s troops scored their first victories in a sequence of attacks on the French forts along the border with China. Vietnam was a difficult battleground for a modern army. The country had a primitive road network, much of which dissolved during the long rainy season. It became dense jungle just a few miles outside of even the largest cities. The hills were vast canopies of forest, and the unforested plains networks of streams and rivers. French troops and supply columns could not leave the roads and made easy targets for all-but-invisible guerrillas. The battles around Cao Bang were products of this environment—and of martinet French generals far away in Hanoi who kept insisting that preset plans be followed despite the changing circumstances. Of the 5,807 French troops in action, only 1,338 survived. The French pulled back completely from the border, giving the Viet-Minh control of Northern Tonkin. This proved the most disastrous decision of the war, allowing the free flow of arms and aid from China to the Viet-Minh.
So began the second phase of the war, and France’s response was to appoint its best general (though the third offered the command), Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Presented with the job by the defense minister, de Lattre replied, “I have nothing to gain and everything to lose, and that is why I accept.” He set up a fortified line defending the Red River Delta—home to the vast majority of the people in the north—to deny the Viet-Minh access to the villages where they collected supplies and money while creating mobile columns to hunt down the insurgents. De Lattre also set about building a self-sufficient local army. By 1953, the Vietnamese National Army would be 200,000 strong and holding down much of the south (with a further 128,000 people serving in the militias and police). There were also 100,000 native Vietnamese in the French army itself as de Lattre focused initially on recruiting them into regular French units as a way of training soldiers who could form the backbone of a disciplined force. (Such troops would make up a third of the soldiers fighting at Dien Bien Phu.)
After the successes of Cao Bang, Giap thought that 1951 would be the year of the “counteroffensive.” In January, he attacked at Vinh Yen; in March at Mao Khe, and in May along the Day River in the twin battles of Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh. In each case, de Lattre’s mobile forces inflicted heavy casualties—kill ratios running at ten to one. Giap’s “General Offensive” was a disaster, and the Viet-Minh returned to guerrilla tactics. While the French victories were good for morale and garnered positive headlines—de Lattre was a press-savvy general—they did little to improve the overall situation. The de Lattre Line was porous. The French simply did not have enough men to deny the Viet-Minh access to the population of the delta. And de Lattre, who had done so much to hearten the French effort in Indochina, was dying of cancer. He had to be relieved in December 1951, after just one year in command, and died on January 11, 1952.
His successor, Raoul Salan, maintained the strategy but with little of the active leadership that had made it work, and the manpower issues grew ever more severe. Throughout 1952, the French looked for battles where they could inflict heavy casualties on the enemy, but for the most part they remained trapped in their static positions—they had more than 900 fortified positions in the country, employing 84,000 soldiers. Each had to be supplied, and every relief column was targeted on one or another “Ambush Alley” or “Street Without Joy.”
The final phase of the war began in May 1953 with the appointment of Henri Navarre as commander in chief in Indochina. He was met in Saigon by an old academy chum whose first words were, “What are you doing in this shithouse?” Navarre’s assignment was not to win the war, but to create the conditions for an honorable peace. He needed to take the offensive using his best troops while continuing to stand up the Vietnamese National Army. What had bedeviled French commanders was the inability to bring their heavy advantages in firepower to bear against larger Viet-Minh units. In late November and December 1952, French paratroopers had achieved a major success at Na San in the High Region where a heavily reinforced airstrip—a base aéro-terrestre, generally called a hedgehog—had held out against heavy assault. A sequence of fortified positions offered dense fields of fire, and the airstrip allowed continual resupply. Na San had been irresistible to Giap, and he committed enough troops to allow the aggressive defenders to score a major victory. The hedgehog seemed to offer a way to meet the Viet-Minh on its own terrain without sacrificing the French military advantages.
Navarre knew that Giap would take the offensive in the spring and feared that Laos would be the objective. (In its endless political maneuvering to maintain a pretense of offering national determination, the French had just signed a mutual defense treaty with the nominally independent Laos and such calculations were a part of Navarre’s burden.) He eventually settled on a massive version of the Na San hedgehog on the open plain around Dien Bien Phu (the words mean “Big Frontier Administrative Center”) in the Nam Yum River Valley on the Laos border. It was to be the bait for a trap for Giap’s best divisions. On November 20, 1953, paratroopers were dropped on Dien Bien Phu and began building a base. Around a central airstrip were Centers of Resistance (CRs), each bearing a woman’s name, from Anne-Marie to Isabelle, and each in turn containing small supporting fortified entrenchments called by number—Eliane 1-12, Huguette 1-7, and so on. Dien Bien Phu was not intended as an all or nothing gamble for the future of Indochina. It was a gesture toward Laos, bait for the Viet-Minh, and a base for offensive operations that might relieve pressure on the delta. Navarre’s plans still pointed toward 1955 as the year of stalemate when he hoped to have enough Vietnamese troops to reinforce the idea that while the French might not be able to defeat the Viet-Minh, they could hold the country indefinitely.
Navarre had been prophetic in his decision to fight in the highlands. Giap had already sent two of his five divisions to campaign in Laos, and they were quickly moved to the hills around Dien Bien Phu. A captain in the Foreign Legion wrote home to his wife, describing the base as “an immense stadium twenty kilometers long and eight wide. The stadium belongs to us, the bleachers in the mountains to the Viets.” By the end of December, there were 12,000 French troops at Dien Bien Phu (including, in classic French style, two Bordels Mobiles de Campagne, “mobile field bordellos,” one for the French soldiers and one for the Vietnamese). Giap initially planned to make an assault on the base in the last week of January, just as soon as his troops and supplies were in place. But he held back. With the encouragement of his Chinese “advisers”—they had to approve every decision Giap made—he concluded that this was now the crucial battleground. The French could not easily evacuate their troops over such a distance. Time was on the Viet side. Giap resolved to concentrate all his forces and materiel in hopes of winning a large conventional battle.
Dien Bien Phu was 500 miles from the Chinese border: too far, Navarre and his officers had felt, for even the able Viet-Minh to drag artillery pieces and set up the supply lines to maintain a large army in the field. They thought they would have the advantage thanks to airpower. Yet it proved impracticable to supply such a large base so far forward. It was 185 miles from the French airfields in Tonkin, at the limits of many planes’ range, and morning fog cut the available flying hours. Delivering the supplies necessary to build the Dien Bien Phu hedgehog to military standards to withstand sustained artillery fire would have required 12,000 sorties by the entire French airfleet in Indochina—five months of flying. And lack of planes was a problem from the first; the original paratroop drop was done in two waves as there weren’t enough C-47s to drop both battalions simultaneously.
The French overestimated not only their planes’ ability to supply the base, but much more their ability to hamper the Viet-Minh supply chain. French intelligence estimated that Giap would need 30 tons of rice each day to sustain his divisions in the High Region, which would take 2,000 trucks, a fleet easily spotted in action from the air. Yet tens of thousands of coolies performed miraculous feats. Trees were tied together to form canopied tunnels that kept the supply route from aerial view, log bridges were built below the surface of streams and rivers to disguise them, bicycle companies were organized where men rode and pushed their machines with as much as 400 pounds of rice across hundreds of miles of jungle path. The Communist Viet-Minh, with an emphasis on unified work and simple slogans, was well organized for such efforts: “Zealously to build roads for artillery is zealously to work for victory. To build fortifications an inch thicker is to create more favorable conditions.” The French pilots searched and searched, bombed and bombed—and still troops and supplies descended on Dien Bien Phu.
Any idea, moreover, of Dien Bien Phu being a base for offensive operations was quickly given up. The casualties from French sorties into the jungle were too high and the gains negligible. The French hunkered down to await attack, still confident in their superior firepower. By March, Giap had 150 artillery pieces in place to the French defenders’ 60. And political considerations had completely altered the importance of the battle. Yet another weak French ministry had forced the Americans to agree to include the Chinese at a conference of the big four powers in April where Korea—the war there had just ended—and Indochina would be the main topics. The Geneva Conference was quickly perceived as a deadline for victory. Navarre knew it. Giap knew it, too. The battle for Dien Bien Phu was suddenly for Indochina.
It began on March 13. The volume of Viet-Minh artillery was a surprise to the defenders, who had been relying on aerial reconnaissance and counterbattery work to destroy the enemy guns almost as soon as they started firing. But the Viet-Minh had spent six weeks studying the French positions and from the first volleys were hitting the French planes on the runway and hammering the artillery crews in their open pits—as the French guns needed to be able to fire the 360 degrees of the valley, they had been built without shelter. The Viet-Minh had set their batteries in hillside dugouts to protect them from counterfire and had established a wide range of anti-aircraft batteries which made the French flyers’ strafing runs of napalm and even reconnaissance increasingly suicidal.
The Viet-Minh objective on the 13th was the easternmost Center of Resistance, Béatrice. The most in danger, it was also the most lightly held—by a single depleted battalion of Foreign Legionnaires, about 450 men. They were elite troops, but there were so few that each of the four strongpoints had but a single officer. The French commander at Dien Bien Phu, Christian de Castries, was a dashing tank commander. He had been put in charge when it was expected the base would be a center of lightning offensive operations and had no knowledge of fortified defense. Though the timing and objective of the Viet attack were clear, Castries made no provision for counter-attacking (key in the defensive battles that hedgehogs were designed to wage) and even turned down Navarre’s offer of three additional battalions (which would have increased his fighting manpower by 25 percent). While Castries was correct that he didn’t have the supplies for additional men, he would need them almost immediately after fighting began.
The battle for Béatrice began at dusk after a two-hour barrage. The Viet-Minh almost always attacked at night to deny French planes the ability to influence a battle. (Much of the eight weeks of combat at Dien Bien Phu occurred in the ghostly green light of high-intensity parachute flares dropped by aircraft circling above.) The first assault was overwhelming—two full regiments employing 4,000 men with half again as many in reserve—and almost the entirety of the Legion battalion was wiped out, though taking many times their number in Viet-Minh lives. (One of the battalion’s few remaining officers, Captain Philippe Nicolas, was reading a letter from the Ministry of Finance when the shelling began. It informed him that his wages would be garnished if he did not immediately pay his back taxes. He was killed defending his post later that night.)
Béatrice fell just before dawn, and no attempt was made to recapture her. Castries would later say it was due to the lack of air support caused by heavy fog, but the French commanders were really in shock at the ferocity of the Viet gunnery. Castries’s chief of staff had a breakdown, and the artillery commander, Charles Piroth, who had repeatedly expressed the sentiment that five minutes after the Viet-Minh guns began firing there would be no more Viet-Minh guns, committed suicide on the night of the 14th by holding a grenade to his chest. (When the news of Piroth’s act came out days later, a paratroop officer remarked that if everybody responsible for this mess were to take such a way out, Dien Bien Phu and Paris were both going to be pretty empty.)
Gabrielle, though defended in force, fell the next night. Anne-Marie would be abandoned on March 17 by the Thai troops who held her. Giap called a halt to the attack and settled in to dig trenches. His tactics were not far removed from the siege warfare conceived by Vauban in the 17th century—surround your enemy, cut off his offensive abilities, deny him supply, strangle him with tighter and tighter rings of trenches allowing your guns to pound his strongpoints, and take them one by one.
Navarre was dismayed by Castries’s failure to fight for the CRs. He sent reinforcements of the best troops in Indochina—the paratroopers who had originally been dropped on Dien Bien Phu in November and then pulled out to fight in Laos and the Delta. These units fought at an operational tempo rarely seen in modern warfare and exemplified the great divide in the French military between the traditional spit-and-polish army with its clear class distinctions in the officer corps and the colonial and African armies that did the overseas fighting. The paratroop ranks drew heavily on former Resistance fighters and had a healthy contempt for the hidebound regulars who had lost so quickly in 1940. They emphasized intense physical fitness and the improvisation necessary to war light and fast. On March 16, the already legendary Bigeard led his 6th Battalion in their second drop over Dien Bien Phu in a matter of months. One of his officers briefed his heavy weapons company on the jump, “All I can tell you is I know how we’re going to get in, but I don’t know how we’re going to get out.”
The success at Na San had been thanks to the union of aggressive paratroopers and hardened Foreign Legionnaires. They had prepared a defense in depth and counterattacked immediately. A defender must await the attacker’s pleasure, but at that moment he can become the aggressor. The Viet-Minh’s mass attacks on a strongpoint were an invitation to slaughter if met not just by prepared fire, but also by waves of resistance that forced a violent struggle for every inch of ground. During the pause in fighting, operational command at Dien Bien Phu passed to Pierre Langlais, a paratroop lieutenant-colonel. He set the conditions for fighting along the lines that had been successful at Na San. (An endlessly gruff officer, Langlais had been berating Piroth just before the artilleryman’s suicide.)
On March 31, Giap resumed the offensive, targeting the CRs that guarded the base’s eastern approaches: Dominique and Eliane. He hoped in a single night to take the five main strong points. Dominique 1 and 2 fell, as did Eliane 1, but at Dominique 3, intricately prepared gunnery fields wreaked havoc on the attackers. And Eliane 2 held thanks to repeated counterattacks. Langlais and Bi-geard (acting essentially as the former’s executive officer for the rest of the battle) committed troops piecemeal as needed: a broken company to retake a hill would be followed by a few hundred Legionnaires to hold it. Troops were held in reserve to see where next a leak would spring, though Langlais had no fear of committing them all when the crisis came. What mattered was acting with dispatch and hitting hard enough to make the enemy’s attack falter until daybreak forced retreat.
The battle for Eliane 2 raged for five nights, but the French held. Giap then turned his attention to the western approach and tried again and again to take Huguette 6. By April 10, the “Battles of the Hills” were over. Giap again paused, but not to prepare for a new assault. Casualties were threatening to make the battle unsustainable, and Ho investigated the possibility of drawing Chinese troops and bombers into the fight. This was the crisis point of the whole battle. As well as the Viet-Minh had prepared and despite their major early successes, they had been fought to a standstill by an aggressive defense. The tiny French band was stretched thin and taking fearful casualties, but dealing them in much greater numbers. On the five hills, Giap had committed 30,000 men against some 2,000 constantly replaced defenders. Viet-Minh casualties were likely 12,000 killed and wounded.
Here, as so often in the wars for Vietnam, Giap showed himself a disastrous commander—it would be hard to find a more overrated figure in military history. He had achieved artillery supremacy on the first day of battle, yet never systematically destroyed the French guns as tactics require (and which he had the direct observation and fire supremacy to accomplish with ease). French howitzers and mortars were devastatingly effective in the battles for Eliane and Dominique. Giap was content to pour his numerous forces before the French emplacements as if it was September 1914. He rapidly needed reinforcements and was pondering circumstances that might make him retire from the Nam Yum Valley.
By all military logic, Dien Bien Phu should have fallen. But war happens in the specific and is prey to strange turns. Thanks to the resilience of the defenders, it had survived. With enough men, Langlais and Bigeard could have retaken the lost forts and set the terms for the type of victory earned during 1951’s spring offensives and at Na San—for the Viet-Minh to decide there were better ways to fight than by dying by the thousands in front of heavy French fire. This was the chance to achieve Navarre’s objectives and set the ground for Geneva. Yet the high command in Hanoi dithered. A promised airborne brigade became a battalion, and even that was delivered piecemeal and too late. Giap ordered two divisions of raw troops to come from the Viet bases and doubled-down on Dien Bien Phu, but the French, who had no alternative, did not.
Popular historians tell us the French staked everything on Dien Bien Phu. But just 4 percent of the French troops in Indochina were holding down 60 percent of Giap’s fighting units. Navarre had been searching for a place where the Viet-Minh would not simply retire if they took heavy losses. Despite all the mistakes, he had actually found it. He had 400,000 troops at his command in Indochina. He could have made the decision to reinforce in strength—not just by air, but by setting in motion a mass long-range relief column from Laos. But Navarre weighed too many factors—the general in charge of Tonkin did not want to give up men, and many senior army figures in Hanoi viewed Dien Bien Phu as just an irregulars’ sideshow—and he was actually waging a simultaneous operation in the south using 25,000 troops in a series of amphibious landings. Operation Atalante was indecisive, while at Dien Bien Phu, Bigeard’s troops retook the lost strongpoints but did not have the men to hold them. This was when the battle was lost. The para commanders had redeemed Navarre’s strategy, and he failed to support them.
The story of Dien Bien Phu’s fall is an epic of endurance—like Bataan or Stalingrad—of men fighting to the limits of body and spirit. Though Langlais never got the reinforcements he wanted, each day volunteers parachuted into the camp, between 1,800 and 2,600 soldiers during the battle’s last month, most at night, through heavy flak, and uncertain they would even land on French-held ground. Some arrived the night before it fell, jumping into a fortress that they knew was doomed.
The conditions in the base were inhuman. By late April, there were more than 3,000 wounded men—850 critically—trapped in close, dark bunkers subject to constant shelling. As the battle reached its end, even the severely wounded returned to fight rather than stay in the dungeon-like triage centers. There are accounts of double amputees helping to hold the lines by firing machine guns as their comrades counterattacked. Battalions were nonexistent, and companies reduced to the size of platoons. Those that held the flashpoints like Eliane 1 used 3,000 grenades to hold their lines each evening and fought in a manner reminiscent of the Western Front. (Castries at one point requested World War I-style trench periscopes. None could be found in Indochina.) The days were an endless attempt at gathering in the airdropped supplies—180 tons were needed daily and the drops were far from accurate—or digging new trenches and fortifications. The nights were pitched battles for the remaining CRs or to destroy the Viet trenches closing in.
The monsoon came on April 25 and turned the valley into a sea of mud. Trenches were two- and three-feet deep in glue-like muck. The soldiers were always wet and had little time to eat or sleep. It was a second Passchendaele, and the tactics were the same: mining, sniping, hand-to-hand combat with grenades and entrenching tools. Studies of World War II combat show that after 45 days of constant combat, soldiers became automatons, unable to think and with slowed reactions. But the new arrivals reported the paratroopers’ and Legionnaires’ unwavering conviction that they would win.
In mid-April, Huguette 6 was cut off by the tight network of Viet trenches, and after three bloody nights trying to get ammunition, grenades, and food across, the decision was made to abandon her. On April 21, Huguette 1 was lost. A counterattack by the last arriving paratroop companies failed, and it would be the last offensive measure the French attempted. Giap had planned his third offensive for May 1-5, timed with the opening of the Geneva conference. But he was still far from certain of final victory and estimated the French would hold out until the end of June. The French high command’s hope lay in a deus ex machina of direct American intervention, but Eisenhower declined to act. The French at Dien Bien Phu had found their Thermopylae, but there would be no Salamis or Plataea.
At 8 p.m. on May 1, a heavy barrage hammered the frontline CRs. Eliane 1 fell that night. Dominique 3 and Huguette 5 on May 2. Huguette 4 held yet one more day. On the night of May 6, Eliane 2 was finally taken, and the following morning Eliane 4. There were fewer than 650 French defenders still fighting, and a ceasefire was organized to save the thousands of wounded in the hospital warrens of the final French bastion: Claudine. The remaining defenders, strung out amongst the destroyed remains of various strongpoints, were too tired and too few to even need to surrender. By all accounts the battle simply stopped. The siege was over, and the war quickly followed. A ceasefire was agreed at Geneva on July 20 and the country partitioned pending elections. Hundreds of thousands of Tonkinese and Annamites headed south overwhelming expectations. (The Viet-Minh made sure to infiltrate a cadre of 6,000 hardcore Communists into the south to continue their war.) The French were simply in a hurry to recover their soldiers and leave.
Precise casualty figures for Dien Bien Phu are impossible to come by. The best estimate for the French side is that of the 15,090 men who fought there between March 13 and May 7, about 1,500 were killed and close to 5,000 wounded, with another 1,600 missing in action—some lost to the vagaries of jungle and trench warfare, many simply deserters (especially from the weaker Thai and Vietnamese units). Viet-Minh casualties were between 25,000 and 30,000, with 40 percent of those killed-in-action. The Viet-Minh captured just over 10,000 men at Dien Bien Phu, 4,500 of whom were wounded, 900 so severely they were kept with their doctors until the truce came and they could be evacuated. The rest were plunged into the jungle and one- to two-month marches to prison camps on the Chinese border—12 miles a day with limited nourishment. Four months of marching and captivity proved far more deadly than the battle. Only 3,900 returned home. This was not due to sadism on the part of the Viet-Minh. Without sufficient food or fresh water, without medical supervision, with a third of the prisoners wounded, and having fought a continuous eight-week battle, men rapidly succumbed to disease. Photographs of the survivors returning to Hanoi show the hollow-eyed, emaciated figures we know from Holocaust histories.
So ended the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. History has ruled the French defeat inevitable, which demeans the sacrifices made by the soldiers on each side. The Viets won thanks to the unstinting efforts of their army. And even so, the decision hung in the balance. With better command and support, the base could have held out and possibly set the ground for a sensible peace like that allowed by Britain’s victory in the 1950s Malayan Emergency. The war, moreover, needn’t have ended because Dien Bien Phu was overrun. The severe losses forced upon the Viet-Minh made their victory pyrrhic. The Viet-Minh were in no position during the height of the monsoon to move their shattered units to threaten Hanoi. Just as conditions on the ground had not changed much after de Lattre’s 1951 victories, so they hadn’t in summer 1954. What had changed was France’s willingness to continue the fight—politics, not combat, decided the war. Ho’s strategy had proved far more adept than Giap’s tactics.
The failure to understand this was one of the chief legacies of the war—and the catalyst of a second. In 1963, Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, asked France’s best chroniclers of the Indochina War, Bernard Fall and Jean Larteguy, to talk to senior U.S. commanders and diplomats. In his memoirs, The Face of War (1976), Larteguy summarized the talk:
Larteguy, a former paratrooper who had served with Orde Wingate’s Chindits during World War II, was the great chronicler of the war’s second legacy: the growing divide between professional soldiers and representative governments. For while Dien Bien Phu is the end of one story—of French rule in Indochina—it is the beginning of another, of the battle over a certain idea of France. The soldiers who had fought so valiantly at Dien Bien Phu formed the core of the army that would fight the same war with different results in Algeria. They returned from Indochina to a hostile France. Many were disembarked at night to avoid the Communist stevedores who threw rocks at veterans. They were encouraged not to wear their uniforms, and the French government nickel-and-dimed them. (Survivors of the prison camps were asked for documentation on just when they acquired dysentery.) Langlais fought an angry two-year paper battle against the military establishment to get paratroop wings awarded to every one of the volunteers who had jumped into the besieged Dien Bien Phu—military regulations required six jumps. He lost.
The French government had discovered that two armies were needed in the postwar world: a very regimented one to take France’s part in holding the lines for the conventional hot war that would never come and one to fight the revolutionary wars that did. Larteguy captured this divide in a famous statement—delivered by a character modeled on Bigeard—from his novel The Centurions (1963):
The Centurions and its sequel, The Praetorians (1964), tell the story of a group of paratroopers who fight at Dien Bien Phu. They survive the brutal march and in the camps study the Communist methods of war. They then use them when called upon to fight in Algeria. This is a true story: The losers of Dien Bien Phu did learn the Viet-Minh methods and did employ them in Algeria after they were told by their political masters to win at any price. Algeria became a paratroopers’ war. But they were robbed of their victory by politicians, and the closing chapter of France’s great military tradition was a pair of coups: a successful one (1958) ending the Fourth Republic and bringing de Gaulle to power, then a failed one (1961) to keep de Gaulle from making peace in Algeria. Old Indochina hands formed the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), which sought to assassinate de Gaulle, refound the republic, and keep Algeria French. In the wake of these events, some of France’s most eminent soldiers were condemned to death or life imprisonment. (So associated were the paratroopers with the revolt that de Gaulle had the old regiments disbanded.) France’s army, which had been a dominant force in the West for more than a millennium, passed into history.
Larteguy’s novels capture this world, and they are revered in American military circles. Admiral James Stockdale was a particular fan, as today are Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. (Petraeus once kept a signed photograph of Bigeard in his office.) The novels deliver a clear picture of the unit cohesion that leads to battlefield excellence and of the problems that professional warriors face in modern democracies. We need rough men standing ready while we sleep, but we don’t want to know what they must do if we are to be kept safe. Our popular culture is dominated by a post-1960s generation that simply cannot imagine undertaking military service. Soldiers in mainstream books and films are presented mostly as guilty, haunted, and dangerous. (You get none of this in Larteguy, perhaps explaining his appeal to soldier-readers.)
We’ve been at war for nearly nine years, and we’ve yet to create a single popular military hero. How many Americans have heard of Mike Monsoor or Doug Zembiec? They served and died in Iraq in manners that would have brought them national reverence in any other era. But soldiers only make the news today for negative reasons. The end of McChrystal’s career is the perfect example (as with Bigeard, the McChrystal obituaries will be dominated someday not by the glory of his record, but by the controversy surrounding the end of his tenure in Afghanistan). While his resignation was made necessary by the intemperance of much of the material in the infamous Rolling Stone article, he is, nonetheless, possessed of the sort of combat record that makes us all hold our manhood cheap. Yet, in the wake of the article’s publication, his service and that of those under his command was widely impugned in the press.
In his retirement remarks, McChrystal noted:
McChrystal was concerned only for those he led and who must continue the fight. He finished nearly four decades of honorable service with the words:
Our most recent presidents have known nothing of that great life having nothing in the way of war records, which were once a prerequisite for the highest executive power. Men like McChrystal and Petraeus do the bidding of men like Bush and Obama, but can there be any doubt as to where the honor in the relationship lies? (This is one of the underlying currents in the Rolling Stone piece that led to McChrystal’s resignation.) Just consider the fate of Stockdale. To a small percentage of Americans, he is a hero of incomparable stature; to the rest, because of an ill-fated few weeks on a presidential ticket with Ross Perot, he is the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes.
Our warriors today are drawn from a small segment of a large society—geographically and economically distinct. The war is an abstraction in our big cities, and large percentages of Americans know no one fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. While it’s impossible to imagine the U.S. officer corps revolting in the manner of the French in Algeria—our national traditions are far too different, and we have none of France’s lengthy history of generals refounding the republic—it’s nonetheless worth pondering that we have set up the conditions for such a revolt. The military we developed to fight Soviet troops in Europe is, moreover, deeply unsuited to the post-Cold War world. But Mother Army resists change, and the difficulties have played out in public during nearly a decade of hard warring. Like France in Indochina and Algeria, we have been changeable in our political goals while asking immense efforts of our combat troops. Efforts that have not always been supported back home.
It’s a truism that conventional armies cannot win revolutionary wars—that for all their resources and firepower, they will be defeated by guerrilla insurgencies. This lesson of Vietnam is rarely questioned, but it is false. Under Johnson and Westmoreland we lost a war the establishment said we were winning. Under Abrams and Nixon we won one they said we were losing. The Vietnam war tells us a lot more about American government and popular perception than it does the quest for a victory of arms. Conventional armies can easily defeat revolutionary ones if they adapt to their means and methods. (We did it in Afghanistan in 2001, for instance.) Our armies lose, though, because our governments are incapable of pursuing victory in revolutionary war—which requires the methods that built the great colonial empires and are no longer palatable to the society that our wealth and relativism have created. What the military can accomplish must be backed by political certainty and national commitment.
The Viet-Minh were successful on both the battlefield and in Paris and Geneva because their leadership was ruthless and unwavering. The French paras were told by the politicians to win the Battle of Algiers by any means. Against omnipresent urban terror, they acted swiftly and brutally, torturing those they captured and using the information gleaned to capture and torture the next. Those responsible for acts of terror were executed as soon as their usefulness was finished. It wasn’t long before the paras reached the top of the pyramid. Horrible methods, illegal, but they restored peace to a large city. The soldiers were condemned by their own country, and the war ended to suit politicians. Such things are worth pondering as we fight a difficult war in Afghanistan and simultaneously search for the exit. As George Orwell noted: “The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.”
In victory or defeat, the soldier never forgets what was sacrificed. Marcel Bigeard’s final wish was that his ashes be scattered at Dien Bien Phu where he might lie for all time with his “fallen comrades.” The Vietnamese government rejected his request for fear of “setting a precedent.”
Robert Messenger is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
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