Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Hell in a Very Small Blog

So a while ago I read Hell in a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall. Fall was a French journalist and academic who spent several years in Vietnam (ultimately dying there in 1967 after stepping on a landmine). Hell is the story of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Dien Bien Phu literally means "seat of the border county prefecture." It was a sleepy town in a remote valley until the French chose to locate a military base there, complete with airstrip, in 1953. The Vietnamese Communists (the Viet Minh), under the military leadership of Vo Nguyen Giap (still kicking at the age of 98), decided to concentrate their forces on Dien Bien Phu. It was a major logistical effort, and in a sense it was exactly what the French wanted. The Viet Minh didn't engage in guerilla tactics. They brought in artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and a large conventional army. This was supposed to be the kind of fight the French were bound to win.

But as it turned out, the French were ill-supplied and out-gunned. Once the Viet Minh had their guns trained on the airstrip, it became impossible to supply the French base except by airdrop. The Viet Minh tightened the noose and brought in more anti-aircraft, and more and more of the supplies (including ammunition) started dropping into Viet Minh hands. The base was overrun on May 7, 1954, and the surviving French troops were marched to prison camps. It was a major humiliation and basically the end of the French military presence in Vietnam.

Over the next week I'll post particularly gripping passages from Hell. The book is hard to recommend because it is 466 pages of military history, but it contains more than its share of human drama. I hope I can capture some of that on my blog by literally copying it word for word.

A few minor notes: I will try to refer to the Vietnamese Communists as "Viet Minh" rather than "Vietnamese." There were plenty of Vietnamese who fought for the French, and as we shall see, some of them were exceptionally brave. Although I will refer to all soldiers fighting for the French as "French," many were not French at all. Some were in the French Foreign Legion, some were soldiers from French colonies like Morocco and Algeria. Others, of course, were Vietnamese. Still others were tribesmen from Vietnam who were not ethnically Vietnamese.

But I hope to keep my commentary light and let Fall's book speak for itself.


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