Theirs But To Do
and Die, Dien Bien Phu
and the Twilight of the Warrior
Robert Messenger, The Weekly Standard, September 13, 2010
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.
Walter Bedell Smith,
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.
remarks from his
retirement, 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.
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 FourthRepublic 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 DayRiver 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
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 “BigFrontierAdministrativeCenter”) in the NamYumRiverValley 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
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 NamYumValley.
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.
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
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
“You seem to
suppose that France’s defeat was because she was a colonizer. In
reality it was due to her hesitations and shifts, to her inability to choose
and maintain a political stance. The French government had
only one idea—negotiate—but the conditions for negotiation
were never the same as those of the Vietminh. The Viets
are remarkable soldiers, and their political organization is at all times
subordinated to the exigencies of their struggle: to have an immense army where
an entire people is formed into brigades. You said that the Ngo family [Ngo
Dinh Diem was the president of South Vietnam. He and his brother were killed in a U.S.-organized
coup in 1963] is a bad lot. It’s true. You said that the democracy
you’re going to establish here, after the elimination of the Ngos, will propel the people to take part in the contest
for freedom. False! The kind of democracy you propose to the Vietnamese is
yours. It won’t work for them! Finally, France fought this whole unpopular war with professional
soldiers. Above all, do not use recruits. And you have to forget your wealth in
this war. You have to make it a war of the poor. You have to ask infinitely
more of men than the materiel. And you must see to it that your fighting man
knows the reason for your intervention here, reasons that touch him personally,
in order for him to be able to accept the sacrifices demanded of him.”
We talked into a void,
reduced to playing a role of Cassandra.
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
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):
I’d like France to have two
armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares,
staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental
officers who would be deeply concerned over their general’s bowel
movements or their colonel’s piles: an army that would be shown for a
modest fee on every fairground in the country.
The other would be the real one, composed
entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battle-dress, who would not be put
on display but to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the
army in which I should like to fight.
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 FourthRepublic 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
(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
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
With my resignation, I left a mission I feel
strongly about. I ended a career I loved that began over 38 years ago. And I
left unfulfilled commitments I made to many comrades in the fight, commitments
I hold sacred. My service did not end as I would have wished, and there are
misperceptions about the loyalty and service of some dedicated professionals
that will likely take some time but I believe will be corrected.
McChrystal was concerned only for those he led and who must
continue the fight. He finished nearly four decades of honorable service with
If I had it to do over again, I’d
do some things in my career differently but not many. I believed in people, and
I still believe in them. I trusted and I still trust. I cared and I still care.
I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Winston Churchill said we make a
living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. To the young leaders
of today and tomorrow, it’s a great life.
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.”
Operation Ambidextrous, Operation Hotfoot,
Operation White Star and the CIA, Laos,
1958 - 1962
WHITE STAR was a clandestine operation, under the
auspices of the CIA, but thru the Ambassador to Laos to "assist" Laos in fighting the communists. The teams worked with the
Laotian people, mainly the Hmoungs and other ethnic
groups.It was all designed to support VangPao'sArmee
Clandestine which was supported by CIA/Air Americas Projects 404 and 603.
LTC "Bull" Simon was the Group I commander
of the first group inserted in July 1959, then called "Hotfoot", and
remained for the next group (II) in Dec 59 to June of 60 when he was replaced
by LTC Magnus L. Smith. In November 1960, Group IV took over, commanded by LTC
John "Shark" Little, and on 28Jan61 it was augmented with a 12-man Psywar team under LTC Chuck Murray.
In April of 1961, Group V replaced Group IV and was
renamed "White Star". In October of 1961 LTC Simon took command
Late in 1958 and early 1959 our political and military
leaders decided to put a highly trained military force into the Laotian Kingdom
(Laos) with the mission to organize, train and develop their military forces so
they could control, suppress and eliminate the growing communist forces in
country, the Pathet Lao.
Colonel Simon was tasked to select, organize and train
a staff for the mission. He was further tasked to select, organize and train
Special Forces "A" teams from the 77th Special Forces Group
(Airborne) based at Fort
In 1958, the mission was designated Operation
Ambidextrous. Later it was changed to Operation Hot Foot.
Colonel Simon was additionally tasked to develop the
logistical support that would be required for a minimum six months mission.
That included developing the medical, communications, postal, personnel, combat
supplies, even to the development of a cover story for the deploying personnel.
All personnel, called the "Team", were given
intensive training and cross training. New communications equipment was
introduced and taught to the team. All personnel took daily language lessons in
both French and Laotian. Area studies of the country was introduced and
studied. Required reading of selected books became mandatory, such books as the
"Ugly American" and "Street
Without Joy" are examples. Week after week this continued.
We were to deploy in civilian clothing, with all
military identification left behind. One cover story was that we were members
of a Geodetic Survey team. There were about seven 12 man "A" teams
and staff to be deployed, somewhere around one hundred-four personnel in all.
After weeks of training in June 1959 at 0330 hours we
departed FortBragg. All our equipment and personnel dressed in civilian
clothes loaded aboard two C124s, both decks on each plane full to the hilt.
We landed in California and stayed for a couple of days. We reloaded and were
ready to continue the journey. The engine on one of the planes caught fire
delaying the second plane's departure for a day. The team continued on to
Kadena AFB on Okinawa. There a hitch developed as the India representative to the UN questioned our status and
our mission. We had to stay on Okinawa for couple of weeks while that was straightened out.
Finally the full team was ready to go. We flew from Kadena AFB to Bangkok,
Thailand. There we loaded onto C-54s and flew into Vientiane, Laos.
Once there, rapport was established with the American
Ambassador and the MAAG group in country. The "A" teams were deployed
throughout the country from Pakse to Plain DE Belovens, from Savanaket to
Saravan. In civilian clothes they began to accomplish the mission they had been
assigned. A communications net was established and operational; a logistical
support system was established and became operational.
June soon became January, 1960; the team was extended
past the 180 day Max TDY status, and continued their operations. Finally the
order was given that replacement teams would arrive. The operation was changed
to Operation Whitestar. Colonel Simon and selected members of his staff
remained to lead the replacement teams. The original A teams redeployed back to
FortBragg in late February 1960. The 77th SFG(A)
had been redesignated the 7th SFG(A).
Whitestar teams continued
to deploy and rotate in and out of Laos. In 1961 the Special Forces initial A team entry and
buildup began in South
Our SF troops in Laos rotated in and out of the country for the next ten
From My Personal Experiences,
February – May, 1959
On February 20, twelve of us were called into the
squadron commander’s office. We were briefed on a TDY, but we were not
given any details. The next day we boarded a Navy transport and flew to Hawaii
and then to Saigon. After we touched down in Saigon,
we were issued helmets, M2 carbines, and other field gear. Then we were
transferred to a large helicopter and flown to a remote site occupied by
American MACV personnel.
We didn't know it at the time but we were in Laos
just south of Ban Vat, an old temple city.
The site was situated just below a large rock outcrop. A river meandered down
the valley past the site and the tree line ran just above the rock outcrop.
Sometimes it rained and sometimes it didn't, but altogether, the weather wasn't
as bad as the insects. In many respects, it wasn't much different than the
Missouri Ozarks. We were told not to leave the site area.
Our job was to set up and calibrate
communications equipment for their use. The MACV (MAAG?) people didn't avoid us but
they weren't very talkative either. We never had much to do with them except
for a captain that operated as liaison and took care of whatever we needed.
This was probably because the Army personnel knew more about purpose of the
site than we needed to know.
Besides the MACV personnel, there was a
Vietnamese woman and her son, who was about nine or ten, who lived nearby. She
did laundry and the boy was sort of a "go-fer" and boot-shiner.
Except for the communications shack, everything
and everybody was housed in old Army tents. The communications
"shack" was a secure van, the type usually mounted on a
deuce-and-a-half, and the generator was along side. The van was sandbagged. It
was pretty primitive by our standards but we went about our work.
The equipment they had consisted of Army field
radios, teletypes and TSEC/KW-7's.It wasn't what we had been trained on but
with the manuals and test equipment they had, we didn't have much difficulty.
We were surprised to find the KW-7's out there in the boondocks but they were
field portable and ours was not to wonder why. I think the KW-7 had originally
been designed for use aboard Navy ships. At any rate, the KW-7 was a fairly new
piece of equipment and hadn't been in the military inventory very long.
There were no roads or trails so supplies were
brought in via helicopter. The food consisted of lots of K and C rations which
tasted like they were left over from Korea.
But sometimes we were surprised with canned fruits, vegetables and even meats.
The Army people were pretty inventive with what they could do with a few cans
of meat, vegetables and a sack of potatoes. They also brought in cans of
gasoline for the power generators.
Another treat was when the supply flight brought
in a couple cases of American beer. No hard liquor though. And
no mail. The helicopters took the trash when they left.
Eventually we learned not to touch the inside
walls of our tents when it rained. That made them leak. The air mattresses
would invariably go flat sometime during the night. The mattress cover, stuffed
with grass, proved to be more practical though not that much more comfortable.
This was not a battlefield but more like a
forward base camp. Things were generally pretty quiet and everyone got along
Working in the "shack" was a little
different. The radios and crypto equipment generated a lot of heat and the
working area was small and the door always locked. No more than three or four
of us would be working in there at one time. Rivers are nice to swim in but in
no way can be a substitute for a soapy tub bath. Despite the air-conditioning
for the benefit of the equipment, the air was always pretty rank. There wasn't
much point in complaining about body odor when not much could be done about it.
The river (I can't remember its name) had its
order, too. Beginning upstream from the camp was the source of water for
cooking and drinking. It was always boiled first. Then, downstream, came the "swimming pool" or bath. Next was the
"laundry" where the Vietnamese woman would wash our fatigues and
other clothing. Then just above the tree-line, came the slit trench. I've
always felt that if someone can use a slit trench, they can do almost anything.
The trench had been dug deep enough so that when the odor became bad enough, a
layer of dirt could be shoveled in and it could serve for several weeks before
another one had to be dug.
The KW-7s, teletypes and radios had already been
installed in the "shack" before we arrived. Our task was to study the
manuals so that we could operate and, if necessary, repair the KW-7s to ensure
their operation. Then cable up the KW-7s between the teletypes and the radios.
Some already had experience on the KW-7. The rest of us weren't so lucky.
Finally, we trained two of the MACV radio operators how to operate the KW-7s.
A couple of the MACV radio operators then checked
out the connectivity but we never found out who they talked to. That wasn't our
There was one radio located outside the
"shack" which apparently was used to communicate with other sites
helicopters and other aircraft in country. Nobody attended to it very often.
One night, about a month after we arrived, while
I was just falling asleep in my shelter, I felt something strike me in the
middle of my back. What I expected to find was a rock tossed in by some joker.
But it was a grenade. I threw it through the shelter flap, grabbed my carbine
and scrambled out as fast as I could. The grenade exploded and one small piece
of shrapnel grazed my side. I fired a burst at a figure I saw running up the
hill past the rock outcropping. It turned out to be the son of the Vietnamese
One round had caught him in the back of the head
and probably killed him instantly. I'll never forget the feeling I had when I
got to him. There was no way to be sure that he was the one who threw the
grenade into my shelter. It haunts me now because I'll never find out. The
boy's mother disappeared and I think the feeling of the MACV people was that
whatever we were doing there had been compromised. But our work went on.
The episode scared me because I had never thought
that we would be in any danger. We discovered that we had to be more cautious
and aware of our surroundings. And we never saw another native. The thought
that I could take a life never occurred to me then. I was afraid for my own and
at the time I only saw it as a job given the circumstances. To this day I have
never lost sleep over it although I do think about it often. I do feel
When we finished we were choppered back to Saigon.
Helicopters didn't have protective armor then, and as we crossed the border
we took some ground fire. When you hear the cracks and pings as the rounds came
up through the hull, you can only hope to hell that you're sitting in the right
place. Nobody got hurt, but there wasn't any relief until we set down in Saigon.
At Saigon we boarded
another Navy transport and it was on to Hawaii
and Keesler. After three months and six days, we were back in the classroom.