War is said to be hell. But while wars tend to reveal the ugly and most brutish in humans, they also bring out the noble and most laudable in them, and can provide an inspiring insight into the human spirit. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a bloody two-month-long siege which ended on May 7, 1954. On that day, at their isolated jungle outpost in northwest Vietnam, the encircled and outnumbered French garrison succumbed in ignominious defeat to the Viet Minh, hastening the end of French rule in Indochina. The French Union Forces—encompassing the many North Africans, black Africans, and Foreign Legionnaires who fought alongside the European French—suffered 2,000 battlefield dead and more than 7,000 wounded and missing. Some 10,000 more died on the long march to the Viet Minh prison camps or during imprisonment.
Dien Bien Phu is the subject of Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1966 (with a reissue as recently as 2002). As one who “came of age” in the early 1980s when Vietnam featured prominently in U.S. discourse, I recently took up this book with interest and was not disappointed. Fall’s narrative is lucid and free-flowing, as befits the work of an expert who spent years “in country” and wrote frequently about the conflict for Western publications before being killed while accompanying American troops in combat in 1967. A Harvard international relations professor and former French Resistance fighter, Fall researched in the French archives for this book and brings a keen historic sense to his account, evincing a sensitivity to both the French and Viet Minh perspectives of the conflict.
The human drama of battle — the bloody “hell” of triumphs and errors, valour and cowardice, fortitude and resignation in the face of overwhelming odds — is what Fall brings poignantly to mind. Ghastly as battlefield deaths are, the human will to live and the ability to endure through the grisly experience of war may be even more heart-rending, as this book shows. Hell in a Very Small Place does not lack in graphic descriptions of death and survival. In one instance, Fall documents the capture of the overrun Algerian troops on French strongpoint Gabrielle early in the battle.
… the Viet-Minh told them to step on the bodies of the Communist casualties, who at certain spots virtually carpeted the barbed-wire entanglements. Prodded in the ribs by the tommy guns of their guardians, Abderrahman and his men began to move. Suddenly, Abderrahman came to a dead stop. Ahead of him, sliced open from side to side and with his intestines hanging in the barbed wire in a bloody mass, was a Viet-Minh rifleman, still alive. In fact, as he saw the approaching column of prisoners his eyes widened and his lips moved as if to speak.
The extraordinary face of human endurance on the French soldiers’ deadly 500-mile trek to the prison camps is equally gut-wrenching. Fall recounts a Foreign Legionnaire who “cut off his own gangrenous arm with a knife, without anesthesia, and survived the march thanks to his comrades”. He also tells of an Algerian rifleman who, having had a chest operation shortly before the French defeat, “marched for 45 days to a prison camp, holding together his wound with his unrolled turban”. A French doctor is quoted as witnessing a soldier who, having had both legs amputated up to his thighs, “was dragging himself on his hands and the stumps of his legs to the enemy transit camp at Tuan Giao”. These were the prisoners who survived the march; most did not. As Fall explains: “30 to 60 days of march at a rate of 20 kilometres a day, while carrying rice rations for the column and the numerous litter cases, simply proved too much for most of the men. The food rations allocated to them … did the rest: 14 ounces of rice a day and ten peanuts every tenth day”. Reading these passages brings into sharp focus the bleak Hobbesian notion of human existence as nasty, brutish, and short.
Although the book’s focus is on the French, Fall does not by any means ignore the plight of the Viet Minh. If Fall’s account throughout is suffused with the foreboding sense of futility and doom for the French, it is also permeated with the anticipation of inevitable Viet Minh victory — one driven by skilful organisation and seemingly superhuman determination, endurance, and strength, not to mention the ability to bear punishing losses and rebound to fight another day. An estimated 8,000 Viet Minh died in battle during their 56 days of disciplined assaults on the French forces, one strongpoint after another. But if the French lost Dien Bien Phu mostly because they lost the logistical battle, the Viet Minh proved unequal masters of the logistical contest, owing to the toil of over 20,000 coolies who kept the besieging army of 50,000 adequately fed and supplied. After their airstrip was put out of action early in the battle, the French had to rely for their supplies — sporadic at best — on airdrops from cargo planes that were often hampered by low clouds, bad weather, and enemy anti-aircraft fire. The Viet Minh, on the other hand, counted on their legions of human coolies who performed their mission on foot and bicycles through dense jungles and inhospitable mountainous terrain. “Carrying often 200 kilos (440 pounds) of supplies on a standard bicycle whose seat had been replaced by a short holding stick … 8,286 tons had been shipped over 600 miles of jungle from China to Dien Bien Phu; 4,620 tons of petrol products, 1,360 tons of ammunition, 46 tons of spare weapons, and 2,260 tons of consumable goods, including 1,700 tons of rice of which 400 were eaten by the carrier columns on the trek”. Welcome to the wonderful world of low-tech, indeed.
Fall is critical, rightly, of the catalogue of miscalculations, if not the hubris, of the French senior brass. As if overcome with insanity, they made the initial decision to garrison the 75-square mile base aéro-terrestre — situated deep in the enemy’s rear, at that — with a meagre nine battalions, a force utterly inadequate to defend and hold a jungle-covered area of that size. For all their “professional” training and staff college expertise, they also went against orthodox military doctrine, which postulates high ground as the optimal defensive position in a set-piece battle, choosing to build their “fortress” in a low-lying valley bottom ringed by hills and mountains—as though wilfully inviting trouble. Fatefully, the French also underestimated the Viet Minh’s ability to deploy their artillery guns in the mountainous region in the numbers that they did, and to conceal and camouflage them as skilfully as they did. Col. Charles Piroth, the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, insisted, “No Viet-Minh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery”, a boast that was quickly proven hollow once the battle began. For a base that relied on aerial resupply for its survival, the fact that its airstrip was rendered unusable by Viet Minh shelling within three days of battle constituted a blow that the French commanders proved themselves woefully ill-prepared and ill-equipped to overcome.
The French generals further overestimated the quality and quantity of the air support from their own Air Force and Navy, which had only a paltry few heavy bombers in Indochina and could muster no more than 75 combat aircraft for Dien Bien Phu at any one time. Worse, as Fall notes, the Air Force was excluded from war planning in Indochina. With a keen appreciation for historical parallels, Fall laments: “Just as the French had not known how to use their tanks in 1940, they did not know how to use their air force in 1954”. As he points out with statistics, the French at Dien Bien Phu were lucky to get 40 air combat missions flown on their behalf in a day. By contrast, in a typical battle in the Vietnam of 1965, American ground forces could routinely call in 240 aerial sorties in a 24-hour period.
In the end, Fall blames Dien Bien Phu’s defeat partially on the rivalry between General Henri Navarre, the Commander-in-Chief of French forces in Indochina, and General René Cogny, commander of the Northern Theatre. Dien Bien Phu fell within Cogny’s command area. While Navarre, in theory his superior, may have fully appreciated the political implications of “losing” Dien Bien Phu and been keen to avoid the national disgrace that its capitulation was to symbolise, Cogny was reluctant to provide reinforcements to save the garrison, desiring not to expend troops who he believed could be better used for operations elsewhere considered to be of higher importance. Such was the high command’s paralysis and apparent lack of moral conviction during the beleaguered garrison’s critical final days, making for an abject example of leadership failure.
Fall is also highly critical of the Eisenhower administration’s refusal to unilaterally answer the French plea for U.S. intervention. He argues, with reason, that the kind of massive aerial bombardment requested by the French, employing 100 US heavy bombers to strike at the Viet Minh forces encircling Dien Bien Phu, would likely have turned the tide of battle and “saved” the French. It would, at least, have bought them some precious time: in the final stages when defeat seemed all but inevitable, Dien Bien Phu’s survival was counted in days, if not hours. With the Franco-Viet Minh talks scheduled to open in Geneva on May 8, the desperate French imperative in those last days was simply to hold out till May 8, long enough to deny the Viet Minh the upper hand at the negotiating table. As fate would have it, the garrison fell on May 7, propitious timing for the Viet Minh but a cruel humiliation for the French.
But Fall’s insistence that a successful US intervention in 1954 was desirable appears short-sighted and ill-considered. Given the Viet Minh’s determination to fight and the French nation’s inability to withstand the onslaught of nationalism in the post-World War Two world order, France’s exit from Indochina was more a question of “when” and not “if”. Saving the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 would have merely put off the inevitable and prolonged an already costly colonial war for seemingly no good end. It would have, in essence, offered a short-term palliative to a longer-term problem. From the French perspective, Washington’s pusillanimity was no doubt treasonous, in view of the fact that the Americans had prodded them in the first place to hold the line in Vietnam against Communist expansion. With hindsight, though, it is difficult to see how a successful use of American air power at Dien Bien Phu would have prevented the United States’ Vietnam débâcle that was to come in the 1960s. Had Eisenhower unleashed his B-29 bombers over Dien Bien Phu and helped the French drive back the Viet Minh, the United States would probably have been even more emboldened to intervene in the subsequent period — and gone down the same disastrous path that it took.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu may have occurred half a century ago, but it still remains relevant today in view of the American neocolonial enterprise in Iraq. As Dien Bien Phu and the Viet Minh’s prolonged struggle for independence demonstrated, it is the indomitable human spirit that ultimately produces human triumphs. As the American experience in Vietnam attested, no amount of bombing and high-tech gadgetry could defeat an army of illiterate peasants and primitive bicycle carriers who, living in jungle ratholes, caves, and subterranean tunnels for months on end on nothing but rice, were committed to their cause and prepared to die for it. At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh showed its now well-known extraordinary willingness to suffer unspeakable losses as well as ability to bear the sacrifice come what may. French survivors would later comment on the “fanaticism” of the Viet Minh soldiers. As Fall notes, a senior French officer remarked: “we were fighting for our professional honor and in the end, for our skins. But they, the enemy, were fighting for their country”. The lengths to which an indigenous population would go to fight for its homeland should not be underestimated — be it in Vietnam in 1954, or in Iraq in 2004. In view of what the Viet Minh were prepared to do, the fact that Iraqi fedayeen today are willing to blow themselves up is hardly surprising.
I unreservedly recommend Hell in a Very Small Place as a study in human endurance and a well-researched piece for military history buffs. Some may fault this book for telling the French side of the story to the exclusion of the Vietnamese. Such criticism, however, would be unfair given the scope of Fall’s work and the probability that the author did not command Vietnamese sufficiently to research Vietnamese records. With the ongoing conflict, it is doubtful the Viet Minh and North Vietnamese archives were even available at the time.
At the start of 2004, I could not have read this book at a more appropriate time. It would be fitting, this year, for the Vietnamese and French governments to jointly commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu. The thousands who perished there certainly deserve the honour and the remembrance.