On May 7th in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. It was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial. In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps lost in Indochina. This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.
On May 8th 1954 the last of the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh following the surrender of the main garrison the previous day. It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them. The strategy which had been used once on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son would prove to be the Göttdammerung of French colonial rule in Indochina.
French Paras landing at Dien Bien Phu
The French had thought they had come up with a template based on Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh which had in the years between 1945 and 1954 had turned an insurgent force into a strong Army capable of taking on large French forces. As a result the French decided that they would attempt to draw Giap’s Army into open combat where their superiority in heavy weaponry and in the air could be used to destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.” It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air. At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground and had superiority in artillery and air forces. They were also were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders. Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere in Indochina while tying down a almost a full division of troops and a large portion of French air power. They inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh but did not destroy them.
The French command assumed that they had found a way to defeat the Viet Minh. They decided to repeat the strategy used at Na-Son at the remote the remote town of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border. The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base from which they could conduct offensive operations against the Viet Minh and to draw Giap’s forces into a conventional fight that they thought they could win. Unfortunately the French chose badly. Dien Bien Phu lay in a marshy valley surrounded by mountains which were covered in dense nearly impassible jungle. It was a poor location to conduct offensive operations from and a worse place to defend.
The French elected to go light on artillery and due to the terrain it had to be deployed in nearly open conditions with neither cover not concealment. Unlike Na Son the Dien Bien Phu air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially relatively weak tactical air assets. French logistics needs were far greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply. The French strong points in the valley were exposed and not mutually supporting and as such Giap and the Viet Minh were able to close with and attack each strong point in time overwhelming each after valiant French resistance. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force. It was comprised of airborne units, the Foreign Legion, Colonial Paratroops (Marines), North Africans from Tunisia and Algeria as well as Vietnamese troops. Many of the officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jacques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.
Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support. He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have. Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft. Giap also did not throw his men away in human assaults. Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.
Without belaboring this post the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. Many French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks. The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down. Relief forces were unable to get through. The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died. Many were subjected to torture and group discipline. Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries. French and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency. Militarily they had all but won the war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war. I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past. Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.
The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam. In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called “losers.” It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly in that war.
Despite our efforts in Afghanistan and the valiant sacrifices of our Marines and Soldiers we seem to have difficulty learning the lessons of the Vietnam Wars. Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy and there are no easy formulas to make it work. What works in one country may not work in another as we are found when we tried to emulate our counterinsurgency success in Iraq in Afghanistan. Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded Army officers we were able to apply the lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq and work with Iraqis to make that country more secure than it was before we took this type of warfare seriously. Despite its continued problems Iraq is doing better and will likely do well in the long run as it recovers from the damage caused by the war. They have known civilization since antiquity and are a proud people. Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back as they say as a tourist.
I am concerned about Afghanistan, despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan because it seems that the Taliban spring offensive is off to a good start. U.S. and NATO Forces in Khandehar and Helmand Province have been placed on a higher alert and confined to their bases following a major assault on the Afghan provincial government installations in Khandehar. The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents are only concerned with Afghanistan and even though Bin Laden is dead the deepening rift between the United States and Pakistan will likely ensure that they will enjoy military, personnel, financial support from many in Pakistan including the Intelligence agency in the remote and ungovernable northwest territories of that country which are a safe haven much like Communist China was for the Viet Minh.
Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun by Taliban forces as French forces were in Indochina? An isolated outpost was nearly overrun at Wanat in July of 2008 and at two isolated outposts near the Pakistani border in October 2009. One would hope not, but we cannot underestimate the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons. Their predecessors successfully drove out the Soviets, the British, the Persians and the Greeks. Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.
But even more Dien Bien Phu serves to remind us that in such wars it is not always the highly trained and organized Western forces that win. These are local wars and once the momentum shifts to the insurgent they are difficult to turn around. In a sense the French were trying to do what we are trying to do now in taking the fight to the enemy. It turned out badly for them and it could turn out badly for us. I hope that we don’t forget.