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Dien Bien Phu, Bad Strategy, Bad Assumptions, & Defeat: COVID 19 and Worse than Bad Outcomes

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sixty-six years ago the ragged and starving remnants of a French expeditionary Force was dying an excruciating death at Dien Bien Phu. They were the victims of a wrong war, a failed strategy, and the arrogance of their high command. They were sacrificed on the false belief that if they defeated the Main Force of the Viet Minh in a conventional battle, that they would win the war and dictate the terms of peace. But it was a battle in which they chose bad ground, and could not receive the full benefit of their more advanced weaponry because they were sent to fight in an area too far from their supporting forces. Likewise they were fighting a far more resourceful and better led adversary, that was not fighting for empire, but independence. Something that Americans who really know our history should understand.

Dien Bien Phu was an epic battle in a tragic war. Sadly, most people today neither know or care what happened in the valley where the small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with futile and forgotten sacrifice.

Over the years fewer and fewer remembrances took place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.  In 2018, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid a wreath at the French Monument at Dien Bien Phu, accompanied by several elderly veterans of the battle. The French veterans were met with kindness by their former opponents.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at Dien Bien Phu’s French Memorial


General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2011

Years before, on May 7th 2011 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. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.

That 2011 ceremony 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 used to 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 who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year, especially since COVID 19 has ensured that no significant public memorials are possible, but even before this year the ranks of few men left from the battle pretty much have doomed such ceremonies,


Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

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. We didn’t learn them in Iraq, or Afghanistan.


Captured French soldiers are marched through the fields after their surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. More than 10,000 French troops were captured after a 55 day siege . The French defeat ended nearly a century of French occupation of Indochina. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency)

French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  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 on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was based on what the French called the “Air-land base.”  It involved placing strong forces in an easily defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.

At Na Son the plan worked as intended. The French were on high ground, had superior artillery, and air Support close at hand. Likewise they were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults against their fortress, which made the Viet Minh troops cannon fodder for the French defenders. Despite that, Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.


Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and attempted to repeat what they thought was success at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground that they chose at Na Son, they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went into the battle light on artillery, and the air head they established was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Nevertheless,  he elected to continue the operation.


French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and their American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, and had more powerful artillery. They also placed their units in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting, and were under constant surveillance by the Viet Minh. 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. Despite this, many of their positions were not adequately fortified, and their artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery, which were not hardened against artillery fire, and were completely exposed to the enemy once they opened fire.


Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of French and Vietnamese paratroopers, known as Paras, Foreign Legion parachute and infantry units, French Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle on a better choice of battle, these forces would have done well. But this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of General Giap and his crack divisions on such a battlefield. This was not a counterinsurgency campaign, but a conventional battle in which the French discovered that they were in no position to win.


Viet Minh Supply Column

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 firepower, effectively used from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.

Unlike at Na-Son, Giap 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. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring my point, the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. However, one after another French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French vainly hoped for U.S. air intervention, even to the possibility of the United States would uses nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. President Dwight Eisenhower was a realist, and despite the advice of men like General Curtis LeMay refused to exercise either a conventional or nuclear response to rescue the French from a debacle of their own making. Eisenhower understood that the American people were not about to enter another Asian war so soon after the armistice in Korea.

dien bien phu6

French Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through the Viet Minh and the severer terrain which limited their movements and prevented the use of armored and mechanized units. Thus, the garrison at Dien Bien Phu died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials 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 brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.”

General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Despite the torture they endured, few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French leaders, units and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release from Viet Minh Captivity. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began. The film Lost Command, and the novel The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy exposed this brutal truth, as did Alistair Horne’s Classic A Savage War of Peace did as well.


The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained serving NATO in France or Germany. This created bitter enmity between soldiers who had already endured the aftermath of the First World War, the defeat of 1940 by Germany, the division of Free French Forces, and those of the Nazi allied Vichy government.

Those divisions in the French military and society remained well after the war and those divisions were fully on display in Indochina and Algeria. 

As a result France would endure a failed military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called “The Centurions” by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government. By military Standards they had successful used counterinsurgency tactics to win the war in a military sense, although their opponents still remained.  These men were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and when President De Gaulle declared that Algeria would be granted independence, the men who had sacrificed so much mutinied against their government.

But the mutiny had little popular support, the people rallied around De Gaulle, and it failed. Many of the leaders, including senior generals and admirals who took part in, supported, or knew about the mutiny were tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. The Colonial troops from Indochina, or North Africa who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. many Algerians fled to France as they were French citizens. Those from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fled to wherever they could find refugee.

The French and their colonial ally survivors of Dien Bien Phu saw the battle as a defining Moment in their lives. . “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like General Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of Major Marcel Bigeard reflected on his thoughts to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make, and not just military when it comes to the novel Coronavirus Pandemic. 


Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of The French Algeria. It was an arrogance for which Americans paid dearly. I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations, so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, their administrations, the military high command, the Congress, and the civilian population of the United States which remained for the most part in a state of peace, despite a few inconveniences in domestic and international air travel. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 19 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad outcomes.  I do not know how the President who calls himself a “Problem solver” or ”Wartime President” who will define winning, in war, or in the midst of a pandemic which has killed more Americans than were lost in combat in every military operation since the 1958 Lebanon Intervention. Bur now, in 2020, how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define? Likewise, how many Americans will have to die from a virus because their President and many other leaders minimize its potential for mass death, social and economic disruption, and division?


French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win. That being said the Trump administration is talking up and ramping up for a possible showdown with Iran.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

Sadly, most of the leaders in the Trump Administration, Congress, business, the greater civil population, and even some in the military ignore about COVID 19. The battle is not a conventional war. It is a battle against an unseen enemy that is not fighting a conventional war. We haven’t even understood how to wage such a war over the long term, much less how to deal with a non ideological, non religious, or non nationalistic enemy, such as a virus during a pandemic.

Now humanity is waging an asymmetrical conflict between an inhuman virus which adapts, infects, and kills without thinking, while human beings are divided between their desire to preserve life and those who do not care how many people die so long as their way of life is preserved, in the way that they knew it. However, the keys to defeating the virus, are similar to counterinsurgency doctrine. The Virus has to be identified, its victims quarantined, their contacts tracked, effective treatments developed, especially a vaccine that will protect people, and allow the resumption of normal life.

This isn’t rocket science. Until virologists and epidemiologists can develop effective vaccines and medicines to alleviate and mitigate the worst symptoms, governments and citizens must be willing to do practice non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) such as social distancing and wearing face masks, which are proven by history and science to slow rates of  infection and death, whether compliance is voluntary or mandated by criminal law. No person has the right to prioritize their personal freedoms over the lives of others. This is part of the social contract developed in the earliest of human civilizations, and in the teachings of Jesus the Christ who told his disciples This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

If the Trump Administration choses to ignore science and history regarding the COVID 19 pandemic, it will experience the same humiliation that France encountered in Indochina and Algeria, as well as the American experience in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If it does so for purely economic reasons, being willing to sacrifice people for comics and profits, than its immorality and vice is too great to reconcile with any human understanding of the sacred value of all human life.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else, but then we already have doe so, since COVID 19 has already claimed as many American lives as were lost in every conflict since the 1958 intervention in Lebanon and every war, conflict, incident, or operation since.

Whether you understand it or not, the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu isn’t something that we cannot learn from today. One can never underestimate one’s enemy, or overestimate their ability to defeat it. Nor can they ignore the advice of historians, scientists, sociologists, physicians, and military leaders. Sadly, it seems to me that Donald Trump and his Administration and followers are more than willing to follow in the footsteps of all who in their interest willing to sacrifice the lives of the innocent, be they soldiers, Medical personnel, civilians, or others deemed life unworthy of life. So why not lead more people to death in order to maintain power and profits.

I won’t say anything else tonight, as Imam tired but anxious about the results of a COVID 19 test that Judy and I took late Monday afternoon as a result of a possible exposure Judy might have had last Friday. While I do not think that either of us will test positive, the current situation where so many Americans do not seem to give a damn about the lives of others in the midst of a highly infectious and deadly pandemic are now personal. As are the histories of those who promote their stupidity:  leaders who dodged the draft, or never served at all, either on the front lines of combat or in the battle against infectious diseases decide that human lives are worth less than short term profits of their corporations or economic interests.

I am not a man of violence, but I agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Likewise I believe like General Ludwig Beck who died in the attempt to kill Hitler and seize control of Germany from the Nazi regime that those entrusted with high office must live up to it. Beck said:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

For me the testimony of both men is relevant today.

How can I be silent and retain any sense of morality today? My heart goes out to all the French, and their Colonials, and Foreign Legion Troops who died for an awful cause in Indochina, including those who fought for South Vietnam and lost everything by doing so, as well as the Americans sent their to prop up a regime that had little popular support, and was based on power religious and economic elites more than its own people.

Now we are faced with a pandemic that kills without discrimination. A pandemic that kills without remorse because it is not human, and which adepts itself to killing  more people. This is especially true when human beings and their governments ignore or willingly break the basics of non pharmaceutical interventions, such as social distancing and face masks because they value their personal convenience over the life of others.


Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, christian life, civil rights, counterinsurency in afghanistan, Diseases Epidemics and Pandemics, ethics, faith, healthcare, History, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, vietnam

Marshall, Eisenhower and Senior Military Leadership

Great military leaders are the products of the militaries in which they serve.  This begins in their early career and includes their education, training, assignments as well as the men that they serve under in their formative years.  They are shaped by the character, doctrine and organization of the military that they serve and are products of the times that they live and serve. Even the difference of a few years can make a major difference in the career path and development of a leader.  Such was the case with two of the great figures of the US Army in World War Two Generals of the Army George Marshall and Dwight David Eisenhower.

George Marshall

The careers of Marshall and Eisenhower prior to the Second World War were somewhat similar but also included major differences that would shape them for their roles in the war.  Marshall was commissioned 13 years prior to Eisenhower in 1902.  As a result he served his early years in a peacetime army marked by slow promotion.  Marshall was promoted to Captain in 1916 after serving 14 years as a Lieutenant despite attendance at the Army Staff College then called the Infantry and Cavalry School.  As an infantry officer he served in the Philippines for 2 years and served in various battalion and regimental level staff positions. Marshall’s career also included as assignments working with the National Guard and State militias.   His skills as a planner brought him to France as Assistant Chief of Staff for the 1st Infantry Division and later the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under General Pershing.

While serving in these positions he was promoted rapidly to Major, Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel. In France he worked with the training, supply and operations of the American Forces as well as coordination with the French and British. His skills were invaluable and he played a major role in the rapid transition of the AEF from the St Michel salient to the Meuse-Argonne and though he reduced in rank when the war ended he was appointed aide-de-camp to Pershing in 1919.

During the 1920 Marshall served as Executive officer of the 15th Infantry Regiment in China and on his return to the United States he was assigned to the Army War College during which time his first wife died.  Following her death he would become Director of the Academic Department of the Infantry School.  His tenure at the War College was marked by his training numerous officers who would later become generals, including Eisenhower. He played a key role in the Preparation of the book “Infantry in Battle” which became a standard textbook for Army infantry officers.  He then served as senior instructor for the Illinois National Guard from 1933-1936 and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1936. After his promotion he worked to improve the Civilian Conservation Corps.  His organizational talents were recognized by President Franklin D Roosevelt and he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Army in 1939.  Marshall’s career is unique; he never served in command of anything more than a company. His positions above the company level were all in staff or instructor duty. In our current military an infantry officer or other combat arms officer who never commanded a maneuver unit at battalion, regiment or division level would never become a General and certainly never become Chief of Staff of the Army or Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Marshall was a brilliant organizer, leader, judge of men and visionary in understanding the necessity of coalitions and inter-dependence of nations in the modern world.  His organizational leadership skills, ability to pick the right officers for key positions and his political and diplomatic acumen made him one of the foremost military leaders in US Military history.

Dwight D Eisenhower

Eisenhower was commissioned in 1915 less than two years prior to the entry of the US into the First World War. Like Marshall was commissioned as an Infantry officer and his career progressed in normal fashion until the entry of the United States into the war.  Though Eisenhower never served in France, he was assigned to training troops and became one of the early leaders of the Armored Forces until they were disbanded after the war.  In the rapidly expanded wartime army Eisenhower was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel in less time than Marshall spent as a 2nd Lieutenant.

During his tenure in the Tank Corps he served with George Patton, commanded a tank battalion and was executive officer of an armored brigade.  Following the disestablishment of the Tank Corps Eisenhower served as an infantry regiment executive officer in Panama.  In this position he was schooled by General Fox Conner in classic military theory.   It was fortunate for Eisenhower in that he was able to serve with and was able to gain seasoning and education under an excellent officer. Eisenhower returned to the United States and commanded an infantry battalion at Fort Benning and following this served on the faculty of the Infantry School under Marshall who would remember him at the beginning of World SWar Two.

His subsequent career was somewhat mundane. He served on the Battle Monument’s Commission under Pershing and then on the staff of the Assistant Secretary of War.  However both of these assignments put him in the eye of other important officers and officials.  Eisenhower was then transferred to the Philippines where he served as Chief of Staff to Douglas MacArthur from 1935-39. He returned to the US to serve concurrently as the regimental Executive Officer and a battalion commander in the 15th Infantry regiment and later Chief of Staff to the Commander of 3rd Army.  Through his excellent work in every assignment he gained the attention of Conner, Pershing and eventually Marshall. While at the Infantry school he helped prepare Pershing’s memoirs.  His experience with MacArthur in Washington and the Philippines helped prepare him for the myriad of difficult personalities with which he would deal with as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. In 1941 he came to Washington to serve under Marshall at the WPA.

As far as who was the better officer, opinions vary; there are arguments to be made for both yet Eisenhower himself seemed to subordinate himself to Marshall.  Omar Bradley says of Marshall “if there ever was an indispensable man in time of national crisis, he was that man.” (A Soldier’s Story p.205) However both Marshall and Eisenhower were excellent officers and each played a vital role in the Allied victory.   However their careers were markedly different. In fact one could say that they were “apples and oranges.” Marshall served entirely as a staff officer and instructor after his service as a company officer.  Eisenhower served in numerous command positions as well as staff jobs. Their careers would intersect and had commonalities but each was shaped by their different experiences in the Army.

In World War Two Marshall seems to have fewer critics.  However this seems to more a result of Eisenhower’s exposed position in Europe where he was comparatively junior to many of the officers that that he would command.  He also had to deal with the competing interests of such strong personalities as Marshall, Patton, Roosevelt, Churchill, DeGaulle and Montgomery while fighting the Germans. This has lent him to criticism from both British and American officers as well as various historians.  But these observations are based on wartime experience and not their early careers.   Field Marshall Alan Brooke seems to have had more respect for Marshall and many in the British high command showed little respect toward Eisenhower.

“Better” in the military is in the eye of the beholder and often dependant on assignments as well as the superiors that one works for.  From a traditional point of view Eisenhower had the better career path with command at battalion and executive officer at regiment levels. However Marshall’s career provided him with a wider spectrum in dealing with senior staff, school, reserve component, government civilian agencies and Washington bureaucracy and politics that Eisenhower did not experience until Marshall tapped him in 1941 to work with the WPA. Their personalities were different and they dealt with subordinates in different manners, but both successfully managed their subordinates. Eisenhower was able to manage Patton and Montgomery while working in Churchill’s back yard, while others such as DeGaulle walking through his door.  Both men were uniquely suited to work with each other and in the positions that they found themselves during the war and one has a hard time imagining a better partnership in command.

The interesting thing to me is Marshall’s career.  In the current era he would never rise to the heights that he served.  Since the Second World War no officer who has not served command in major combat arms units at all levels has risen to be Chief of Staff of the Army, Air Force, Commandant of the Marine Corps or Chief of Naval Operations.  Nor has any risen to the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or major Combatant Command such as EUCOM, CENTCOM or PACOM.  Of we look at Marshall and his impact one has to ask if “punching tickets”in the combat arms  is necessarily optimal  when it comes to managing the organization at the service level.  While it is proven that command is a great asset to senior command in combatant commands it may not be as necessary for the chief of a service.  One can ask if an officer who has served in staff and instructor positions, especially those where they have to deal with politicians, civilian agencies, as well as active and reserve component forces as well as an instructor and writer of doctrine could not serve as successfully in a position such as the Army Chief of Staff or the Commandant of the Marine Corps as an officer who has had the “well rounded career.”

In the light of George Marshall these are valid questions to ask. Might someone who has had the ability to step back and examine the personnel, logistics and training of a force as well as having experience with reserve component and civilian agencies could conceivably serve as effectively as an officer who has served rotating between command and staff positions.  In today’s world the staff oriented officer would also have experience dealing with industry and intelligence.  While I do not advocate such a change I think it would be wise to consider officers such as Marshall for these service level positions.

Following the war Marshall would become Secretary of State and help rebuild Europe while serving under Eisenhower how had become President of the United States.


Padre Steve{


Filed under History, leadership, Military, national security, world war two in europe

The Afghan War 2009-2012: Lessons from Algeria 1954-1960 A Review of “A Savage War of Peace

“A Savage War of Peace.” By Alistair Horne. The New York Review of Books, 1977, 1987, 1996, 2006.  Maps. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. 608 pp.

Foreign Legion in Algeria

In light of the developing situation in Afghanistan and the plan to apply the counterinsurgency techniques of clear and hold, or “the oil slick” in that country it is wise to look at other instances of this type of warfare before criticizing those about to implement the strategy.  Of course when doing this the best place to look is history, especially where the strategy worked, at least until the DeGaulle government abandoned the nearly complete military success achieved by French forces in Algeria triggering a national crisis.

Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace” is a most needed addition for anyone seriously interested in studying the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare; especially political and military leaders of a western nation occupying a Moslem country.  Horne’s work is important and one of the few in English that cover this subject.  The two other books in English to cover the subject, albeit only on part of the campaign is Paul Aussaresses’ controversial memoir “The Battle of the Casbah” and Ted Morgan’s memoir “My Battle of Algiers” though useful suffer from the fact that they are limited in scope to the events the individuals experienced while serving as French Army officers in Algeria. In both the author’s personal biases are readily in evidence and by the fact that they were written many years after the events in question.  Since those books are heavily dependent on the author’s memories.

Paratroops of the First Colonial Paratroop Regiment in Algeria

Horne is not limited by these factors.  Horne is a historian who served as a British Army officer assigned to the MI5 in the Middle East and later as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail who has written a trilogy of excellent works on the Franco-German wars: The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-1871, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 and To Lose a Battle: France 1940. As such his account is as close to being objective as any could be in the case of writing this particular history.

Horne approaches the subject from the perspective of the broader issues that France and the Fourth Republic were facing in 1954, economic, military and psychological recovery from the Second World War, the loss of colonies, defeat in Indochina culminating in the Dien Bien Phu debacle.  Such is important when examining a military campaign as the latter do not take place in isolation of other events in the life of a nation. When the history of the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are written they will have to take into account many other factors apart from the military operations.

Horne tackles the complex issues of the Algerian war in a multifaceted manner looking not only at the military issues, but the political and social issues faced by the French, the European Pied-Noir Algerians and the Algerian natives, both Berber and Arab alike.  Horne also looks at the conflict in the broader context of the Cold War, the emergence of the Non-Aligned nation movement and the rise of Arab nationalism, skillfully weaving the actions of these movements and key individuals such as Egypt’s Nasser, Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and the most influential, and President Jacques de Gaulle into the story of the Algerian conflict. Unlike other writers Horne had access to many of the individuals involved, including leaders from each rebel faction, the Pied-Noir and the French government and military.  Included in those he interviewed is Algerian President Boumedienne who had commanded rebels during the conflict and was instrumental in Algeria’s independence as well as Jacque Soustelle who had been Governor General from 1955 through 1956. These sources as well as numerous others help give his narrative a depth and subtlety lacking in the first hand English language memoirs and accounts.

Terrorism by FLN Militias and Sympathizers Caused Great Problems for the French

Horne begins his account with the story of the aborted revolt and massacre at Setif on May 8th, VE Day, 1945 and the attempt by the French government to reassert its control over Algeria. Of particular interest in this section is Horne’s analysis of the mistake of the Pied Noirs and the French government in not offering a settlement to the Algerian separatists under magnanimous terms due to the scale of the victory they had won following the Setif uprising and their security forces “decapitation” of the leadership of the various Algerian nationalist factions.  He compares the victory to that of the Israelis in the 1967 War and the political reaction of the Pied Noir to the Israelis, who instead of negotiating a settlement that could have long term effects advantageous to them from a position of strength determined to humiliate and subjugate their foe.[1] If the US military is able to reverse the situation in Afghanistan the United States and the Afghan government will need to be magnanimous to a defeated foe in order to prevent yet another repetition of another Al Qaida and Taliban resurgence.

French Paratroops Going House to House in Algiers

In examining the period before the actual outbreak of the war in 1954 Horne looks at the missed opportunities of the French to prevent it.  He also examines the development of the Algerian independence movement, especially the senior leaders of the movement; many of whom had served in the French Army during the Second World War with distinction. His portrayal of the conflicts within the independence movement, show that this was not a monolithic movement, but that each faction had its own goals which often were in conflict with other groups.  This is also the case in Afghanistan where a disparate number of ethnic, political, criminal, nationalist and terrorist groups who often are at war with each other.  Likewise, Horne’s treatment of the Pied Noir and certain parts of the French leadership examine how they too were divided at some points in regard to the ultimate plan for the relationship of Algeria to France.

Horne makes much of political mistakes and machinations of French leaders that culminated in the end of the Fourth Republic and subsequent impact on de Gaulle when he became president in June 1958.  Some mistakes that Horne explores are those committed in the immediate wake of Setif. He also examines mistakes during the revolt; such as not taking it seriously, to individuals in the National Assembly impeding the efforts of Soustelle to effect reforms and compromise between hard line factions in the Pied Noir and Moslem communities.[2] Likewise he notes how the draconian treatment of Algerian Moslems by the French Army in the early phases of the counter-insurgency effort, including the assignment of “collective responsibility” to punish communities for the actions of individuals helped alienate the populace and strengthen the insurgency.  Such was the case in the first part of the Iraq occupation and helped inspire that insurgency.  One member of Soustelle’s cabinet noted: “the cycle of repression getting ever tougher, and the rebellion ever stronger, will ruin all your efforts of pacification.”[3]

Besides political mistakes Horne examines issues in military tactics that seem to plague counterinsurgency efforts to the present time.  He describes the early application of heavy conventional forces in an attempt to defeat the insurgency.  Horne discusses unsuccessful efforts in 1954-1955 and how they not only did not destroy the insurgency but how the insurgency spread in response to the efforts.  The question: “Did ‘pacification’, for instance mean trying to regain the confidence of the inhabitants; or did it mean crushing the rebellion by whatever means available?”[4] This question is still asked today by soldiers fighting insurgencies and often the latter is counseled by those who still think along the lines of the conventional tactics of the Cold War and World War Two, which many conservative pundits are enamored with.  Horne also discusses the successful tactics of commando units used by General Challe to effectively combat the insurgency.[5]

Horne examines the attitudes of the French Army which in a sense fought the war for itself.  Armies that have fought many campaigns together often have a sense of comradeship that transcends even the loyalty that they have to their nation.  It is the understanding of a “Band of Brothers” and can be found throughout history.  When the histories of Iraq and Afghanistan are written they will certainly include the fact that many soldiers, Marines and Sailors engaged in actual combat operations fought for the men and women with whom they served more than for anything else.

The French Army felt little affinity for the Pied Noir who they often saw as only interested in their interest at the expense of the campaign.  Likewise the Army, felt little more than contempt for the French government which they felt had betrayed them. General Lorillot noted “They made fools of us in Indo-China…they screwed in Tunisia…We are being screwed in Morocco. But they will never screw us in Algeria. I swear to you. Let this be known in Paris.”[6] Instead attitudes of not losing, stopping the humiliations were animated by the feeling of anti-communism in French ranks, especially in the Elite Parachute, Foreign Legion, Commando and Colonials (Marines). The novel The Centurions and voiced the feelings of one Paratroop commander “We want to halt the decadence of the West and the march of Communism.”[7]

Horne provides a narrative analysis of the military campaigns within the Algerian War.  In particular he describes the successes of units designed to live among and better the lives of the Algerians and the SAS,[8] He describes the building of the border wall to keep weapons out of rebel hands.  He describes the “success” of units which specialized in torture,[9] which turned out to be helpful in the short run but which ultimately damaged the fabric of the Army.  Horne notes the effects of torture on soldiers who participated and how it negatively affected support of the war in France and internationally.[10] The use of torture in Algeria has parallels with Iraq. Horne notes: “one has to take into account all those factors…horror at the atrocities of the F.L.N., a determination not to lose yet another campaign, and the generally brutalizing effect of so cruel and protracted war.”[11]

The most powerful part of the narrative is the drama when French President de Gaulle was faced with the revolts of 1959. At this time the Pied Noir militias, dissatisfied with potential political settlements went to the barricades in Algiers and other major cities, assisted in some cases by Army units.  These forces again revolted against his attempts to mediate a settlement and were followed by the General’s revolt of April 1961 which nearly became a military coup in France itself.   President de Gaulle’s role in bringing these revolts to an end, without the collapse of the government or a civil war was miraculous.  Though his actions undercut the military success of the Army in Algeria which had virtually eliminated the insurgency his foresight in recognizing that France had a future not dependant on Algeria remaining French was exceptional.  The actions of de Gaulle should be studied by those who closely link their country’s future to holding a foreign country, even one that is considered an integral part of the mother country, as Algeria was to France.

Horne’s book is as timely as it was when first published, maybe more so with the current escalation in Afghanistan.  Along with works by David Galula “Pacification In Algeria 1956-1958, Bernard Fall “Street Without Joy” and “Hell in a Very Small Place,” Andrew Krepinevich’s  “The Army in Vietnam,” Brian McAllister Linn’s “The Philippine War: 1899-1902” and Ben Shepherd’s “War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans” Horne’s work is vital reading for military and political leaders fighting counter-insurgency operations.  Unfortunately many militaries are often enamored by high tech innovation are not often receptive to the decidedly human factors and strategies necessary to fight insurgencies until they experience frustration and failure attempting to use conventional forces and tactics to win a counter-insurgency campaign.  Effective intelligence, efforts to win the hearts and minds of the populace by protecting them, knowledge of public affairs and the effect of media on operations are all key elements of a proper counter-insurgency campaign are covered by Horne. Horne’s work reminds us that these conflicts are not won by the forces with the greatest firepower or most modern weapons. This is something that the United States and its NATO and other Allies in Afghanistan should never forget.

[1] Horne, Alistair. A Savage War f Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. The New York Review of Books, New York, NY 1977, 1987, 1996 2006. p.69

[2] Ibid. pp. 113-114

[3] Ibid. p.115  Some would later compare the attitudes of the French Army to those of the Nazis. In one point of his narrative Horne notes the attitude of an officer who saw nothing wrong with the tactics used by the Nazis in the Second World War.

[4] Ibid. p.112.  Another question noted is something that seems to be commonplace in the Iraq War ““Limited Repression” did not always make the clearest sense to a patrol of young soldiers caught in a vicious ambush.” When one reads Horne’s accounts one sometimes almost feels that he is writing about the current American experience in Iraq.

[5] Ibid. pp. 334-335

[6] Ibid. pp.175-176

[7] Ibid. p.176

[8] The SAS Section Administrative Specialise first set up by Soustelle.  These units had great success but also suffered heavy losses as their efforts were recognized as having a positive effect by the FLN and other Algerian rebel groups.

[9] Such as the 11th Shock Regiment

[10] See pp. 195-207.

[11] Ibid. p.198.


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