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A Quiet Remembrance: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu May 7th 1954

French Prisoners

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.

French Major Marcel Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu. A revered leader he died in 2010

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.

Viet Minh Main Force Regulars

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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, vietnam

War, Remembrance and Healing: A Chaplain, Officer and Historian Makes His Way Home

The first version of this post was written in the spring of 2008 when I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting after Iraq. It was originally run in my church’s online news service.  I post it now with some updates that have been brought about by new ways that I am rediscovering God and because of the current situation in Afghanistan which has become worse in the past year. As I read news releases about casualties and attacks on NATO forces and Afghan civilians, especially those in small outposts or serving as advisers and trainers I am reminded of my time in Iraq.  Please don’t forget those who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who have served in prior wars. Especially keep in your prayers and help assist those who have returned injured in mind, body or spirit and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

874Leaving a Bedouin Camp 1 mile from Syria

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past since returning from Iraq. Since I’ve been back about a year and a half I can say that I have changed as a result of my service there.  Change can be scary but in my case it has been both necessary and probably good.  Ministry, theology and history have been part of my life for many years; they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. When I first wrote this piece not long after returning I was in pretty bad shape but in the months since I have been attempting to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return. I’m not done yet by any means, but things are getting better, not quite like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better…Kill Clouseau!” but a slowly getting better with some occasional bumps in the road.

One of the things that I have wrestled with is my faith, and returning from war changes a man.  Before I went to Iraq I thought that I had things pretty much together.  When I came home and fell apart it also affected my faith, doing little things became difficult and the effects were exaggerated by my isolation.  In a sense it was my Saint John of the Cross Dark night of the Soul experience.  I felt that God had abandoned me, people would come to me with their crisis of faith and I had to dig deep to stay with them, but in doing so I became acutely aware of the fact that I shared this with them. I couldn’t hide behind my collar or the cross on my uniform as the crisis was an interruption which drove me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deal with the world that the people I minister among deal with every day.

291Iraqi Police in Ramadi Escorting Civilians Across the War Zone of Route Michigan

There are those who believe that all forms of ministry are basically the same and that lessons learned are universally applicable and that somehow all ministries are proclamation oriented.  Unfortunately that is not the case and one of the places that this is true is the Military Chaplain ministry.  This mibnistry is much different than parish or para-church ministries and even different than other institutional ministries such as Police, Fire, Industrial or civilian health care chaplaincy.   It is different in that it is more incarnation versus proclamation. We not only minster to our people but we live among them.  We live the experience of those that we serve, especially in the uncertainly of war and deployments.  Chaplains live in a world where we are fully military officers and fully ministers of our own church or faith tradition. As a chaplain I never lose my calling of being a priest, but I am a priest in uniform, a military professional and go where our nations send me to serve the Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who I live among be that overseas, or in the States.

142Always a Priest Eucharist with Advisers in the Far West of Al Anbar

There is always a tension in the military chaplain ministry. This is  especially true when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There are those that oppose the military chaplaincy on theological or philosophic grounds, usually some manner of absolutist understanding of ministry, church-state relations or social justice considerations.  My purpose is here not to defend military chaplain institutions against such criticism but rather to share the world and tension that military chaplains live in when our nation is engaged in unpopular which some consider unjust or illegal wars.

training team baseIsolated Base Camp for Advisers in Afghanistan

A lot of people have no “ethical” or “moral” qualms about wars that are easy to pigeonhole as just wars, especially if we win quickly and easily.  It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for religious people, especially more conservative Christians to give the credit to the Lord for the “victory.”  Unfortunately such “Credit” is given without them ever understanding or sometimes even caring about the human cost of war.   Likewise it is easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God’s involvement.  Conversely and maybe even perversely I have heard some say that God has blessed the use of weapons or tactics that violate principles of fighting a “just war” especially that of proportionality. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause but I do think that many chaplains have a less “cheerleading” approach than many in conservative churches. The challenge for chaplains in such an environment is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus. To do so we must care for the least, the lost and the lonely and never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent and the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

237Iraqi Kids in Al Anbar Province, a couple of months before they could not venture outside because of insurgent attacks, children are never winners in war

We are now seeing the conflict in Iraq winding down and what until this year had been “the good war” in Afghanistan go bad and support for it decline.  Strategy is being debated as how to best “win” the war in Afghanistan even as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different and really doesn’t allow for them to indulge themselves in “cheerleading.” In fact chaplains can themselves through isolation, lack of experience and fear can become more reflective and less “cheerleader” oriented the longer the war goes on without sign of appreciable progress, much less victory.  They feel the onslaught of their soldiers doubts, fears as well as the loss of friends and the chapel congregation through being killed or wounded in action. This  can take a terrible toll even for the most resilient of chaplain. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, revolutionary wars, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war, all of which can affect the chaplain.

dien_bien_phu paras landingFrench Paratroops Landing at Dien Bien Phu

Chaplains volunteer to go with and place themselves in harms way to care for God’s people in the combat zone or far away from home. While they do this there are supporters of war as well as detractors who have no earthly clue about war or life in the military other then what they see in the media or experienced in peacetime or the cold war. Some supporters often seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members change with the particular war.

legion indo-chinaForeign Legion Troops in Indochina

In order to somehow make sense of going on we cannot simply think of what is politically expedient for either those who support or want to expand the war, or others who want it ended now, both of which have consequences many of which are bad.  I think that we have to look at history and not just to American history to find answers, not simply answers to how to win or end the war but answers to the consequences that either course of action posits. Thus I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops, Colonials (Marines) and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China. These men, not all of who were French were placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

french troops indochinaFrench Troops on the March in Indochina

One author describes Easter 1954: “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) This can be a terrible burden for the Padre who cares for such men.  Ministry in such places is truly an incarnational experience because there is no place to hide and the chaplain is as vulnerable as his flock.  It is the ministry that places us “in the valley of the shadow of death” where as the Psalmist says we are “to fear no evil for you are with us.” It is the ministry of Good Friday where to all appearances seems that God has abandoned the field and evil has won.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

legion algeriaLegionaries in Algeria, many French Troops Went from one War in Indochina to another in Algeria only to have the De Gaulle Government throw the Military Victory Away and Cause a Crisis

You probably wonder where I am going with this, back when I first drafted this year and a half ago I wondered too. But here is where I think I am going. We live in difficult of times at home and in Afghanistan.  It home we are mired in an economic crisis clouded by deep political division.  In Afghanistan we are engaged in a hard fight where units we are taking casualties and the mission is being debated.  Sometimes to those deployed and those who returned that their sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.  This of course is not universally true as there a people of all political viewpoints who care for the welfare and attempt to ensure that those who serve are not abandoned as those men who served in Vietnam.  I think that part of the feeling comes from the presentation of the war by the media which tends to focus only on the negative outcomes and not positive things that our soldiers accomplish. That can be discouraging to the men and women on the ground.  One of the most difficult things for me upon my return was to see the bitterness a division in the American people and political establishments and becoming quite depressed about it.   I stopped watching the perpetual news cycle and listening to talk radio.  The hatred, ignorance and crassness of it all was disheartening and I refuse to take any part in something that is so hate filled, power driven and unredemptive.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team With Afghan Troops

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people.  Nor was it fully appreciated by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim.  At the same time their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. The sacrifice of French soldiers would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of the “Greatest Generation” was citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military fighting unpopular wars and that makes our service just a bit different than those who went before us.  I related to the French troops who fought in Indochina and Algeria as well as our own Vietnam Vets than I do to others.  These is a kinship among us that goes beyond nationality, politics or age.

This is the world in which military chaplains’ minister.  It is a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals, men and women who enlist knowing that they will be deployed and quite likely end up in a combat zone. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. It is a ministry of reconciliation by the means of incarnation. Many times those outside the military do not understand this. It is a different world full of contradictions and ambiguity.  Such situations even impact the families of those who serve.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. As the country builds to the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections I anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops or the war in order to bolster their election chances which do not always coincide with what is in the best interest of the troops or the mission. Chaplains cannot be concerned about the politics nor even the policy as our duty is to be there as Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams for those that we serve. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because of all the strife in the body politic.  In addition we must continue on because most churches and other religious communities, even those supportive of our troops really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which may be foreign or archaic to many Americans, or for those countries with troops and chaplains in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful to God as well as to those that we serve.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China 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 Dienbeinphu 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. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

Madonna of StalingradMadonna of Stalingrad

So as you can see I have done a lot of reflecting over the past year and a half. It has been a spiritual journey, an intellectual and academic journey and a personal journey of slowly healing and recovery.  I have gone through some changes in the process which have not been easy, but certainly have deepened my faith even as I struggled and made me much more appreciative of life, love and peace.

I write in order to wrestle with what I have mentioned here, and I try to write something every night. I can full agree with Father Henri Nouwen in his book Beyond the Mirror as to the purpose that writing serves me in my journey.

“These many interruptions calling me ‘beyond’ compelled me to write. First of all, simply because writing seemed to be the only way for me not to lose heart to in the frightening and often devastating interruptions and to hold onto my innermost self while moving from known to unknown places. Writing helped me to remain somewhat focused amid the turmoil and discern the small guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony of distracting voices.  But there is a second motivation. Somehow I believed that writing was the one way tom let something of lasting value emerge from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.  Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory, I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others- perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too, out of an awareness that my deepest vocation is to be a witness of the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

pub2Slowly Getting Better

I am healing though it has been at times painful, but faith is returning and I can say that though it has not been easy it has been worth it.  I do hope that what little I do in my work and in my writing will be of help to those who struggle and those who recognize their own need for reconciliation, healing who need to hope again no matter who they are and what their circumstance.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

Dien Bien Phu- Reflections 55 Years Later

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHU

French POWs from Dien Bien Phu being marched into captivity

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 based on Na Son in how to engage and 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, had superior artillery and 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 while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it 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. The elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle.  They elected to go light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  Likewise French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions were exposed and not mutually supporting.  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, Foriegn Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including LtCol 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 Jaques 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.  The 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 this 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 that 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.

bigeard_instruction_sautLtCol Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu

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, Despite the efforts of General David Petreus and others these lessons have not been completely learned by western military organizations.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded officers we have, thanks to General Petreus had a good amount of success in Iraq. I believe that Iraq will do okay in the long run.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back. I am concerned about Afghanistan. It  has the potential to be Vietnam in the mountains.  I do hope and pray that we will figure Afghanistan out.  Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun?  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimated the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons. A year or so ago the Taliban came close to overrunning an American Coalition Outpost (COP).   Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

Last night at the ball game, Ray and Bill, the Vietnam vets who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate gave me a small memento.  A small wooden coming from the Virginia Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.  On the back side a simple message: “Welcome Home.”  Something that they did not get when they came home.  My dad came home in 1974 after back to back 11 month deployments, one of which he was at An Loc, besieged for 80 days.  He never talked about it.  I go home next week.  My dad is slowly dying and doesn’t have that much longer left, his physician cannot believe that he is still alive.  I have to help my mom with funeral arrangements, some hospice stuff, billing issues with the insurance company and the nursing home.  My dad had expressed his desire to be buried at sea in the Gulf of Tonkin.  He told my brother he wanted this because it had the most beautiful sunsets he had ever seen.  I do hope that we can fulfill that wish.  As a Navy Chaplain I know I can work out the burial at sea, and pray that somehow I will be able to take him where he wants to go.

Thank you dad.  Thank you Ray and Bill and all my Vietnam era friends and mentors, from the California Guard, SSG Buff Rambo, SSG Mickey Yarro and Colonel Edgar Morrison.  Thanks also to SFC Harry Zilkan, SFC Harry Ball, 1st Sergeant Jim Koenig, Colonel Donald Johnson and Sergeant Major John Butler.  I especially thank my former parishioners at the Fort Indiantown Gap Chapel.  Charlie, Ray, General Smoker, Scotty and the rest of you.  Thanks also to my Battle of Hue City brothers, Barney, Limey, General Pace, Sergeant Major Thomas.  Thank you also to the French officers who did so much for their country and were treated so shamefully.  A number of these men have passed on but I will not forget them.  Others I have lost contact with. Please take the time to thank the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in your lives.  May no other veterans have to endure what all of you endured at the hands of your countrymen. May God bless all of you.

Peace, Steve+

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