Sunday, May 09, 2004

Diên Biên Phú and Iraq?

American and other foreign nationals being evacuated
aboard Air America, April 29, 1975.
For some reason or other, not one of the four bloggers in this space took any notice of yesterday's 50th anniversary commemorations of the battle of Diên Biên Phú.

General Võ Nguyên Giáp lead the Vietnamese attack and the battle lasted from March 13 until May 7, 1954, when France surrendered [*]. Three thousand French troops and ten thousand Vietnamese died there.

In yesterday's Times, French novelist Antoine Audouard published an op-ed, chosen for its obvious echos:
Fifty years ago today, at dawn on May 7, 1954, after 56 days of battle, silence fell upon the hills of Dien Bien Phu. The French had named the hills Dominique, Béatrice and Isabelle, sweet and feminine names, evocative of the mists of the northern Vietnamese countryside. They had been taken and lost, and taken again, and their shell-plowed soil was drenched in sweat and blood. For years to come they would deliver up fragments of human bodies and muddy jungle boots. This once calm mountain valley had become the symbolic graveyard of the 60,000 French soldiers who died in the Indochina war.

Cruelly, the night before, the Vietminh radio had broadcast "Le Chant des Partisans," [brief MP3 sample] the hymn of the French Resistance. Some of the 10,000 French soldiers there had, 10 years earlier, been part of the fight against the Nazis.
Supplies parachuted in to a French garrison. At Diên Biên Phú
Hearing the familiar lyrics, they felt their hearts being torn apart. What was defeat and humiliation for them — the surrender of their fortified camp to the Vietnamese and the end of French colonial rule in that country — was victory and liberation for their adversaries, the Vietnamese. It was one and the same reality: the two sides of the coin.
Audouard's father, who was born in Saigon, fought in that battle. He traveled to Vietnam to interview former combatants from both sides. He says he found that even in Vietnam "the silence after the battle had never been broken," and that the reasons for this were strange and complex. He continues
The reasons for the French silence are easier to understand: the vanquished lie low. Many survivors of the Indochina war are content to end their lives without answering the question their children never ask: Did you participate in acts of torture? Some did, burning villages, killing children they mistook for terrorists, raping women. "I did what a soldier is supposed to do; and for the rest, I did what I could." This medieval soldier's saying is no longer an excuse. To do "what one could" is indeed a far cry from doing what one dreamed of doing.

For those who lived through the humiliation of the German takeover of France in 1940, Indochina was an opportunity for redemption. They were soon to find out a simple and harsh truth: they were not welcome. The first Westerners to tell them so were hated and dismissed. They were American. Year after year, the French fought on, ignoring their own growing scepticism about the nature and objectives of the war. "A man of honor," De Gaulle once wrote, "pays his debts with his own money." Soon enough, the French war in Vietnam was heavily financed by American money. We might once have had honor, but we had certainly run out of money. All we had left to give was blood.
Audouard concludes with some odd and contradictory thoughts:
Can the echoes of the valley of Dien Bien Phu be heard in the streets of Falluja, at the prison of Abu Ghraib? Forty years ago, French friends of America tried to warn Washington about the pitfalls of Vietnam. The French themselves repeated their mistakes in Algeria. In Iraq every day even the best of intentions are cruelly put to test by the miseries and sorrows of war. As the promoters of a modern, "clean" war would have it, torture, humiliation, rapes, the killing of innocents, useless destruction are now avoidable.

But to go to war is to go to the bottom of the pit: what if those tragedies are not "collateral damage" but war itself, the essence of war? And when the damage is done, the pain and the shame are there to stay, and the dead (those bastards, my pals) keep coming back like ghosts.
What does Audouard council here? Is it just beatific pacifism? What exactly are the lessons of Diên Biên Phú if not even the French were able to draw them? Don't ever fight? Really? Crime and ignominy may very well be inextricable from war, but if Audouard is telling us never to fight, how could this realization have torn apart French soldiers' hearts if they didn't know that the Chant des Partisans and the violence it represented were righteous? And if war is "descending to the bottom of the pit," where exactly would France have been were it not for another earlier battle, the anniversary of which will be celebrated next month?

I may not see it but, if indeed there is a parallel between the torture employed by French troops in Indochina and the torture Abu Ghraib, Audouard maybe among the first in years — in France, or anywhere else for that matter — to give a damn about either.

[*] For those inclined to snicker at the sight of the words "France surrendered," take a few valium and think of fall of Saigon, and then go fuck yourselves.

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