Wednesday, February 16, 2005

France to Honor Six Americans Who Risked All in Support of a French War in a Faraway Land

Allen L. Pope risked life and limb to fly CIA supply missions in 1954 to besieged French forces in what is now Vietnam
writes the AP.
But the thing he recounts most vividly is not the danger he faced. It's the bravery of the French troops.

"They never raised the white flag," he says. "There were men without hands, men without legs, men without feet, men that were blinded. They were catching hell."

They caught it at Dien Bien Phu, a cluster of villages in a valley ringed by mountains near the Laotian border. Communist rebels on higher ground pummeled the French with artillery in an epic battle that marked the end of French colonial rule in Indochina and foreshadowed the U.S. experience in Vietnam.

Next week, nearly 51 years after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the seven surviving American pilots who braved those perilous skies — but later were essentially disowned by the CIA — will be awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, or Legion of Honor, France's highest award for service.

Six of the seven will gather at the official residence of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte for a ceremony to commemorate an important chapter in the history of U.S.-French relations.

"It's a nice gesture on their part," says Douglas R. Price, a Rockville Centre, N.Y., native who was 29 years old when he flew 39 airdrop missions to Dien Bien Phu in April and May 1954 as a civilian employee of Civil Air Transport, a flying service whose undeclared owner was the CIA [later succeeded by Air America].

"There has been a lot of friction between the governments lately," he said, alluding to the leading role France played in opposing the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. "Maybe they're making a gesture, hoping that they can get things back together again."

I almost posted this without comment (merci à Toto), because I didn't want to spoil the party. (I didn't feel there was a party to spoil, and I have never failed to put the failures of the French military — real or imagined, supposed defeats or the failure to even show up — mostly on the back of French politicians.)

But then I remembered the GIs of World War II who, also they, have been the recipients of — well-deserved — honors and citations many times in the past, in France as elsewhere.

That did not prevent the anti-Americanism of the Chirac administration, nor the French press from following the Chirac administration and report on the 6oth anniversary of D-Day with accounts in which America's contributions were downplayed and/or ignored.

Gestures are nice, as is symbolism, but they — and it — should never be subjected to the policies of and politicians and administrations or to la raison d'État. Especially when they involve men going to combat and putting their life and limbs at risk.

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