The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett

Back to Dien Bien Phu

A Lesson to Ponder

The road to Dien Bien Phu is one of Asia's great scenic highways. From Hanoi, it snakes its way for 300-odd miles through jungle-covered mountains, over passes up to 5,000 feet. For scores of miles on end in the spring of 1962, it was like driving through some magnificent botanical park — with a dash of zoological garden thrown in. Trees were ablaze with scarlet, golden, and white blossoms — vivid and stark against the jungle green. In the early mornings there was the sensuous perfume of jungle flowers in the air, the restless purple contours of endless folds of wild mountain ranges, the piping, joyous cry of baboons leaping around in giant bamboo thickets; the swift blue flash of a kingfisher.

Rice-filled valleys, broad at the bottom where some placid stream carved a path through the green, followed the road up the mountains, rice fields fitting neatly into each other until they ended in a sharp arrowhead only a few square — more correctly triangular — yards in size, where the valley ended in the blank face of a mountain ridge or left the road behind in a breathlessly steep gradient. From the top, one could look back and forward over a harmonious mosaic of fields fanning out from the tiny triangles — each piece of mirrored rice field fitting into another as if set by a master jeweller. The curved walls of the descending terraces, the delicate green brush strokes of freshly planted rice against the polished copper surface of the water-filled fields blending into one of the most satisfying of panoramas. Always in a dramatic setting of mountain and forest, a glistening stream the vital center of it all. Nature tamed and embellished, set in the compelling drama of nature in the raw — calm and powerful.

Passing through the rebuilt towns and villages — most of them in ruins when I had last driven over this road eight years ago — I thought at first that only the mountains remained unchanged. But after I had arrived at Moc Chau, about 120 miles west of Hanoi, I had to change my mind. Thousands of acres of what had been dense, jungle-covered mountains before, were now fertile clearings with the green of rice, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and other crops showing through. New villages were springing up in clearings freshly hacked out of the jungle.

My mind went back to the first time I had travelled this road. Stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see from any of the innumerable mountain passes was what looked like a parade of fire-flies, a string of flashing diamonds flung carelessly over the mountain contours, sparkling and winking in the jet black night. As they approached, you could see they were blobs of dancing, wavering flames seemingly hanging in the air, advancing, overtaking, receding until they were mere pin-points of light that winked out altogether. One had to be close to see that they were flaming bamboo torches held in the hand of every tenth man or woman in an unending line of porters, each with upwards of a 100-pound load on his or her back, or lighting the road for a long convoy of bicycles, each with up to 600 pounds of supplies aboard — bound for Dien Bien Phu. Before one torch spluttered out, another was lit for it from the abundant bamboo lining the road. They were as much to scare away panthers and tigers as to light the roads — tigers' appetites having been whetted for human flesh by previous years of feasting on Vietnam's battlefields.

Convoys of ox-carts, wheel-barrows, bicycles, stout human backs occasionally were passed by a truck convoy, headlights creating mysterious shadow effects in the jungle. In the latter stages of the journey, especially the last terrible 50 miles from Tuan Giao over incredibly steep mountains to Dien Bien Phu, it was more often the bicycle and foot convoys that passed the trucks. They averaged 15 miles a night, while the best the truck convoys could average was ten miles — what with breakdowns, bomb craters, delayed action bombs on the road, and other obstacles.

No text book of logistics has ever tabulated the number and proportions of bicycles, human backs, wheel-barrows, ponies, and ox-carts necessary to transport the needs of a modern army. But in General Vo Nguyen Giap's planning, all that had to be carefully calculated. The numbers needed, the weights they could carry, the number of miles each category could cover in a night in order that by a fixed date the necessary quantities of food and munitions would be amassed in order to start the action. All this had to be foreseen, and also that supplies would continue to arrive in sufficient quantities to feed the voracious appetite of a military machine capable of combating the superior technical means, the weight of arms available to the French.

The latter, for a long time, were unaware that anything was going on at all. Roads were silent, or seemingly nonexistent, during the daytime. The French, despite their unchallenged monopoly of the air and their daily reconnaissance flights, did not even know that the last hundred miles or so of road had been built. Work had been done at night by the light of bamboo fires spaced every ten meters or so along the track. Before the road-builders left work in the morning for their shelters tunneled into mountain or ravine walls, they covered their work with freshly cut bamboo and tree branches to hide what was going on from prying French planes.

General Giap, years later in his book, People's War — People's Army (Hanoi, 1961), wrote as follows about the Dien Bien Phu road:

Truck convoys valiantly crossed streams, mountains and forests; drivers spent scores of sleepless nights in defiance of difficulties and dangers, to bring food and ammunition to the front...

Thousands of bicycles from the towns also carried food and munitions to the front. Hundreds of sampans of all sizes, hundreds of thousands of bamboo rafts crossed rapids and cascades to supply the front.

Convoys of pack-horses from the Meo highlands or the provinces headed for the front. Day and night, hundreds and thousands of porters and young volunteers crossed passes and forded rivers in spite of enemy planes and delayed-action bombs.

Near the firing line supply operations had to be carried out uninterruptedly and in the shortest possible time. Cooking, medical work, transport, etc., was carried out right in the trenches, under enemy bombing and cross-fire.

Such was the situation at Dien Bien Phu... Never had so many young Vietnamese travelled so far and become acquainted with so many distant regions of the country. From the plains to the mountains, on roads and jungle trails, on rivers and streams — everywhere there was the same animation. (Pp. 185-84.)

I had experienced some of this during my first visit to Vietnam at the beginning of the historic battle. It was impossible not to recall those momentous days — mainly nights as far as my travels were concerned.

The last stretch from Tuan Giao to Dien Bien Phu is today still a hair-raising experience. Apart from sections where a new wide road is being built with respectable gradients and proper bridges, it is still the narrow, deep-rutted, incredibly steep winding track, as it was hacked out of the mountain sides at the time. Only vehicles with front wheel drives and extra low gears could attempt it. For almost 50 miles, it is a series of ascending and descending corkscrew spirals. Bridges are often enough squared-off tree trunks, precisely the width of double wheels and spanning fearfully deep ravines. You hang on with your teeth as the vehicle groans in the lowest of low gears and lurches up and around in what seem near vertical spiral turns, or plunges into a rushing torrent with water foaming around your ankles and you feel the car carried sideways downstream towards a thundering waterfall as pebbles slither away under the tires from the furious onslaught of water. Only the knowledge that the supplies did get through comforts the traveller at such moments. But for every mile of road, the view is magnificent, successive panoramas opening out at every hairpin turn, each with some special feature of its own. Eventually you clear that last ridge and the smiling valley of Dien Bien Phu is at your feet.

What a change from last time. Bomb and shell craters had been levelled, the spider web of trenches which crept every night towards General de Castries's headquarters had been filled in and, to supplement human intervention, tropical growth — bananas and bamboo for the most part — had covered up the other scars.

Appropriately enough my arrival at the reception house coincided with a tremendous thunder storm. As the sun went down in purple fury, successive blasts of thunder crashed and rolled over the folds of surrounding mountains, forked lightning lit up the dramatic beauty of the scene. It was a realistic flashback to what had been going on just eight years previously as the battle roared to its climax. The boom of thunder and flash of lightning were supplemented by splashes of fire on the mountain sides where Delta immigrants were burning felled forest for a new farm. The illusion of a great battle raging was almost complete.

I recalled having asked Ho Chi Minh at his jungle headquarters in late March, 1954: What was Dien Bien Phu? The name had been mentioned several times in French communiques I heard on my portable radio on the way to Vietnam

"This is Dien Bien Phu," said President Ho as he tipped his sun helmet upside down on the bamboo table. "Here are mountains," and his slim, strong fingers ran around the outer rim of the helmet, "and that's where we are." Then his hand plunged down into the bottom of the helmet: "Down there is the valley of Dien Bien Phu — that's where the French are. The best troops they have in Indo-China. They will never get out. It may take some time, but they will never get out."

"That sounds like an Indo-China Stalingrad!" I said.

"In relation to conditions here, yes. In a modest way it is something like that," he agreed.

This bottom of President Ho's sun-helmet is the largest of the Thai valleys, 15 miles long and up to five miles in width. The battle which sealed the fate of the French in Indo-China lasted 55 days and was waged by gradually wrapping up French positions in a spider-web system of trenches, dug at night under artillery and machine-gun fire, defended by day from aerial bombing and counter-attacks, inexorably creeping nearer French positions until they cut the valley in two and closed in to bring the troops that dug them within a few yards of General de Castries's headquarters on May 8, 1954. It was a unique battle with no parallel in history for the original means with which it was fought; a victory for troops of infinitely superior morale defending their own soil from the foreign invader.

On a knoll overlooking the main part of the battlefield today, stands a shattered U.S. Sherman tank and five or six paces away the tombstones of two unknown heroes, buried on the spot from which they hurled grenades that destroyed the tank and themselves. The tank, one of ten the French managed to get into the valley before the encirclement cut them off from such heavy supplies, has been provided with a rough shelter. It stands there, its blackened tracks burst asunder where the grenades exploded; its cannon dropped limply forward like a broken nose, a monument to man's superiority over machines. The Vietnamese people won their war against the French without a single tank or plane.

Further down the valley, not far from de Castries's bunker headquarters, another museum piece has been kept. A 155mm U.S. artillery piece has been set back on its concrete emplacements, its stubby, arrogant barrel pointing now at the blue line of hills from which the liberators came. Around it is the debris of dozens of other artillery pieces and many thousands of shell cases. The French colonel in charge of artillery had promised to smash within 20 minutes any Vietnam attack with his artillery. The attack came, the artillery fired, but two key positions fell. And VPA artillery — which the French never dreamed could have been transported over those terrifying mountains — opened up to put the vital airstrips out of action. The colonel shot himself!

In a small museum at the head of the valley some relics of the battle and events connected with it have been preserved. It might be a good thing for General Harkins, who heads the U.S. military command in Saigon, to have a look at the museum and ponder over the significance of the tank and the artillery pieces. In the museum, he could see a photo of one of his predecessors in Saigon, a U.S. military officer named O'Daniel, touring Dien Bien Phu positions in an open jeep with General — then Colonel — de Castries; both with smiles of supreme confidence on their faces, the sort of smile General Harkins presents today to the Saigon photographers. The picture was taken just six weeks before the battle started. He could see a fantastic collection of weapons, many of them from primitive jungle arsenals, such as now provide the partisans in South Vietnam with the weapons they use to defend their homes and in raids to secure more efficient American arms. They were used by guerillas at Dien Bien Phu to prevent break-out escape attempts or break-in rescue efforts. Both such attempts were made. Both were stopped dead in their tracks.

The museum is a monument to the ingenuity which comes with a people's war — from home-made bazookas and fearsome bombards to bamboo replacements of steel leaves for broken springs of the truck convoys. Along the valley, tranquil and beautiful now, General Harkins could see the debris of U.S. transport and bomber planes — all a sorry reminder of the impotence of U.S. intervention to save French colonialism from its crushing defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese people.

France sent its most illustrious generals and marshals to the Indo-China war. One after another they lost their reputations or their lives, sometimes both. Some of those who survived, like General Raoul Salan, seemed to have learned nothing. Salan's passion for killing was such that he was willing to turn his military skills against his own people when they demanded an end to the colonial war he and others waged in Algeria after the Indo-China defeat.

The Pentagon generals seem bent on following the same road. They seem to think they can do better with Dictator Diem than the French did with Emperor Bao Dai, plus U.S. support. The debris of U.S. planes, tanks, and artillery pieces in Dien Bien Phu valley should be sufficient warning as to what lies at the end of the road. America may have more generals than the French whose lives or reputations — or both — are expendable. The end result will be the same. They do not have enough to force the Vietnamese people to their knees.

President Kennedy himself would do well to ponder on the advice General de Gaulle is said to have given him, before he embarked the United States in the South Vietnam adventure. According to the well-informed Parisian daily, Le Monde of May 31, 1962, when Kennedy the previous year revealed to de Gaulle his intention of intervening in South Vietnam, the President of France replied: 'For seven years we wasted our time there. If you want to get bogged down in that one — go ahead." Le Monde correspondent Andre Fontaine added: "It is significant in this connection that of the European members of SEATO, France alone has refused Thailand . . . the symbolic contingent that it demands." France indeed acted according to the well-known English adage, "Once bitten, twice shy."

A modest war memorial, designed to harmonize with the contours of the hills behind, with its serried ranks of tombstones is a somber reminder of the price the Vietnamese people paid for the victory. The simple inscription, "A Grateful Fatherland," is in keeping with the modesty and grief of the monument.

Toward Another Dien Bien Phu

When Homer Bigart returned to the United States after his forced withdrawal from Vietnam, he published a long summary article (New York Times, July 25, 1962) entitled, "Vietnam Victory Remote Despite U.S. Aid to Diem." The title speaks for itself. Its tone is glum and gloomy. Victory is remote, wrote Bigart, because "the Vietnamese President seems incapable of winning the loyalty of his people." Yet, he says, "Washington insists there is no alternative to President Ngo Dinh Diem." And he makes clear that the piling up of arms and new military doctrines cannot win this war against the people. There is no lack of military means:

... In 1963 [he writes], the Republic of South Vietnam will put well-equipped forces totalling more than 350,000 men against 25,000 guerillas who have no artillery, no anti-aircraft guns, no air power, no trucks, no jeeps, no prime movers and only basic infantry weapons. Also by 196S the Vietnamese armed forces should be adequately staffed with officers and noncoms... will have more helicopters, more personnel carriers and other gadgets to enhance mobility; more sentry dogs to sniff out hiding guerillas, more plastic boats for the delta region, more American advisers, new tactical doctrines...

To illustrate his point, Bigart describes an action in which guerillas wiped out a convoy only 37 miles north of Saigon, killing two U.S. officers:

This episode was a bitter revelation for Americans. The ambush occurred on the outskirts of Bentre [Ben Tre], a garrison town and on a heavily travelled highway. Yet the guerillas moved into position in daylight, prepared the ambuscade in full view of the road and waited for three hours for the convoy to appear. They must have been observed by scores of peasants. Yet no one informed the garrison in Bentre. Could this have happened if peasants felt any real identification with the regime?

He warns American readers not to believe the optimistic figures put out by the U.S. Defense Department that casualties were running five to three in favor of the South Vietnam government forces. "Generally," he says, "Communist guerillas are indistinguishable from peasants. Thus many of the 'enemy' dead reported by the South Vietnam Government were ordinary peasants shot down because they fled from the villages as the troops entered... running away because they did not want to be rounded up for military conscription or forced labor."

Nor does Bigart believe that gadgets or war dogs will win the war. Most of the German shepherds are sick, and besides "someone discovered that each dog required $1.20 of frozen horse meat a day" while "a Vietnamese soldier gets by on 19 cents worth of rice." Neither does he have much faith in the experiments for which South Vietnam is the proving ground, like the following: "On the central plateau for example, David Nuttle, a civilian attached to United States Special Forces, is experimenting with a poisonous shrub called kpung. Its leaves have nettles that cause excruciating pain that lasts a week. Mr. Nuttle proposes a double border of kpung around the strategic hamlets to keep the Viet Cong out."

The conclusion of Bigart at the end of almost a full page of acid observations ought to be well pondered over by State Department and Pentagon.

No one who has seen conditions of combat in South Vietnam would expect conventionally-trained United States forces to fight any better against Communist guerillas than did the French in their seven years of costly and futile warfare. For despite all the talk here of training men for jungle fighting, of creating counter-guerillas who can exist in forests and swamps and hunt down the Viet Cong, Americans may simply lack the endurance — and the motivation — to meet the unbelievably tough demands of jungle fighting.

Obviously "motivation" is a key word here. American and Diemist troops do not know why they are fighting, and if they do, they do not believe in the motives. Planes and tanks, dogs and dollars, poison hedges and barbed wire are useless when the people are on the other side.

Some facts to which Bigart could not have access from the U.S.-Diem authorities in Saigon, who dealt only in "victories" were furnished me by Nguyen Van Hieu, following his visit to the Conference on World Disarmament and Peace held in Moscow in July 1962. He had come straight from the battle front in South Vietnam and had some interesting figures. In the first six months of 1962, 16,000 Diemist troops had been put out of action and 15,000 had deserted to the National Liberation Front with arms and equipment. Perhaps even more important for its long-range implications, over 12 million people had taken part in various mass demonstrations against the Diem regime and U.S. intervention.

The French were not the first, and Bigart is not the last, to discover that war against the people in Vietnam or anywhere else has no future.