World

Dien Bien Phu, sixty years on

By Greg Mills & Anthony Arnott 3 October 2014

2014 is the 60th year since the defeat of French forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Veterans of that battle are in their dotage, their famous commander Grand General Von Nguyen Giap passing away in 2013 aged 102. Dien Bien Phu has transformed since 1954 when there were just 100 houses. But as the veterans fade away, Dien Bien Phu is a battle most Vietnamese have only read about in the history books. By GREG MILLS and ANTHONY ARNOTT.

The model draped in various poses over the M24 Chaffee light-tank standing guard at the foot of ‘A1 Hill’, otherwise known to its French defenders as ‘Eliane 2’, was probably unaware of its significance.

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Photo: Photo opp on the M24.

Little wonder. In the year of anniversaries – the 100th since the start of the First World War, 75th since the advent of the Second, and 25th of the fall of the Berlin Wall – it is perhaps inevitably overlooked that 2014 is the 60th year since the defeat of French forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Veterans of that battle are in their dotage, their famous commander Grand General Von Nguyen Giap passing away in 2013 aged 102.

It’s also a country and a town which has left war behind. Dien Bien Phu has transformed since 1954 when there were just 100 houses. Now it is a bustling market town of at least 100,000 inhabitants, reflecting the threefold increase in Vietnam’s population over the sixty years to 90 million. Nearly 95 percent of the population is under 65, and 35 million under 24 years old.

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Photo: A silicone rubber statue of Vietnamese late General Vo Nguyen Giap is on display during an exhibition entitled ‘General Vo Nguyen Giap through fine art works’ at the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam, 28 April 2014. The exhibition marks the 60th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory. EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

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Photo: Giap’s mountain headquarters.

As the veterans fade away, Dien Bien Phu is a battle most Vietnamese have only read about in the history books. The town boasts a good museum to the conflict across the road from one of four Vietnamese cemeteries (French soldiers who fell in the Indochina conflict were exhumed and repatriated in 1982) and Eliane 2 is maintained as a museum along with the French command post and a nearby ‘informal’ French memorial, while a ‘socialist realist’ sculpture was built atop the town centre for the battle’s 50th anniversary.

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Photos: The ‘informal’ French memorial.

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Photos: Vietnamese cemeteries at Dien Bien Phu.

Regardless, despite its significance, this is no Somme with its plethora of guide-books, signposts and visitors.

The search for victory

Perhaps the most notable feature of Vietnam is that its people spend little time looking backwards, or for external reasons for failure, despite having very good reasons to do so.

Not only did Vietnam endure 1,000 years of Chinese domination, and nearly 70 years of French rule interspersed with a period of Japanese control during 1945, but the ‘American War’ which followed the French withdrawal in 1955 until the fall of Saigon twenty years later cost it perhaps as many as three million dead. In the process, three times the tonnage of bombs was dropped on Vietnam than were on both Japan and Germany in the Second World War.

Rather than seek blame or excuses, Vietnam has sought only ways to develop. Its record in this regard is particularly impressive considering that US sanctions were only lifted in 1994. It spends little time playing on colonial guilt despite, like many African states, having to manage a complex inheritance of 54 ethnic groups and 63 languages, not to mention a French administrative culture. Then again, unlike Africa, Vietnam’s self-confidence and its nationalist cause can only have been enhanced by the definitive military victory it managed over its erstwhile colonial master at Dien Bien Phu.

For that battle was the first time that an independence movement had evolved from a guerrilla to a conventional force able to defeat a modern European army in battle. This was not just any army, but that of one of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council.

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Photo: After an hour and a half of fighting Regiment 141, Division 312 wiped out Puppet Parachute Company, occupied strong point E1 (30th March 1954)’.

Dien Bien Phu occurred, ironically, because the French wanted a military victory to enable a political solution to the end of empire in Indochina. The war was already not going well, with the Viet Minh controlling large chunks of Laos, putting pressure on French units in Vietnam on its eastern border.

A rice bowl

The French plan was to establish a fortified area around an old airstrip built by the Japanese during the Second World War in Dien Bien Phu to interdict Viet Minh supply lines to Laos, drawing them into a conventional fight that would use superior French firepower to cripple the nationalists. This ‘hedgehog’ concept involved air-lifting 16,000 French and colonial (mainly Algerian, Moroccan, Senegalese and Vietnamese loyalist) troops from November 1953 and, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, dispersing them across satellite positions, each allegedly named after a former mistress of the commander: ‘Anne-Marie’, ‘Beatrice’,’ Claudine’, Dominique’, ‘Eliane’, ‘Gabrielle’, ‘Huguette’, and ‘Isabelle’.

Far from destroying the Viet Minh, the battle sealed the French retreat from Indochina, though not as it turned out, the end of the fighting.

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Photo: A valley framed by cloud-rimmed mountains’ – Dien Bien Phu.

Likened by General Giap to a ‘rice bowl’, with his forces on the mountainous rim and the French at the bottom on the plain and its hillocks, Dien Bien Phu proved indefensible, despite carefully-dug French trenches and fortifications. In a feat of logistics and human endeavour, Giap’s forces were able to haul large weapons up and over the never-ending series of mountains and install them in burrows on the hillsides, making them virtually impervious to French counter-fire. The Viet Minh had been well supplied by China ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, including US artillery captured from the Kuomintang, radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns, and communications equipment along with trucks and technical advisers.

Colonel Piroth, the one-armed French artillery commander, blamed himself for this failure, and committed suicide in his bunker with a hand grenade. Today a stone monument in a bog by the main market marks his demise, its existence seemingly oblivious to the surrounding fish and vegetable sellers. This memorial was erected not by the French, but more latterly by the Vietnamese, a mark of the Viet Minh’s accomplishment as much a commemoration of Piroth’s apparently noble if futile act.

Starting on 13 March 1954, the battle raged over 56 days, the French losing, sometimes reclaiming and then ultimately losing again the defensive positions. “We decided to destroy pockets of resistance one by one,” Giap wrote in one account of the battle, Dien Bien Phu: The Most Difficult Decision, “and gradually, in our own way, at a time and place of our own choosing, launch attacks with overwhelming superiority in each battle and at the same time consolidate our bunker system and cut the enemy’s supply line until the base camp was strangled.”

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Photo: Despite zig-zag trenches dug carefully in Voltaire time, in the end, the inability to resupply killed the French, the Vietnamese caption on this photograph reading: ‘Parcels were parachuted by French planes in Dien Bien Phu but were tightened by our artillery that enemy didn’t dare to take’.

When shelling of the airfield rendered it unusable from 15 March, the French were reliant on air-drops for resupply, increasingly difficult as their perimeter shrank and the Viet Minh’s anti-aircraft guns kept planes high in often foggy conditions. When, in late April, a relief column of 3,000 troops failed to break through the cordon of 50,000 Viet Minh, the end was nigh. On 7 May the last transmission to the French headquarters in Hanoi 320kms away was sent. “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

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Photo: Heave for Ho – ironically with US artillery against a US-supplied foe.

Despite the elan, it was an inglorious defeat. The French threw everything into the battle, with the use of American nuclear weapons even contemplated in a desperate last-minute move. French casualties totalled over 2,200 dead, 5,600 wounded and 11,721 taken prisoner, of which just 3,390 were repatriated months later. Bernard Fall, author of the definitive account of the battle Hell in a Very Small Place, wrote that the forty day forced march to POW camps undertaken by French prisoners from Dien Bien Phu, “caused more losses than any single battle of the whole Indo-China war”. Viet Minh casualties are estimated at between 8,000 and 23,000, depending on whose version to accept, like their French foe, many of the fighters swallowed up forever by the soggy ground where they fell.

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Photo: According to the official caption: ‘Our soldiers took advantage of enemy’s plane corpse as gun emplacement’.

The day after the French surrender, on 8 May 1954 at the Geneva peace talks, Paris announced its intention to withdraw from Vietnam. Under the final Accord, Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, with elections to be held two years later. The refusal by the South’s American-supported prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem to allow the elections citing intimidation by the North led to the next phase of the conflict, known as the Vietnam War, which saw 500,000 Americans in theatre by the mid-1960s and in which 58,000 US troops and many more Vietnamese were to lose their lives.

Echoes of other wars?

The pretext for the increased American involvement was the Gulf of Tonkin naval encounter in August 1964, 50 years ago, the outcome of which saw the US Congress pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution granting President Lyndon Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country considered to be jeopardised by ‘communist aggression’. That was to lead what President Barack Obama has described as one of the “dumb wars”, ending with the collapse of the South Vietnam government on 30 April 1975 and the reunification of the country.

The speed of the collapse of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam has echoes in the contemporary performance of the Iraqi Army against ISIS. Despite billions of dollars being lavished on its recreation since 2003, like the ARVN, the Iraqi army (as the Iraqi state) has been exposed as overmatched against ISIS (built on the expertise of Saddam’s army, with more than 20,000 well-funded and motivated Islamic fighters), hollow and corrupt, said to be little more than a ‘checkpoint force’, a means of extortion and employment.

There other, ominous parallels from Dien Bien Phu.

That battlefield’s remote location made it entirely dependent on air power for support and resupply. The most dangerous course of action for the French forces was that the Viet Minh found a way to move their artillery to within range, as played out. There was little they could do except rely on their ability to bomb these gun positions from the air. However, the Viet Minh employed both dummy guns and extensive camouflage, and together with the ubiquitous low cloud across the plain and into the mountainous jungle made it extremely difficult for the French bombers to find their targets. As Gary Anderson has written, President Obama is making a mistake if he believes that he can destroy the military forces of the Islamic State by airpower alone. “Airpower can help in defeating the expansion of the would-be Caliphate’s territory, but it will not root them out of the cities and towns that they have already captured. Their light infantry will embed itself in the population and use the civilians as shields subjecting us to the grinding pictures of dead women and children which will eventually obscure the war crimes of [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and his minions.” Already there are indications that ISIS are using their mobile phones and conspicuous convoys of bakkies, less to avoid being targeted from the air. Rooting them out will inevitably require door-to-door operations, boots on the ground, for which it seems the Iraqi army cannot be relied.

Another striking feature of the Dien Bien Phu battle, and from other campaigns of the last decade, was the importance of ‘home advantage’. The French surely knew this at the time, they did after all have some locally raised battalions of their own, but the isolation, terrain, proximity to the Viet Minh heartland was a significant advantage to Giap’s forces. A great number of Viet Minh were not fighters at all, but the local population called to arms. Their ability to hide, live and hunt off the land was instinctive.

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Photo: De Castries’ bunker, now (top) and then (bottom).

Giap’s ability to conduct resupply, especially of artillery ammunition, and Colonel de Castries’ reliance on resupply from the air, reminds that war is more often a match of logistics than sheer firepower. The latter can only exist with the former. The reliefs on the monuments en route to Giap’s remote mountain headquarters 35kms north of Dien Bien Phu depict the heroic scenes of moving guns and supplies. Bicycles, strengthened with bamboo, were game-changers, increasing six-fold the load each soldier could move to 300kgs. It is said that Giap kept a chart next to his desk in his thatched hut recording supply deliveries rather than casualties.

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Photo: As much as 300kg per bike was hauled.

France’s belief that all they needed was to present its troops as a target in order to defeat the Viet Minh is an arrogance that has played out many times subsequently, and embodies all of the above. The notion that a professional army will always defeat an irregular force, given a fair fight and maybe a little time, is not a safe assumption. Recent history has shown that it can often lead to some of the core principles of war fighting, such as surprise and sustainability, being disregarded. Forgetting the comparative advantages of the local fighters has proven, on more than one occasion, to be more than a match for the hi-tech, remote and network enabled capabilities of the developed world. Home will nearly always defeat drone.

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Photo: Last laugh.

But the most important lesson of Vietnam, both from the French and American periods of the war, relates to clearly defining the objective of the operation. “It is nearly impossible to completely destroy a movement,” Colonel Anderson observes with regard to the current actions taken by the Obama administration against ISIS, “as we have seen with al-Qaeda for thirteen years. It is possible to destroy the armed forces that allow the enemy to occupy territory and protect his seat of power. The president did not make it clear which goal he has in mind.” Without such a clear definition, the ISIS operation runs the risk of remaining as open-ended as Vietnam became, and dependent less on the facts on the ground than the political temperature in Washington. As General William Westmoreland, Commander of US Forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, put it, “Time tends to obscure the fact that a tactical defeat for the French was turned into strategic victory for the Viet Minh not so much by what happened on the battlefield as by lack of support in Paris for a seemingly interminable colonial war.”

Taking on ISIS, to bring this up to the present time, cannot be treated militarily alone, and will also have to include the embrace of modern ideas by Arab nations as an antidote to recessivist tendencies and backward ideologies.

Looking ahead

After retiring from government in 1991, General Giap became a critic of government reform. But by looking forward, by shaking off the colonial legacy and the subsequent ideological claustrophobia of its communist regime, Vietnam has transformed itself to an industrial power in less than three decades since the process of free-market renovation, known as doi moi, began in 1986. The result has been over six percent annual growth for 30 years, the country attaining middle income status in 2011. This is felt not just in statistics alone, however, but in other, obvious symbols of rising wealth, notably the proliferation of consumer goods, including cars and the motorbikes weaving through its streets and stacked on the pavements.

The presence of giant Yamaha, Canon and Panasonic factories, among many others, on the road to Hanoi’s airport hint also at these dramatic changes, built on a combination of cheap skills and an openness to capital and markets. The textile sector alone provides employment for 2.5 million employees directly and another 2.7 million in related sectors. In the process, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been consumed by capitalism.

Ironically, the South has outstripped the North in this economic revolution. The city’s population has more than doubled to 7.8 million since the end of the war in 1975, its economy growing at 9.3 percent in 2013, pushing its per capita income to $4,513, more than twice the national average, and contributing a quarter of the country’s GDP. Now Saigon is planning a new airport, the existing one at bursting point with 20 million passengers annually, almost twice the number who fly in and out of Hanoi.

And in the irony of ironies, on the once-fortified French post ‘Dominique’ in Dien Bien Phu, is a replica Eiffel Tower erected a decade ago as a radio and television mast. Someone has had the last laugh – but of which side? Perhaps it just shows that the war was another country. DM

Mills, the author most recently of’ Why States Recover’ (Picador), is a visiting fellow at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Both he and Arnott are usually found, however, at the Brenthurst Foundation.

Main photo: Soldiers dressed as Viet Minh troops march during celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory, in the northern province of Dien Bien, Vietnam 07 May 2014. Vietnam will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu battle, a confrontation in the first Indochina War between French troops and Viet Minh revolutionaries, on 07 May 2014.  EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

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