Wednesday, November 24, 2010


We recently spent 2 nights in Dien Bien Phu and were acquainted in a variety of ways to the historic importance of the battle with French colonialists in 1954.  History is a children’s story written by the side that still has at least a piece of paper and a pencil after the hostilities have ended.  The losing side has the shirts on their back and about half the men they started out with.
Our tour leader, Chau, has repeatedly told us that the Vietnamese won because they dragged their cannons up to the top of the mountains and then bombarded the French who were meandering in the valley below.  At the war museum in Dien Bien Phu we were afforded another version related to the destruction of “A1”, the “impregnable headwaters” of the French.  The presentation was by less than state-of-the-art electronics.  A 26” flat screen TV was placed about 10-15 feet away from the audience and the TV’s audio system was used for the audio.  This meant that you could only hear about every fifth word. 
Much of the commentary was coordinated with a diorama directly below the TV screen which showed French positions in green lights and the slow but steady advance of Vietnamese forces—in red lights-- through the use of tunnels.  The speaker went through the French positions: “strongpoint 501” and some lights when on. “Strongpoint 502” and more lights, and on and on.  I noticed there was a “strongpoint 505B” and I think that stood for “505 barely adequate” and I think that may have been the weak link.   Anyway after all the green lights were lit, they began lighting the red lights.  By the end of the narrative, all the green lights were out and all the red lights were on.  Since you couldn’t hear hardly any of the commentary, I concluded if the French had chosen to be the red lights, they would have won the war.
Well, after doing a considerable amount of research and utilizing the information provided, I have reached several conclusions about the reasons the French were defeated Dien Bien Phu.  First, why the French would establish a command center at the “headwaters” is very poor planning.  The place would‘ve been overrun with water every day.  It is impossible to get any work done.  Second, the French would have preferred to get hill C-12, but the Chinese already had that one.  The French were Johnny-come-latelys at abusing the Vietnamese.  Hill A1 was a loser from the start.
Third, to properly establish their headwaters, the French needed to produce a large amount of “semen” to reinforce  their trenches.  But since by 1954, the French had been in Vietnam for several years, they had a large number of older soldiers, who were no longer had the ability to produce a large amount of semen.  As an aside, historians have debated for decades which is more important: high semen production in wartime versus high production of semen in peacetime.  I will not weigh in with my opinion, but encourage the reader to engage in this debate with family and friends and see what conclusion you reach.
As a back-up system the French attempted to use a layer of “mazo’leum” to reinforce the trenches.  Unfortunately, they forgot to spray the mazo’leum with “lisol” and thus a lot of soldiers came down with dysentery, further depleting French forces.
Another problem was the French housed their troops on one side of a busy street and placed the eating facility on the other side of the street.  Every morning around 7 a.m. a large number of troops were rundown by motor scooters, as they casually attempted to secure a croissant and a caffĂ©.
Early on some French troops were captured by the Vietnamese.  The plan was to torture them and then return them to their unit, creating fright and despair amongst the French.  The chosen torture was to force them to eat an entire porcupine, quills included, and then make them do pilates for an hour.  Ironically, this is a training technique  originated by Canadian bicycle racers over 100 years ago, which may explain the short list of Canadian Tour de France winners.  On a positive note, it was a Canadian cyclist who pioneered the use of ear wax as a medium for repacking wheel bearings when far from a repair facility.
But I digress.  Another crucial failing of the French was to not have enough certified public accountants (cpa) on staff.  A large amount of materiel was lost and unaccounted for.  The United States is well known for its large number of cpa’s (more than probably needed, and it has certainly helped to make the country prosperous and model for other nations to emulate.)
There is another lesson learned from the battle at A1.  The French believed their fortress impregnable.  The Vietnamese realized their only hope was to tunnel under the main fortress and blow it up.  The chief engineer was instructed to build a series of “undulating” tunnels.  Unfortunately, the chief engineer interpreted undulation to mean long steep uphills followed by short downhills.  Although the tunnelers eventually reached their objective, they were several weeks later than planned, and the term “undulation” has been held suspect every since.
As you can see, there are many issues to consider to put this historic battle in proper perspective.  Simple answers simply leave too much unsaid.

By Michael Goldberg, M.B.S., B.F.D.

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