Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Warning from a Grave


I have arrived at a period of my biological and professional life when rummaging through my archives and library seems in order. And so I am rereading books that were of formative value for my career as a journalist, especially as a war correspondent. The following passage I found on page 113 of The Two Vietnams by my late friend, the historian and social scientist Bernard B. Fall, probably the world’s foremost expert on the French and the American debacles in Indochina. Referring to Hanoi’s brilliant Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap who developed North Vietnam’s victorious strategies against France and subsequently the United States, Fall wrote:

“Giap’s own best contribution to the art of revolutionary war was probably his estimate of the political-psychological shortcomings of a democratic system when faced with an inconclusive military operation. In a remarkable presentation before the political commissars of the (Communist) 316th Division, Giap stated:

The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war….

“In all likelihood, Giap concludes, public opinion in the democracy will demand an end to the ‘useless bloodshed,’ or its legislature will insist on knowing how long it will have to vote astronomical credits without a clear-cut victory in sight. This is what eternally compels the military leaders of democratic armies to promise a quick end to the war --- to ‘bring the boys home by Christmas’ – or forces democratic politicians to agree to almost any kind of humiliating compromise rather than to accept the idea of a semi-permanent anti-guerilla operation.”*

The Two Vietnams was first published in 1963. It lay on the bedside table of most respectable American and European reporters, diplomats and senior officers I met while working in Saigon. I have never ceased to wonder why so few of my illustrious colleagues took Bernard B. Fall’s warnings to heart. When I first met Fall, this Austrian-born Frenchman was a professor of Howard University in Washington, DC. Having fought valiantly in the French Resistance, he proceeded to record the West’s follies and blunders in dealing with Vietnamese Communism with greater penetration than any scholar whose work on this subject I am familiar with.

Fall must have added the paragraphs cited above to the original 1963 edition of his seminal work on Vietnam shortly before his last journey to that country. On Feb. 21, 1967, while accompanying a platoon of U.S. marines in Thua Thien Province in the northernmost part of South Vietnam, 40-year old Bernard B. Fall stepped on a landmine and was killed along with Gunnery Sergeant Byron B. Highland.

Thus Fall did not live to see the day when his warning and Gen. Giap’s prediction became bitter reality in America’s self-inflicted defeat in 1975 – self-inflicted precisely because many media stars and political leaders ignored Gen. Giap’s insight that the democratic system is not psychologically equipped to fight a protracted war, irrespective of how evil the foe’s designs. In The Two Vietnams pilloried the fallacious notion that Ho Chi Minh was but a righteous nationalist. To Fall, Ho was a Bolshevik. “The fact that this was not understood by naïve outsiders was certainly not his fault; his career as a Communist has been on record since 1920,” wrote Fall.

Before me lies a Newsmax column by Edward I. Koch, the former mayor of New York. He cites a statement by Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, referring to the war in Afghanistan as “unwinnable.” This echoes CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s description of the Vietnam War after the 1968 Têt Offensive, a statement prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to day, “We have lost Cronkite, we have lost the Midwest.”

In his column, Mayor Koch goes on to suggest that the United States and its allies declare defeat in Afghanistan and get out. Here again, I discern echoes of the Vietnam era. Without any consideration of the disastrous geopolitical and strategic consequences a Taliban return to power in Kabul will have, Koch concludes: “We have sacrificed enough dead, wounded, and treasure in a failed cause. Enough is enough.”

Reading this and Bernard B. Fall’s warning from his grave on the very same hot summer afternoon in my home in southwestern France made my blood curdle. Surely, the Taliban and Al Qaida must have studied Gen. Giap’s analysis, which could have only led them to one conclusion: The way Western democracy has evolved since the mid-20th century, it is driven by suicidal urges. None other than the former Mayor of New York and the RNA chairman have just confirmed this just now.

* Fall, Bernard B. The Two Vietnams. London: Pall Mall Press, 1963, 1964, 1967.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I like this article very much. 3rd para, "...Lyndon B. Johnson to day,..." I believe the 's' and the 'd' somehow got transposed.

    Many blessings
    PhD student/Theology
    About to learn Theological German.
    Avoiding Baur's 'Tendenzkritik':-)