An Honorable Exit — France in Vietnam



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Folks, I’m shifting my small output these days to Substack

This is recent contribution


Every war has winner and losers.  The losers are the dead and those who mourn.  The winners are those who have made their millions.  This is not, of course, the way war stories are usually cast.  Battlefield wins and loses are what is preferred. Eric Vuillard, in his short, incisive look at desperate French colonial grasping in Vietnam in “An Honorable Exit,”  goes against this popular grain.

The Battle of Hoa Binh, he says, would better be called the Battle for the Gold Mine Company of Hoa Binh;  the Battle of Cao Bang, the Battle of the Pewter Mining Company of Cao Bang.

A short chapter at the Michelin rubber plantations of then Indochina introduces us to emaciated workers, covered in scabies, wrists bound with wire rope; wooden stocks with foot-holes;  men locked in windowless, airless rooms; names of suicides. (Yes, the Michelin of the fat, jolly tire-man; of the restaurant stars.)  Thirty percent of the workers died on the those plantations.

Michelin had had a revelatory meeting with Frederick Winslow Turner, the American expert on “shop management.”

“A man with only the intelligence of an average laborer can be taught to do the most difficult and delicate work if it is repeated enough times; and his lower mental caliber renders him more fit than the mechanic to stand the monotony of the repetition.” 

Vuillard tells us,

“By a curious sorcery all the (rubber) trees grew at exactly the same distance from one another” .. every night each man bleeds roughly eighteen hundred of them …

Henry Ford, the American capitalist, and Vladimir Lenin, the Russian communist, were also big fans of Taylorism.

Following the harrowing tour of the Michelin plantation, Vuillard introduces us to a coterie of French politicians, in particular those at a notable day of the National Assembly in October, 1950. For five years the French Army had been trying to re-establish the colonial rule of Indochina lost to the Japanese at the beginning of the Second World War. As the Japanese left, in 19545, Ho Chi Minh declared independence. Not with our possessions, said the French. Five years, and a few voices rose to say, this war is not winnable; 1950. 

The war was costing 1 Billion francs a day. 

“A billion.  That’s kind of a lot.  Embarrassed looks passed between the rows; they gulped, they did spit-takes, compared notes . 

“…And the old foxes who spend their lives with their snouts hovering over the slightest decimal, who skimp on a penny here and a penny there, those fierce guardians of our small change–suddenly, for an exorbitant, vain, murderous expenditure, they don’t hesitate, hands on hearts and bawling the national anthem, to throw a billion out the window every single day.”

Nevertheless. The war goes on. Abandonment, giving up after all the sacrifices, would be that same as the Vichy surrender to the Germans! New generals are appointed.  Some months the French kill more; some months the Vietminh decimate French columns. 

In October 1951 Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. ushers the French commander in chief, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, to the biggest American public forum of the day: Meet the Press. At the end of difficult interview he blurts out “I did not come to ask for American soldiers.” Unsaid was what he was asking for: support of every other kind. The baton was being readied for the handoff.

By April of 1954, in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, the French are desperately hoping for a miracle.  John Foster Dulles, the U.S. secretary of state,  on a quick visit to Paris, offers the French Foreign Minister “two atomic bombs” if that would turn the tide. 

(Months before, along with his brother Allen (CIA) Dulles, John Foster had been the architect of the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran; a few months after the atomic bomb offer, that of Guatemala. Let’s say the offer was serious.)

The last French general, Henri Navarre, in Vuillard’s telling, stumbles trance-like through his headquarters, a former palace, trying to understand the casualty counts: twenty thousand since the beginning of the war.  Are the fifteen thousand North Africans — Algerians and Moroccans– included in that?  And forty five thousand Indochinese? 

“He tried to count, tried again, but the numbers scattered.  Night had fallen.  Navarre was alone.  Alone with his eighty thousand corpses.”

As to the other side: five hundred thousand soldiers; one hundred thousand civilians. 

“How can a modern army lose to…. an army of peasants!” he wonders.

By May 8, 1954, the French are gone.

In Paris, for a board meeting of the Banque de l’Indochine, the bankers are gathering, CEOs and presidents of some of the biggest enterprises in France, inter-related in familial ties that only Levi-Strauss could explicate. It was, as they walked into the meeting “a parade of dynasties. … They know everything, they do everything, they administer everything: …in every domain –wood, gold, copper, cement.” The Banque mints its own currency, valued at more than two billion.

“In grave tones they evoked the lamentable defeat, our army, our dead solders … but business must go on. “

Since at least the “Cao Bang disaster” five years earlier, holdings in Indochina had been discreetly liquidated. The annual report is read:

“Last year, the dividend paid out per share was three hundred and fifty francs … this year it will increase to a thousand and one francs!”

The report is met with audible clucks of satisfaction.

One of the Board, perhaps with the residue of conscience thinks that without speculation and risk-taking there would be no (he would have no) wealth, but that, it was true that,

“.. that on the unique and terrifying occasion of the war, he and the other members of the board had speculated on death. “

For a finale, Vuillard jump-cuts to the end of the next war in Vietnam, the American War, helicopters circling the American Embassy — April 25, 1975. Panic rules the day.

“The pathetic hope of an honorable exit had consumed thirty years and millions of dead, and this is how it all ends! Thirty years for such a farewell. Maybe dishonor would have been preferable.”

Om one hundred and fifty pages Vuillard’s scalpel exposes the tumor. One hundred and fifty pages can be read in a night, and not forgotten in one hundred and fifty more.

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq


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Following on my several readings of the use and misuse of history regarding the American Civil war (The Half Has Never Been Told, and Forget the Alamo), and World War II (Looking for the Good War) I followed on with John W Dower’s Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq (2010).  It is a deeply researched and fascinating book about our human, but particularly American, use of history to embellish ourselves – our feelings, our position in the world– and to not look thoroughly, and at all sides, at what has actually  happened, that we might draw lessons from events and patterns of events in order to plan and model options for our future behavior. 

History and Story, of course come from the same Greek root historia.  In Middle English the two were used indistinguishably, as is true today in Spanish and other languages. History, until very recently, was not understood as other than the national story.  As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Shakespeare’s History Plays, their purpose was, through familiarizing people with the great names from their past, “arousing a steady patriotism, a love of just liberty, and a respect for all those fundamental institutions of social life which bind men together.”

We’ve only recently begun to insist upon a distinction, that one is anchored in fidelity to facts, and the other bound only to the imagination. The distinction remains a loose one, however. Not only do both Story and History need compelling narratives, but “fact based fiction” and “fictional facts,” are popular techniques. The pull of uplifting stories about our past is strong, regardless of any inconvenient facts.  We tell stories about what they have done, and tell stories about ourselves through intentions and ideas. Never is the imperative so strong to fictionalize the facts of history as in war.

Dower does not attempt to explain the origin or ubiquity of all wars.  He looks at several recent, major wars involving the United States, and finds strong, uncommented-on similarities between them, on all sides.  From the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to the U.S. war in Afghanistan “the broader dynamics and morbidities of our times” are reflected.  Militarized group-think makes all decisions regarding war and peace, supported by populations convinced by “war-necessary stories,” whether in a Democracy or a Constitutional monarchy, led by a President, a God-King, or a cadre of unassailable interpreters of God’s will. 

As a renowned historian of Japanese War history, Dower was unusually alert to the quickness with which “Day of Infamy,” first coined after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941,  became a metaphor for the September 11, 2001 attacks by Islamist terrorists on the United States.  Infamy, from Roosevelt’s famous speech, appeared in the headlines of virtually every U.S. newspaper within days. Emotive borrowing did not stop there: the “ground zero” of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was borrowed to become “ground zero” of New York City’s twin towers; the terrorist hijackers were referred to as ‘kamikazes’.  Osama bin Laden spoke of a ‘Holy War;” George Bush answered in kind.

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