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136 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitive Work on one of History's Pivotal Battles
This is it! This is the book that should be in the library of every seriou student of the Indo-China War. While this book concerns itself with primarily one battle in the war that occupied France from 1946 through 1954, what a battle it was!
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (March 13-May 8, 1954) was not as long as some, but it played such an important role in what was...
Published on February 23, 2001 by P. Connors

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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative but boring
Not exactly literature although informative, providing insights on strategy and on the politics determining strategy. Reads like a text book.
Published 20 months ago by J.K. George


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136 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitive Work on one of History's Pivotal Battles, February 23, 2001
This is it! This is the book that should be in the library of every seriou student of the Indo-China War. While this book concerns itself with primarily one battle in the war that occupied France from 1946 through 1954, what a battle it was!
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (March 13-May 8, 1954) was not as long as some, but it played such an important role in what was to follow that years after the fact, the name Dien Bien Phu is still met with equal amounts of disdain for French folly and admiration for the resolve of the Viet Minh, who ultimately defeated the best of the French Expeditionary Corps.
The late Bernard B. Fall has provided history students with a masterpiece of research, writing and scholarship. He first came to the attention of American military, political and diplomatic leaders in the early 1960s with his quintessential look at the French war effort in STREET WITHOUT JOY. He followed that success with HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE, which ironically was first released in early 1967, just weeks after the author was killed on Highway 1 (the old RC 1 - the Street Without Joy) while on patrol with United States Marines.
When the reader first opens this one volume history, he encounters the reasons for the French seizure of a valley 175 miles from their headquarters and main source of supply. The French High Command in Tonkin decided that controlling this valley would deny the Viet Minh access to the highlands of neighboring Laos and the mountain peoples who were more loyal to the French than they were to the Vietnamese.
After the airborne assault on the valley on 20 November 1953, the French consolidated their position and began to fortify the valley floor. A short time later, the field commander for Viet Minh forces, Vo Nguyen Giap decided that in order to ensure Viet Minh victory at the negotiating table, he must first inflict such a stunning defeat on French colonial forces that they will have no choice but to accede to Vietnamese nationalism and quit the "crown jewel" of their overseas empire.
Fall does an exceptionally fine job of describing French and Communist preparations for the cataclysmic battle. While he goes into great depth and technical detail, he never forgets that armies are composed of men and he also delivers to the reader all of the key French and Viet Minh personalities. There are the names good students of this battle all know: there are Giap and Ho Chi Minh, Henri Navarre and Rene Cogny; we get to meet and know Colonel (later Brigadier General) Ferdinand Marie de la Croix de Castries, the aristocratic cavalry officer who commands French forces at Dien Bien Phu (and who is so totally unsuitable for the job). There is the paratroop "mafia" of young airborne officers who effectively take control of the fortress (Langlais, Bigeard, Botella, Brechignac, de Seguin-Pazzis, et al) and hold the Viet Minh at bay for 57 days.
But the French Colonial Paratroops were not alone at Dien Bien Phu. There were also Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan rifles, Tunisians, Senegalese, Moroccan artillerymen, grounded air force pilots and maintenance crews, Vietnamese paratroopers and local mountain troops of the Red and White T'ai. Fall forgets nothing and leaves no one out. His detailed descriptions of the battles and the travails of the garrison are on a daily basis and no details are missed.
Fall wrote this book with the help of the French Ministry of Defense, the North Vietnamese and after thousands of interviews with survivors of the battle (French, Communist Viet Minh, Vietnamese nationalist troops, Legionaires and the junior officers who learned bitter lessons in Indo-China and later applied them as they later attempted to keep Algeria French).
This is a battle that has fascinated two generations of students and teachers alike. It is hard to imagine a better single volume discourse on the subject, especially as time moves us further away from the battle. It was a battle that changed the outcome of France's war and ultimately led to American involvement. For it was LBJ who denied the French the aerial assistance of the B-29 bombers at Clark Field in the Philippines and it was this same LBJ, who 11 years later committed American troops to the endless quagmire that ended his presidency and tore the United States apart.
As a primer for the later American involvement, this book is mandatory reading for if for no other reason, it lays out the roadmap of French defeat and the limitless hubris of the United States as it stepped into the breach and tried to do what France could not. This is "the" book on the subject and it explains in vivid detail how one of the most modern armies of Europe could lose to a guerrilla force. It is about arrogance and hubris and anti-colonialist national aspirations.
Although the main position at Dien Bien Phu fell on 7 May and Strongpoint Isabelle a day later on May 8th, France did not sign the Geneva Accords on Indo-China until July 22, 1954. As the Vietnamese saw the end of 85 years of colonial rule by Paris and as France pulled out in defeated shame, little did anyone know that the shadow of Dien Bien Phu would continue to haunt a world superpower for years to come.
If you are not a student of this battle, I still recommend this book, because it is a natural starting point for anyone interested in finding out how America became embroiled in its longest and most divisive war.
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Of the Best, January 15, 2002
By 
"mm92280" (West Point, MS USA) - See all my reviews
If you have an interest in the history of the Vietnam War, or the Indochina War, then this is basically a must read, it will simply put the entire French war in Indochina in perspective for you (though I would also recommend you read "Street Without Joy"). As other reviewers have said, its almost appalling at the similarities between the French mistakes during their war in Indochina and the US's mistakes during its war, so much of it could have been avoided if the right people would have listened and done the proper background work on Vietnam. As far as the book goes, if you want to know something about the Battle of Dien Ben Phu, this book can tell you, it simply has everything, maps, strategies, the times and places that the individual attacks/counterattacks happened, absolutely everything. Yes, there are a lot of military terms and units that will be referenced in the book, but its still well worth the read. Also gives a nice buildup to the battle, as to what had been happening in the war up to that point, and why the French felt it necessary to take such a gamble behind enemy lines. Trust me, its a long book, but its all well worth it, and you will come away with a better understanding of how the French got there, and why we eventually took over after they pulled out. Its unfortunate that our men had to suffer or die needlessly because the right people didnt get their hands on some of the great books out of this era, things could have been a lot different, but hindsight is always 20-20.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SHOULD HAVE BEEN REQUIRED READING, July 10, 2001
I read this book while serving as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1967. I found the book in a Special Services Library. My first thought was, "Has anyone in our government read this book?" My second thought was, "Why hasn't EVERY commander in Vietnam been required to read this book?"
There were so many parallels to so many situations I observed in Vietnam that it was incredible. Two that immediately came to mind were Khe Sanh and Dak To, both located in valleys surrounded by higher ground, safely accessible only by air and isolated from the nearest major support facilities.
We never benefitted from any of the lessons that the Viet Minh taught the French and we let the Viet Cong teach them to us all over again.
Bernard B. Fall wrote from the persective of a former member of the French military and continued to write throughout most of the American involvement. He died covering the war in Vietnam. Other books by Mr. Fall include: Vietnam Reader, Vietnam Witness, The Viet Minh Regime and Street Without Joy.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History Brought to Life, September 18, 2006
By 
Randy Keehn (Williston, ND United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu (Paperback)
I came of age during the Viet Nam War. It was a time of turmoil and discontent as a nation. The "lessons" we learned then now seem to have been faulty in many ways and the mistakes of the past are influencing the present. However, before America had to face the Vietnamese dilemna, it was France that first faced the challenge. As a youth, I knew of the critical battle of Dien Bien Phu but, until I read Bernard Fall's "The Siege of Dien Bien Phu", my understanding of that battle was as faulty as my understanding of the American Vietnamese experience.

I had known that Dien Bien Phu was a battle that saw a technologically challenged Viet Minh army riding bikes to the remote location while superiorly trained French forces looked to carry the day. The ability of the Viet Minh to surprise the French with their numbers and armaments led to a quick demise that saw the French army surrender in shame. Well, now I know better. Like the book "We were Soldiers Once...And Young", "The Siege of Dien Bien Phu" is a masterfully told acount of a battle with keen insight as to what went wrong and what could have gone right. The litany of errors made by the French led to more and more setbacks until only a miracle (in the form of massive US Air Force involvement) could have rescued the day. What impressed me the most after finishing this book, was the heroics of both sides and the ability of the French to nearly pull out a victory. In the end I was dismayed to discover that far more French soldiers died in captivity than did in battle. In another Asiatic "Long March" reminiscent of the Bataan Death March, many weakened fighting men died and even more died once they got to their prison camps. Brave fighting men of both sides deserved better fates and we know of the bravery because of Fall's excellent focus on the day to day ebb and flo of the battle. The roughly 53 day long engagement is told in an exhaustingly realistic narrative. I found myself wondering how anybody, especially the French forces, could ever get any sleep in that "Hell in a Very Small Place". I also found myself bewildered as more and more French paratroopers were airlifted into battle on a daily basis. It is true courage to knowingly go into harm's way when you know that harm holds the winning hand. The greatness of "The Siege of Dien Bien Phu" is Fall's ability to bring such heroics to life while always maintaining a focus on the ongoing events.

At times the book bogs down briefly while examining the international political negotiations surrounding the battle. However, I came to appreciate the tedium of those few sections in the book by understanding the soldiers perspective; the soldiers were living day to day while the diplomats were taking their own sweet time.

I can't say enough about the impact that "The Siege of Dien Bien Phu" had on me. Like "A Bridge Too Far" it is a book that showcases the gallantry of the best of 20th Century warriors. War is Hell, as Sherman said, and the hell is ever present in the book. Yet we come to realize that civilizations survive by the extra-human efforts of such men as are presented in this book. France had much to be angry about after the battle ended but it had nothing to be ashamed of...nor did the Viet Minh soldiers.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars America should've learnt the lesson..., October 28, 1999
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For any fan of military history, and particularly for those interested in America's involvement in South-East Asia, "Hell In A Very Small Place" is crucial reading. It is long and it is packed with enormous detail, but it tells a fateful story very well. After having read most of the literature on 60's Vietnam and the `American War' it was an eye-opener to learn of the role that the then US administration played in the French war of the 50's. 20/20 hindsight's a dangerous thing but after having read Fall's book one does wonder why the lessons of Dien Bien Phu and France's experience in Indo-China were not taken on board to a greater degree by subsequent American governments.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Those Who Fail To Learn From The Mistakes of the Past. . .", June 22, 2000
By 
Harold Y. Grooms (Prattville, AL USA) - See all my reviews
Bernard Fall's book, HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE is the definitive history of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a battle that had serious implications for generations to follow. In it, he recounts in detail the planning and execution of the battle at all levels. The possibility that a small, preindustrial state like Vietnam could defeat a modern army never entered the minds of the French, until it was too late.

The Communists were adept at waging war at the military and political levels simultaneously. In order for the political, main attack to succeed, Dien Bien Phu had to be in Communist hands prior to the Geneva Convention. The number of casualties the North Viets had to sustain was irrelevant so long as they got what they wanted: a strong bargaining position at Geneva. After France left, if Communism was going to be contained in Indochina, America was going to have to do it.

Communist tactics such as moving artillery pieces and the tons of ammunition to support them down seemingly impassable roads and digging anaconda-like trenches around French positions slowly choking the life out of the garrison would soon be seen again by American soldiers. Western planning books said this could not be done. The books were wrong. They would still be wrong a few years later when the Americans arrived.

On the political front, France was reduced to begging for American air support to save the beleagured garrison and with it, their entire position in Indochina. The question of whether the U.S. could or should intervene and if so, how, was debated at the highest levels for weeks. As the politicians and diplomats bickered, the garrison slowly suffered, bled, and died.

HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE is a manual for communist political and military tactics used in Vietnam. Our failure to heed the lessons learned there cost many Americans their lives. We indeed failed to learn from the mistakes of the past. As usual, it was the soldiers on the ground who paid the price for those mistakes with their lives.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Minor perspectives on Fall's book, March 15, 2004
This review is from: Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu (Paperback)
Many will be surprised that Bernard Fall is considered by the French to be an American. He is perhaps the most well known of "French" authors of the period simply because he was among the very few writing in English. As for his book, it is certainly long, occasionally hard to read, but an important account of this politically significant battle.
Dien Bien Phu was not the first time that the French high command had tried to lure the Viet Minh battle corps into committing itself to a fight. De Lattre had done so at Hoa Binh in late '51 through early '52, and had found himself forced to withdraw French forces back to Hanoi after Giap shut the Black River and Colonial Route 6 main supply routes down. Giap emereged from Hoa Binh the winner, at least in the eyes of the junior officers who fought there. Later that year, the French tried the air-land base concept at Na San, further up the Black River on the road to Dien Bien Phu, but Salan was intelligent enough to declare victory and get out before the rainy season began in earnest.
It was Salan who launched the Dien Bien Phu operation, ostensibly for building a CGMA guerrilla base, who thereafter took his entire staff home and left Navarre and his newbies on the hook. Both sides still bitterly debate who really made the fateful decision to draw the line at Dien Bien Phu. What subsequently took place was the destruction of the French Strategic Reserve, not the French Army in Indochina itself. But, akin to our own Tet-68 battle, this translated into a Viet Minh victory in the political arena. The peace conference then convening in Geneva, gave them ample opportunity to exploit that.
Jules Roy's book, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, is another fine work, and while pertinent, both had very little to offer U.S. tactical fighters of the 1962-72 period. Our problem was that the "down in the trenches view" of that war, which would have been very useful, had yet to be penned by the Trinquiers, Loustaus, Cabiros, and Denois de St. Marcs, all of whom had left Indochina to go on to a further via-crucis in Algeria, followed by the 13 May 1958 revolt, the April 1961 Putsch, and either exile, jail, or early retirement into obscurity.
Theirs were the experiences that we really needed to study.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and comprehensive, January 3, 2007
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This review is from: Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu (Paperback)
Most books like this -- tightly focused on a single, poorly-known battle -- are dry and techical. Hell in a Very Small Place is an absorbing volume, something that comes off feeling half novel, half "I was there" newspaper report. Fall understands the feel of Vietnam and makes sure it comes through. At every point, this book is both personal and detailed, making it a good choice for the technician or the reader interested in personal stories.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Riveting - Tactical/operational level study of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu from the French perspective, April 29, 2007
By 
Utah Blaine (Somewhere on Trexalon in District 268) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu (Paperback)
I knew virtually nothing about Dien Bien Phu other than the standard types of things that it was the pivotal battle of the First Indochina War, effectively ended French colonialsim in SE Asia, etc. and decided to buy this book to learn more. In short, if you have any interest in military history, French or US history, or are just looking for a good read, don't hesitate to buy this book. There is an ENORMOUS amount of detail about the battle in this book, but it is wonderfully written with a deft prose. This is not some dry scholarly work that will require discipline to finish. You will feel the agony of the French soldiers as they continue to hold on while the Viet Minh are slowly squeezing them. I literally could not put this book down.

The book starts with a description of the initial parachute drop into Dien Bien Phu, then backtracks a bit to set the stage and introduce the players. Fall then describes the build-up by the Viet Minh through a horrendous jungle supply line, and the preparation of the position by the French. The bulk of the book describes in great detail the siege. Outlying positions are reduced and pressure is slowly but steadly put on the central position until it is finally overrun. There is an incredible amount of detail here, the battles are often described (from the French side at least) at the platoon level. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the discuss of Great Game politics between the US, France, and Britian as DBP is slowly being strangled. One thing that I never realized is that there was an intimate link between the French war in Indochina and the US/UN police action in Korea.

There are several specific points made in this book that may be of general interest. First, Fall does not specifically blame one individual or decision for the catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu, but he does point out errors. He also dispells several myths that have grown up around the battle. For example, the French made several key errors in judgement by overestimating the effect of their own artillery, underestimating the effect of the Viet Minh artillery, not having a clear goal as to why a battle was being fought at Dien Bien Phu in the first place, among a host of other. One of the most interesting things stated by Fall though is that Dien Bien Phu was a failure of combat engineering. French intelligence knew that the Viet Minh were transporting 105 mm howitzers to the battle area. The fortifications required to defend a fixed position against such artillery were well known from WWII. The airlift capability of the French Air Force was in no possible way capable of delivering the required materials to protect 10,000 men. Fall discounts the idea that French intel failed (they predicted the size of the Viet Minh army at Dien Bien Phu to 10%). Fall also states that only a relatively small fraction of the Legionnaires at DBP were Germans. From other research, this claim seems still to be controversial, but there is a myth that many of the defenders of Dien Bien Phu were former German/SS soldiers.

I strongly disagree with one of the reviewer Paul Conners on several counts. First, this is not the `definitive' work on the battle. Fall wrote this book in the mid-60s and had no access to Viet Minh records. He did have some access to soldiers who fought on the Viet Minh side, but the complete story can only be told once full access to Viet Minh records is given to (Western) professional historians. This is, however, one of the best works of military history ever written in my view, even if it is not complete. Second, this is not an all encompassing account of the First Indochina War. Fall does put the battle into perspective of the larger war at some level, but this is certainly not his emphasis. Having read this book, I'm left with the feeling that I need to put it into a larger perspective. Don't let these small criticisms of the book (or of Mr. Conner's otherwise excellent review) prevent you from buying the book. I simply wanted to clarify a few points.

Finally, several of the reviewers used their reviews to take shots at the French soldiers and officier (cowards, incompetent, etc.). I think after reading this book you will have a new appreciation for the French soldiers. Yes, mistakes were made by the French leadership in many aspects of the battle, but to call them cowardly or incompetent shows that these reviewers have no idea what they are talking about. Are General Navarre and his staff any less incompetent than General Westmoreland a decade later, or the current US (political and military) leadership in Iraq? Read the book, I think you'll develop an appreciation for the martial qualities of the French Army.

I would give this book six stars if I could. One of the best, most detailed, yet readible books in military history ever written.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An empire sacrifices its non-commissioned officers..., September 29, 2008
This review is from: Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu (Paperback)
Bernard Fall uses a very fitting epigraph from Menachem Begin, of all people, to foreshadow one of his book's themes: "When a nation re-awakens, its finest sons are prepared to give their lives for it liberation. When Empires are threatened with collapse, they are prepared to sacrifice their non-commissioned officers." (as Fall goes on to indicate, all too often those non-coms were not even the French of the "Hexagon."). Fall states in the introduction that for three years he "lived" in this small valley in extreme northwest Vietnam, with the prosaic name, "Seat of the Border County Prefecture", or, in Vietnamese, "Dien Bien Phu." The product of those three years labor is an absolutely superlative book on one of the classic battles of the 20th Century, whose ramifications are being felt even today.

Make no mistake about it, the book is primarily a military history replete with unit designations and the military lingo, mindset, and outlook (contrary to some reviewers, I thought the maps were excellent.) But for those who are not "specialists" in that area, or students at some War College, the slog through those parts are well worth it, (imagine learning that the re-supply effort involved delivering almost 50,000 gal. of wine and 60 kg. of mustard, inter alia). Fall gives equal stage to the principal actors on the French side (he had far less access to those on the Vietnamese side), their egos, (did de Castries give female names to those strong points in honor of his mistresses?) as well as the incredible hubris of the French ruling elite that brought this disaster upon them. Fall offered lessons that the Americans did not learn in Vietnam (that same hubris in operation again - mainly "we" are not the French, and "we" don't lose). On page 8 "The fact that such mixed French-Vietnamese units on the whole fought far better than purely Vietnamese units and also purely European unit...was forgotten in South Vietnam ten years later." And from page 440, "When everything was said and done, it remained a fact that the anti-Communists Vietnamese simply had not fought like the Vietnamese on the Communist side."

Although Fall is primarily a military historian, he can offer achingly poignant insights and passages. He covered the "mon vieux," (old buddy) radio farewell between Cogny and de Castries, but the climatic point has to be when the Vietnamese radio operator, who had been monitoring the French radio traffic, breaks in, and requests that the French not destroy their radio sets quite yet, that "President Ho Chi Minh offers you a rendition of the Chant des Partisans," and the Vietnamese proceed to sing the same song the French resistance did when the Germans were occupying their country.

In the Epilogue section Fall covers the various "might-have-beens," but deals only with the tactical ones. He never asks what might-have-been on a strategic level: What if the United States, in 1946, had supported the one force that had fought with it during WW II, Ho Chi Minh, and his band of partisans, who had coordinated with the OSS; while telling the 40,000 French colonists who had supported the Japanese that it was time to go home, and give the country back to the Vietnamese.

My life has been intertwined with this book for a very long time. I recently re-read it, but first read it when I was in Vietnam, in 1968. Shortly thereafter, I was deployed to a similar valley, in extreme northwestern II Corps, Polei Klang, along with a company of tanks, to re-enforce the Special Forces camp there. The NVA held the hills, with their 122 mm rockets, we held the cratered runway on the valley floor. Fall's italicized statement on p 455 proved to be prophetic: "Air power on a more massive scale than was then available could not have changed the outcome of the Indochina War, but it would have saved Dien Bien Phu." It saved Polei Klang, until we chose to abandon it. But it did not change the outcome of that war either. It was Westmoreland's rigid adherence to Johnson's ultimatum to ensure "that there were no other (euphemism) Dien Bien Phus" that lead to his focus on Khe Sanh, taking his eye off the danger to the cities, which lead to the Vietnamese Tet offensive, a tactical failure, but a strategic success. I returned to Vietnam three times in the `90's. In 1995 I was one of perhaps the first 1000 Westerners to travel overland from Hanoi to DBP, as the Vietnamese were relaxing their travel restrictions. It took a total of 20 hours, over two days, in a Russian jeep, to cover the 320 km - clearly underscoring the difficulty of re-supply. We arrived the sixth day of Tet, but they opened the museum for us, with its large "heroic" paintings of the Viet Minh dragging the 105's up the opposite side of the mountains surrounding the valley. The bunker that de Castries walked out of to surrender on May 07, 1954 is still preserved. There is also a small memorial to the French dead, the result of the work of Jules Roy, which Mitterrand "commissioned" in 1984.

This book is excellent history, meticulously researched, and well-written.

And today? The lessons are still unlearned. With at least 95% of the American population utterly unaffected, and many of those totally disinterested, the American empire continues to sacrifice its non-coms in Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus ca change...
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Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu
Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu by Bernard B. Fall (Paperback - April 2002)
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