- Paperback: 568 pages
- Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (April 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 030681157X
- ISBN-13: 978-0306811579
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.5 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (136 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,593 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu Reprint Edition
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"A thorough account of a brave, sanguinary battle that has since turned out to have immense historic importance." -- The New Yorker
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Top Customer Reviews
I'll start by commenting on the virtues and difficulties of this book, and then I'll make some remarks about the battle.
The first and most obvious strength of this text is its immediacy. Fall was able to interview many of the surviving participants of the battle, to include those in the Viet Minh, and was well acquainted with the larger issues and personalities of French Indochina due to his work as a reporter there (see his important work, "Street Without Joy."). It's clear he had access to unit and communications logs surrounding this battle. To have such access, as well as the opportunity to speak with those involved and engaged, gets us as close to what happened as one is likely to discern; hence, this book, whatever its errors, will be considered foundational to the understanding of this battle for quite some time. Of course let's allow that figures like Cogny, de Castries, and others each had their own ax to grind after the battle (and each did), but Fall's account is clearly cognizant of these conflicts and he seems to account for them.
The treatment of the battle is quite meticulous -- unit designations and positions, at least for the French, are identified sometimes to the company level (Viet Minh designations rarely fall below regimental level), and a generous provision of diagrams help us follow the progress of the battle from the initial jump to the denouement. Ample appendices supply the order of battle. I recognize that for some readers the constant references to particular units and so on is hard to digest, but the fact is, this is the real spadework of military history.
Fall's account of Dien Bien Phu also includes the geopolitical implications -- something on which I would wish he had done a touch more in this book. He discusses how the impetus of the planned Geneva talks drove events in the battle, and how British and American internal politics prevented them from assisting the French in any kind of meaningful way. It remains an open question whether American air power -- whether B-29s saturating the area around the fortress or carrier-borne aircraft flying close air support -- may have turned the tide, at least until the Geneva talks began. At any rate, Fall makes it clear that the experience in Korea and the fear of Chinese intervention rendered France's purported allies impotent. Russian and Chinese supply of ammunition and weapons may have been decisive in this battle, as the text makes clear (especially at the end, when the Viet Minh were using Soviet Katyusha rocket launchers).
And of course a major geopolitical aspect of this engagement, as Fall reminds us regularly, was the multinational dimension of the deployed French force -- French, Vietnamese, Algerian, Moroccan, and Legionaries from across Europe -- that complicated the action and proved the first shovel-turns of the graveyard of French colonialism around the globe.
As for issues with the book: for those not accustomed to reading detailed tactical history, I can see how this book might be tough go, and how an easier text might be a better read. This was not an issue for me. More pointedly, I was bothered that the many diagrams lacked topographic detail. To understand the military aspects of the terrain better I found myself seeking out topographic maps elsewhere, and only looking at them helped me to understand what a horrid fix the French had put themselves in by picking this as a position they hoped to serve their strategic interest. I'm sure some readers would be helped by some knowledge of the range and burst-radius (or comparable power) of many of the weapons employed.
A further issue is this: the book emphasizes French heroism at the battle -- and I must acknowledge that many courageous deeds were done, beyond what I imagine I could ever do. But as the late John Keegan notes in more than one place, we have a bad habit of giving names and faces to "our" side but none to the others. The Viet Minh, in this text, largely remain nameless and faceless. Fall can name members of French tank crews, but cannot name a single Viet Minh sapper. That leaves us with a somewhat slanted account -- but still one I would not be without.
Fall's account of the battle should remind us, first and foremost, of the importance of logistics. The French failure at Dien Bien Phu can almost entirely be accounted to their inserting a force where it could not be viably supported once invested. Air landing of supplies and aerovac of the wounded became impossible once the airstrip came within the range of Viet Minh direct-support artillery, and air drops of supplies, always a crap-shoot, became a bad bet once effective anti-aircraft artillery was in place. On the contrary, the Viet Minh, as Fall points out, established a fairly effective line of resupply for their artillery and troops, using impressed coolie labor that avoided French airstrikes.
One thing Fall's account does not neglect is the obvious callousness of the Viet Minh to their own losses. Not unlike the North Koreans and Chinese in the decade's earlier conflict, the Viet Minh seemed to have no problem with sending thousands into the meat-grinder of quad-50s and 120-mm mortar final protective fires. No wonder they never thereafter built a worker's paradise (according to my Vietnamese students and friends).
I was a paratrooper myself -- time served in the 101st and USASOC. So in the end I find myself, for better or worse, justly or unjustly, sympathizing with Fall's admiring portrait of the French paras who jumped into this hell-hole. The courage, resourcefulness, determination, and sheer guts they showed under horrid circumstances is worth everyone's pause, if not praise. And you don't have to believe in their orders or national policy to acknowledge their dignity.
The accounts of the planning prepare you to understand what is to come. The accounts of the parachute assault and the combat maneuvers before the main battle are suspenseful and scary. Entire units disappeared in the jungle as they tried to converge on Dien Bien Phu pursued by Viet Minh troops, and were never heard from again. The accounts of the intense fights at strongpoints Beatrice, Gabrielle, and the Elaines are terrifying and very moving. They were fights to the death, often hand-to-hand, by paratroopers and Foreign Legion and Viet Minh heavy infantry, sometimes with escapes, but with no surrender by either side until the very end, when the French were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers. The descriptions of the courage and the suffering of the fighting men on both sides are inspiring, but also very sad. Those who disparage the bravery and fighting qualities of the French military cannot have read this book. Read the account of the paratroopers singing their war songs as they climbed Elaine 2 to engage the Viet Minh in an astonishingly violent, face-to-face standup fight to the death. These were professional soldiers from many countries, volunteers all -- no conscripts on the French side -- and fighting and suffering is what they did for a living. They earned their pay. The Viet Minh were brave, tenacious, committed, and very, very tough.
The main thing for the prospective reader to keep in mind is that this is a detailed, sometimes minute-by-minute account of the fighting, with detailed descriptions of battlefield terrain and reports of the actions of specific units. The character studies of the key French personnel, especially Navarre, Cogny, Gilles, de Castries, Langlais, and the great Marcel Bigeard ("Bruno"), among others, are thorough and telling. This book is not for those who want just an overview or a fast adventure story.
I served in the U.S. Army as an airborne infantryman, was in the central highlands of Vietnam from Dec 1965 - Dec 1966, and slept outside in the rain for nearly three straight months, so the story affected me deeply. I visited Dien Bien Phu with a war buddy and my wife in December of 2012, and we drove and walked over most of the valley, which is beautiful terrain. (At one point I became quite ill from the heat. Not young anymore.) We stood at the base of strongpoint Beatrice, climbed to the top of Gabrielle, climbed on Dominique and to the top of the Elaines, roamed in the headquarters, and visited Isabelle (of which not much remains). Some of the strongpoints, like Anne Marie, can be seen, but not easily reached. Some have been overrun by town development. But some of the fortifications and trench systems have been preserved, especially on Elaine 2, which is close to a small military museum. We climbed into French tanks, several of which still stand on parts of the battlefield, entered bunkers and walked through trenches. The Vietnamese in the valley are not obsessed with the history of the battle and have made little effort to develop the battle sites for tourism. The top of Beatrice, the most dramatic of the strongpoints except, perhaps, for Elaine 2, still inaccessible, overgrown by jungle. I would give anything to be able to go there. Maybe in the future.