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Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina (Stackpole Military History Series) Paperback – June 10, 2005
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"...A dramatic treatment of a historic event ... the vast panorama of the Indochina struggle emerges with graphic impact." --The New York Times Book Review
"A poignant, angry, articulate book . . ." --Newsweek --Newsweek
"A poignant, angry, articulate book . . ." --Newsweek
"...A dramatic treatment of a historic event ... the vast panorama of the Indochina struggle emerges with graphic impact." -- The New York Times Book Review<br /><br />"A poignant, angry, articulate book . . ." --Newsweek
About the Author
Bernard B. Fall was born in France and fought with the French Resistance during World War II. While traveling in Vietnam in 1967, he was killed by a Vietcong explosive. His other works include Hell in a Very Small Place (0-306-81157-X) and Last Reflections on a War (0-8117-0904-3).
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Top Customer Reviews
Fall criticizes both the French and the Americans for relying on technology to fight a war of ideology, and repeatedly he faults both for failing to provide the Vietnamese (or the Laotians) with a "cause" to inspire resistance to the Viet-Minh or Viet-Cong (or the Pathet Lao). Valid criticisms both, but Fall never really offers an alternative, other than "to find the intestinal fortitude" to bomb and eliminate the "sanctuaries" that sheltered and supplied the communist insurgents. Fall was staunchly anti-Communist and he never recognized the possibility that the Vietnamese insurgency was at bottom anti-colonialist and nationalistic in nature, and that blinkered him in crucial respects.
Why, then, read STREET WITHOUT JOY? For two principal reasons. First, its account of the French Indochinese War of 1946-1954; and second, the idiosyncratic brilliance of its prose.
Fall's account of the French Indochinese War is not a comprehensive history. Instead, it focuses on and discusses in moderate detail some of the more important and representative encounters between the French and the Viet-Minh. (The only problem with these discussions is the accompanying maps and battle schematics, which were difficult for me to comprehend and some of which were nigh illegible.) Four chapters are presented as "diary" excerpts and they deal more with certain themes, treated in a more personal and anecdotal manner (Fall was an on-the-scene journalist beginning in 1953). But even though it is not comprehensive, STREET WITHOUT JOY is a superb portrayal of what the French were up against in Indochina and how they met it.
The "French" actually is a somewhat misleading appellation. The forces with which France combatted the insurgency included not only Frenchmen, but also soldiers from the French colonial empire (most importantly Algeria, Morocco, and Senegal); native armed forces and tribesmen from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; and also the French Foreign Legion (as much as one-third of which were Germans who had fought for the Wehrmacht). About 95,000 of these French Union forces, including four generals and 1,300 lieutenants, died on the battlefield or in prison camps. And many of them fought tenaciously and courageously. Indeed, the book contains numerous tales of exceptional heroism.
As for the prose, the book is among the best-written accounts of a war and a war zone in my experience. Here's an example, relating to the forlorn nine-men-and-a-sergeant bunkers, each of which was whitewashed on top with "PK" followed by a number representing how many kilometers it was from the point of origin of the road that formed the "de Lattre Line" (which was supposed to seal off the Red River delta from the Communists):
"And if the post only possessed 'a poor little gun without any pull or any relations higher-up at headquarters,' as someone aptly put it, then it was perhaps only entitled to 30 shells a month, or less, and could not clamor for air support and artillery barrages. When the Viet-Minh came at night and blew up its barbed wire entanglements (strictly rationed, too; if you didn't have enough, use sharpened bamboo sticks) with bangalores and his 'Death Volunteers' threw themselves with TNT satchel charges against the bunker's ports, the little bunker had to wait its turn for help if the Viets attacked at the same time one of the 'luxury motels' in the area. And if it was too late, then, to help the little fellow, it still did not even rate a footnote in GHQ's morning report."
STREET WITHOUT JOY -- in French "la rue sans joie," the sardonic name French soldiers gave to a stretch of Road 1 north of Hué along which French convoys were constantly subjected to shelling or ambush -- -- is not the definitive account of the Indochinese War, either the French Round I or the American Round II. But any student of either should read it. And, I daresay, reading it will be more enjoyable than almost all other accounts.
He looked at my reading selection and sneered a touch. He went into some histrionics about what sorts of books should be available to us, future Army officers that we were. And then we went sniffing about the stacks, such as they were.
He grabbed a book and threw it on my desk and said, "you need to read that, son." It was Bernard Fall's "Street Without Joy." I thanked the captain and started reading, and couldn't stop. I'm guessing a dozen or more of my classmates spent the afternoon necking with their girlfriends in the library because I wasn't paying attention to anything but Bernard Fall's riveting account of the French engagement in Indochina.
After I graduated, I spent 15 years as an infantry officer -- and this book absolutely haunted me through all of them. Whether a platoon leader working with small units or a staff officer thinking through logistics or personnel matters (I did both), the events and outcomes that Bernard Fall narrates made me regularly think about the limits of power -- Western power -- and in my life as an academic since then, I think it has done the same.
Now that the French government has seen fit to drop another battalion of paratroops into Mali to try to sort out that mess, this book remains timely.
So there's an anonymous chap out there to whom I owe a lot for setting me on to this book, as I hope to for others.
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