Thursday, May 06, 2004

Dien Bien Phu anniversary

Tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu! the first time a third-world colonised people managed to defeat a western colonial power in a set-piece conventional battle.

The Viet Minh, led politically by Uncle Ho Chi Minh and militarily by Vo Nguyen Giap defeated the French who had everything from warplane, tanks, artillery and even napalm! Vo, now still hale and hearty at 93, was dubbed the Vietnamese Napoleon after the battle.

Trying to lure and crush the Viet Minh in a face-to-face conventional fight after being unable to deal with their hit-and-run guerilla tactis, the French began to fortify a position on the Dien Bien Phu valley's large plain in November 1953. the French hoped to force the Viets into battle by cutting of their supplies lines near the Laotian border. Some 15,000 French, North African, pro-French Vietnamese and foreign legionnaires were airdropped to garrison DBP. But the French neglected to fortify or deploy artillery on the series of small hills around DBP, thinking that no one could haul artillery guns up the steep forested hillsides. Even if the Viets could, the French deputy (he's the artillery commander) thought that their superior artillery could blast the enemies' guns (the chap later blew himself up with a grenade).

In turn out that the Viets did everything the French thot they couldn't and more. With superhuman endurance and tenacity, they dismantled their guns and hauled them piece by piece, shell by shell up those commanding heights. Their 105mm guns eventually dominated the French positions. With that, it was virtually the end. Resupply planes could not land under the barrage. Anti-aircraft guns covered the approach. Air-dropped supplies ended up with the Viets more than the French.

Position after position were overwhelmed. In the end, the last survivors surrender on 7 May 1954. About 3,000 French troops were dead or missing (two thirds were Colonial troops) and 10,000 were captured. The price the Vietnamese paid for the victory was about three times the casualties of the French.

With that victory, the demise of western imperialism was inevitable. The Algerians soon revolted against the French. Other colonial powers like the British, Dutch and Belgians had to drop their colonies whether they liked it or not. Sadly, the Americans soon stepped into the gap left by the French in Indo-china and they made the same mistakes the French made. With the recent events in Iraq, it seems that the Americans had not learnt from their painful lesson in Vietnam. That when a people is willing to die for their land and freedom, superior technology or weaponry might not win the day.

The other day while watching CNN footage about the US Marines engaged in fire-fights outside Fallujah, Iraq, I was hit by deja vu! Except the modern unforms and souped-up M16s, it looked and felt exactly like Vietnam (minus the tropical jungle of course!). The graphic pictures about the abuse of Iraqi detainees, reminded me of the dramatic picture of the shooting of a VC suspect by a South Vietnamese officer. Could that be the sound of the tide turning?

For a classic account of the DBP battle read "Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu" by Bernard B. Fall


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