May 17, 2004
PARIS - Fifty years ago this month, France watched and wept for 57 days as its colonial troops defending the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu were submerged by endless waves of Vietnamese infantry.
In an act of incredible folly, French generals air-assaulted 15,700 soldiers into a broad valley in the remote mountains of North Vietnam in hopes of bringing the forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap to decisive battle. Instead, the French were cut off, pounded by enemy artillery, and relentlessly ground down in ferocious, hand-to-hand combat by 50,000 Vietnamese soldiers.
The fall of each strongpoint in the valley of death Anne Marie, Dominique, Claudine, Hugette was a dagger driven into the heart of France. Paris begged President Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons to stop the Vietminh, but he refused.
On 7 May, 1954, Foreign Legionnaires defending the last French strongpoint, Isabelle, were overrun. Nearly 10,000 French troops were killed or wounded, the rest taken captive. French soldiers were an army of lions, led by asses. France's rule over Indochina was broken and the first Vietnam War ended. Fourteen years later, US Marines almost suffering a second Dien Bien Phu at the idiotic battle of Khe Sanh.
Many Europeans retain vivid and negative memories of the continent's recent colonial past in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast. They share a collective sense there is no profit or honor in messy colonial wars, and a desire to avoid foreign entanglements.
In Vietnam, America learned many hard lessons about waging war in a nation where much of the population did not want them. Unfortunately, these lessons have been forgotten, or were never learned, by the Bush Administration, most of whose desk warriors evaded military service during Vietnam. So many grave errors made in Vietnam or now being repeated in Iraq.
Here are some maxims of colonial warfare the US will painfully relearn:
Most Arabs don't want to be `liberated' or what President Bush calls `freedom.' They want freedom from US occupation, and freedom for Palestine.
People will accept misrule, robbery, abuse, and torture by their own fellow citizens but not by foreigners.
The occupying power will always find locals ready to cooperate and join the colonial police and army for money. Ten percent will serve loyally; 50% will do nothing. The rest will covertly fight the occupiers, provide the resistance with intelligence, or quietly sabotage the occupation.
Most of those who cooperate with the occupation will maintain secret links with the resistance. Massive defections will occur the minute the occupiers show the first signs of thinking about withdrawal.
Tribal, clan, ethnic and religious loyalties will also prove stronger than political ones imposed by the occupier. You cannot buy loyalty; you can only rent it.
An inevitable byproduct of colonial adventures is an unwanted, usually massive influx of people from the conquered country.
Colonial occupations almost always cost far more than planned and produce negative earnings for the invader. Occupying Iraq and Afghanistan now costs at least US $6 billion monthly. The costs of garrisoning and running colonies usually exceeds what can be looted from them.
It's always cheaper to buy resources than plunder them.
The Soviets thought they would pay for their invasion of Afghanistan by stealing its natural gas. The Washington neo-conservatives who engineered the Iraq war ludicrously claimed its stolen oil would fully cover the costs of invasion and occupation.
Guerilla wars waged among civilians inevitably produce hatred for occupiers and corrupt the invaders. Torture, brutality, mass reprisals against civilians, and black marketeering become epidemic, even among the best-discipline troops. The longer occupation troops stay on, the more they become corrupted, brutalized, and addicted to drugs so do the nations that sent them.
Americans make poor colonialists. They lack the historical and cultural knowledge, subtlety, patience and Third World street smarts to be first-rate colonizers, like the French or British. They lack the ruthlessness and brutality of Dutch, Japanese, Spaniards, or Russian colonialists. Or the ability to blend with the local population, as did Portugese.
But Americans and Canadians make splendid liberators. France and Europe will still gratefully remember this fact long after the modern-day empire-builders currently misdirecting US foreign policy are forgotten.