Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bernard Fall’s reflections

To get a copy of Bernard Fall’s book "Last Reflections on a War" (1967) at the Kansas City Public Library, one has to request an inter-library loan from Baker University. Forty-five years ago today, he was on his last trip to Vietnam, accompanying 1st Battalion 9th Marines in his Street Without Joy on their Operation Chinook II in Thua Thien Province. On February 21st, 1967 Fall and combat photographer, Gunnery Sergeant Byron G. Highland died when Fall stepped on a Bouncing-Betty landmine.

I first encountered Bernard Fall’s books in 1972 while taking a course called Revolutionary Warfare at West Point. My professor was a French Colonel, a veteran of the Battle of Algiers and subsequent campaigns there as a lieutenant with then Colonel Jeanpierre’s 1stREP (1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment). We knew the war in Vietnam was winding down, but as a nineteen year-old, my sense of history was immature. I read, listened, and did my semester book report on Fall’s "Street Without Joy" (1961). Together, we read and discussed his "Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu" (1966).

What impressed me about Fall was how he could relate his first-hand experiences with the French forces, emphasize the tactical situations while weaving the personalities of the soldiers he met and interviewed. While he drew some conclusions and offered a few answers, I came away from his books with loads of questions built upon the hard questions he asked. Mention Bernard Fall to a soldier of the era and the veteran may remember him. General Colin Powell once remarked that more people should have discovered and closely studied Fall in the early 60s.

Later in my military career, Fall received some infrequent, recommended-for-further-reading mention, but never close study. His books were respected but in retrospect his books were awkward bits of history; too true to study deeply in an academic setting, for we wished to emphasize military theory rather than practice, and the American Army had shunned ties to the French military experiences despite the fact that the French helped us Colonials win the battle of Yorktown. In the 80s, Clausewitz was in heavy vogue. Every graduate of the Staff and War Colleges had a dog-eared copy it seemed. Our American Army's Clausewitz-ian watershed moment was our March 19, 2003 "Shock and Awe" invasion of Iraq that's left us more shocked and less than awe-inspired nine years hence.

Fall was not a dove nor could one comfortably call him a hawk. He understood a few ways of war (I bet he studied Clausewitz closely while reading Mao's Red Book). He examined the nature and motivations of the insurgent, the freedom fighter as well as those countering it. Unlike many contemporary writers, he seemed to shun an agenda. After all, he was a teacher as well as writer. I’m not sure he’d accept the title of journalist.

If you’re looking for something fresh despite the passage of time, if you’re aware of this 50-ish anniversary of our invasion of Vietnam amid the daily reminders of the American Civil War remembrances, if you care to read writing about foreign policy from the strategic to the dismounted walking patrol level-of-detail, Bernard Fall should slake your thirst. Those studying the profession of arms deserve to crack his pages frequently. Those designing university curricula will hopefully place a few of Fall’s books on the required reading list, but more so upon the seminar schedule of discussion topics. For those journalism students with dreams of an embedded wartime experience, consider Bernard Fall as a model.

You won’t find a great deal of answers in his pages. You’ll read some very tough questions; the awkward ones we seem to not ask these days that begin with "why".

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