What Dien Bien Phu could have taught us

Sam Smith, 2002 – The media and politicians call what has happened terrorism. This is a propagandistic rather than a descriptive term and replaces the more useful traditional phrases, guerilla action or guerilla warfare. The former places a mythical shroud around the event while the latter depicts its true nature. Guerillas do not play by the rules of state organization or military tactics. This does not make them cowardly, as some have suggested, but can make them fiendishly clever. The essence of guerilla warfare is to attack at times and places unsuspected and return to places unknown. You can not invade the land of guerillas, you can not bomb them out of existence, you can not overwhelm them with your technological wonders.

This was a lesson we were supposed to have learned in Vietnam but appear to have forgotten. The journalist Bernard Fall early noted that the French, after Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Our war against “terrorism” has been in many ways a domestic version of our Vietnam strategy. We keep making the same mistakes over and over because, until now, we could afford to. One of these has been to define the problem by its manifestations rather than its causes. This turns a resolvable political problem into a irresolvable technical problem, because while, for example, there are clearly solutions to the Middle East crisis, there are no other solutions to the guerilla violence that grows from the failure to end it.

In other words, if you define the problem as “a struggle against terrorism” you have already admitted defeat because the guerilla will always have the upper hand against a centralized, technology-dependent society such as ours. We will always be blindsided, just as Bernard Fall said the French were under much simpler circumstances: “What surprised the French completely was the Viet-Minh’s ability to transport a considerable mass of heavy artillery pieces across road less mountains to Dien Bien Phu and to keep it supplied with a sufficient amount of ammunition to make the huge effort worthwhile.”

There is one way to deal with guerilla warfare and that is to resolve the problems that allow it to thrive. The trick is to undermine the violence of the most bitter by dealing honestly with the complaints of the most rational. As we have demonstrated in the Middle East, one need not even reach a final solution as long as incremental progress is being made. But once that ceases, as has happened in the past year, the case for freelance violence is quickly strengthened and people simply forget that peace is possible.

In the present instance, we may have met our own Dien Bien Phu in our long, senseless, and self-defeating effort to subdue and control those of the Muslim states. The answer – humiliating as it may seem over the short run but courageous as it really would be – is not to commence yet another war of empire against the Muslim world, but to end the one we have conducted for far too long.

This is what France did. By 1961, with Kennedy contemplating involvement in Vietnam, General de Gaulle strongly urged him not to get involved in that “rotten country.” Said de Gaulle, “I predict to you, that you will, step by step, be sucked into a bottomless military and political quagmire.” The French had lost 55,000 troops there, almost as many as the Americans would. This was not the advice of a pacifist or a warrior gone soft, but of a hard-nosed general who understood the importance of reality in military and political strategy. A few years earlier he had become prime minister and begun not only France’s extrication from but from its other colonies. In 1958 he had proposed the “peace of the brave” but within one year was supporting full Algerian self-determination. He held to this position despite an attempted coup by members of the Foreign Legion and a secret army organization determined to keep Algeria French.

Among those supporting the liberation of Algeria was the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre. As Danielle Costa has written, he “argued that the violence in Algeria was the French people’s collective responsibility. He felt that the initial and fundamental violence in the Algerian situation was colonialism itself. He argued that the colonial system was based on violence – first conquest, then different forms of exploitation and oppression, and then pacification. By its own violence, colonialism had taught the natives to understand only violence. By colonialism’s intransigence, it forced the native to resort to violence.”

We have built our own colonialism using corporations rather than cavalry and with foreign trade rather than with the Foreign Legion. But the effects have been much the same.

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