Reviewed by Julian Hoffman
By Martin Windrow
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, England, 2004
Vietnam has traditionally enjoyed a high level of public awareness — due in no small part to Hollywood’s undivided attention in the 20 years after the war finished in 1975. Less well known was the catastrophic French attempt to retain influence in its Far Eastern empire. Mar-tin Windrow addresses the point near the beginning of his book and highlights the crucial differences between the American and the French experiences. He focuses on how these professional enlisted soldiers, not the raw conscripts from the prairies of Iowa, fought a bloody and soul-destroying campaign against a formidable and determined opponent in Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists. The French fought with a polyglot collection of 89 nationalities, volunteers to a man, drawn from most of the French em-pire and all the soldiers of fortune that Europe could spare. In essence, the men who fought and died in Vietnam did so for France, but their bodies were not sent back to graveyards in Provence or Alsace. Windrow argues that this is why the first Vietnam War has so little resonance for our generation.
Dien Bien Phu was the defining defeat of the French army, the one that broke the political and public will to continue with the war. Windrow devotes his first few chapters to providing a comprehensive context to the war, from both the French and Vietnamese perspectives. He explains how a nation that suffered a humiliating defeat by Germany sought, in Indochina, to reestablish its pride and prestige. On the Vietnamese side, he traces the beginnings of nationalism and aspirations to independence by focusing on the journey taken by Ho Chi Minh in assuming leadership of the Vietnamese cause. He gives real insights into how the Communists were able to comprehensively establish their support in the countryside, through a combination of promises of land reform and focused terror. With the context established, Win-drow moves through the years leading up to the defeat at Dien Bien Phu and analyzes the seeds of that defeat.
Martin Windrow cheerfully admits in his introduction that he is not a professional historian and that he has provided a synthesis of published work. If anything, this a definite advantage, since he avoids jargon and cluttered prose and keeps the reader at the heart of the action. His vivid descriptions of human wave attacks make you feel as if you are standing at the shoulders of the nervous Foreign Legionnaires. He also establishes a connection with the subjects by taking the time to name and describe the people he is talking about.