As part of my ongoing, book-related effort to gain a better understanding of the Vietnam War, I recently started diving into the documentary series based on Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. (Yeah, I know, I should’ve started with the source material—my bad.) I’ve found the first episode particularly enlightening, since part of my book will deal with French opposition to Vietnam—opposition obviously rooted in France’s disastrous experience at Dien Bien Phu. The television version of Karnow’s work really nails the exact nature of France’s failings, both politically and militarily. A classic case of imperial hubris, or so it would seem.
The quote that best sums up the catastrophe comes from a French captain named Jean Pouget. In recalling the 1953 arrival of General Henri Navarre, the fifth French commander in Vietnam in as many years, Pouget says that a concerted effort was made to develop what might now be termed a “communications strategy.” But for some reason, the effort never went anywhere:
When General Navarre arrived, he opened a file right away and on that file I wrote “War Goals.” We looked for what to tell the troops. Well, until the end this file remained practically empty. We never could express concretely our war goals.
I reckon the same could be said for the American military a decade or so later. The question I have to address, then, is how this lack of clear goals affected the psychological well-being of the men in the field, especially after their fighting days were done. There is actually a case to be made (most notably by Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam) that the uncertain nature of the mission in Vietnam contributed to the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among that conflict’s veterans. Perhaps it is not only the horror of combat that warps the mind, but also the anxiety of not knowing whether one’s supreme sacrifices were truly for a greater good.
(Image above: One of the 3,300 French prisoners-of-war to returns home after Dien Bien Phu. Seven thousand of his comrades perished will in Viet Minh custody.)