Review: Bernard Fall's "Street Without Joy."
Unlearned lessons from yesterday's defeats.
Bernard Fall’s 1961 Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina isn’t a history of the First Indochinese War, exactly: it’s more an illumination of why the war was lost. You may read that preceding sentence and object that there was a winner, in the Communist Viet Minh, and this is technically true. But in every way that matters, as Fall’s classic account makes abundantly clear, the war was lost by nearly everyone. The French lost by the evisceration of their empire, as the collapse of Indochina led directly to the collapse of Algérie française, which led directly to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, which led directly to a France that took a generation under Gaullist fictions to begin to find itself again. The Laotians and Cambodians lost when French protection from the overwhelmingly powerful and populous Vietnamese was stripped from them. The Vietnamese themselves, as a people, lost when plunged into decades of war and Communism that persist to this day.
Fall is a harsh critic of France and the West, a pitiless chronicler of their blunders in Indochina and elsewhere, but he is clear-eyed on the nature of the Viet Minh. The Communists were more ruthless toward their indigenous enemies — non-Communist Vietnamese, and especially non-Vietnamese tribesman of the interior highlands — than toward the French, which is saying quite a lot given their barbarous treatment of any French in their captivity. Fall chronicles the bestial treatment meted toward French prisoners, notes that survival odds were better in Japanese captivity the previous decades — and also makes explicit French officialdom's decision to ignore or downplay Viet Minh atrocities, lest the enemy retaliate by simply killing the thousands in their power. Time and again Fall refers to survivors of Communist war prisons and veterans of Vietnamese jungle warfare alike, as men resembling “Christ off the cross”: bloody, gaunt, starved, hollow-eyed, nearly dead. But the parallel mostly ends there. Fall writes that the too-late French Union experiment in Indochina in the 1950s gave the peoples of that region nearly their only glimpse of real freedom, and there is sacrificial suffering in that respect. But there is no redemption. The enemy prevailed.