Death of a Chronicler

Last Reflections on a War.
by Bernard B. Fall.
Preface by Dorothy Fall. Doubleday. 288 pp. $4.95.

The colonels do their best. They have, it must be said, adequate facilities: a windowless auditorium modeled, down to the smell, on the high-level theaters of Washington; plush seats, banks of stage lights, dimmers, a discreet lectern; for scenery—blown-up green and black abstractions on movable flats and drop curtains. The show goes on every day including Sundays. Like clockwork, at five, the principals, Land, Sea, and Air, make their entrances in the same Olympian order. Their lines vary little, the drama is, of course, in the anticipation of a fine nuance brought to the familiar. Granted they wear the magic cloak of military rank, still their performance is creditable, for they succeed in giving an artistic distance to the daily killing: “Three missions were flown yesterday against targets 320 miles northwest of Saigon. The nth battalion of the nth division reported a body count of seventy-seven at the conclusion of their Operation Andrew Carnegie.” A worthwhile endeavor in a war where events succeed each other without consequence like a series of ghastly traffic accidents. The Saigon press corps has seen enough of the war in Vietnam to be appreciative. Given the audience’s desire to suspend disbelief, it is rare that an event breaks through the rhetoric, stops the performance, and casts doubts upon the script as a whole. The death of Bernard Fall was such an event.

Journalist and historian, Fall had begun his study of the Vietnamese war in 1953, or so long ago that the year lies beyond the reaches of memory. In Vietnam fourteen years make an eon; they span generations of soldiers, journalists, and politicians. Over the years Fall had watched foreign generals and civilian officials with their pacification programs, their counter-insurgency tactics come and go like children on a carousel, sitting proud on the same circling painted horses. Diligent, never entirely cynical, Fall had recorded the look of each generation as it entered the war, while noting the regular recurrences in the war itself. For those who came to Vietnam as to a country which had just sprung from the ocean, he described the permanent features of its landscape, its dense civilization.

On February 21, 1967 Bernard Fall died on a land mine planted in the muddy track that runs through the ricelands and tidal marshes on the seacoast north of Hue. The mine went off in impartial response to a given amount of pressure—an absurd “accident” except that the same sort of accidents on the same piece of ground have killed so many French legionnaires, so many U.S. marines. Fall died on the Street Without Joy, the strip of land after which he titled his first book on the first Indochina war. When the colonels made their announcement, the atmosphere in Saigon changed as if hit by the pressure preceeding an electrical storm. For a moment the Americans saw what he had so long described to them: the mechanism of the war turning out of their control in its terrible cycle of destruction.

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In compiling a collection of his last essays, Dorothy Fall has done her husband’s public a service which Fall himself might never have performed. A various collection rather than a shaped and polished book, Last Reflections on a War stands as a fine representative sample of Fall’s work as a whole; as such, it is as nearly personal as an autobiography. The book begins with a radio transcript in which Fall gives a brief account of his life and ends with the transcript of the tape Fall was making for his family at the moment of his death. That the collection includes an excellent outline of Vietnamese history, a discussion of the basic issues of the war, and an emotive picture of Vietnam, 1967, speaks for the depth of Fall’s knowledge and the scope of his concerns.

Intense, hardworking, prolific, Fall had by the age of forty established himself as the leading American authority on current Vietnamese history. In a period of fourteen years he wrote six books on Vietnam ranging through academic studies of the organization of the Vietminh (The Viet Minh Regime, Le Viet Minh), a journal of the French war (Street Without Joy), a history of the inter-war period (The Two Viet Nams), an analysis of the American war (Vietnam Witness) and a history of the battle of Dienbienphu (Hell in a Very Small Place). Surprisingly—given such an achievement—Fall had no background in Asia. By his own account, he went to Vietnam in obedience to the laws of academic supply and demand: a professor at the University of Kentucky advised him to specialize in Indochina for the simple reason that no one else knew much about it. Fall paid for his first trip, to collect material for a doctoral dissertation, out of his own small savings. If he went to Vietnam by accident, he found there a theme whose deep resonance in his own life caught him up in a driving, alternate rhythm between journalism and scholarship.

Though he spent all of his professional life in the United States, Fall came to America for the first time in 1951. His parents, Austrian Jews, emigrated from Vienna to France soon after their son was born; when World War II came, they decided to stand ground in their adopted country—Fall’s father joined the resistance in the south of France. Growing up in an occupied country, Fall became a full-fledged maquisard at the age of seventeen. “There was no such thing as living at home like a solid citizen. . . . Oh, no, you actually fought all the way through. . . . For us there was nothing but the endless tunnel.” After the war, he accepted a Fulbright scholarship for study in the United States; though he continued to carry a French passport for purposes of travel to North Vietnam, he never went back to France, for he no longer had roots there: the Nazis had killed his father in 1943, his mother in 1944. In an essay included in Last Reflections, “200 Years of War in Vietnam,” Fall quotes the young Vietnamese poet, Pham Quynh, as saying to the French colonial minister, “We are a people who are looking for a country and have not yet found it.” Like the young nationalist, Fall himself never had a country given by birthright to him; as his friend, Professor Paul Mus, has so perceptively observed, he felt obliged to make a country for himself out of his own efforts. His sense of belonging to the United States was coextensive with his work. He took nothing for granted; he felt that he had a country only insofar as he could contribute to it.

Arriving in Vietnam as the French war drew to its bitter close, Fall began what he called his “bad love affair” with the country par excellence of the guerrilla. Professionally interested in the Vietminh, Fall made trips throughout the country, following the French troops deep into Vietminh territory. From the French resistance he brought to Vietnam a double vision: a sympathy with the guerrillas fighting for their independence, a sympathy with the French troops holding out, hopeless and heroic, for a vanished world. Though Fall argued consistently that the nature of the Vietnamese conflict was political rather than simply military, he inclined his heart to the soldiers on both sides and his best efforts to a description of the war itself. In Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place he moves beyond his usual essay style to write an impression of the Vietnamese war stronger than that of any novelist, Graham Greene perhaps excepted. Last December on his sixth and final trip to Vietnam, he wrote for the New Republic an account of his Christmas visit to an American outpost near the DMZ.

Though always a matter of slight embarrassment to his left-wing audience, Fall’s identification with the soldiers worked to enhance his sensitivity to the political flux of Vietnam. As a soldier, Fall knew the terrain as an intricate political mosaic; as a soldier, he knew how to look for the man within the political equation—a perception which is the first qualification for Western analysts of Asia. To quote the French historian, Phillippe Devillers, “In our age of mass society, where all history seems to be determined by forces so powerful as to negate the individual, the Vietnamese problem has the originality to remain dominated by the questions of individuals. Indeed, the problem becomes almost incomprehensible if one transforms men into abstractions.” Though the notion, shared by Fall, looks romantic, it is not so, for whatever the “objective” truth may be, the Vietnamese themselves conceive of political forces in terms of personalities; viewed through Western political abstractions, their world becomes opaque, unpredictable. In his short biography of Ho Chi Minh contained in Last Reflections, Fall constructs a character by looking quite simply at what the man has done rather than at his ideological formation. As a hypothetical model, Fall’s Ho Chi Minh stands clear and simple as E=mc2 beside all the metaphysical muddles of the experts on international Communist doctrine.

Intellectually an American pragmatist with a French sense of irony, Fall did not take a doctrinaire stance against American intervention in South Vietnam. On the other hand, he made two general criticisms of the U.S. Indochina policy: first, that it lacked a coherent frame of reference and second, that, based on theories unrelated to the local situation, it lacked flexibility. Though Fall continued to hope for improvement, his description of U.S. policy in Vietnam points to a long case history behind its now-apparent symptoms Of schizophrenia.

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In 1940, President Roosevelt, writing to his son, Elliott, in effect blamed the European colonialists, particularly the French, for the entire war in the Pacific. Taking Vietnamese independence as a moral axiom, Roosevelt in 1945-6 first left the French resistance forces in Indochina defenseless, to be slaughtered by the retreating Japanese armies and then, after initial overtures to the Vietminh regime, abandoned the embryonic nationalist army to be slaughtered by the returning French armies. For seven years afterwards, the United States diplomatically forgot about Indochina; finally in 1953, on the eve of a Vietminh victory, the Eisenhower administration decided to intervene in the Indochina war—on the side of the French. For two years the United States in effect paid the French to avoid negotiations while teasing them with hopes for a victory—or at least for a better negotiating position—in the form of a military commitment. Finally resolving not to intervene militarily, Secretary Dulles went about making the arrangements for a new war in Vietnam; he refused to sign the Geneva Accords and began to build up a vast military establishment for a government in the South which not only did not recognize the Northern regime, But actually claimed sovereignty over its territory. His precedent was, of course, postwar Germany. Translated into policy, this misplaced analogy led to a rather remarkable result: in 1965 the United States entered the war in Vietnam with a program whose failure had already been demonstrated.

Over the last few years, Bernard Fall gave sustained effort to decoding the administration’s more hermetic bulletins on Vietnam. For example: “The Vietnamese never had elections on a national basis. . . . It has never happened in their whole history” (Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Saigon, April, 1966). As Fall points out, the Vietnamese he knew had had no less than twelve elections since the 1930’s. Indeed, they suffered not from ignorance in this regard but from too much experience with phony elections of the sort held under the regime of Henry Cabot Lodge. In looking at the 1966 elections for the Constituent Assembly, Fall discovered a problem in simple arithmetics ignored by the Saigon press corps; by comparing the population figures with the number of ballots cast, he found that there were a million more votes than there were people eligible to vote. From these calculations Fall concluded not that the administration was lying—its figures did not bear such a direct relation to the truth—but rather that it had invented a country of its own. The military, with their statistics on enemy dead and enemy “structures” destroyed, had built (I extrapolate from Fall’s text) a strange, metallurgical world, where Communism sits like an oblong box under all of the bombing. As for the civilians, they with their progress charts had made a model of Underdevelopment with mechanical people who wait stupidly to be reprogrammed. As Fall often warned, to force such abstractions onto reality is to predetermine first, irrelevant aid programs and second, B-52s loaded with antipersonnel bombs. By the end of 1966, Fall felt strongly that from the American point of view the war had lost its political component to become a test of advanced Western military technology versus guerrilla movements in general. That the proper analogy for Vietnam was not Munich but Spain.

Before his trip to Vietnam in 1966, Fall admitted that for the first time he felt apprehensive about going back—apprehensive not for himself but for what might have happened to “his” Vietnam. For Bernard Fall had his own Vietnam; it belonged neither to the Communists in the North nor to the Saigon generals packing their heavy American weapons, nor to the future as seen by the “grim little men” of War Zone C. It was the traditional Vietnam, a place which by 1967 had almost ceased to exist. Though Fall counseled both the U.S. government and its critics on the Left, he agreed with neither of them completely, for both extremes of policy—the continuation of the large-scale war or immediate total withdrawal—threatened “his” Vietnam. If he spoke for anyone, it was for most of the South Vietnamese who, after two years of invasion by the armies of North Vietnam and the United States, cry a plague on all the foreigners and ask only for peace. As a voice for those who have no voices, he urged the United States to put pressure on the Saigon government and the NLF to make a local political settlement in the South. The Southerners, he insisted, should be the center of all negotiations; the DRVN and the U.S. should take a back-up position as did the major powers in the 1962 Geneva Conference over Laos. Under those conditions he saw a chance for the South Vietnamese to find a peace somewhere short of the apocalypse.

Bernard Fall’s death last year was not only a matter for private grief but an event of public importance. With his depth of expertise, his understanding of the Vietnamese in both the North and the South, Fall might have been a catalyst to the peace as well as its historian. When the time comes for a negotiated settlement, two nations will realize the full extent of their loss: Bernard Fall was one of the few men qualified to make the vital link between the beginning and the end of the war.

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