Bernard Fall: The Man Who Knew the War

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Fifty years ago today, on Feb. 21, 1967, the journalist Bernard Fall stepped on a land mine while accompanying Marines on a mission near Hue, in South Vietnam. He died instantly. He was 40 years old.

The literature on the Vietnam War is enormous and growing, but Fall’s work still stands out for its insight and sagacity. He remains our greatest writer on the struggle, despite the fact that he died before the period of heavy American military involvement had reached its halfway point.

Fall wrote six books on the Indochina conflict, along with more than 100 articles in popular publications like The New York Times Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and The New Republic, as well as academic journals. Many an officer who shipped out to Saigon carried with him a dog-eared copy of “Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946–1954,” published in 1961. In early 1968, when it seemed possible that American forces could be in for a disastrous siege at Khe Sanh, officers scrambled to get their hands on “Hell in a Very Small Place,” Fall’s searing account of the siege at Dien Bien Phu, 14 years earlier, in which the French suffered the decisive loss in their own struggle to control the country.

Born in Vienna in 1926, Fall moved to Paris after Germany annexed Austria, and as a teenager he fought for the French resistance. (His father, who also fought for the resistance, was executed by the Germans; his mother died at Auschwitz.) He came to the United States for graduate school in international relations and eventually became a professor at Howard University. He also began traveling to Vietnam in the 1950s and writing about what he saw. Passionate, tireless, intensely ambitious, Fall set out to become, as he put it, “the foremost military writer of my generation.”

Arguably, he succeeded, or came close. Always wishing to be seen as a soldier’s historian, from early on he earned the respect of French and American servicemen and their superiors for his close attention to their experiences, and for his penetrating and dispassionate analyses of strategic and tactical matters. Journalists and Foreign Service officers seeking to make sense of the war likewise devoured his books and articles, as did general readers drawn in by this transplanted Frenchman’s acute powers of observation and robust and engaging English prose.

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To read Fall today is to be struck by his deep understanding of French counterinsurgency efforts in Indochina and other parts of the empire and their clear relevance for what the Americans sought to achieve in Vietnam. Counterinsurgency, that French experience taught, was extremely hard going. Results could be measured only over a period of many years, and success required an effective host government that in the end could carry the burden on its own. Moreover, notwithstanding counterinsurgency theory’s emphasis on nonmilitary measures, large-scale and brutal firepower would almost certainly be used, resulting in the widespread killing of civilians and heightening local resentments.

And therein lay a problem, Fall concluded, for the support of that local populace was absolutely vital. “In revolutionary war,” he wrote, “the allegiance of the civilian population becomes one of the most vital objectives of the whole struggle. This is indeed the key message that Trinquier” (the French military theorist) “seeks to impress upon his reader: Military tactics and hardware are all well and good, but they are quite useless if one has lost the confidence of the population among whom one is fighting.”

For that matter, was it even possible to keep the people’s confidence? Could a local population ever come to see an occupying force as its friend? Fall was skeptical. His own experience with the French underground had given him a taste of what it meant to fight a guerrilla war against such a force, and he saw the phenomenon again when, as a doctoral student at Syracuse University, he first visited Indochina in 1953 to conduct research for a dissertation on the nature and evolution of Ho Chi Minh’s regime (which he completed the following year and published as his first book in 1956).

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