The Light That Failed 12

The situation had changed drastically. Both the French and Viet- minh forces now faced a deadline at Dienbienphu. And, in the words of General Walter Bedell Smith, who headed the U.S. delegation to the Geneva talks: “You don’t win at the conference table what you’ve lost on the battlefield.”
Actually, the French did not lose at Dienbienphu itself, but in General Navarre’s air-conditioned headquarters in Saigon, where he had woe¬fully miscalculated Giap’s intentions and capabilities even before the shooting started. Afterward, summing up Navarre’s fundamental error, a French War College study concluded that he and his staff had wrongly disregarded intelligence that did not fit their prejudices and instead “substituted their preconceived idea of the Vietminh for the facts.”
Navarre, declining to credit Giap with plans for a major test at Dienbienphu, had committed large units to central Vietnam and even refused to shift them once the bigger encounter began. He misread Giap’s ability to move a huge force rapidly, so that his own troops were outnumbered by a ratio of more than five to one during the trial by fire. He rejected the notion that the Vietminh could devastate his men with artillery deployed on the hills above Dienbienphu, nor did he foresee that the enemy emplacements would be protected by cam¬ouflage and antiaircraft guns against bombing from the air. He failed to anticipate that Giap’s howitzers, poised within easy range of his airstrip, would cut off flights in and out of the valley, making it difficult for his besieged soldiers to receive supplies or evacuate wounded—much less withdraw themselves. He also chose a terrain presumed suitable for tanks only to discover that, unlike its description on his maps, its cover of thick bush entangled armored vehicles and its monsoon rains flooded the plain in the spring.
Expecting to use tanks, Navarre picked a cavalry officer to com¬mand. Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de La Croix de Castries, then fifty-two, was a lean aristocrat with a Roman profile whose ancestors had soldiered since the Crusades. Irresistible to women and ridden with gambling debts, he had been a champion horseman, dare¬devil pilot and courageous commando, his body scarred by three wounds earned during World War II and earlier in Indochina. He expected a direct Vietminh assault against his garrisons in the middle of the valley and had built three artillery bases, reputedly named for his current mistresses. Two of them, Gabrielle and Beatrice, were located to the north, and the third, Isabelle, to the south.
Recalling Giap’s reckless Red River offensive of 1951, Navarre an¬ticipated a headlong Vietminh charge. But Giap, knowing that failure would wreck the Vietminh position at impending negotiations, could not afford to be imprudent.
By launching a big offensive with fresh troops, we could have foreshortened the duration of the campaign, and avoided the wear and tear of a long operation. . . . [But] these tactics had a very great, basic disadvantage. Our troops lacked experience in attacking for¬tified entrenched camps. If we sought to win quickly, success could not be assured. . . . Consequently, we resolutely chose to strike and ad-vance surely . . . strike to win only when success is certain. [Italics his.] Giap wrote that retrospective analysis of his strategy in 1961. But twenty years later, as we chatted in Hanoi, he related a fuller and more dramatic account. Reconstructing the scene, he—an old cam-paigner reliving his war—rattled the cups and saucers around the low table in front of us.
His first major problem was logistical. Months before, anticipating a confrontation somewhere in the area, he had ordered the construction of simple roads and bridges, which now bore trucks transporting cannon and other heavy weapons—nearly all of it, ironically, Amer¬ican equipment captured by the Chinese Communists from the Na¬tionalists during their civil war and later given to the Vietminh. Riding in a captured jeep, Giap accompanied the groups of bicycles and col¬umns of men that resembled lines of ants as they trudged through the mountain jungles, laden with everything from cartridges to vast quan¬tities of rice, which had to be carried into the impoverished region. From time to time they scrambled for cover as French aircraft strafed and bombed them. “It was very difficult, n’est-ce pas, very difficult,” Giap recalled to me. “Only motivated soldiers could have performed such a feat.”
An even more agonizing ordeal for his troops was to position the howitzers and antiaircraft guns in the hills above Dienbienphu. Again, with sheer muscle, cadres and coolies alike dragged the heavy weapons up the slopes within range of the French garrison. By the middle of January, the Vietminh force comprised fifty thousand men, with an¬other twenty thousand strung out along the supply lines—while the French numbered thirteen thousand, half of them unqualified for com¬bat. Present at Giap’s side was a Chinese advisory mission led by General Wei Guoqing, the Communist boss of nearby Guangxi prov¬ince, later to become chief political commissar of China’s army. The Chinese urged Giap to launch a “human, wave” assault, as they had against the Americans in Korea. He at first concurred, then began to have doubts. The entrenched French posts, called “porcupines,” bris-tled with weapons and were encircled by barbed wire and minefields. The French also possessed tanks, which would be deadly against a frontal attack. Giap also perceived that his artillery was vulnerable to air raids. Remembering his losses in the Red River offensive, he re¬alized that a similar setback would be fatal to the Vietminh cause.
He lay awake through the night before the battle, plagued by a splitting headache—and his predicament. At last he concluded that he could not risk defeat. His tone rose as he recalled the episode to me. “It was the most difficult decision of my life. Suddenly, in the morn¬ing, I postponed the operation. My staff was confused, but no matter. I was the military commander, and I demanded absolute obedience— sans discussion, sans explication!”

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