The Light That Failed 6

He had put Bay Vien in charge of Saigon’s casinos, bordellos, opium dens, gold smuggling and other rackets, and even promoted him to the rank of general. Soon the French sanctioned Bay Vien’s respect¬ability by employing his hoodlums against the Vietminh and other nationalists. The corruption became institutionalized, making a farce of earnest American hopes for a credible Vietnamese administration that would check the Communists. Indeed, the French and Bao Dai seemed at that stage to have reached a tacit understanding: he played the puppet and they indulged his pleasures. His inner circle at one point included a spectacular blond French courtesan billed as a “mem¬ber of the imperial film unit.” Once, hearing her disparaged, he re¬marked, “She is only plying her trade. I’m the real whore.”
The battlefield was the ground for the ultimate test. Ho Chi Minh called it a conflict “between the elephant and the grasshopper,” but the image was not entirely accurate. The French, though far better armed than the Vietminh, were nevertheless short of such vital equip¬ment as aircraft. And the Vietminh, though originally a guerrilla force, gradually grew into a large military unit, able to confront the French in bigger and bigger engagements—chiefly in the dense jungles of northern Vietnam.
The area favored the Vietminh, whose troops could disappear and dart out to ambush road-bound French columns. The rugged terrain also offered them secure havens in which to train and rest, and Mao’s triumph in China gave them even safer sanctuaries across the border. The Chinese Communists also supplied the Vietminh with advisers and modern American weapons captured from Chiang Kai-shek’s routed Nationalists. Even more important, Ho and his commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, reckoned that time was on their side. A long strug¬gle would exhaust the French—not only on the ground in Vietnam but back in France, where the public would lose patience as the war dragged on.
In preparation for the struggle, Ho and Giap studied both Vietnam’s past experiences against China and the lessons that Mao had learned in his protracted conflict against both the Japanese and Chiang Kai- shek. They would wage the war in three phases, starting with hit- and-run guerrilla strikes, then mounting larger actions and, finally, as the balance of force tilted in their direction, staging conventional bat¬tles. The schedule seemed doctrinaire on paper, as Communist theories do, but its key in practice was flexibility. Despite his warnings against escalating prematurely, Giap rashly leaped ahead in 1951 and suffered badly. But he regrouped and awaited another chance.
A long struggle required soldiers and civilian supporters braced for enormous losses. The French and later the Americans constantly looked for victories to boost their morale, but the Communists had time on their side, along with a willingness to bear sacrifices. Their troops were not superhuman. They missed their families, whom they would often not hear from for years. They suffered from malaria, dysentery and other diseases, and they were frequently frightened. Yet they plunged into battle ready to sustain frightful casualties. They had been organized, indoctrinated and motivated.
Their basic unit was the cell, composed of three, four or five men responsible to one another—a system designed so that each would fight, not for ideological abstractions, but to gain the respect of his comrades. Their officers shared their hardships, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes and carrying the same packs as ordinary privates. And they were stiffened by political cadres, commissars who explained their missions, preached their higher purpose and eliminated those suspected of disloyalty or cowardice. The organization also reached down to a network of sympathetic villages whose chiefs had been won over by persuasion or coercion; the villages were the con¬genial sea in which the fish could swim, as Mao’s famous metaphor put it.
But a strong spirit drove this mechanism. A nationalistic culture, nearly xenophobic in intensity, inspired in Vietminh activists the con¬cept of a virtually holy war against the foreign invaders and their native clients. The fervor did not always pervade the Vietnamese masses, which often watched and waited in traditional Asian style, bending like bamboo before the prevailing wind. Still, it gave the Vietminh an edge, since its militants would pay heavy costs for their cause, swaying the population as they demonstrated their ability to resist a superior enemy. This Ho knew at the outset of the conflict, when he warned a French visitor: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
At the end of 1946, after the Vietminh failed to seize Hanoi, the French expanded along the Red River valley, the region’s principal rice-growing area. Constructing towers and blockhouses, they skir¬mished constantly with Vietminh partisans, who emerged at night to assault their posts, then disappeared into hamlets or fled into the hills overlooking the broad plain of fertile paddy fields. Duong Van Khang had helped to form a small Vietminh unit in his village, Phung Thuong, twenty miles east of Hanoi. In an interview with me thirty- five years later, he recalled his exploits at the time.
As a boy before World War II, he had felt no particular resentment against the French, whom he rarely saw. But the famine of 1945 aroused his hostility to both thejapanese and the French, and Vietminh agents entered the villages, urging the peasants to organize. They evoked Ho Chi Minh, a name then unknown to Khang. Even so, he agreed to head a platoon of seventy peasants armed with machetes and scythes, with only two muskets among them. They fortified the villages, building fences and digging tunnels, and laying traps of pointed bamboo staves in holes covered with foliage. One night, in an ambitious endeavor, they stalked a French tank at a bridge two miles away, fleeing after they had fired six of their seven bullets. In 1947, they guided a team of Vietminh sappers back to the bridge and blew it up. Early in 1981, when I visited the area, the twisted remains of the steel bridge still littered the dry riverbed—as if the incident had occurred the day before.

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