By David Chanoff,
the author and publisher of numerous books on the Vietnam War
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Memories of a Soldier-Scholar
By Dorothy Fall
Potomac. 284 pp. $27.50
Bernard Fall was a phenomenon. A scholar, journalist and former anti-Nazi fighter, he brought an unmatched array of skills to writing about the conflict in Vietnam. He had a voracious need to experience the grit and blood firsthand, going on bombing runs, helicopter missions and infantry strikes until the inevitable happened: On Feb. 21, 1967, he tripped a mine while out with the 9th Marines. Dead at 40, Fall left behind many articles and several classic books on war. "Hell in a Very Small Place," about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, "Street Without Joy" and "Last Reflections on a War" are his best known, and the first title occupies a spot on the very top rung of all war writing.
With credentials like those, the man behind the writing deserves to be known. He was brilliant, complex, exuberant, driven to teach and write. He was read widely, but few who know his essays and books also know his history. That makes "Bernard Fall," by Dorothy Fall, his widow, worth reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the Vietnam War -- despite the book's flaws.
Born in Vienna, Fall fled with his family to France in 1938 after the Nazi Anschluss . They could have gone to Spain, but Fall's mother insisted on France, from which she eventually was deported to Auschwitz, while Fall's father was tortured to death by the Gestapo. Young Bernard himself avoided the roundups, and by age 16 he had joined France's Jewish underground. He and his comrades blew up trains, ran guns, killed Germans and assassinated Vichy collaborators. Later, fighting with the French maquis, he interrogated prisoners and saw regular combat against German forces, all of which helped him to an intimate understanding of the Vietminh and Vietcong when he began to cover Indochina.
After World War II, Fall won a Fulbright fellowship to America. He began studying Vietnam as a PhD candidate, and from the beginning it was, as he put it, "like a bad love affair." Still a French reserve officer, he had unparalleled access to France's operations on his first long research trip to Indochina, and on subsequent visits he always insisted on experiencing the Vietnam War as the soldiers did.
Approaching America's involvement as a reporter and historian, Fall concluded early on that the war was unwinnable, and his analyses strongly influenced other journalists and academics. He was declared persona non grata by the Diem regime and scrutinized and harassed by the FBI, which suspected he was a French spy. Unhappy with his opposition to the war, neither the Kennedy nor the Johnson administrations welcomed the advice of this devil's advocate -- who was perhaps the country's most knowledgeable Indochina expert.
Dorothy Fall conveys all this in decent if undistinguished prose. But her perspective constitutes a good argument against biographical writing by a loved one. She writes not as a critical biographer but as an admirer eager to commemorate her husband's importance. Consequently, she seems oblivious to the fact that Fall was sometimes wrong -- even badly wrong. He believed that while the war in Vietnam could not be won, America's prodigious firepower also made it impossible to lose. He did not foresee that America's political will, not its military might, would determine the outcome.
Fall's biggest mistake was his belief that the Vietcong and its political arm, the National Liberation Front, composed an indigenous Southern movement with independent views differing from those of the Hanoi politburo. That was the hinge to his ideas about resolving the war through negotiations. What would he have made of the discovery by Orrin DeForest (the CIA's most successful operator) that the NLF was an empty shell, and that the Communist Party structure was all that mattered? Or of Ho Chi Minh's successor, Le Duan, who declared in his 1975 victory speech, "Our party is the unique and single leader that organized, controlled, and governed the struggle of the Vietnamese people from the first day of the revolution"?
You can't completely blame Fall for these serious errors; he died in 1967, before these facts were widely grasped. But it is sad that his biographer, all these years later, would be unaware. It is equally sad to read Dorothy Fall's reverential portrait of her meeting with the aged North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, a famous spendthrift of human lives, who here comes across as a peace-loving grandfather. Such failings of acumen and emotion diminish rather than enhance this biography of an extraordinary man.