Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gen. Giap: Last of a kind?

News yesterday of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's death. News reports have featured his role commanding the Viet Minh forces during the long siege that led to the fall of the French outpost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. But more than a year before that famous battle was Giap's well-planned ambush that caught the French during the last days of Operation Lorraine. After that, analysts in the West picked Giap out as a commander to watch.

I researched the disastrous end to Operation Lorraine as part of writing The God Machine. Here's an excerpt from my book, which I think illustrates Giap's careful planning:

France, then fighting Communists in Indochina, would have liked to employ transport helicopters in the fight but couldn’t afford the cost. Instead the French Expeditionary Corps had to rely chiefly on the country’s narrow, winding roads for moving troops and supplies. Where the Viet Minh controlled the ground, the cost of highway travel could be very high, such as the calamitous ending to Operation Lorraine.

In October 1952, the French sent 30,000 troops, supported by tanks, deep into enemy territory from the French fortified positions along the de Lattre Line. The mission was to attack Viet Minh supply storage dumps a hundred miles away in the Phu Doan area.

The French expected this would force the Viet Minh to stop attacks elsewhere and perhaps bring their massed army out into the open where French airplanes could attack them. After a few weeks the massive ground raid had reached Phu Doan and located hundreds of tons of arms including much new Soviet equipment. It had not, however, brought Viet Minh divisions out into the open where the French could use World War II tactics.

Having taken the towns Gen. Raoul Salan decided not to hold them any longer; he was now worried that Viet Minh commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap might have something in mind for his overextended column, which was 100 miles from the nearest French lines. A trap laid for columns in narrow roads -- where the enemy could not bring its power to bear -- was one of Giap’s trademark moves. In mid-November Salan ordered the men to head for safety but, as he had feared, Giap had his men waiting.

The Viet Minh anticipated that the French in pulling back from Phu Doan must pass through the steep-walled valley at Chan-Muong.  (Map: Orbis Publishing)

Here they built log roadblocks and set up heavy weapons trained on its narrowest point, a bottleneck formed by steep rock walls and manioc fields on either side of the road. On November 17 Viet Minh battalions let a line of tanks pass through mostly unscathed, then attacked the more vulnerable middle of the column. Exploding vehicles in the rear blocked help from tanks which had yet to enter the defile, and exploding vehicles in the front blocked escape in that direction. Mortars and then hand-placed satchel charges destroyed each trapped vehicle. French commanders gathered up their infantry from the confusion and sent them up the slopes to attack the mortar and gun positions. A bayonet charge finally sent the Viet Minh into retreat. The battles continued for another week, until the column reached safety at the de Lattre Line. The cost was 1,200 casualties.

My conclusion after reading about Gen. Giap, and talking to Vietnam vets, is that he didn't throw away his troops' lives as wildly as some have said. And he may find a place in history books as the last "big army" general to foil a superpower.

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