Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina by Bernard Fall

streetwithoutjoyfallI grabbed this one while mining one of those websites that features links to free Kindle books: not just old books in the public domain, but newer ones that publishers and authors will make available for free as part of special deals. Pretty much everything I downloaded sucked except for this, easily one of the most profound military history books I’ve ever read.

If you want to know why the U.S. keeps losing war after war, you need to read Street Without Joy.

The book is a first-hand account of the First Indochina War (1946-1954), France’s attempt to keep its colonies of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam under its thumb, and why they failed to do so. Bernard Fall is no armchair quarterback; he spent an extensive amount of time in Vietnam during the war embedded with several French military platoons, and also exhaustively researched the war with the help of classified French government documents. Originally published in 1961, Street Without Joy was the first book that correctly diagnosed why the French were run out of Southeast Asia with their tails between their legs.

Fall also predicted that America’s efforts in Vietnam would fail for the same reasons, and that the American military leadership wouldn’t learn a single thing from the French defeat.

Put simply, France lost Indochina because the French military, from top to bottom, was completely incapable of fighting counter-insurgent warfare. Like all Western militaries, the French expected to fight in big battles where their superior numbers and equipment would give them the advantage, a la World War II. Instead, the Viet Minh bled the French out over years through hit-and-run tactics, using the Vietnamese jungle and the people to their advantage. France’s generals could not adjust to this new reality, constantly seeking to lure the Viet Minh into a “set-piece battle” that never came.

This desperate search for the set-piece battle became an obsession of the successive French commanders-in-chief in Indochina until the end of the war. But Giap, the Communist commander, had made his mistake once, in 1951, against de Lattre, and he was not going to repeat it. In dozens of different engagements involving units from single regiments to more than two divisions, Giap preferred to sacrifice those parts of his units which were hopelessly trapped rather than let himself be “sucked” into the type of meat-grinder operation which the Americans could carry out so effectively against the “human wave” attacks of North Korean and Chinese Communists in Korea.

The set-piece battle had, in fact, become the credo of not only the French who were fighting the Indochina war but of the United States which, after 1952, had become more and more directly involved in its financial and often in its strategic aspects. The now-famous “Navarre Plan,” named after the unlucky French commander-in-chief in Indochina in 1953-54, provided, according to as authoritative a source as the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, that the French forces were to break “the organized body of Communist aggression by the end of the 1955 fighting season,” leaving the task of mopping up the remaining (presumably disorganized) guerrilla groups to the progressively stronger national armies of Cambodia, Laos, and Viet-Nam.

America never really got over Vietnam, and as a result, our own war-hawks keep spinning ridiculous theories as to why we got our asses kicked by a bunch of commies swatting mosquitoes in the jungle. “We were stabbed in the back by the liberal media!” “We won every battle!” Doesn’t matter. The purpose of sending troops to that shithole was to keep the Commies from taking over; the fact that the red star is flying over Saigon is all the proof we need to know we failed.

America lost the Vietnam War because we had no clue how to fight it. We lost Iraq and are losing Afghanistan because we’ve learned nothing from Vietnam.

“Street Without Joy” is the English translation of “La Rue Sans Joie,” the French nickname for a stretch of Route 1 in the Quang Tri province in central Vietnam, a vitally important road as it served as the primary land route connecting the northern and southern halves of the country. Because of its significance, the Viet Minh frequently launched surprise attacks on French convoys traveling the road, holing up in various villages along the way.

During the Vietnam War, Quang Tri was the northernmost province of South Vietnam, and Route 1 once again became a major ambush point for the Viet Cong. It was on the Street Without Joy that Bernard Fall was killed in 1967 while embedded with the 4th Marine Regiment. Street Without Joy remains one of the most important history books of the 20th century. If you have any interest in war history, read it.

Click here to buy Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina.

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