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The Unquiet Frenchman
Posted on Oct 3, 2006
Editor’s note: The life of political scientist Bernard Fall, the first soldier-scholar to predict an inglorious end for America in Vietnam, is remembered in a new biography by his widow. She speaks with Truthdig guest interviewer Sarah Stillman about the government’s lies—in Vietnam then, and in Iraq now.
When I recently stumbled upon Confucius’ ancient invective against armchair academics—“The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar”—I couldn’t help but wonder: In the unlikely event that the grumpy old philosopher’s words were enforced through the barrel of a gun, just how many contemporary Western political scientists would be left standing?
Although your guess is as good as mine, I can assert one thing with confidence: If I had to identify a single 20th-century thinker who could save the fuzzy-sweatered clan from extinction on such an awkward occasion, my money would be on the late French political scientist Bernard Fall.
Against this Orwellian backdrop, Dr. Fall offers us a powerful model of wartime scholarship at its least comfortable and most courageous. Never content to pontificate on counterinsurgency from within the Ivory Tower, Fall traveled frequently to Vietnam to catalogue body counts, survey Vietminh tactics, and map fissures between official political rhetoric and what he liked to call “hard facts.” He then relayed his findings in a wide array of popular publications like The Nation and Foreign Affairs, as well as in scholarly books with telling names like “Hell in a Very Small Place” and “Street Without Joy” (the latter celebrated as “the definitive military history of the Indochina conflict” by the New Republic).
Regarded as the first theorist to publicly document why American troops were destined to repeat French failures in Vietnam, Fall paid the price for this title in ways that might have prompted Confucius to stroke his beard approvingly: He confronted jungle rot and dysentery during his tropical fact-finding missions (much as he had at age 16, fighting in the French Resistance against the Nazis), faced ostracism for his politics within some camps of the academy, and endured wiretaps and accusations of spying from the FBI.
But you needn’t take my word on any of this. If you’re eager for details about Fall’s larger-than-life biography or want proof of his recent popular comeback, look no further than a new memoir by his widow that hits bookstores this month, “Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar.”
Drawing upon 30 years of interviews and newly released U.S. government documents, Ms. Fall traces her late husband’s transition from waging guerrilla wars to theorizing them. She offers a compelling chronicle of Fall’s scholarship, tracking his escalating commitment to denouncing the Vietnam War and helping us to grasp why such a diverse array of government policymakers, public intellectuals and military leaders viewed him as a critical ally.
All this is sandwiched between accounts of Dorothy Fall’s own intimate journey as a painter, a mother and—come that untimely telegram in 1967—a mourner. As a result, the prose sometimes tiptoes dangerously close to the no man’s land between biography and memoir—not quite fine-toothed or rigorous enough to qualify as the former, but not quite juicy or literary enough to qualify as the latter. But oddly, this is precisely what many readers will grow to appreciate about Ms. Fall’s approach: Amidst the recent deluge of woe-is-me confessionals and scholarly biographical tomes denser than Grandma’s fruitcake, it’s refreshing to encounter a narrator who makes no attempts to woo us with her labyrinthine footnotes or wow us with a peek at the skeletons in her late husband’s closet. Instead, she simply aims to tell us an important story about her life with an extraordinary man who lost his mother to Auschwitz and his father to the Gestapo, who cradled a gun in the French Resistance and investigated Nazi war crimes as a teenager, who trudged through jungles and rice paddies to document foreign blunders in Vietnam, who won her heart with letters from the world’s most dangerous highway, and who suffered greatly to tell his version of the truth—ultimately paying with his life to issue a cry against hubristic U.S. interventions that echoes all the more urgently today.
The particular implications of this legacy for readers and thinkers in 2006 is exactly what Dorothy Fall and I chatted about over a plate of smoked salmon in her Washington, D.C., home recently: me, a college student familiar with war only through the pixels of a TV and computer screen, and her, a more seasoned veteran torn between her palpable commitment to political optimism and her grief at lessons left unlearned. As we continued our dialogue through a series of e-mails and chats in the days that followed, it occurred to me that the finger-wagging Confucius was right about more than just armchair academics: Wasn’t he the one who declared, “To respect your elders is the root of all humanity”?
Sarah Stillman: Listening to George Bush’s recent speeches on Iraq after reading your husband’s work, I got chills down my spine: Again, here we are, waging a war against a caricatured enemy we’ve greatly underestimated, and again, here we are, using flimsy logic to insist that victory waits just around the corner…. Does the war in Iraq have anything to do with why you wrote this book and what you hope it will accomplish? What drove your writing process?
Dorothy Fall: I wrote this book because I had to. I knew from the beginning—that is, shortly after my husband’s death in early 1967—that his was an exceptional, important story. Bernard was so prolific and produced so much material in his very brief life, and his story encompassed so many important themes of the mid-20th century. I wanted to write about how he felt he had a mission to inform [the public] about Vietnam, how important it was for him to see everything firsthand in order to report on it, to take risks. He was the first one who told us that we would not win in Vietnam and who explained why, which of course drew the ire of the U.S. administration….
When we went to war [in Iraq] in 2003, I felt it was even more urgent to get this manuscript done. Bernard’s story is relevant now because the same mistakes are being made in Iraq: We don’t understand the local culture, we have no idea of the history of that region—the place where civilization was born!—and, just like Vietnam, our leadership had no idea that we would be faced with a counterinsurgency. If [President Bush] had bothered to read or understand Bernard’s work, we might never have invaded Iraq. I think that Bernard’s story is a warning about what happens when our government completely ignores the information that was there and goes headlong into a conflict that we know nothing about.
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