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Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu Paperback – 18 Apr 2002
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About the Author
Bernard B. Fall was forty when he was killed in South Vietnam in 1967. The author of the classic Vietnam account, Street Without Joy, he wrote for the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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He told me the book is a condensed gathering of information that must be read attentively. It's not a light read so he read it at his pace. When he was done with it he told me he had liked it very much.
A must for all those interested in the area.
Firstly Fall wrote this in 1966 at a time when the USA is increasing its commitment to Vietnam, and he is desperate that his country understand the consequences of this action. Consequently, Fall does not let an opportunity go by to point out the desperation of foreign troops fighting an unwinnable war in a foreign land. His work is littered with final paragraph sentences along the lines of "the situation was bad ... but it was about to get worse". Indeed the whole book follows this structure. It is profoundly depressing.
The style is also 1960s. Yes this is a story, but it is told through detail and facts, and lots of both. It is interesting to compare this story with the style of "Stalingrad". Bernard Fall does not impose his interpretation of the conflict on the reader, simply describing what happened, where, when. Fall understands that the story is more important than the teller whereas in reading Starlingad, I got the impression that I was seeing the conflict through the lens of the author's ego.
As a Brit I was bought up without much respect for French fighting prowess. It was something of an awakening to find that the heroism of these Frenchmen is simply huge. Fall describes acts of courage that exceeds anything i have seen Hollywood produce, and let's face it, this is saying something. But it is almost as if Fall lived through the hell of Dien Bien Phu himself and as a result he obsessively details many acts of heroism and each of the people carrying them out. By the end of the story I found myself ... attached to the story's heroes but recognise that you might simply find it boring.
Finally, this is a French story of French fighting courage, tactical brilliance and strategic stupidity. Apart from one tragic scene with a Frenchman walking captured through a field of barbed wire and smatterings of heroic Vietnamese actions recognised through medals there is little description of the more brutal experiences of the Viet Minh and only infrequent description of how the French foot soldier saw the conflict. If you want more of an insight into their stories, you will have to find it elsewhere.
If you have the stomach for a brutal description of war in a foreign field, this is the book for you. In honesty, I found it tough reading and on several occasions had to take a break, most noticeably when a mixed force charges the hill E1 and breaks into multi cultural song. But this book grabs you and if you get through 100 pages you will finish it.
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