NO TURNING BACK: THE BATTLE OF DIEN BIEN PHU
SCIENTER PRESS, 2016
In his brief introduction to No Turning Back: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, R.L. Barth tells us that, after writing poems about his experience as a Marine in the American war, he “wanted to establish for [himself] the historical background of [his] own tour” and thus took a deep look at the final battle of the French war in Vietnam. The book, which includes a set of helpful notes about military names and details, gets inside the minds of French commanders and defenders of the fortress as they plan, execute, fight, suffer and die … until survivors surrender.
Although dated 2016, this book has just been released at a time when a new PBS documentary on the American war in Vietnam compels our rethinking about our involvement there and about war in general. As stimulus to our thinking, this book of poems in traditional form provides a realistic look at the French experience at Dien Bien Phu, a defeat that foreshadowed the United States’ failure in Vietnam.
Authenticating and enlivening the viewpoints of the speakers in these poems is Barth’s own experience, about which he has written poems in other books, including Forced-Marching To The Styx: Vietnam War Poems, A Soldier’s Time: Vietnam War Poems and Simonides in Vietnam: And Other Epigrams. Those earlier works, when aligned with these of No Turning Back, will form an impressive work on the folly, cost and human suffering of the two Indochina wars.
After two dedicatory poems, one memorializing Col. Charles Piroth, who was the first officer to die at Dien Bien Phu, in which a line sounds the theme of Piroth’s suicide (“The tragic hero sees his hubris and atones”) and one alerting the reader to the method of the poems to follow (“Truth’s here where terror thrives,/ Measured on the sharp edge by lives”), the collection opens with an epigram on the scene at Saigon headquarters as Gen. Navarre, the French commander of the military action, “plots strategy to end the Indochina War.”
LESSONS FROM DIEN BIEN PHU
Navarre chose Dien Bien Phu, a small village in northwestern Vietnam nestled in a valley rimmed by mountains, as the place where French forces would win a final victory over Viet Minh forces. In Navarre’s judgment, Gen. Giap’s Vietnamese army would not be able to defeat a fort built there, complete with air strip and a ring of perimeter strongholds. Navarre assumed that Giap’s forces could never get armaments up the steep slopes and that, even if he could, the army itself, poorly equipped and trained, would be no match against the superior firepower of well-trained French troops.
In the next poem we hear the voice of Brig. Gen. Jean Gilles, who, picked by Navarre to build and command the fortress on the basis of Gilles’ victory at an earlier battle at Na-San, expresses his reluctant willingness but anxious fear of “a fortress under siege” and an impending “disaster.”
After three poems from the points of view of soldiers, a volunteer and a legionnaire, we get a poem as an excerpt from a press conference with Col. Piroth who, when asked about the artillery power of the enemy, asserts his disdain of North Vietnamese guns and his confidence that French artillery can overwhelm in “half an hour” with “real fire power” whatever Giap can call up. In another moving poem, as the Viet-minh attack increases in intensity, Piroth admits that “Cocksure, I swept all arguments away/ At every opportunity” and that he cannot target the enemy’s artillery and thus his own guns can only “blindly fire,” leaving little left of his “good name,” “honor” and “belief.” He concludes with his “guilt” and that he has nothing left but “expiation,” as he reaches for the grenade that will end his life.
The following poem, “Maj. Paul Grauwin,” gives us an assessment of Piroth’s death:
A loss of faith? A loss of nerve?
A nervous breakdown? that will serve
The needs of military fashion.
The truest loss is our compassion.
The poems that follow similarly reveal the attitude of other paratroopers and soldiers and volunteers. “The Thai battalion’s troops/ Slide into darkness, disappear.”
They take on the name of “Rats” in the later poem “Song of the Internal Deserters”:
We are the Rats of the Nam Yum;
We hear the French death rattle.
We are the rats of the Nam Yum,
But this is not our battle.
They hide in caves along the river Nam Yum, stealing supplies as they can from airdrops to the fort and by dealing with the black market. Out of such betrayals by desertion and theft, in “A Para Sgt. in a Yellowed Battalion” warns his comrades not to overtrust the non-French recruits:
Paras, be sure that you distinguish breeds:
The running dog may bite the hand that feeds.
The deadly reality of the Viet advance becomes brutally clear in “Cyclops”:
The bloated Nam Yum overflows,
Rotting debris swept down its course;
And crachin gnaws slick hills, to close
The basin, where through foxhole pours
Black water in which, his mouth slack,
A para’s head lolls. Did he sleep?
On watch? Far off, Viets attack
And, perhaps, even close by seep
Around him. He no longer cares.
One red eye in his forehead stares.
The Cyclopean allusion from Homer’s Odyssey, along with other classical allusions in these poems, reminds us that this poet is aware of the long tradition of war – from Troy to World Wars I and II – and the poetry of war, to which he adds his own. Greek mythology offers another telling allusion in “Foreign Legionnaire on Beatrice” (one of the outlying “strongholds”):
Forget the scuttlebutt, we troopers see
The para sorties from this fortress, each
Successively reduced in scope and reach,
Sisyphus running out of energy.
“Fragment from a Medic’s Notebook” similarly notes the continuity of war from Troy to the present and questions the old lie that heroic glory vindicates soldiers’ deaths:
… heroic glory,
the State-anointed death in combat,
which, like the sun, shines on the living,
while somewhere down in frigid shadows
the dead are rotting …
… even Achilles …
Navarre’s assumptions were wrong: After the air strip was destroyed, the replacement of troops and supplies by parachute was insufficient to maintain a defense. Giap had been able, despite the steep terrain, to move artillery under camouflage above the valley, claiming the high ground. His 50,000 troops, later also armed with anti-aircraft guns, adopting trench encroachment on the outposts, were able to claim them one by one, and soon had command of the air field. Then crucial supplies and troop replacements by air were impossible. Navarre’s hope for a decisive victory such as the one at Nam Sum turned into defeat, and with it, the loss of French dominance in the country.
Were these two wars political and diplomatic mistakes? Is there no turning back from perennial war? What are our political, ethical and theological responsibilities as we involve ourselves in war? Those are the challenging and complicated questions to which these poems call us.
Shall we concede devotion to our true deity, as in the final poem of the book, “De Bello”:
The troops deploy. Above, the stars
Wheel over mankind’s little wars
If there’s a deity, it’s Mars.
Or begin with a different starting point as in “Chaplain at the Field Hospital”:
Among these amputated lives, flesh gory
With neither Hell nor even Purgatory
But the poor world, where the Lord of Flies roams
Down the clay tunnels, minions breeding homes
In men’s proud flesh: don’t leave us, Lord, alone.
Take up this pain and suffering as your own.
Francis Fike is retired from teaching English at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. He is the author of three books of poetry: Underbrush (1986), In the Same Rivers (1989) and After the Serpent’s Word (1997).