The 317th Platoon and The Anderson Platoon.

Not that you would know it from Anglophone publishers, but sometimes Frenchmen get bitten by the adventure bug. The results can be fascinating.

Henri de Monfried (1879-1974) was the son of a French painter. One of his father’s friends was Paul Gauguin, which explains a lot. When he hit thirty, de Monfried junked conventional life. He went to Djibouti, built a dhow, and went into the smuggling business around the Red Sea. He smuggled guns and opium, and fished for pearls, but insisted that he had never been a slaver. He became a well-known, respected, and prosperous figure. Which ought to tell you something about the neighborhood. In 1930, he encountered Joseph Kessel, who was passing through looking for adventure. Kessel (1898–1979) was a Lithuanian Jew born in Argentina, then raised in Russia and France. He served in the French air force in the First World War. Between the wars he wrote ten books. One of Kessel’s interwar books was Fortune carree (1932), based on some of Monfried’s experiences (or, at least, on his stories).[1]

Pierre Schoendoerffer (1928-2012) lost his grandfather (1917) and father (1940) fighting the Germans. When he was fifteen he read Kessel’s Fortune carree and decided that was the life for him. He spent the summer of 1946 on a fishing boat in the Bay of Biscay, then traded on that experience to get hired on a merchant ship in 1947. He did this for a couple of years, then spent a couple of years doing his military service in the “Chasseurs alpins” (mountain troops). Peacetime soldiering had been dull, but a rebellion had broken out in Indochina. In 1951 he re-enlisted and volunteered for a documentary film unit that was going east. He spent three years in Indochina, including serving with the “paras” and the Foreign Legionnaires at Dien Bien Phu (1954) and in the brutal Vietminh prison camp afterward. Back in civvy-street, he went into making documentaries and films based on his experience. Several are about the Vietnam wars.

“The 317th Platoon” (1965) takes place in French Indochina in 1954.[2] Dien Bien Phu has just fallen and the Vietminh are on the offensive. The garrison of a tiny post of Foreign Legionnaires out in the boonies is ordered to retreat to the main lines. The dominant figures are the commander—a high-minded, but wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant—and his top-kick—a German veteran of the Eastern Front. Most of the troops are Vietnamese now caught on the losing side of a civil war. The retreat begins in a light-hearted fashion (they lug their refrigerator along), but soon turns grim. A spectacularly filmed ambush of some Vietminh brings the hunters down on the little group. They are gnawed away to nothing. You can watch the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiHhA8p8Ous

“The Anderson Platoon” (1967) takes place in South Vietnam in 1966. It is a documentary record of Schoendoerffer’s six weeks with a platoon of the 1st Cavalry Division commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Anderson. Hence, the film has less of an overt structure and message than does “The 317th Platoon.” The platoon marches through the countryside seeking the enemy, fording streams, pushing through tall grass and trees. Occasionally they make contact in little fire fights that seem to accomplish nothing. Occasionally they go on morose leave in Saigon. You can watch the movie at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw_7AJjd6Yo

[1] Later on, Kessel answered Charles de Gaulle’s “appeal” for support in June 1940 and flew in the Free French Air Force. One of his fellow flyers was Romain Gary, another Lithuanian Jew turned French author. Later on, Gary wrote the adventure novel The Roots of Heaven (1956), then co-wrote the screen-play with Patrick Leigh Fermor. Later on, de Monfried retired to a little French village. He raised opium poppies in his garden.

[2] One of the production assistants was Brigitte Friang (1924-2011). A remarkable person.

The last helicopter from Baghdad.

As we embark on an attempt to salvage Iraq from both the misdeeds of its post-Saddam Hussein/post-American occupation government and from the claws of ISIS, here’s a cold, hard lesson from History.

After his election as president in November 1964 Lyndon Johnson increased American troops in the war in Vietnam to a maximum of 540,000 men. In January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched a massive offensive to coincide with the Tet lunar New Year celebration. The Americans and the South Vietnamese managed to defeat the Tet offensive on the ground, but not in the eyes of American voters. Up until Tet Americans had tended to believe the assurances of progress that were being made in Vietnam on the part by their leaders. Tet changed that. Now a majority began to doubt that victory was possible and that American leaders were telling them the truth about the war. In March 1968 President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, solicited peace talks, and announced that he would not run for re-election.

Peace talks began in Paris in May 1968. When they failed to make progress, President Johnson resumed bombing until the North Vietnamese came to their senses in October 1968. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese to block further talks until after the November 1968 elections.

Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey in the November 1968 election. Nixon’s goal was to extricate American forces from Vietnam without the whole house of cards coming down immediately. As his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger put it, “We’ve got to find some formula that holds things together for a year or two [i.e. until late 1970 or 1971].” That formula appeared to be “Vietnamization”: shifting the chief burden to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). While negotiations with North /Vietnam continued, Nixon began to draw down American forces. By late 1971 the total number of American troops had fallen from 540,000 under Johnson to 157,000 under Nixon. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations went nowhere since the US was obviously withdrawing and the North Vietnamese could anticipate swift victory once the Americans were gone. In March 1972 Nixon unleashed a massive air attack on North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese gave in, negotiations resumed, and a cease-fire was declared in January 1973. Most of the remaining American troops were withdrawn by March 1973.

The Republic of South Vietnam survived until early 1975. Then the North Vietnamese attacked. The ARVN collapsed, and huge numbers of refugees-in-the-making converged on Saigon in hopes of being evacuated by the Americans. Many (6,200) were, but most were not. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.[1]

What are the parallels, if any, between South Vietnam then and Iraq now? Neither government enjoyed much legitimacy in the eyes of at least a large minority of their people. Both governments were up against ruthless and competent enemies. There are limits to what can be accomplished by airpower. The American administrations that had to clean up the mess weren’t the ones who had caused it.

Perhaps the differences are more important. Having escaped the Indochina disaster, Americans refused to recommit when a new crisis arose. The world did not end.

[1] “Leaving Vietnam,” The Week, 9 February 2007, p. 11.