Summary: One cause of our dysfunctional foreign policy is that we’ve lost our past, and substituted myth. About the great American expansion (stealing land has a high return on investment). About the Civil War. And about the Vietnam War, whose grim tale has become lost in myths told about the past to support policies for today. History can act as an antidote. Today we look at one good place to begin, a book looking at the starting point of our adventure in Vietnam — and incident that foreshadows so much that followed. Martin Windrow alternates his account of French planning and execution with the best of the limited information available on the Viet Minh, and provides a very evenhanded narrative. Superior force and good plans can result in bad outcomes.
The Last Valley – Dien Bien Phu, the battle the doomed the French Empire and led American into Vietnam (2004)
By Martin Windrow. Reviewed by Christopher S. Owens (Brigadier General, USMC). Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette of November 2005. Republished here with their generous permission.
Several books have appeared over the past 40 years covering the battle at Dien Bien Phu, and at first glance, Martin Windrow’s The Last Valley would seem redundant given the status accorded to those by Bernard Fall and Jules Roy. Windrow admits his book leans heavily on those works and others for reference. What sets The Last Valley apart is its comprehensive analysis of the battle, its operational and strategic context, and its avoidance of the fatalistic, retrospective criticism of the French that pervades most of its predecessors.
Windrow alternates his account of French planning and execution with the best of the limited information available on the Viet Minh, and provides a very evenhanded narrative. While the author accurately points out flawed French assumptions, he avoids the tendency of some authors to adulate Vo Nguyen Giap, and instead analyzes the strengths and shortcomings of plans and decisions on both sides. For instance, many authors dwell on Giap’s genius in digging in his 105mm howitzers on the forward slope of the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu. Windrow notes that despite their near invulnerability to French air and counterbattery fire and the damage they caused, the Viet Minh could not adjust fires during the fight; each tube could only target a very limited area of the complex.