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The Last Valley -Martin Windrow


About the Author:

Martin C. Windrow (born 1944) is a British historian, editor and author of several hundred books, articles and monographs, particularly those on organizational or physical details of military history, and the history of the post-war French Foreign Legion. This book, published in 2004, is his most notable work. Windrow is a graduate of Wellington College, and began working on commission as an editor of articles on military and aviation history in the 1970s. He is an Associate of the Royal Historical Society and the Foreign Legion Association of Great Britain.


Synopsis:

This book describes the gradual removal of French presence in Vietnam over a ~10-year period starting after WWII and culminating with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The story is one of France’s lack of a vital interest in Vietnam, combined with the rise of nationalist communism embodied by Ho Chi Minh post-WWII and the resultant poor planning/lack of strategic direction/incompetent tactical proficiency eventually demonstrated in the failed air-ground base concept at Dien Bien Phu. Clearly, the numerous political changes in France and its desire to reclaim its status as a great power after suffering a humiliating defeat to Germany in WWII were significant factors in the French attempt to reassert themselves in France. However, the lack of a compelling reason to be there, combined with lack of support from their allies and the intransigence of the communist Vietnamese effort supported by communist allies resulted in a lopsided amount of effort/capability that resulted in the French defeat. Further, the lack of tactical prowess in the French air arm and the poor planning that led to an “impossible situation” at Dien Bien Phu doomed the French effort to failure.


Main argument:

More of a story of the events that unfolded. If there is a main argument, however, it’s probably that lack of a compelling national interest, poor political and strategic direction, incompetent planning at the operational level and tactical ineptitude result in military defeat even when facing a foe with limited military resources and capability.


The "so what" of this story for our purposes is the failure of the French concept that created the outpost at Dien Bien Phu. The remote base was supposed to draw in the mobile guerrillas for a confrontation--which it did--but also to prevail in that fight by employing airpower to resupply the garrison and attack the enemy outside the wire. Additionally, the French underestimated the Vietminh's ability to emplace artillery without it being spotted by aerial surveillance. It was this artillery that shut down the airfield and prevented airland resupply. AAA then created difficulties resupplying by airdrop, as Dien Bien Phu was situated in a valley. The catastrophic result proved decisive in forcing the French out--as any sort of political authority--of Indochina.


Evidence used:

Windrow uses mostly secondary sources to weave together the story of the French experience in Vietnam.


Strengths/weaknesses:

Well-written, interesting book about a significant event in 20th-century world history. However, it is truly a “story” without an attempt to distill events into “lessons learned” for the reader. It would be a good book to read given a lot of spare time on your hands.


Synthesis:

This story is extremely relevant to current-day US efforts in limited conflicts. Many of the mistakes made by the French can be examined under the umbrella of current US operations. Although Islamic Fundamentalism is more of a religion than a political worldview, both are powerful ideologies resulting in systems of governance that run counter to America’s concept of liberal democracies. Beyond the level of grand strategy, this book also highlights the severe consequences associated with underestimation of the enemy, lack of a detailed and flexible plan based on actual circumstances and poorly trained military forces. Certainly, the oppressive suffering and death experienced by the French POWs in Viet Minh prisons underscore the importance of preparing, planning and adjusting a military effort as well as understanding reasons for its conduct.


Overall impression:

Most of the gritty information can be found from page 500 on.


Value:

This book suggests it isn’t just the US military that has difficulties prosecuting wars in foreign countries…particularly when those conflicts are limited and conducted in the nuclear age. While we may not have a goal of protecting an empire and exploiting other nations, any punitive actions we take on foreign soil threaten the sovereignty of that nation (and indirectly threaten the sovereignty of other nations). The French experienced the results of this problem in Vietnam in 1954.


Class Notes:

France had 19 changes of government from 1945 to 1954...lack of continuous political direction.

This story reflects a tendency to fundamentally not understand the enemy.

What do strategists do when things get tough? How should we view sunk costs?

It is incorrect to suggest the US or French could have/would have aligned themselves with Ho Chi Minh.

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