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Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

But at the end of that first day some-thing was missing—something that would allow me to sense the desperation of those fateful days. So that night I sat up late rereading Bernie Fall, specifically the chapters on the final hours of the battle. And gradually I saw it again, although differently now. When I was 20, my thoughts had been only of the French paras, helplessly awaiting the end. The justice of their cause aside, they were, like me, Caucasian. But on this night I was also thinking of the young Vietminh soldiers in the elite regiments, who knew they would be leading the charge against the powerfully fortified French positions: they would have had no illusions about the terrible human cost awaiting them, or with whose blood it would be paid. I was thinking of men who, had they survived, would now be exactly my age.

AND SO THE NEXT DAY IT ALL COMES TOGETHER. We walk slowly, my wife and I, in a kind of homage to those who paid the ultimate price for other men's vainglory and foolishness. Yes, here is Eliane 2, as the French called it, the last strongpoint they controlled in the valley, and the last bastion that could offer any protection to General de Castries's headquarters a few hundred yards away. Both sides knew this little hill was the key, placed as it was smack in the center of the valley. While the French named their strongpoints after women, the Vietminh gave them numbers ranking their importance; thus Eliane 2 was known as position A-1—the most important hill of all.

The terrible struggle for control of Eliane 2 had already gone on for more than five weeks, involving day after day of hand-to-hand combat, when, on the evening of May 6, the final battle began. With the help of miners expert in using dynamite, the Vietminh had tunneled to within a few yards of the French command bunker on top of the hill.

As we stand on the slope I think of Captain Jean Pouget, the young officer who courageously volunteered to parachute into Dien Bien Phu on May 4 and commanded the French at Eliane 2. The fighting was ferocious, and at one point Pouget even led a partially successful counterattack. Finally—down to some 30 men, using the bodies of the dead as a last barricade—Pouget made a desperate call for reinforcements. His superior, Major Michel Vadot, radioed back: "Come on, be reasonable. You know the situation as well as I do. Where do you want me to find a company?I can't give you a single man or a single shell, my boy."

When Eliane 2 fell to the Vietminh at 4:40 a.m. on May 7, the last doorway was opened for the Vietminh to assault the now completely vulnerable French headquarters.

From Eliane 2, I walk to the Muong Thanh Bridge, where the Vietminh crossed the Nam Yum River in their final drive. Nearby lies the shell of an American "quad 50" (four 50-caliber machine guns mounted on a swivel), a weapon used with considerable efficiency in Korea, and which the French deployed with lethal effectiveness here. A small monument notes that the Vietminh crossed the river at 2 p.m. on May 7. And here, where the French gunners died manning their quad 50, a handful of chickens are having an early lunch.

A short walk away is a rebuilt version of the bunker that served as de Castries's headquarters. The French took pride in the fact that they never actually surrendered at Dien Bien Phu, never raised a white flag. Instead they simply announced to the Vietminh that they would cease all resistance at 5:30 that evening.

The bunker remains largely as it was: completely subterranean, cool inside on this brutal day, with a steel roof and strong metal and concrete supports. Concrete sandbags have been substituted for the traditional ones. On the side of the bunker is a bas-relief showing de Castries emerging from it in defeat, while a Vietminh soldier plants the red flag on the roof.

Thus did history turn, and a critical nail was driven into the coffin of colonialism. At the Geneva Conference, scheduled to start the next day, Georges Bidault, the French foreign minister, arrived holding little in the way of cards—in his words, "a two of clubs and a three of diamonds."

Gazing at the bas-relief on the bunker, I am reminded of a story told by the French journalist Lucien Bodard in his book The Quicksand War. At a Saigon bar in late 1954—after the French prisoners had been repatriated—Bodard ran into a famed French paratroop officer, a veteran of Dien Bien Phu. The once proud and boastful man seemed quite different now, Bodard thought, like a sleepwalker. "It was all for nothing," he kept repeating. "I let my men die in vain." The officer spoke of his time in prison, where he had talked with his captors and told them how bravely his men had fought at Dien Bien Phu. "Heroism is no answer," one of the Vietminh had replied. The French officer said he realized that he and his men had been fighting not just a war but a revolution—without knowing what the revolution was. "Dien Bien Phu," he told Bodard, "was not an accident of fate. It was a judgment."

OUTSIDE DE CASTRIES'S BUNKER I AM STRUCK BY the clash of violent images from the past with the almost biblical simplicity of the farming taking place all around us. To the north some corn is growing; to the west, coffee; and always in the background, rice. As we stand there by the bunker a peasant woman approaches. She asks the young guard for permission to pick leaves from a nearby fig tree. He asks her why, and she says it is for a pig that is having trouble producing milk—fig leaves are said to be helpful. Permission is granted.

In the field nearest us to the south some women are tending rosebushes. Perhaps because there are no souvenirs for sale, and because it seems important to bring something back from this place, I walk across the field and haggle briefly with the women. For about 50 cents I buy three roses, and that night, back at the hotel, I press them into a book. The book I use, because I am traveling light, is that of my beloved friend Bernard Fall.

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