Empire Fall | The Nation


Empire Fall

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The wrenching experiences of coming of age amid war, occupation and genocide clearly shaped Fall in other ways. One was his attitude toward being Jewish. Despite his parents' fate (or perhaps because of it), Fall never really identified as a Jew. One reason that he cited was his disdain for the Jewish Council in Nice, which had given the names of Jews to Vichy officials. Another was fear. "I don't want my children raised as Jews," he told Dorothy. "I don't want anyone coming after them the next time." Yet this fear seemed only to drive Fall closer to the flame. He would test himself to be ready, to prove he would be able to fight if there was a "next time." Toward the end of his first long trip to Vietnam in 1953, Fall wrote to Dorothy, whom he married a few months later, that he had "mixed feelings" about leaving Vietnam. "With all my bookish air and with my highly peaceable education, I nevertheless enjoy a good tough scrape, just to prove to myself that I'm no sissy. I guess that I've been trying to prove a point to myself ever since my parents died."

About the Author

Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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Dorothy Fall invokes Bernard's childhood experiences to explain his reckless bravery as a soldier and war correspondent. But I think these experiences also shed light on his political positions, or more precisely his curious reluctance to condemn French and American imperialism in Vietnam. On the one hand, he was willing to wager everything--finally his own life--in search of knowledge; on the other, he was politically coy, even timid. For all his physical courage, he was politically cautious, deeply wary of offending the great interests that are the magnetic North, by which all institutions--including magazines, publishers and universities--set their course.

Fall harbored few illusions about the Americans who had let Krupp go free, but one lesson he may have drawn from the Nazi occupation was that resistance without US backing would have been futile. Over the course of his career, Fall provided his services to the US government, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and even the government of South Vietnam, while Dorothy worked as an artist for the US Information Agency. It was, to say the least, a peculiar collection of patrons for a man who is often remembered as a member of the antiwar left, not as a defense establishment intellectual.

After Nuremberg, Fall began his university studies, which took him to the University of Paris, to Munich, to Johns Hopkins and to Syracuse for a PhD. He had an amazing facility with languages, speaking German, French, English and some Vietnamese. One gets the impression that Fall had a mind that was permanently charged on adrenaline in a way that allowed him to race through written material, just as one might race through the underbrush or through a city grid if pursued by, or pursuing, enemies.

It was during his sojourn in America that a mentor suggested that Fall study Indochina, given the young man's fluency in French and his firsthand experience with both the French military (which was then bogged down in Vietnam) and guerrilla warfare. In 1953, while still in graduate school, Fall went to Vietnam, paying for the trip himself. As a former officer in the French army, he was given wide-ranging access, transportation and mess privileges. In the nomenclature of today's war reporting, we might say he had a carte blanche embed. Upon his return he wrote an influential piece for The Nation, predicting the French defeat a few months later.

Over the next thirteen years he made five more trips. His first job out of graduate school in 1955 found him, for lack of other opportunities, producing area studies handbooks (country profiles) for the Psychological Warfare Division of the US Army. Fall's widow glosses over whether imperial patronage compromised his objectivity, insisting that Bernard remained unbiased. Yet in most of his writing on Vietnam, Fall advanced a technical analysis of the war in which criticisms were confined to tactical errors and political blunders by the French and the Americans. He assiduously avoided discussing the war in terms of justice or larger material interests. Under the guise of objectivity he conveyed an anti-Communist hostility to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) while to some extent minimizing the crimes of the French and, later, those of the United States. From Fall's perspective the killing of civilians by Western armies in the heart of Southeast Asia was a tactical error rather than a war crime or imperial atrocity that inadvertently revealed the war's true logic.

According to Dorothy Fall, Bernard usually banged out his prose in one sitting and mailed off his first drafts without looking back. At times it shows, for while his writing can be fluid and excited, it can also feel cluttered with detail, meandering, in need of a guiding thesis. Fall's brisk pace also shows in the amazing volume he produced during barely a decade and a half of writing. Some of his later essays are sparse and well crafted; these also tend to be the somewhat more critical pieces. "Our 'Skyraider' was loaded with 750-pound napalm bombs," wrote Fall in a 1965 story for Ramparts that described an air assault on a Vietnamese fishing village.

We came down low, flying very fast, and I could see some of the villagers trying to head away from the burning shore in their sampans. The village was burning fiercely. I will never forget the sight of the fishing nets in flame, covered with burning, jellied gasoline.... There were probably between 1,000 and 1,500 people living in the fishing village we attacked. It is difficult to estimate how many were killed. It is equally difficult to judge if there actually were any Viet Cong in the village, and if so, if any were killed.

Though accounts like this laid bare the cruelty of the war, Fall never probed its deeper causes. Why was all this indiscriminate violence being unleashed? "I can see the means only too clearly," he wrote. "But I cannot say that I have found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end--of the 'war aims'--and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?" Deep inside the forest, he remained fixated on the trees, never pulling back for a discussion of economic interests and grand cold war strategy.

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