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Empire Fall | The Nation

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Empire Fall

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Forty years ago a bookish French Indochina specialist--who was also a media celebrity in the United States--stepped on a landmine in Vietnam while accompanying a platoon of US Marines on patrol. Bernard Fall was making his sixth trip to Vietnam, where he found (and perhaps sought) the brutal end that would finish the wild and romantic project that was his life. He was blown up on a dirt track that French soldiers, more than a decade before, had dubbed la rue sans joie.

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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Fall's biography could be divided into three or four parts, each of which would contain enough drama for a whole life. While still a youth, he lost his parents in the Holocaust, fought in the French Resistance and conducted crucial research at the Nuremberg trials. He kept company with famous intellectuals, diplomats, soldiers and political dissidents; fathered a large family; and was a prolific writer and scholar, publishing nine books and scores of articles. In 1956 he became a professor at Howard, the premier African-American university in the United States, where he taught until his death.

When, on February 21, 1967, Fall stepped on that landmine on the "street without joy," or Vietnam's coastal Highway 1, he was ranked among the world's leading academic specialists on Southeast Asia and a famous war correspondent. Several of Fall's books are still in print, notably Street Without Joy (1961) and Hell in a Very Small Place (1966). Both of these are intensely detailed military histories: The first is an overview of the French war in Indochina; the second focuses on the definitive battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Fall's extraordinary life, for all its intrigue, is only part of the reason we should remember him. Though he has been dead as long as he was alive, his legacy lives on in strange ways. As a technocratic critic of war who was close to the warmakers--a contradictory if not schizophrenic position that allowed him to have it both ways--Fall helped lay the foundations for a genre of war reportage that is still very much in fashion in American journalism. Now, on the fortieth anniversary of his death, Fall's widow, Dorothy Fall, has written Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar. An account of his adventures, and of the complexities of his personality, Memories of a Soldier-Scholar is perhaps more revealing than intended--and not only of Fall himself.

Fall was born in 1926 in Vienna to Leo Fall and Anna Seligmann, Polish Jews who had moved to Austria and then fled the Nazi takeover for France in the late 1930s. After France fell to Germany in 1940, Anna was deported to Germany and died in the camps. Leo was eventually tortured to death by the Germans on suspicions of aiding the French Resistance. Bernard used fake papers to pass as Catholic and at age 16 infiltrated the paramilitary Compagnons de France--Vichy's version of the Hitler Youth. Within the Compagnons there was an underground of Jews passing as gentiles and organizing what Fall once called "terrorism" against the occupation, from sabotage to assassinations. Fall's comrades carried out the assassination of at least one Nazi soldier and helped bring many other Vichy collaborators to informal justice.

As the Allied invasion approached and then as the Allies moved east, the Resistance picked up steam. During the final stages of the war, young Bernard saw real combat in the Alps against the retreating but still tenacious Germans. It must have been terrifying, sad and, as war always is, unseemly and frantic. But it may also have been cathartic for the adolescent Fall to help destroy the very enemies who had murdered his parents.

After liberation in 1944, Fall joined the French army, in which he served for two years. He then worked as an analyst for the Nuremberg Tribunal, which doubtless gave him his first taste of his intellectual powers. Investigating the Nazi-affiliated Krupp industries, Fall did much to help convict Nazi Party member Alfred Krupp, who was sentenced to twelve years. But when the cold war heated up, the new US High Commissioner, John McCloy, freed Krupp, who was being groomed as an American ally in West Germany. For the sake of the "free world," the SS party member, munitions manufacturer and employer of Jewish slave labor was allowed to go back to business.

Though Dorothy Fall's book does not explore this, the Krupp pardon must have been a formative intellectual experience for a young man of such high ideals. What was the lesson in this betrayal? That in the democratic West, anti-Communism trumped all else--even punishment for anti-Semitic Nazi war profiteers; even the integrity of the law. In politics what mattered was the mechanics of power, not principle.

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."

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.

Fall's immersion in the details of war occasionally gave his books a rambling structure. In Street Without Joy, he intersperses straight military history with diary sections based on letters to his wife, and also with quasi-ethnographic chapters on the culture of the war. Still, Fall's asides could be arresting. In a chapter titled "Diary: The Women," he writes of women in the war, discussing not only the French army's very tough and heavily decorated female officers but the North African prostitutes who worked in mobile field brothels patronized by French soldiers. It's hard to believe such arrangements really existed--in today's US military, soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't even given beer!

Perhaps it's unfair to chastise Fall for failing to move beyond a technical critique of the war. After all, he was never a man of the left. Like many of his peers, including David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, he was a mainstream cold war liberal who moved left on Vietnam as the US involvement there became both hopeless and horrifically costly not only for the Vietnamese but for US soldiers as well. And Fall paid for his audacity as a reporter, becoming marginalized by an establishment that had welcomed his contributions: After he traveled to North Vietnam to interview Ho Chi Minh in 1962, he found himself persona non grata in South Vietnam, while his funding from pro-Saigon sources began to dry up. Fall's critiques were also stringent enough to incur the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, who--concerned not that Fall was a Communist but that he was a French spy--put him under sporadic FBI surveillance from 1958 until 1965.

By the late '60s, when opposition to the war had spread to the liberal mainstream, the technical critique favored by the "objective" Fall was merging with antiwar arguments of the peace movement, which tended to be grounded in a political critique of American intervention and infused with moral rage at US atrocities. Just as the establishment earlier had reached out to Fall, so too did the growing peace movement. The war's critics had needs similar to those of the war's planners: They had to understand the politics and culture of this faraway place, Vietnam, and Fall was overflowing with information.

It is the question of intellectual style or form that perhaps most connects Fall to the present--for Fall's style is with us in much of today's "critical" writing on Iraq and Afghanistan. Fall conveyed the impression that his reporting was an act of description rather than of political engagement; he relied on the typical journalistic and academic conceit of "objectivity" and "neutrality." For the most part his view of the conflict lay hidden behind a prose fogged by dense military detail. Insofar as he expressed his opinions, it was through adjectives, innuendo and quiet policy suggestions. For example, he criticized the French for not having prepared the local Vietnamese with psychological operations; later, he floated the possibility that the United States could try to split the NLF off from North Vietnam. But he would never question the reasons the French and the Americans were in Vietnam in the first place. Reasons of state were something he took for granted.

As the United States and its closest NATO allies sink deeper into the crises of Iraq and Afghanistan, Fall's instrumentalist style of critique is again in fashion. Thomas Ricks's anatomy of American failure in Iraq, Fiasco, is a recent example of this, as is George Packer's anguished but ultimately pro-war Assassins' Gate.

There is another way Fall's ghost haunts us today: The cult of war-oriented experiential knowledge is back. Fall's epistemology placed great importance on seeing one's subject up close. "You cannot keep up your convictions if you don't base them on things that you have witnessed for yourself," Fall said, explaining why he kept returning to Vietnam. "Or, if you want to change your convictions, you had better do it on the basis of your own experience." Whether that is true is open to debate. But something else is undeniable: In societies on a permanent war footing, like the United States in the age of the "long war" on "terror," people who go to war have more political capital than those who stay home. This rule applies not only to military and political careers but also to intellectual ones. Since the end of the cold war and especially in recent years, we've seen a return of this logic and of the Fall model of intellectual generalists gaining political legitimacy by taking personal risks--that is, by traveling to the empire's war zones. (I am referring not only to newspaper correspondents but also to intellectuals, among them authors, academics, filmmakers, artists, think tank-linked commentators, activists and NGO researchers, who volunteer to take risks in exchange for the benefits that risk brings.)

The mystique of the war zone intellectual, with his or her privileged claims to authenticity, began to emerge in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Both Susan Sontag and her son, David Rieff (now a seasoned war correspondent from a variety of fronts), went to Sarajevo, and their ideas carried considerably more credibility because of this. Michael Ignatieff, the star professor turned Canadian parliamentarian, is another example, as is the ubiquitous Bernard-Henri Lévy. So too Christopher Hitchens, who, in trying to report from someplace "difficult" at least once a year, has candidly acknowledged his emulation of Orwell. Thus Hitchens traveled to Belfast, Beirut, Sarajevo, Kabul and (in the company of Paul Wolfowitz) Baghdad, before that city's apocalyptic meltdown. When Hitchens began his journey to the right his pro-war arguments had considerable clout, or at least media traction, in part because of where he "had been" and what he "had seen."

Like Fall chronicling the early, disastrous buildup in Vietnam, many mainstream and liberal critics of the current Middle Eastern wars have confined their critique to the tactical errors of the campaigns, the fumbling blindness of the political classes. It is a slippery position whose ambiguities have obvious advantages, since it can be read as a hard-nosed and helpful pro-war policy review or--particularly now that the wheels are falling off the failed Iraq occupation--as a moral and prescient, but ideologically "responsible," case against the war. The instrumentalist critique of America's wars in the Muslim world avoids some central questions, such as: What gives the American-led coalition of industrialized countries that make up the heart of NATO the right to rule the world? Exactly what is the West's real agenda? What are the real human costs of its free-market economic nostrums and military aggression?

Yet many of those of us who did ask these questions still felt the compulsion to see the war--the wars--for ourselves. In the summer of 2003, just after the fall of Baghdad and Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, when a spirit of triumphalism still infused the "war on terror," there was a sense that if you didn't go, you didn't know. And so a number of writers on the left (Naomi Klein, Charles Glass, Mark Danner, myself) also went to war, in part to ward off the power of "authenticity" wielded by pro-war reporters. (There were, of course, left-leaning correspondents in the region, notably Patrick Cockburn, who has been in Iraq as long as anyone.)

The launching of another war, and the return of the war-zone intellectual, had imbued war reporting with an apparently universal allure. During the onset of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, Chris Hedges's book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning played some part in launching this fascination with the War Correspondent, despite Hedges's disgust for war. Traveling from metropolitan comfort to the dangerous periphery to "bear witness," the War Correspondent was the flâneur in hell. I too was swept up in that moment--by both the fascination and the desire for political legitimacy--and went to Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was in these places that I started to read Fall.

As I subsequently learned, it is not simply knowledge that is gained in a war zone but experience, and it can be quite nasty. The typically male lust to watch war is not always so noble as the "truth-telling witness" metaphor would suggest. Nor is the flâneur in hell simply in it for the adrenaline. The ugly fact is that for many Western reporters watching war often involves a somewhat sadistic thrill. Even as one sympathizes with the civilians who are killed and maimed and trapped in the war zone, one also tends to identify with the killers, rapists and arsonists--they are very frequently one's hosts, or at least one's most sought-after sources and protectors.

This ugly Stockholm syndrome logic operates even outside the embedding process, where your protectors are also men with guns. And the quiet identification with the soldiers rather than civilians becomes a mental crutch or tool that allows the war reporter to keep going, to override the fear and instinct to flee, to cling to the illusion of invulnerability. If you identify constantly with the victims, you could easily lose your nerve and grow totally sickened by the spectacle of fear and humiliation and waste.

I think of this dynamic when I see the photographs of Fall smiling from inside a helicopter, or read his accounts of how NLF fighters, pounded by US air power, were forced to leave their wounded in the field. Perhaps this wrinkle of identification helps explain Fall's sympathy for the old French imperial overlords and the Americans who followed them. In more ways than one, his safety and sanity depended on the empire. But that identification was, for Fall, never complete, if it ever really existed. As the US effort in Vietnam began to falter, Fall became increasingly pessimistic about US tactics. By 1964, more than a decade before the fall of Saigon, he concluded that the United States was losing.

By the end of his life Fall had become solidly antiwar. His students at Howard no doubt had something to do with this. Black soldiers were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam, and amid the civil rights movement and Africa's decolonization, educated young black people were, among their fellow Americans, the least likely to be seduced by imperialism. Fall also started hanging out with left-liberals like Marcus Raskin, who founded the Institute for Policy Studies, the great muckraker I.F. Stone and Sam Dorsey, a black radical professor at Howard. He was also starting to appear on television, magazines clamored for his work and his opinions were sought by ever more powerful people.

Back in Vietnam in 1965, Fall traveled with the king of US military advisers, John Paul Vann. He and Vann raced down South Vietnamese dirt roads armed to the teeth. Vann--a former US Army colonel who had been driven out of the military (but not the war) because of his proclivity for underage girls--would also later die in Vietnam commanding South Vietnamese troops. By this time Fall was suffering from serious health problems; his remaining kidney was failing badly. Despite operations and powerful medication, his condition worsened, and his long-term survival was in question. Under this cloud, or driven by it, Fall set off for his last trip to Vietnam--that place, that war, that he called a "bad love affair."

On December 8, 1966, Fall returned to Vietnam for a two-month trip. His third daughter had just been born, and he had just turned 40. This time he got too close to the flame. On one last patrol with US Marines in February 1967, he triggered a landmine and was killed. He left his wife and three young daughters.

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