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Graham Greene's Prescient War-Reporting from Vietnam Predicted How Badly It Would Go

"The war will be decided by men who never waded waist-deep in fields of paddy."

Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

For the third time, and after two years, one was back. There seemed at first so little that had changed: in Saigon there were new traffic lights in the Rue Catina and rather more beer bottle tops trodden into the asphalt outside the Continental Hotel and the Imperial Bar. Le Journal d’Extreme Orient reported the same operations in the north within the delta defenses erected by De Lattre, around Nam Dinh and Thai-Binh, the same account of enemy losses, the same reticence about French Union losses. 

In Hong Kong one had read the alarmist reports—the fall of Thakhek, the cutting in two of Annam and Laos above the 16th parallel, “thousands of columns pouring south on the route to Saigon.” One knew then these reports were unreal—this grim shadow-boxing war will never end spectacularly for either side, and in Saigon I knew there would be little sign of war except the soldiers in the cafés, the landing craft tied up outside the Majestic for repairs as noisy as road drills in a London summer—less now than ever, for two years ago there still remained the evening hand grenades, flung in their home-made hit-or-miss way into cinemas and cafés, spreading a little local destruction and listed in a back-page column of the Journal. (They had ceased with the shooting of some prisoners, and who could blame the executioners? Is it worse to shoot a prisoner than to maim a child?) The only people in Saigon who were thoroughly aware of war were the doctors, and they were aware of something the French were most of them inclined to forget. “Until I became a doctor in a military hospital,” one said to me,” I had not realized that nine out of every 10 wounded men were Vietnamiens.”

And yes, there was another change. There is a despondency of return as well as a sadness of departure, and I noted that first evening in my journal, “Is there any solution here the West can offer? But the bar tonight was loud with innocent American voices and that was the worst disquiet. There weren’t so many Americans in 1951 and 1952.” They were there, one couldn’t help being aware, to protect an investment, but couldn’t the investment have been avoided? In 1945, after the fall of Japan, they had done their best to eliminate French influence in Tonkin. M. Sainteny, the first postwar Commissioner in Hanoi, has told the sad ignoble story in his recent book, Histoire d’une Paix Manquée—airplanes forbidden to take off with their French passengers from China, couriers who never arrived, help withheld at moments of crisis. Now they had been forced to invest in a French victory. I suggested to a member of the American Economic Mission that French participation in the war might be drawing to an end. “Oh no,” he said, “they can’t do that. They’d have to pay us back—" I cannot remember how many thousand million dollars.

It is possible of course to argue that America had reason in 1945, but if their policy was right then, it should have been followed to the end—and the end could not have been more bitter than today’s. The policy of our own representative in Hanoi, to whom M. Sainteny pays tribute, was to combine a wise sympathy for the new nationalism of Viet-Nam with a recognition that France was our ally who had special responsibilities and, more important perhaps, a special emotion after the years of defeat and occupation. Who knows, if that policy had been properly followed, whether the goodwill of Ho Chi Minh and of Sainteny might not have led Viet-Nam toward a gradual and peaceful independence? American hostility, humiliation at the hands of the defeated Japanese and the Chinese occupying forces exposed French weakness and saw to it that Viet-Namese intransigence should grow until in 1946 it is doubtful whether France could have bought peace with less than total surrender.

I suppose in a war the safe areas are always the most depressing because there is time to brood not only on dead hopes, dead policies, but even on dead jokes. What on my first two visits had seemed gay and bizarre were now like a game that has gone on too long—I am thinking particularly of the religious sects of the South, the local armies and their barons to whom much of the defense of the Saigon delta is entrusted: the Buddhist Hoa Haos for instance. Their general’s wife has formed an Amazon army which is popularly believed to have eliminated some of the general’s concubines. The French had originally appointed the Hoa Hao leader a “one star” general (it is said that he was once a trishaw driver in Saigon), but when he came to the city to order his uniform, he learned from the tailor that there was no such rank in the French army. Only a quick promotion to two stars prevented the general from leading his troops over to the Viet-Minh.

The Caodaists too began by amusing—this new religious sect founded by a Cochin civil servant in the 1920’s, with its amalgam of Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity, its Pope, its Holy See, its female cardinals, its canonization of Victor Hugo, its prophecies by a kind of planchette. But that joke—and that adept salesmanship—had palled too; the technicolor cathedral in the Walt Disney manner, full of snakes and dragons and staring eyes of God seemed no longer naïve and charming but cunning and unreliable like a smart advertisement. You cannot fight a war satisfactorily with allies like this. The Caodaists by the military absorption of the surrounding country number two million and have an army of 20,000. They have had to be counted and the moment the courtship loses warmth the threat appears. They have been given no ministerial appointment in the new government of Prince Buu-Loc, and no minister went down to their great fast day last February that was supposed to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Caodaist fight against Communism. The ambiguous figure of the former president, Mr. Van Tam, beside the Pope in his Chu Chin Chow robes seemed to emphasize their absence, and though messages were read from General Navarre and the Emperor Bao Dai, there were none from the government. When the turn came for the Caodaist Commander-in-Chief to speak, his venom seemed directed as much at his government as at the Communists—“Who could foresee the treatment reserved for us, the suspicions of which we were to become the object?”

The Pope under his gleaming mushroom hat smiled and smiled. In the Cathedral the effigies of Confucius, Buddha and the Sacred Heart stared down the glittering pastel nave at the pythons coiled round the papal throne. It was all very tricky and it might well cost blood. I remembered how the Chief of Staff, Colonel Thé, had taken to the sacred mountain in 1952 with eight thousand men to make war on French and Communists alike and how a Caodaist officer had told me that they had made no attempt to capture him because he had done no harm to the Caodaists. There was a time when certain Americans dreaming of a third force showed an interest in Thé which one hoped waned that morning in the square of Saigon when his 200-pound bombs exploded among the shopping crowds. Now he had kidnapped a cardinal, but the cardinal was rumored to have offended the Pope, and the leader of yet another private army told me he could always arrange a meeting for me with the self-promoted General Thé in the Holy See itself. The eye of God watched the Caodaists from every window, but sharp human eyes were also very much required.

And then of course there was the leader who treated his faulty liver homeopathically with the help of human livers supplied by his troops, and the Binh-Kuyen, the private army under General Le Van Vien who controlled the gambling joints and opium houses of Cholon, the Chinese city which is a suburb of Saigon itself. (He had cleaned the city of beggars by putting them all, one-legged, armless, broken-backed, into a grim concentration camp on the swamps outside.) These, and such as these, were the men at arms in the South, fighting haphazardly the guerrilla war in the Saigon delta, while the real troops drained north into Annam and Laos and Tonkin, the Foreign Legion, the Moroccans, the Senegalese, and the Viet-Nam army itself under officers who had neither the money nor the influence to ensure their stay in the relative peace of the South.

One flies from the bizarre and complicated Cochin to the sadder and simpler North. In the plane to Hanoi, I thought of what the doctor had told me, for in the plane were many crippled Tonkinese returning home after being patched in the South. One had seen just such faces, patient, gentle, expecting nothing, behind the water buffaloes plowing the drowned paddy fields: it seemed wrong that war should have picked on them and lopped off a leg or an arm—war should belong to the brazen battalions, the ribboned commanders, the goose step and the Guards’ march. Outside the air terminus at Hanoi the trishaw drivers waited for fares, and not one driver would lend a hand to help his crippled countrymen alight. A French officer shouted at them furiously to help, but they watched without interest or pity the shambling descent of the wounded. There, by the dusty rim of the street, lay the great problem—those men were not cruel, they were indifferent.

One cannot escape the problem anywhere, in the office of a general, the hut of a priest, at an Annamite tea party. Viet-Nam cannot be held without the Viet-Namese, and the Viet-Namese army, not yet two years old, cannot, except here and there stiffened by French soldiers, stand up against their fellow countrymen trained by Giap since 1945. Last year General Cogny made the brave experiment inside the delta of entrusting the region of Buichu purely to Viet-Namese troops. It seemed a favorable place for the experiment since the region is almost entirely Catholic, and the Catholics, however nationalist, are absolute opponents of Viet-Minh. But Giap’s intelligence was good: he loosed on these troops one of his crack regiments and two battalions deserted with their arms. A third of Buichu with its villages and ricefields passed under Viet-Minh control. One could match this of course in European armies with incidents from Narvik or North Africa—inexperience can look like cowardice, but perhaps the cause in this case was neither.

The repeated argument of the Viet-Namese is: “How can we fight until we have real independence—we have nothing to fight for.” They recognize that their present army without the French could not stand up against the revolutionary regiments of Giap for a fortnight. They cannot expect full independence until their army is capable of resistance, and their army cannot fight without proper heart until they have achieved it. It is the old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. The result is frustration and bewilderment.

The frustration and repetitiveness of this war leads inevitably to day dreams. In time of despair people await a miracle, hopes become irrational. With rapidity and energy the French in a matter of weeks leveled a forest, erased a village, erected the great fortified camp of Dien-Bien-Phu in Laos, guarding the main route to Luang Prabang, the capital. Bulldozers dropped by parachute leveled the ground for transport planes. Trenches, dug-outs, elaborate preparations for enfilading fire; tanks parachuted in by pieces and assembled in the camp: the achievement was magnificent, if Giap, who had proved himself a first-class tacticians, were foolish enough to risk a direct attack. On the mountains which completely surrounded the plain a division of his troops kept watch and ward: all was under their eye. Artillery was on the way, fog which settled down every night over the camp prevented air support before 11 in the morning. “When they attack,” French officers would say. “Suppose they don’t attack,” the ugly supposition cropped up more frequently. “They’ve got to attack,” a French officer said with sad cynicism. In the dug-out mess the colonel lost temper with one of his officers. “I will not have the name of Na-Sam mentioned in the mess.” (Na-Sam was the fortified post abandoned in 1952.) “This is not Na-Sam.” His second-in-command rapidly changed the subject. Had I seen Claudel’s new play when I was last in Paris? Meanwhile as one of Giap’s divisions encircled the camp, his troops moved by a more circuitous route towards Luang Prabang. “At least we have made him shift troops from within the delta.” True, but so had the French, and sometimes one wondered whether General Navarre’s reserves were as adequate as Giap’s.

One propaganda offensive is matched by another. Both sides perform before a European audience and gain inexpensive tactical successes. Giap seizes for awhile Thakhek and the world’s press takes note (its recapture like the denial of a newspaper report figured very small). The French stage Operation Atlante on the coast of Annam, reclaiming an area of impressive size that had been administered by the Viet-Minh since 1946—an easy offensive, for there were hardly more soldiers in the area than administrators. But troops were needed to guard the new territory so that Giap was enabled to attack on the high plateau and the fall of Kontum took the news value from Atlante. You could find Kontum on the map.

So the war goes drearily on its way with local successes ignored in the Paris press and local defeats magnified into disasters. Dien-Bien-Phu takes the pace of Na-Sam in the news: 1953 attack on Luang Prabang is repeated in 1954 and stops again within a few miles of the Laotian capital. Lunching at Nam Dinh and eating an excellent soufflée I was asked by the general commanding whether I had ever had so good a soufflée before to the sound of gunfire. I could have replied that I had—two years before, at the same table, to the sound of the same guns. 

Everybody knows now on both sides that the fate of Viet-Nam does not rest with the armies. It would be hard for either army to lose the war, and certainly neither can win it. However much material the Americans and Chinese pour in, they can only keep the pot hot, they will never make it boil. Two years ago men believed in the possibility of military defeat or victory; now they know the war will be decided elsewhere by men who have never waded waist-deep in fields of paddy, struggled up mountain sides, been involved in the middle of attack or the long boredom of waiting.