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Page 25
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<< 24. The Women26. Genocidal Conscription >>

An Honorable Exit

By DeWitt Clinton (reviewer)

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An Honorable Exit
by Eric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti

(Other Press, 2023)

Fifty or more years after leaving a 105mm howitzer firebase in Central (what once was South) Vietnam, and despite carefully abandoning any memory of what American firepower can do to a former French colony and its citizens, I'm now reading a new and fascinating history of the French occupation leading up to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Eric Vuillard's history, An Honorable Exit (2022), is just now available to non-French speaking readers. It has taken me back to Vietnam, not to my own experiences, but to the nightmare of the French-Indochina war that later led to the US involvement allegedly ensuring that a tottering democratic country in South East Asia would never fall to Communism.

What makes Eric Vuillard's study so provocative, engaging, and mesmerizing is his deep sarcasm when describing the manner of the central players (politicians) in the 1950s French government. Though the first 60 pages of his short study are both humorous and astonishing, the Meet the Press interview sheds such insight into the time before Americans had ever heard of Vietnam: (Martha Rountree asks a simple question to the visiting French general: "Can you tell us now what the importance of Indochina is to us, to Americans?" The general replies with a comparison of the current French crisis in Vietnam to the American experience in Korea, and from that point on in the interview, everyone seems to be sweating excessively under the hot Meet the Press television lights.

What makes Vuillard's study so fascinating is that he does not draw out a long historical narrative of the French colonization in Indochina but instead creates sharp, poignant, sarcastic scenes depicting everything that has gone wrong for the French and the Americans.

As a non-historian but one keenly interested in narrative, I'd have to say this 150-page commentary does not read like most histories but is, instead, a fascinating interpretation of what led to the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and what led President Eisenhower, and later, President Kennedy, to see if they could accomplish what the French could not.

One wonders how an author can create a riveting narrative about Dien Bien Phu's fall and the French's exodus from Vietnam. But as Vuillard's narrative concentrates more on the French building a military base to challenge the Viet Minh, the chapters are shorter, the sentences more terse, and for some readers like myself, the pages turn faster and faster. The narrative now focuses on how quickly the command post was constructed. We're caught up in the anticipation of this quick construction without knowing precisely the longitude and latitude. Still, the outpost is near the Laotian border, where the Viet Minh gathers troops for an invasion.

They dug shelters, traced out trenches, and unspooled huge rolls of barbed wire to surround it all. Ten thousand men already lived here. And every day, they delivered tanks, jeeps, trucks, advance surgical units, copies of Playboy, and dumpster loads of canned food. (81).

This very rare study of the end of French colonialism ends with a similar fall, the fall of Saigon; of course, a reader can see the parallels between these horrific moments. Vuillard's study is also an insight into how the French legislators, diplomats, and military leaders waded into this terrible end of another French colony. His ability to draw a reader into a scene with sarcastic detail is quite enjoyable.

My experience in Vietnam was, of course, nothing like the soldiers who defended and then were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. But I still recall the night in June of 1969 when the firebase I was on was overrun by North Vietnamese Army soldiers, including one who carried and fired a flame thrower onto many of the American soldiers. The firefight made front page news in the Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper. I no longer watch movies based on the Vietnam War, and if I do, I'm usually a basket case for the next few days. Still, I will admit that An Honorable Exit has become one of the most engaging, if not the most insightful, studies on the French and American debacle in Vietnam. I haven't mentioned what John Foster Dulles offered the French as a weapon to defeat the Viet Minh in Vietnam. You'll have to discover that on your own.

DeWitt Clinton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin,Whitewater, and lives in the Village of Shorewood, Wisconsin.

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