Thursday, September 18, 2008

Doom and gallantry: Dien Bien Phu

As my new copy of ATS Dien Bien Phu comes out of the ziplock, the question arises: Why on Earth would anybody be interested in a wargame covering some of the fighting at Dien Bien Phu? As battles go, it ended in a rather lop-sided win. So what’s the point?

I’ve been fascinated by this battle for a long time – no doubt in part because it was precisely so lop-sided. Truthfully, I think I’ve been less interested in the ‘daily log’ of the battle and more keen on what led the French to commit such an incredible strategic and operational blunder. And, of course, there are always the consequences of the French defeat to reckon with as nothing impacted the US in the second half of the last century nearly as much as the conflict in Vietnam.

Years ago – my junior or senior year in high school – I bought one of those Ballantine books on the battle of Dien Bien Phu. From there I moved quickly into finding and reading Bernard Fall’s two masterworks on the conflict in Indochina, “Hell in a Small Place” and “Street Without Joy”.

I’ve often wondered if America’s leadership at the time (both books were published before Fall was killed by a Vietcong landmine in 1964) read either of his works. Subsequent political decisions would argue that they had not – with the possible exception of the FBI director, who apparently had Fall under surveillance as a possible subversive.

But I digress. I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of the ‘average’ soldier to perform heroically in the midst of the most colossal leadership failures. And Dien Bien Phu is certainly an instance of just such an event.

Predictably, over the years there haven’t been very many games published that cover the battle. The most notable probably has been “Citadel”, published by GDW more than 30 years ago. Against The Odds magazine published an area-movement game on the battle a couple years back that I really wanted to like, but it carried enough errata and other baggage with it that in the end it was too much like work to engage with it.

As a grand-tactical exercise, Dien Bien Phu isn’t very interesting without the inclusion of some rather improbable hypothetical events (like a massive US bombing intervention). The affair was decided the moment the first shots were fired and the French realized that the PAVN had managed to bring a large concentration of artillery to bear on the under-fortified defenses.

However, isolated parts of the battlefield were contested fiercely and with great heroism. At the tactical level, the fighting for some of the individual fortifications were truly tales of near-insane gallantry on both sides. To bring the discussion full circle, this is what ATS Dien Bien Phu concentrates on: The fighting for the “Elaine” complex of fortifications.

In game terms, nothing that happens stands a chance of reversing the overall outcome of the battle. The French may win a scenario and hold this trench or that for another day – but Dien Bien Phu will fall no matter what. But that’s generally the point of a wargame anyway, isn’t it? You ‘win’ if you can do better than your historical counterpart – even when winning only means surviving long enough to lose tomorrow.

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