As American and Iraqi troops launch an offensive near Baghdad, it may be unwise to apply a description of the morale of the French troops at Dien Bien Phu to the mood of the American troops in Iraq.
But even given the enormous differences between the Indochina war and the one in Iraq — in geography, battle conditions, politics, culture, technology and, of course, causes — I can’t help noticing the aptness of Graham Greene’s observation: On the eve of their defeat, in May 1954, the French troops had reached a period “not so much of exhaustion as of cynicism and dogged pride — they believed in no solution but were not prepared for any surrender.”
Greene spent only a day and a night at Dien Bien Phu in January of 1954, two months after six parachute battalions were dropped on the French outpost in a doubling of the military force there. But he sensed the mood accurately, surge notwithstanding. “It was no novelist’s imagination which felt the atmosphere heavy with doom,” he writes, “for these men were aware of what they resembled — sitting ducks.”
Despite news reports testifying to the can-do spirit of the U.S. Marines, the underlying question “Is U.S. troop morale slipping?” seems more pertinent than ever, especially when a recent study commissioned by the Pentagon has found that “45 percent of the junior-enlisted Army soldiers overall rated unit morale as low or very low” and “one in five soldiers suffers from a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety.”
In Iraq the ducks have gone on the offensive, we’re told. They’re not just sitting there, say the American generals. But let’s not forget the French generals said that, too. “What remains a mystery to this day,” Greene writes, “is why the battle was ever fought at all, why twelve battalions of the French Army were committed to the defense of an armed camp situated in a hopeless geographical terrain — hopeless for defense and hopeless for the second objective, since the camp was intended to be the base of offensive operations.”
Is the surge in Baghdad like the parachute drop on Dien Bien Phu? I hope not. Military analysts would find the question ridiculous on the face of it. But then it’s not the military analysts who’ve been running this war. It’s the French generals in the White House.
(Crossposted at HuffPo)