Celebrating Defeat

“And the last shall be first…”

~ Jesus of Nazareth

Everyone cheers the winners. Today, we give a loud huzzah for the losers.

According to the papers, Alan Greenspan has won his battle against deflation. In fact, the ‘maestro’ seems to have won all his battles. He has brought stocks back near their epic highs; Google, 2004, is practically as absurd as AOL, 2000. He has tamed inflation. He has beaten the business cycle senseless. He has tortured interest rates into the shape he wanted. He has bamboozled consumers into carrying the heaviest burden of debt ever.

Praising the Fed Chairman, “Americans could do much worse than Alan Greenspan…” says a commentary.

Yes, they could do worse; they could believe him.

Winning a fight against cancer, for example, deserves celebration. But a triumph at war, central banking or investing is often worse than defeat. At certain things, dear reader, losers lose least.

We say that after reading accounts of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in today’s Figaro. May 7th marks the 50th anniversary of French defeat.

The French had a number of advantages — similar to the advantages Americans were bringing to bear in Vietnam 10 years later. They controlled the air. Using airpower, they brought in 15,000 soldiers to a remote airfield west of Hanoi. The idea was to install themselves there, disrupt Giap’s supplies, block his move into Laos, and bring him to a pitched battle in which superior French firepower would be decisive.

“A defeat can be borne from a victory,” begins the Figaro’s 50-year look-back. “In order to understand Dien Bien Phu, you have to remember Na-San. This battle, won by the French army, explains the other…and brought the whole thing to disaster. Eighteen months separated them. General Giap, commander of the Vietminh forces, used these 18 months to learn from his defeat. The French high commander, on the other hand, became more sure of himself than ever.”

At Na-San, the French established a base…on a plateau. Giap attacked. The French were able to hold their ground while the Vietminh staggered away. In a single night, Giap lost 3,000 men.

If the French were going to destroy themselves in Southeast Asia, they had to find a better way. They found it at Dien Bien Phu.

The broad outlines of the battle were as follows: French parachutists took control of the airfield followed by 15,000 troops under Colonel Christian de Castries. The French dug trenches and set up bases, to which they gave women’s names.

Dien Bien Phu was not on a plateau, but in a depression, surrounded by hills covered in jungle. If the Vietminh brought up heavy artillery, the French goose would be cooked. But neither de Castries nor the French high command thought Giap could do it.

The surprise began on the 13th of March, 1954. Giap’s artillery threw off its camouflage and opened fire in the afternoon. A shell hit the French every 6 seconds…off and on…for the next 56 days.

Then, Giap sent in waves of infantry. Camp “Gabrielle” was taken by the Vietminh…and then retaken by the legionnaires, before being abandoned to the enemy. “Beatrice” was lost after its commander was killed…Anne-Marie fell.

The French held. But the Vietminh noose was getting tighter. On March 26, a plane managed to get off the ground with a cargo of wounded men. It was the last one. After that, the French lost control of the airfields. The only way to get supplies was to drop them from the sky; often they fell into the hands of the enemy.

The weather turned against the French, says the Figaro. They fought in a blast furnace. Then came the rains and they were up to their knees in mud. Doctors operated in mud.

On the 6th of May, Giap ordered a general assault. Dominique and Eliane were quickly overrun. On the 7th, the order was given to blow up the munitions. Colonel Piroth committed suicide. By 5.30 p.m. a cease-fire was sounded, though Isabelle held out until 1 a.m. the following day.

Thousands of French were captured. From the evidence, the Vietminh did not seem particularly mean to them, but indifferent. The victors had little to eat themselves, and hardly any medicine. The French, many of them wounded, died quickly. They were forced to march 500 to 600 kilometers; many didn’t make it. Only about 3,900 of them ever returned to France.

Still, the French should cheer. It was a small price to pay to “put an end to illusions,” as today’s Figaro describes it.

General Giap should have been so lucky. Indochina probably never had it so good as when the French were there. But hoisted on his own successful illusions, he soon took on his compatriots in the south…and then the entire American army.

Americans seemed to learn nothing from the French experience. De Gaulle warned Kennedy that Vietnam would be a graveyard for American soldiers. But in the inflationary boom of the first u2018Guns and Butter’ administration — that of Lyndon B. Johnson — Americans must have thought they could do what the French couldn’t. They spent far more money, and lost far more men, but Giap beat them…just as he had the French.

While France and America enjoyed their defeats, Vietnam suffered its own dreary independence like a war wound.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.