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Historical Dictionary

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MYTH OF WAR, FRANCE

In France, veterans of the Indochina War and veteran associations and their families have been actively involved in defining the meaning of the Indochina War. No sooner had the Indochina conflict ended in 1954 than a small but highly influential group of veterans adopted the themes of “tragedy” and “abandonment” by the government in order to sacralize the soldier and by extension the army’s “heroic” and “noble” role in the Indochina War. Writers, most notably Jean Lartéguy, had developed the idea of “les centurions”, the title of one of his legendary semi-fictional novels, who soldiered on nobly against all hope in France’s long wars of decolonization. Roger Delpey popularized the idea further in Soldats de la boue, a series of romans de gares in which he celebrated France’s heroic, forgotten soldiers. Other authors never hesitated to evoke the idea of a government stab in the back.

No one man has contributed more to popularizing the “noble” meaning of the army’s role in France’s colonial wars than Pierre Schoendoerffer, novelist, film producer, “Indo” veteran, and a former member of the army’s official photographic service during the conflict. To Schoendoerffer, the soldiers of France’s colonial wars were unsung heroes, who had been sacrificed by inept politicians and abandoned. Heroic tragedy is Schoendoerffer’s favorite theme. When asked what he felt about the Indochina debacle, he replied: La honte. La rage d’avoir été abandonné par la France. This message comes through clearly in the 317ème section; the entire film is focused on a lone combat unit desperately trying to escape annihilation as its French commanders learn of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Anti-communist, Schoendoerffer declared in 1984 that he would never return to Vietnam because of what happened. He did, however, in order to film Dien Bien Phu in 1992, yet another heroic commemoration of the besieged French men fighting on during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. At the heart of his reflection, however, is an ardent desire to legtimate military defeat and erase humiliation by recasting it in national terms as a sacred sacrifice.

A variety of veteran associations share his point of view and Schoendoerffer’s efforts to cast the Indochina War in tragic yet purifying terms. As the latter put it to the Association nationale des anciens d’Indochine on the meaning of Dien Bien Phu and his film on it 40 years later: “tout était donc perdu. Alors, dans un ultime sursaut, des centaines et des centaines d’hommes obscurs et ordinaires vinrent, non pour redresser une situation désormais sans espoir, mais pour maintenir jusqu’au bout et le plus haut possible quelque chose qui ressemblait à une certaine idée de la France”.

It is this “certain idea of France”, an all too obvious allusion to Charles de Gaulle’s nationalist justification to fight on in 1940 for the “real France”, that provides the nationalist source for this mythic reading of the Indochina War. In the 1980s, as the American government stepped up its search for the missing in action and Ronald Reagan led the charge to recast the American commitment to Vietnam as a noble effort, veteran associations in France mobilized, multiplied, and pushed for wider official and public recognition of their cause and its positive role in the French nation. Monuments emerged in France and even in communist Vietnam honoring the sacrifice of the army. These veterans associations latched on to the Boudarel affair in the early 1990s in order to make their case and advance their cause, not without considerable success. Leading the charge against Georges Boudarel was Erwan Bergot, a novelist, nationalist, and veteran of the Indochina War. Like the Vietnamese myth of war, this French one does not seek to question or understand the reasons for the French involvement in the Indochina or Algerian Wars. That is not what myths are designed to do. See also ANTICOLONIALISM; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS D’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS PRISONNIERS ET INTERNÉS D’INDOCHINE; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES COMBATTANTS DE DIEN BIEN PHU; ASSOCIATION OF MOTHERS OF SOLDIERS; COMICS AND WAR; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; MARCEL BIGEARD; MISSING IN ACTION; REMAINS; PIERRE LANGLAIS; WAR MEMORIAL, DIEN BIEN PHU.