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On 13 February 1991, a group of well-organized and motivated French veterans of the Indochina War successfully confronted French scholar and specialist of Vietnam, Georges Boudarel, during a conference held in the French Senate on “Vietnam Today”. The man who led the charge against Boudarel was Jean-Jacques Beucleur, a former prisoner of war in Indochina and now the State Secretary for Veterans Affairs under Valérie Giscard-d’Estaing. Beucleur publicly denounced Boudarel, accusing him of having served as a political commissar in a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) prisoner of war camp. Beucler denounced Boudarel for having “blood on his hands”. The media picked up on the event. Between February and May 1991, according to Katie Edwards, some 300 articles appeared on the “affaire” in the French press. TV reporters lined up at Boudarel’s apartment complex demanding a statement. Boudarel’s colleagues, students, and supporters mobilized their troops on the Left as the opposition on the Right did the same.

Boudarel defended his actions on anti-colonialist grounds. He crossed over to the Viet Minh in 1950, he wrote in his Autobiographie, disgusted by the colonial war he had witnessed first hand upon arriving in Saigon in the late 1940s. While he regretted his role working for the DRV in prisoner of war camps in northern Vietnam, he denied charges that he had killed or tortured, insisting that it was disease and a woeful lack of medicine that took the lives of so many French Union prisoners. His detractors cast the war in ideological terms, one in which the French army had fought heroically against communist expansion and in defense of its Vietnamese ally, the Associated State of Vietnam. Men such as Beucleur, Pierre Guillaume, and Déodat Puy-Montbrun rejected the idea that the Indochina conflict was a colonial one.

In effect, the “Boudarel affair” brought to the fore two contesting memories of the conflict, one anti-colonialist, the other anti-communist. While only time will tell why the Boudarel affair occurred in 1991, several factors were clearly at work. For one, French veteran associations such as the Association nationale des anciens prisonniers et internés d’Indochine and the Association nationale des anciens et amis de l’Indochine et du souvenir indochinois had long been organizing their members, developing political and media networks, and had built an impressive memory making machine by the late 1980s. In 1988, for example, French veterans groups inaugurated the Memorial to the Indochina Wars, the necropolis located outside Fréjus. It also contains a mural with the names of the “fallen” soldiers etched on it, based on the American Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Indeed, many French veterans were inspired by what they saw happening in the United States in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan: the POW-MIA question had not only served as a political rallying cry for mobilizing memory around a “noble” and “forgotten” cause, but it had also demonstrated to the French side the importance of organization, infrastructure, and the media. In December 1989, reacting to veterans lobbying, the French government created the status of “prisoner of the Viet Minh”, granting benefits to aging French veterans and acknowledging the Indochina conflict as a “war”. The liberalization of communist Vietnam from 1986 and the crumbling of “world communism” by 1991 also created a favorable context for veteran associations to bring the Indochina War to public attention via the Boudarel affair and to recast the conflict in more anti-communist and heroic terms. The affair even allowed some to begin speaking of the “postive” aspects of French colonialism in Indochina and elsewhere, foreshadowing a decade ahead of time the controversial legislation requiring teachers to discuss the “positive” effects of French colonialism.

The “affaire Boudarel” was less about what happened in the early 1950s in POW camps (a judge threw out the charge against Boudarel of “crimes against humanity”) than an indication of an emerging debate in French society, or at least certain political and academic circles, as to how to understand and commemorate the Indochina conflict and French colonialism more widely. However, neither on the Right or Left, was there ideological homogeneity. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin dismissed Boudarel as a “kapo” (referring to privileged prisoners serving in Nazi prison camps). And if veterans led by Beucleur successfully brought the memory of the Indochina conflict to the fore, there were some very notable exceptions, both of them veterans of the Indochina War and formers POWs – Robert Bonnafous and Marcel Bigeard. The Boudarel affair revealed other divergences, too. While historians Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery supported their colleague at Paris VII, they not only rejected the right’s anti-communist and nostalgic spin on French colonialism but they also broke with the schematic anti-colonialism and nationalism of many of their colleagues on the Far Left. In 1995, Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery published, in large part as a reaction to the memory battles let loose during the Boudarel affair, their monumental Indochine, une colonisation ambiguë. If Bigeard admitted the reality of his former adversary’s nationalism, Brocheux and Hémery conceded that colonialism was complex. See also ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS ET AMIS DE L’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES COMBATTANTS DE DIEN BIEN PHU; ASSOCIATION OF MOTHERS OF SOLDIERS; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; HISTORY; MYTH OF WAR; WAR MEMORIAL, DIEN BIEN PHU.