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EXPERIENCE OF WAR

By providing large amounts of military aid to the French and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the Americans and the Chinese respectively intensified the level of violence soldiers encountered on northern and central Vietnamese battlefields between 1950, starting at Cao Bang, and culminating in the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Both the French and the DRV actively sollicited this aid in the hope of defeating the other on the battlefield. As a result, the Indochina conflict was no longer a simple low-intensity guerrilla conflagration. Set-piece battles raged from the northern border to the highlands in lower central Vietnam. Vietnamese and French Union troops clashed violently in the Red River delta at Vinh Yen. Viet Minh soldiers were mowed down in the hills at Na San when they attacked the French camp in waves. Evacuating and transporting soldiers from the battlefields remained a chronic problem for the Viet Minh. Unlike the French and the Americans, and this during almost three decades of war, the DRV was never able to evacuate its wounded with helicopters. True, the Vietnamese used Soviet-supplied trucks to transport wounded during the battle of Nghia Lo and again at Dien Bien Phu, and it did matter. But for most battles, the DRV had to mobilize human porters and animals to get the wounded out of the line of fire and to medical stations behind the lines. Distances were long and the terrain was harsh, hilly, often lined with cliffs, marshes, and thick jungles. Carrying hundreds of wounded across treacherous locations for distances of twenty or more kilometres was gruelling, physically exhausting, time consuming, and no doubt psychologically disturbing work. It took two full days before porters could evacuate 67% of the wounded to divisional field hospitals during the battle of the Day River. Internal communist studies confirm that the death rate for soldiers experiencing battle between 1950 and 1954 was high. It reached 28% at Vinh Yen, 25% for the battle of Hoang Hoa Tham, 24% for Quang Trung, 26% at Ly Thuong Kiet, and 26% at Nghia Lo. During the brutal delta battle of Vinh Yen in early 1951, of the 1,166 wounded soldiers on record, the main causes of their wounds were due to artillery fire (21%), mortar shells (16.8%), grenades (9.3%), machine gunfire (30.5%), aerial bombing (14.6%), and concussions (4.8%). Artillery guns accounted for 63% of the wounds inflicted during the battle of Vinh Yen, with the number reaching 68% at Dong Trieu, 77% at Nghia Lo, and an “atrocious” (ac liet) 90% at Tu Vu during the battle of Hoa Binh. These high rates of death by artillery fire and mortars only confirm that modern war had now worked its way into the Indochina War. Behind these cold, impersonal statistics hide gruesome, traumatic combat experiences: thousands of young Vietnamese bodies were quite literally being pulverized as they tried to storm entrenched enemy positions in wave attacks. Hand-to-hand combat accounted for very few battlefield deaths. Artillery shells did. The DRV’s fledgling and problem-ridden medical services were overwhelmed with major trauma related wounds. Although the Vietnamese soldier was as human as his colonial opponent, the chances of him dying because of his wounds, even from less than severe ones, were significantly higher than his colonial counterpart. In spite of the DRV’s clearly committed medical services, victory on the battlefield, when it occurred, was often achieved from 1950 at the cost of high casualties. See also DIEN BIEN PHU, EXPERIENCE OF BATTLE; MYTH OF WAR.