November 25, 2007

COIN Book Club, No. 4

Last week, Charlie linked to this moving tribute to Bernard Fall and the new book that's been penned by his widow.This week, the Counterinsurgency Book Club is going to spend a little more time on Fall because, well, he deserves it, and what's more, his books deserve to be read by any would-be counterinsurgents out there.

The first book Abu Muqawama read by Bernard Fall was Hell in a Very Small Place,Fall's exhaustive and enthralling history of the battle between the French and Viet Minh for that muddy little fort at Dien Bien Phu. Abu Muqawama read this book his first year on active duty and swore he would never make fun of the French Army ever again. No one who reads this book can ever slur the bravery and hardness of the French paratroop officers who hung tough, despite it all, and fought until the bloody end -- when they had so many dead and dying lining the tunnels they couldn't fight any longer. The way Fall relates the super-heroic deeds of this man in particular were enough to give Abu Muqawama a role model to take with him from Afghanistan to Iraq. Abu Muqawama once gave this 568-page book to one of his NCOs who was leaving the unit. Once he started reading it, he finished it in a matter of days. Folks, it is a brilliant and beautiful combat narrative.

But Hell in a Very Small Place doesn't tell the real story of the French in Indochina. Dien Bien Phu was, after all, a pitched battle -- one they lost through poor engineering works and even poorer planning as much as anything else. Indochina writ large was the French's first post-war experience fighting an insurgency, and that story is told by Fall in much richer form in another great book, The Street Without Joy.Fall died along the very same road years later, but this book -- published before Fall was killed traveling with an American unit in Vietnam -- was his account of the French mishaps that led to their defeat. Abu Muqawama read this book a year after he finished Hell in a Very Small Place and carried it with him in his duffel bag to Afghanistan.

In the early days of that war, Abu Muqawama always carried with him a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes to share with the boys. It just seemed right to be smoking that great patriotic brand of cigarette while fighting the great patriotic war of his generation. But in his tent at Bagram Air Base -- and this was in the early days of that base, just a few months after we seized it -- Abu Muqawama would lay on his cot and read The Street Without Joy in between missions. (We would go out for a few days, then back in for a few days. This must have been in March and April of 2002, during Operation Anaconda.) Sometimes the Chinooks, taking off and landing on the nearby runway, would blow all kinds of dust into the tent and Abu Muqawama would read in his sleeping bag with a head lamp until the dust settled.

And Abu Muqawama remembers reading about those French officers, fighting their dirty little war in Indochina and smoking their Gauloises and Gitanes and just getting on with it, slogging through the muck and mire that is counterinsurgency warfare. Merde, Abu Muqawama thought. If I ever have to fight that kind of war, I guess I'll have to change my brand of cigarettes to something more appropriate.

18 months later, Abu Muqawama was in Iraq. On the pocket of his sleeve was an American flag. Inside that pocket was, always, a pack of Gauloises.

Liberté Toujours.