• Christopher G. Moore

Battlefields as entertainment centers

A certain marketing idea may have started with Disneyland. And that idea is roughly a place must have entertainment value in order to be worth spending money to visit. It should be fun for the entire family. Nothing scary or too real ever makes the grade; that puts people off. What people want is safe, clean, and with benches to sit. Never mind that the fairy tale story castle the children love is not remotely like any real castle.

The same fate is destined for old battlefields. I suspect that the recent construction to turn the Dien Bien Phu battlefields into tourists attractions can find examples elsewhere. Call it the war of the battlefields where each site, village, province and country seeks to out flack its competitors by offering a more entertaining tour of a place where a historic battle was fought.

In the case of Dien Bien Phu there were a number of hills that the French used to build trenches and fortifications, placing tanks and heavy artillery in the war against the Vietminh. Beatrice was one of the best known of these battlefields. It was also known as Hill 506. Barnard B. Fall in his essential book Hell in a Very Small Place wrote, “[T]he choice was made to fortify Hill 506 becuas it offered the best communication lines with the main position at Dien Bien Phu itself and because it was hoped that the Communist would never be able to bring their artillery in close enough to take advantage of the controlling hill line. Beatrice took a pounding from the Vietminh heavy artillery placed in the surrounding mountains.

Sgt. Kubiak, an survivor of Beatrice, in Fall’s book is quoted: “We are all surprised and ask ourselves how the Viets have been able to find so many guns capable of producing an artillery fire of such power. Shells rained down on us without stopping like a hailstorm on a fall evening. Bunker after bunker, trench after trench, collapsed, burying under them men and weapons.”

In the video footage I shot on Beatrice, our translator/guide shows the direction of the fire from the Vietminh artillery placements. Also George Fetherling and translator walk along the reconstructed trenches. You can see the finished “copper” colored trench lines. It was as if the trenches had been color coded. The trenches also were very deep. I am 6’2” and inside the trench I would estimate you would have had to be 6’8” to look over the top and take a shot with your rifle. I couldn’t find an explanation for the depth of the redeveloped trenches left by the French.

Falls’ book Hell in a Very Small Place is one of the best pieces of war journalism ever written. It is a classic work that gives a full account of the battle between the French and Vietminh, which resulted in the French defeat in 1954. If you are interesting in the history of Southeast Asia, this book deserves a place in your library.

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