From Chapter 31 of The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, the tale of one who was there at Dien Bien Phu, which should have marked the end of the war in Vietnam in 1954, and precluded scores of US atrocities like the recent bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz:
The sunset into the Pacific must have been spectacular on this cloudlessmost of crepuscules, the crowd on the balcony, three making them that, all watching its progress as conversation formulated subintestinal; all watched the sun with glancing flickers at the waves in their insistent irregularity, their magic trick of sound grown trite yet not irritating—but neither soothing—not much different, Drake reflected as the sun continued its reflection, as cars passing on a busy street down below an apartment in a city on the east coast. A mood was formulating like the gathering of storm clouds they were lacking, a mood that shrank from light, that would remain on a wood floor as dawn forced the doors, would shrink in the light like a planked cephalopod, perceptibly but not enough to deny its nocturnal shenanigans. Before long dark would be replete with a midst-wave silence that would be broken by the cetaceatic sonors of giant ships, pushing their heavy opacities north towards frigider waters. Then a voice would find itself besieged by night-triggers, brought on by whisky and a whiff of misanthropy if it not be homophobia in its original skirts, and the words would begin slowly to find unseen currents, like pipesmoke, that could not escape the ears of the two listeners, whose need for these words would come as a surprise similar to that of sudden slumber, and a sort of slumbering it would be, a monoformission defiant of will.
‘I love watching the sunset into the Pacific, lo,’ Nordgaard remarked. ‘The worst days of my life were spent watching the sun set over jungle mountains.’
A rogue wave brought water up the sand to where it fringed into the light.
‘The worst was in 54.’
‘You were there in 54?’
‘Yes, Dien Bien Phu.’
‘You were at Dien Bien Phu?’
‘Of course—I led a unit of Montagnards…they were my size…more or less, mostly more, but not so much so.’
‘You fought for the French?’
‘Yes, though I hated the fucking French. They were the worst bastards I ever came across. But, yes, lo, I wound up on their side.’
Several waves met the sand without interdicting the silence formed by the last words.
‘Bastards, I tell you. During the worst of it, not that every day wasn’t the worst of it, they decided to charge an Algerian unit with cowardice. Well, I’ll tell you, those ‘cowards’ stood up to the French. Their platoon leader said, “Then you’ll have to shoot every one of us, because each man is as brave as the rest.” The French backed straight down. Worse yet, if you read about the battle—‘
‘–it’s the Algerians who get the worst of it time after time.
‘Maggots…there’s your story of Dien Bien Phu—maggots. There were maggots everywhere. Maggots are worse than lice, for they are bred on death—even if you could for a moment forget that you were absurdly trapped in a valley of death you would see a maggot waving up from some unexpected spot, directly out of the Nam Yum even, breaking the surface next to your foot, to be sure, to insist, lo, that you know where you are, that you are living utterly without reason and solely of maggoty providence, that before long you, too, would be sprouting maggots. Every trench was filled with body parts, I don’t care what you read about the crowded, unsanitary hospital—there was no way to collect all the corpses, all the pieces of corpses, all the enemy corpses, all the pieces of enemy corpses. A hand to hand fight, and there were dozens of them, corpses everywhere, you think the French cleared the hills of every corpse? Soon as they beat off an attack they were under artillery fire again, or white phosphorous and artillery, recoilless rifle fire…human flesh and organs rotted everywhere, and the maggots multiplied in biblical proportions. And the maggots were on the side of the locals. They never went crawling up the hills after the Viet Minh, they went after us. You could clear an area five feet in diameter before you slept, when you could sleep, and you’d wake up crawling with maggots who couldn’t wait til you were dead. There were in your ears, you mouth, your nostrils, your asshole, trying to burrow into your cockhole, lo. Day after fucking day, night after fucking night. Every other trench war, and this was trench warfare—the French had no fortress, lo, they conducted the battle underground and on the bare hills—you read about rats and lice. In this case it was maggots. Maggots running the battle, and maggots thriving on the dead and stupidity of the French. As for rats, I became one of them: that’s what they called us—the rats of the Nam Yum.
‘You have to understand. We knew war, jungle war. And we began to know modern war, disproportionate war, in which one side, in this case our side, had all the technological advantages, the airplanes, the splinter bombs, the napalm, the white phosphorous—we, or they, the French, used it first. They terrorized the enemy at every turn. And we mopped up. Or we marched into deadly jungle battles. But we risked our lives in ways we understood. We knew the jungle, the Viet Minh knew the jungle. It was a fair fight. An honest fight. Dien Bien Phu was a colossal idiocy that made of us a mockery. A mockery of maggots for the maggots to send to their deaths. I was a sniper. And my side in the battle of Dien Bien Phu was no side for a sniper. The enemy was in the jungle and we were on the open ground. Our landing field was in range of their artillery. It was like a game for them, blowing up our planes. And they had artillery they weren’t supposed to have—that’s what everybody knows about the battle—but, lo, what they also had was excellent air defense, flak and whatnot. The French could do nothing with their planes but drop supplies, and they had to drop a lot of supplies, too, because half of what they dropped went to the Viet Minh. The dropped men, too, and I watched some of the paratrooper drops: man after man floating like a clown, a target for gunners of every kind, riddled with bullets on the way down, landing dead in the branches of trees that had yet to be chopped down and used for firewood. The Viet Minh were invisible; their artillery was invisible. What use, lo, was I in such a case. I had virtually nowhere to hide and was supposed to shoot at an enemy that was perfectly camouflaged. On occasion I could shoot at flashes. But flashes are flashes and by definition they are extinguished before you can shoot them. I got a few. And that was always a pleasure. Picking out a spot a mile away, a hint of unnatural movement of foliage, sometimes hours of stillness, watching, and then the unmistakable appearance of skin, facial skin, between two leaves, skin that has no idea it has suddenly become exposed. And wasting no time I squeeze off a shot and I have another silent personal victory. No one on my side knows, and no noise carries the distance even should the enemy cry out—which would be rare, for near every shot meant instant death.
‘Instant death…but no maggots. They had the high ground. They had the jungle for hundreds of miles all around. Maybe they had a leach problem. We had those too. Especially when we became the rats. But leeches were a pleasure in comparison to the maggots; in fact, for me leeches were a pleasure of their own accord. I enjoyed pealing them off my body. I liked them, lo, for what they were trying to do to survive. They were honest bloodsuckers. Compare them to the French, notorious wasters of blood. Flinging man after man into pointless, hopeless battle, blood wasted. Blood and body for maggots, not leeches.
‘Of course “flinging man after man” was a tactic of the Viet Minh, the “human wave” assaults, which failed again and again by body count, yet succeeded again and again to terrify the French and if more Viet Minh were killed, a greater percentage, lo, of the French whole were killed, and the Viet dead did not take their maggots with them. The war of the maggots was a slaughter, a complete victory, lo. The French were brave, and so they sent their men to the hills for slaughter again and again, and every time the maggots were victorious.
‘It was perhaps a month before the final Viet Minh victory that I became a traitor. My men, the Montagnards, the Tai people of nearby mountains, they could have been on either side for all it mattered to them, they understood little of what was happening and they turned to me for explanation. Rational explanation was called for, lo. And what rational explanation was available to me. Who were the French? Why were they here? Begin there, lo, and see how far you get with mountain tribals. Airplanes were astonishing enough, veritable miracles. Why then did they drop hideous death bombs? Why did they, if they were French, drop so much materiel to the Viet Minh? Why were they left on the airstrip in plain sight so the Viet Minh could destroy them. Did they come all the way from France? They came from near Hanoi. We have heard of Hanoi, what are the French doing there? What is this white air? From where these bombs? These bullets? You want us to do what? That hill, and what is her name? We cannot even pronounce that name. A woman’s name? Huguette? That is not the name of that hill? When men go to that hill, the Viet Minh attack them in droves—leaving maggots ten-thousand fold for each body, lo. When they go to that hill they are hit by bombs that blow them apart, spreading the maggots far and wide, lo. Why would we go to that hill. We will not go to that hill. How was I to explain that they must go to that hill? By that time I was not inclined to. I was inclined to admit: we are stuck here, lads. What are we to do? We will not go to that hill. My boss became impatient with us and I slit his neck as he slept, careful to leave the maggots a wet, dank, inviting environment, lest we be followed. I slit his throat in his sleep and I led my men to join the rest of what are called interior deserters—and what the French were calling the rats of the Nam Yum. Most of us were on the banks of the Nam Yum as far north and very near to the air field, which initially provided us protection from the west because useless as the airfield was it was at least an open space and all eyes were on it. Up the hill on the other side were the Viet Minh, but they soon learned we were no longer meaningful targets, we were noncombatants, and in addition they could use us, for we were expert at obtaining supplies. With great courage, the disgusted French thought, we who had not the courage to draw maggots had the courage to venture into dangerous areas where supplies were dropped. But of course there was no danger, for the Viet Minh knew of every move we made. And we bartered materiel for food, by their mercy, or if it were food we ate it. We had everything a human sacrifice could want—food, relative safety from maggots—oh the maggots did come, lo, but found little on which to feast and few reproductive zones, no mountains of flesh for their orgies. They appeared, as I said, anywhere and everywhere, but only to remind us of what the humans were up to and how these follies made for them a paradise. And the rats—lo, those we ate. We were the rats of the Nam Yum! We had everything, yes, but of course, little shelter from the constant damp, the rain, but little, balled up in holes in the banks, heat—for it is cold, lo, in the high jungle when there is much rain, when the mud never dries. We even had fish. Why the fish had not high-finned it out of there I will never know. Perhaps they were victims of over-crowding, but it is a wonder, lo, to see what a handgrenade in a river pool will bring to the surface, and the taste of a giant catfish grilled in a carefully sheltered fire, perhaps the whiff of grilled delicacy advancing in drifts and coils like white phosphorous towards the nostrils of the starving besieged…And they were starving, towards the end they had nothing left, little ammunition, nothing but French courage, which I would define as akin to an automaton walking off a cliff. While all the time, we ate, well enough, slept…slept in discomfort, in fits, some in lunatic spasms, some to wake up dead—it was after all only a relative holiday…You are wondering if they were mountain people why did they not escape through enemy lines. Many did, many did. But to uncertainty. Our Viet Minh friends nearest may happily allow us to pass, but from there through dense hilly jungle and cordon after cordon of Viet Minh, what were the chances of gaining freedom? What were the chances of capture, torture, death? Better to wait to the end—it could not be far off and it was not far off. Though neither was death. I was burrowed in with a Moroccan one night, we had eaten, we were happy—considering, considering. We went to bed huddled together for warmth and I awoke in the morning to find him dead. Seemingly healthy the night before, he was now a corpse. A corpse will not keep a man warm for long. I took him across the Nam Yum and carried him up the bank and left him in the ditch that ran along the airfield. The day after, a rare sunny day, I sat on the bank, contemplating…what? Did I philosophize on the condition of man vis a vis hierarchy, animosity, murderous nature, the weak, the strong, the stupid? Perhaps, for long, lo, were the hours and many a time long were the days, the Viet Minh entrenching a strangulating circle about the French positions—if you could call them that. The French on the radios all day pleading, planning, for salvation from the air. More troops! More supplies! Such faith in technology that surely to the very end they believed their technology would save them. And as we now know, and believe me I suspected it then, the salvation was to take the form, some hoped, of nuclear weapons supplied by the Americans. This I feared and so put out of my mind. Already it was absurd. Not only Korea, but also the Second World War had demonstrated the futility of air power against masses on the ground, yet for the French that was the key: air power versus masses on the ground. How could they lose? The same way the Americans had in Korea. By not winning, first, and at Dien Bien Phu, by humiliation they would lose, by elimination they would lose, by the triumph of maggots they would lose! What innumerable thoughts were available to me as I sat on the bank that sunny day, gazing at the paradox of the ever flowing river, which the Greek said could not be stepped into to twice and be the same. Go tell that Spartan that if it is not the same, it is not much different. I sat on the bank and the sun glinting on the river and I looked just upstream and a glint caught something, a white patch far off, heading downriver, and I was lost in thought, and, lo, after some time I chanced to glance again, and what, lo, did I see, but a great white mass closer, approaching me, as I felt it then so that I now grew apprehensive. Understand, lo, that we were all insane in our own ways to our own degrees, or equally so, with but different means of persevering as if not completely out of our minds, perhaps because the environment itself was commensurately insane–and so the mass was come for me! Now when I looked away it was a deliberate act and I was immediately drawn back to the white mass, closer now, close enough I could see now that it was a thing alive, that it was writhing, and as I could see it writhing it had drawn much nearer and I could soon see it was writhing as a population of maggots writhe, and indeed it was a mass of swimming maggots, as I calculated come from the direction of that very, and very, dead Moroccan who had found his death in my proximity, and now was coming to take me back to his maggoty ditch, had sent his army of maggots for me! A hand grenade, lo! I scrambled up the bank in panic and snatched a grenade from an Algerian gangster, ran to the bank and tossed into the middle of the mass while it was yet fifteen meters off, and blew them apart, into the sky, which therefore became our nightmare, a rain of maggots, at the fringe of which was the fire where sat the Algerian gangster and within which was I, I with maggoty guts, and maggots enduring on my helmet on my clothes. I ran mad into the river, up river of the rain, and I stripped and clawed and scrubbed and wiped, and awoke some day or days later, that same Algerian gangster mopping my head in the rain.
‘”It’s over,” he said, “let’s head for the hills.”’
The waves had risen and by now all three were underwater, contemplating the vast distances and close proximity of event attenuate and immediate that sank neath these same waters.