Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy is in fact a classic of military history for it was first published in 1961, precisely at the moment the United States was about to expand its involvement in Vietnam. The book, hence, came at a timely moment and until today it allows the reader to see which lessons could have been drawn and been incorporated into the renewed war effort and which, more interestingly, were not. At times, the book is a little tiresome to read, particularly when Fall recounts the fate of single units. Though Fall was very well aware that the war effort was being undertaken without a political strategy accompanying it, his book does not go into that political level at all. However, the book adds what most accounts of such wars lack totally: an appraisal of tactics, not strategy. And it is here that the real contribution of the book is to be found.
During the war, the French were keen to show presence along the roads and had therefore built a string of strongholds, which had locked up more than 80.000 troops along with artillery and mortars. But that never translated to strength on the ground, since the small strongholds themselves suffered from a still weak contingent that allowed the Vietminh to stage attacks at a time of their own choosing, with little risk. The sort of strategic thinking that the French had was to prove fatal, when the French wanted to defend Dien Bien Phu, or as Fall himself put it: “For one last time, the 'Maginot Line' spirit had prevailed and it led straight to the biggest pillbox of them all: the fortified camp of Dien Bien Phu.” Worse still, the French suffered heavily from the 'fighting the last war' syndrome and desperately tried to apply those lessons to Indochina that they had to learn during World War II, namely quick movements with tanks and mechanised infantry units. But while this worked well for the German Wehrmacht in World War II, it was doomed to failure in Indochina, where the thick jungle along the roads allowed for thousands of ambushes even with small infantry units.
One of the commonly held assumptions about asymmetric warfare is that the enemy is usually weaker, inferior in number, skills and equipment. And though is some cases that might be true it never was in the Indochina war (or for that matter in the Vietnam war that was to succeed it). In fact, the French were continuously out-gunned, were never in a position to gain momentum on the battlefield and could never put the one superiority they enjoyed—air superiority—to full use. This was not the sort of asymmetric warfare, other powers sometimes had to encounter, as perhaps the US in the Philippines. The Vietminh, after all, fought in battalions and divisions. As in any asymmetric war, two factors proved to be decisive that, rather tellingly, never get the attention of the media or self-proclaimed experts, who rapidly offer their wisdom by pointing out that 'such a war cannot be won'. It can, of course, and throughout history it often was. But over-extended supply lines prove costly and the French, after all, were recovering from a World War. But perhaps more importantly, outside factors often prove decisive. The French received support from the US, but the Vietminh received even more support from the Soviet Union and the material superiority the French enjoyed at the outset of the war was levelled during the course of the war effort.
In perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book, Fall dives into the question of how to term the sort of war the French were fighting in Indochina. He quickly points out that terms such as 'guerilla war', 'counterinsurgency', and 'limited war' do not really cover the political aspects of these wars. I do need to point out that there are lessons to be drawn from that war for the Afghanistan war, but I leave that particular job to my dear reader.