Contested Territory by Christopher Lentz

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A recurring theme of American participation in the Vietnam War is the inability to distinguish between friendlies and enemies, most often identified as between farmers and Viet Cong. This monocentric perspective belies the diaspora of ethnic, religious, and class distinctions in both North and South Vietnam.

In Contested Territory: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam (Yale University Press, 352 pp., $35, hardcover and Kindle) Christopher Lentz proffers a geographic and sociopolitical history of the Black River borderlands, the former French colonial territory that became Northwest Vietnam. Focusing roughly on the First Indochina War, from 1945-60, Lentz uses the eponymous battle of May 7, 1954, to explore how political, cultural, and militaristic processes—fueled by anti-colonial liberation—both naturally and coercively gave rise to an independent Vietnam.

Lentz is an assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He expounds on his dissertation in Contested Territory, a thoroughly researched tome utilizing archival resources from France and Vietnam, as well as first-hand fieldwork in the area.

Lentz starts his narrative with a provocative claim: “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu changed the world.” This is a thesis worth exploring, but it is not the focus of this book.

Contested Territory is a geographic history of the Dien Bien Phu area, incorporating an exhaustive examination of the political economy of the Black River and its complex ethnic and cultural mores. The book is divided into six chapters. The first and last use an unpublished memoir of a prominent political leader to examine his thesis, while the middle chapters focus on the military operations of the Northwest Campaign (1952) and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1953-54) to analyze the political and social transformations of the area.

An international image of national liberation, the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu is among the most important symbols in modern Vietnam. But its territorial nationality—its very essence as part of Vietnam—was in doubt before and after battle.

The most powerful and populous of the more than twenty ethno-linguistic groups—among them the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu—were the Tai, an ethnicity more tied to neighboring Thailand than to Vietnam. The Viet or Kinh, who made up the majority in the emerging Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, consisted of less than one percent of the population in this section of the country.  Lentz carefully examines the concept of the muang, the prevailing political and economic system that organized the society.

Incorporating this area as part of Vietnam was “an act of imagination and aggression,” as the coercive nationalization of labor and exploitation of the spirit of anti-colonialism effectively made the communist state. For the poor and vulnerable, it was an Orwellian existence—“meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—as the Tai and Kinh used political hegemony and bureaucratic corruption to mobilize and control human and natural resources.

In the aftermath of the battle, an indigenous millenarian movement named “Calling for a King” was violently suppressed by DRV. Hanoi viewed the Northwest with the same lens as it did the South.

Implicit in the book are the lessons not learned by the United States in its war in Vietnam. The lesson from Dien Bien Phu was not the danger of garrisoning large troops in remote areas, a focus that led Lyndon Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to overstress the importance of the fighting at Khe Sanh in 1968, but on the logistical and transportation capabilities of North Vietnam.

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Viet Minh fighters at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

This an academic book aimed at fellow scholars, and the narrative occasionally becomes unwieldy. There are great books about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, among them Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, Kevin Boylan and Luc Olivier’s Valley of the Shadow, and Martin Windrow’s The Lost Valley. But Christian Lentz provides an invaluable resource that zeroes in on the people who struggled before, during, and after the battle.

Contested Territory also erodes North Vietnamese propaganda claiming that Vietnam is a unified nation, manifesting its violent assemblage. The historiography of the Vietnam and Indochina Wars is enriched for his efforts.

–Daniel R. Hart