Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms by Richard E. Baker

44444444444444444444444Richard E. Baker served in the U. S. Army with the 4th Infantry Band. He did not spend his time in Vietnam marching on parade grounds playing his horn, though. He was in the field, setting up ambushes and the like. He has suffered a life-long battle with PTSD.

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms (CreateSpace, 276 pp., $11, paper)  is part of Baker’s French Foreign Legion in Vietnam historical fiction series. Baker has done thorough and painstaking research for his recounting of the “retreat from Cao Bang [which], marks one of the largest fiascos in military history,” as he puts it.

Both the French and the Viet Minh are presented precisely and accurately in a narrative populated with memorable characters of many nationalities and disparate personalities. Baker is first a fine storyteller, and then a historian. But he never pushes his research down the throats of his readers. Still, you will know a lot more about the French War in Indochina after you have read this book.

I especially enjoyed the characters that Baker brought alive and the context in which they lived and fought. Baker’s great gift of knowing what to include in a list benefits the reader again and again in a book that is populated with lists along with unforgettable characters, both European and Asian. Even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, a minor character in this book, comes alive in his few scenes. Baker has Giap say, “I’m not concerned about winning battles, just in winning the war.”

I am compelled to quote part of one of Bake

Richard Baker

r’s fine lists, just to show how he brings French Indochina in the 1950s alive.

“Tables of meat stood under cover: pig, dog, and cow, heads stripped of skin, buckets of entrails, tails undressed of hide, bowls of eyeballs staring blankly as if they could still see, thick tongues, brains piled like wet cauliflower, hooves, penises, legs crisscrossed across the wooden tables, and piano keys of ribs waiting for the delicate fingers of some mad and carnivorous musician.”

Baker shows the Legionaires “in search of small pleasures at cheap prices.” I could easily identify with them. Much is made of the pleasure that the soldiers took in smoking cheap cigarettes. I loved the comment from one of the villains: “With a single idea, much can be accomplished.”  This accomplishment is fired by cigarettes.

My favorite line comes near the end: “Many top generals were poor leaders; that is how they earned promotions and became top generals.” That was my impression from my one meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland.  All he wanted to talk about with me was that I needed a haircut. He had no interest in my theories about why he was losing the war.

This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel of the French debacle in Indochina, and it is prophetic of how the American War would go. We, too, were ignorant of history and scorned and dismissed both the French effort and the Viet Minh who beat them. America is always convinced of our exceptionalism. We turned out to be more like the French than we would admit.

I highly recommend this novel and all novels by Richard Baker. He is creating one of the great bodies of work about war in Vietnam—an entire shelf of books worth reading.

—David Willson


The French Foreign Legion and Indochina in Restrospect by Michael Kaponya

At the end of World War II Michael Kaponya was a Hungarian refugee with few prospects. So he joined the French Foreign Legion, that fabled mercenary military force founded in 1831 by King Louis Philippe. Led by French officers, the Legion is open to volunteer foreigners to serve under the French flag.

Kaponya’s The French Foreign Legion and Indochina in Retrospect (Tate Publishing, 144 pp., $14.99, paper) is a respectful memoir dedicated to the memory of his French Foreign Legion comrades. Kaponya describes his screening and induction, his experiences in North Africa, and—most importantly—his service in Indochina during the French war from 1949-52.

The Legionnaires learned tough lessons of guerrilla warfare in a terrain and climate to which they were unaccustomed. Ultimately, Kaponya realized, the French were limited to “incursions by small units and control of major highways and waterways.” Even that control was tenuous at best.

Michael Kaponya

Kaponya’s reminiscences often are as tender as they are horrific. There’s no mistaking his pleasure and pride in having been a Legionnaire. He left Indochina in 1952, two years before Dien Bien Phu, and completed his service in Algeria and Marseilles. Then Kaponya immigrated to the United States.

In addition to personal recollections of this historically important time, Kaponya offers political analyses of the period following the Second World War, especially the events in Vietnam and Algeria. Kaponya summarizes his position succinctly:

“The Foreign Legion left Indochina due to pressure from a leftist government and communists, the U.S. Army left Vietnam due to incessant far-left-instigated pressure and demonstrations, and the Foreign Legion, after victory, had to retreat from Algeria due to leftist political reasons.”

—Michael Keating