The Centurions by Jean Larteguy

11111111111111111111111111111111111111Jean Larteguy (the pen name of Jean Pierre Lucien Osty, 1920-2011) spent time in prison in Spain in 1942, the year I was born. He then joined the Free French Forces and served seven years in North Africa and Korea. In 1955, he received the Albert Landres Prize for his Indochina reporting. He is best known for his Algerian War Trilogy.

The introduction by Robert D. Kaplan to Larteguy’s 1960 novel, The Centurions (Penguin Classics, 544 pp., $18, paper), is superb. The translation by Xan Fielding, the author of several fine war books of his own, is pitch perfect.

Larteguy’s book is a masterpiece on how to fight a war of counterinsurgency. I first encountered that word in a movie I saw at Fort Benjamin Harrison during my training to become an Army stenographer, which I then practiced for more than thirteen months in South Vietnam. Fort Ben had an excellent library that included many on Southeast Asian warfare.

Jean Larteguy

One of those books was this one. I read it and then spent a couple of months wondering why the United States was involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower had warned against entering into such a war, and Larteguy makes it clear in this book that guerrilla tactics must be used against an enemy that fights without rules, “tactics out of step with the ideals of just war.”

There are powerful, well-drawn characters in this classic novel. We first meet them in an Indochina prison camp in 1954, immediately after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Larteguy makes all of his characters come alive on the page, including the Indochinese. We see them, warts and all, and we feel for them.

I reread this book again when I was stationed at USARV headquarters in the Inspector General Section. I loved hanging out in the air-conditioned library in the compound. I read all of the books they had on the wars in Indochina. There was no indication that any one else had read these books. They seemed brand new and unopened.

Reading The Centurions in South Vietnam was a different experience than reading it in Indiana. It really hit home that if our Army leaders—for instance, Gen. William Westmoreland—had read this novel, perhaps the war would be winnable. Or at least we’d be doing better. As the casualty reports and the downed aircraft reports cycled across my desk each day, I realized that we were not pursuing this war in a way that Larteguy would approve.

About a third of the way through this book, the author tells us that the Vietnamese never ceased working to defeat the enemy. “Meanwhile,” he writes, “we were idling away in the brothels and opium dens.”  I witnessed that during the American war, too.

Larteguy called the Vietnamese way of war “termite methods,” noting that they “never fail to learn from their mistakes.” The French—and the Americans—kept making the same mistakes over and over.

It’s became an all but accepted truth—especially in books written by American Vietnam War veterans—that the U.S. “never lost a battle” in that war. But, as Larteguy tells us, “In the strategy of modern warfare, military tactics are a matter of secondary importance, politics will always take precedence.”

I highly recommend this great novel to those interested in reading about combat and the aftermath of losing a war of counterinsurgency. None better has been written.

—David Willson

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