It’s about the soldiers
June 5, 2010
I discovered Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy via Ken Lopez, an antiquarian bookseller in Massachusetts. His weekly e-newsletter included a first edition of the fourth/revised edition of this classic account of the French Indochina war between 1946 and 1954. I’d never heard of the book and, being drawn to stories — fiction and non-fiction — on the U.S. Vietnam War that filled the black-and-white TV screens of my childhood, I copied the newsletter summary of Fall’s book in Notepad and kept it on my computer.
It bears mentioning here that several weeks back I read Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, an unforgettable, gut-wrenching novel that follows a fictional U.S. battalion in Vietnam. The now best-selling novel so fully absorbed me I wish I could start it new again, to relive the days when all I wanted to do was read that book. My gravitation to Street Without Joy seems natural in this context because Bernard Fall lays bare the French army’s strategic mistakes that led to their famous defeat at Dien Bien Phu, giving the U.S. obvious warnings we’d repeat their failure if we proceeded similarly, which we did.
When Street Without Joy was first published in 1961, the Kennedy administration was escalating the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The book didn’t get much attention, an unfortunate response considering Fall hammers home the impossibility of Western military arms and technology triumphing over the region’s terrain and people. Colin Powell attests to the oversight in his autobiography, My American Journey when he writes:
“I recently reread Bernard Fall’s book on Vietnam, Street Without Joy. Fall makes painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into. I cannot help thinking that if President Kennedy or President Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book, they would have returned to the White House Monday morning and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Vietnam.”
The fourth edition of Street Without Joy, published in 1964, includes revisions by Fall that address the escalated U.S. military presence in the region. I see it as a non-fiction prequel that gives the novel Matterhorn deeper meaning. I’m reading a library copy of Fall’s book, but I don’t think that’s going to diminish a developing, insistent desire to own its rare cousin available from the antiquarian bookseller.
That cousin is inscribed by Fall to a Major Weber in 1964, and there’s also an ownership signature of a major in the U.S. Air Force dated 1965. Who knows how many other soldiers read this copy, as they prepared to fight the same enemy as the French. I imagine these solider-readers as those I got to know in Matterhorn and see the two books sitting side-by-side on my bookshelf in necessary recognition of what happened to them. What stops me is the price, beyond what I can justify within my book collecting budget; however, it’s likely only a matter of time before I give in. Of course, if I wait too long, the book may no longer be available. But that’s how this collecting jig is danced.