When I made my triumphant return trip to Vietnam in 2008, I happened to run into an old French guy in a bar in Hanoi. He was a veteran of Dien Bien Phu and like a lot of veterans of his generation, he was on a tour to reconnect with his old battlefields -- I was actually surprised at the number of old French guys in Hanoi, either on their way to or coming back from their battlefield tour.
This battlefield tour is, I was told, a big deal in the former North Vietnam. I didn't go on it myself since it meant a minimum of two days from Hanoi to go out there and back, just to see what is now a remote clearing in the jungle. But it meant a lot to the guys who were fighting there in 1954, and I don't begrudge them that.
Anyway, Pierre had to have been at least 75 years old (assuming that he was about 20 at the time of the battle of Dien Bien Phu), but he didn't look or act that old. He was actually pretty spry for an old guy -- I can only hope that I am as spry when I am that age (which is creeping up on me sooner than I want it to...).
When he found out I had been an American soldier during the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese refer to it, "The American War") he had some questions for me.
This is a capsule summary of my conversation with Pierre -- you'll just have to imagine Pierre's accent:
"I am Pierre, " he said when I introduced myself. "They call me 'Lucky Pierre'. I was at Dien Bien Phu. Not a scratch. I was in Algeria. Not a scratch. I never even got the Indochine Venereal Disease. I was very, very lucky, and that is why everybody, they call me 'Lucky Pierre'!"
I hoisted my beer. "Well, here's to you, Pierre l'heureux!"
"Ah! Alors vous parlez français?"
"Un peu. Je suis un cours de français à l'université, mais il ya plus de plusieurs années..."
And that launched a verbal flood of French from Lucky Pierre, none of which I really got. Admittedly I was just showing off, and I had pretty much exhausted my already dangerously-low reserves of French. (I actually did study French in college a million years ago, but it was all pretty stiff textbook stuff and it did not really stand me in good stead in later life, neither on my trips to France* nor on my trip to Vietnam.)
But, a couple of "33"s later, Pierre said something to the effect of, "Why did you Americans think that you could just step in and take over when we French had lost so badly?" I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.
It was an easy answer. "Because you were French."
And that is the easy answer, but not in the conventional the-French-are-fucked-up kind of way you might think. We Americans really did think that we were better than the French (and we still do), and it was that very American arrogance, more than anything else I believe, that led us too down the garden path to defeat (there's no better word for it) in Vietnam: "Get outta the way, Froggie, and let a pro show you how it's done!"
"Because we were French??!!" Pierre said, sounding a little offended.
"Calmez-vous there, Pierre. It's really because we were Americans."
"Oh, you Americans," he said in an exasperated tone, shaking his head.
And that about summed it up, for both of us.
* When She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and I were on holiday in France and tried to get our point across by stumbling around some awkward attempts to speak the lingo, most people were immediately helpful and guided us along, even to the point of speaking English themselves -- all the French want, all anyone wants really, is a little respect, and by and large Americans don't give it to them -- Americans already speak the language of god (the Bible was written in English, goddammit!) and there's no reason to resort to anything less.
So you won't hear any snarky comments about the French from me. Go get your fucking "freedom fries" somewhere else.