Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 25 Jun 2014, and is filled under Uncategorized.

Siege mentality

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I’m trying to work out why I’ve been obsessed with two moments in history for absolutely ages. And they’re the siege of Stalingrad and the attack on Dien Bien Phu. You probably don’t know anything about either of these and there’s no reason why you should, as you’re not a vast history nerd, so I’m going to have a shot at saying what happened and a vague, desperate punt at trying to tell you why they fascinate me.

So. Stalingrad. Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 and came hideously close to taking Moscow before unbelievably stiff Russian resistance and the onset of a savagely harsh winter stopped him in his tracks. By the time the thaw came in 1942, he’d fatally taken his eye off the ball and become obsessed with a drive into the south of the country which took the oilfields as its target. At some point during the execution of this, he became fixated on the idea of the city that bore Stalin’s name and set himself the task of taking it. The Soviets were equally intent on holding it for broadly similar reasons and the stage was set for a terrible, terrible clash. The Germans managed to take one half of the city and came so, so close to taking it all, but with a herculean effort that cost thousands of lives, the Russians hung on. And then they hit on a stroke of strategic genius. They’d hold the Germans in the city and slowly and stealthily encircle them in a vast pocket.

And so it worked out. Two huge Russian thrusts came from north and south and then met. The Germans were encircled and, despite attempts to lift the siege, it held. Hitler was adamant that his soldiers would die a heroes death and forbade them from breaking out, which means that, through a war of attrition, the Germans were steadily ground down, starved and, as winter closed in again, finally capitulated. There’s one postscript to this, which hangs on the rear wall of a church in Berlin and which I’ve seen. It’s called the Stalingrad Madonna, and consists of a large pencil drawing of the Madonna cradling the Christ child with the words ‘light, life and love’ ranged around it and, I think ‘Christmas in the fortress, 1942.’ It was drawn by a medical officer and then given to someone to take out on one of the last planes that was able to get out. The Sixth Army, the ones encircled, ended up surrendering along with their commander, General Friedrich von Paulus, who received Hitler’s instruction to shoot himself with the words ‘I’m not committing suicide for the sake of that little corporal.’ They went into captivity and a great number of them never returned.

Dien Bien Phu was a similar piece of hubris. The French wanted to reassert control over Vietnam, which had been a French colony prior to the second world war, but the Vietnamese, having had a whiff of freedom, didn’t like the idea. Shortly after the end of hostilities and the return of French troops, there were negotiations about the future of the colony that ended in stalemate. A war started to throw out the French and, fighting on familiar ground in a country they understood well, the Vietnamese started to prevail, using arms that came form newly communist China. Time and again, they’d attack the columns of French soldiers moving through the country and then melt away again without the French ever landing a satisfying blow against them. They had a tactical rethink and came up with a plan.

Near to the border with China and Laos is the valley through which the arms were arriving. The French had the idea that if they established a base on the floor of the valley, they could stop the movement of arms as well as providing a focal point for a Vietnamese attack that would allow them to land a knockout blow. Hordes of paratroops and supplies were dropped into the valley at a point known to cartographers as Dien Bien Phu and set up a very large base with an airstrip. And waited. In time, the Viet Minh, as they were known, did come but in massive numbers and with a weight of artillery fire that the French hadn’t known they possessed. The French artillery commander committed suicide for failing to realise that they had such a weight of fire and, slowly but surely, each of the strongpoints that made up the base were overrun. The airstrip stopped being able to send out flights, meaning that the base was resupplied with parachute drops that, as the perimeter became smaller, were increasingly inaccurate. Like the Germans who fought at Stalingrad, the French finally surrendered and, like the Germans, precious few survived captivity.

Let me start my explanation by saying that I abhor both regimes that the defenders represented. The Germans were fighting for a genocidal maniac bent on world domination and the French were shoring up a sclerotic colonial regime based on racism and murder. That’s not what compels me. What does is the mindset of the defenders, fighting for what was increasingly a lost cause against odds that, it would have been terrifying clear, where wholly overwhelming force was slowly being brought to bear. And whatever regime you find yourself fighting for, whether you’re a zealot or find that you’re in the ranks for the sake of fear or expediency, the human emotions must be the same – a desperate fight against odds that you will never, ever beat and the certainty of defeat coming towards you. And in the meantime, you have your gun in your hand and a vain hope. That appals me as well as it inspires me, but I don’t know why.

The only thing in my life I can compare it to is watching my Granddad fight cancer. Nothing became him so much as the manner of his end, and even though he knew it’d get him in the end, he got through his final days with a sheer, brute insistence that it wouldn’t be today. By the end, he was sat in his armchair, in pain, afraid and mortally ill, but he was never going to show it. And when, weeks before, my Dad had driven him to the hospital and back again, he wanted to wait while he helped him from the car. My Granddad reacted angrily and tried to struggle out my himself, falling and cutting his head, but he still refused any help. That’s the kind of desperate, hopeless bravery I see in the defenders to the sieges and I have no idea why I need to see that. I just seem to be obsessed with it for reasons I can’t begin to fathom.

 

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