BOOK: G. R. Elford, "Devil's Guard" (cont.)
George Robert Elford: Devil's Guard. London: New English Library, 1973. (First ed.: New York, Delacorte Press, 1971.) SBN 450013367. 349 pp.
More of Wagemueller's political ideas
He also has a very annoying tendency to refer to the Viet Minh as ‘terrorists’ — he uses this term pretty much interchangeably with ‘guerrillas’. Apparently then this regrettable inflation of the use of the word ‘terrorist’ is not just a characteristic of the present Bush regime but goes back much farther in time. Anyway, I think it's silly to regard the Viet Minh as terrorists — they were a perfectly decent guerrilla force, leading a perfectly ordinary guerrilla war. Terrorism consists of acts of violence against innocent people, carried out with the purpose of intimidating the population of a certain area (or a part of that population). If, on the other hand, you are simply killing foreign soldiers and colonial administrators that are occupying your country, this isn't terrorism but a perfectly ordinary struggle for national liberation. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with terrorism, of course — it depends on its goals; in most instances it's entirely reasonable — but I'm annoyed at this silly blurring of the distinction between the words ‘terrorists’ and ‘guerrillas’.
He doesn't hide his admiration for the way that totalitarian systems can impose an illusion of order. After praising WW2-era Japanese maps of the Indochinese peninsula, he rants on: “There was good order in Japan — as there used to be in Germany. The French housekeeping was nothing but a giant whorehouse from maps to machine guns. Nothing ever functioned properly. Not even the water closets.” (P. 107.)
The communist press
Wagemueller often whines about the fact that the communists have much better PR than their enemies. See e.g. pp. 91, 250. His French commanding officer, colonel Houssong, approves of Wagemueller's methods but says (p. 179–80): “Your methods might pass occasionally and locally, but they would never survive for a week on any large scale. I know that your Heinrich Himmler would have settled the Viet Minh problem a long time ago with Zyclon-B (poison gas used by the Nazis in the extermination camps) and the crematorium but France is supposed to be a democracy. The terrorists are firmly entrenched in the world's opinion as resolute heroes who are fighting a modern military power with bows and spears, striving only for independence and human rights. No one has ever protested against any Viet Minh outrage, although I could show them a list of thirty thousand civilians slaughtered by the Communists in cold blood. All the same when we execute a terrorist with the blood of a hundred people on his hands, the execution is headlined even in America, let alone Europe and its Communist press, as another French war crime. Whenever we touch a filthy killer, there are demonstrations and protests. They would even call us Nazis, Wagemueller.”
It's a pity that Wagemueller and Houssong don't draw the obvious conclusions from these observations. The communists get better PR because they are in fact fighting for a good cause. It's the French that are the morally bankrupt side in this war. Despite what Wagemueller says on p. 78, it was not the Viet Minh who started this — no Vietnamese communist had ever attempted to colonize France. No, it was the French who started it, more than a hundred years earlier, when they began interfering in Indochinese matters.
And the other conclusion that they should have drawn is that if you want to seize another nation's land you should take care to exterminate (or assimilate, but that's more difficult) its previous inhabitants. Since this is obviously a horrible thing to do, it's far better to not seize other nations' lands in the first place. But whatever you do, don't just proclaim that they're a colony of yours, set up a handful of bureaucrats and officers and then whine when the local population starts shooting at them. It's tiresome, annoying and the imperialist tends to lose in the long term anyway.
Also on the subject of communist PR, Wagemueller complains that the communists had a habit of rearranging the corpses of their dead so as to make it seem that the French had murdered innocent civillians, which of course made for great propaganda photos (pp. 249, 265). And, eventually, it was communist PR that led to the international pressure that caused the French to disband Wagemueller's unit (pp. 347–8; “ ‘SS marauders in the French Foreign Legion massacre innocent civilians,’ the Communist press screamed. [. . .] And what the regiments of Ho Chi Minh could not achieve in five years the international Communist fifth column accomplished in five weeks. We were ordered to return to Hanoi.”)
There are also a couple of rants about the conditions in postwar Germany, pp. 16, 331–2.
Chapter 12 is interesting — Wagemueller and his men organize a ‘panel discussion’ with a captured communist agitator (whom they subsequently release), to argue for and against the merits of communism in front of a group of simple Vietnamese villagers. But I must admit that I wasn't particularly impressed with either side in this debate. The communist agitator mostly contents himself with trotting out lots of tired over-the-top communist propaganda and repeatedly pointing out that his opponents are colonialist imperialist murderers. Wagemueller's side mostly content themselves with pointing out that their opponents are communist murderers and that communism has already degenerated into tyranny in the Soviet Union and in China.
But, surely, it's all so simple — there's no very good reason why communism should necessarly descend into tyranny. In my impression it has historically usually done that because of the presence of external and/or internal enemies. If it wasn't for that, no tyranny would really be necessary. You just have to point out to the peasant what proportion of his income is seized by the rich landowner, and point out to the worker what proportion of his income is seized by the capitalist and the factory bosses; once they realize this, the vast majority of the people will support land reform and a nationalization of the economy, and that's pretty much it. No tyranny required. At the very worst you might have to kill the rich classes, but that's just a handful of people (especially in a country with huge inequalities in wealth, such as Vietnam no doubt was at the time), and nobody is going to miss them. Once that is over with, there's no very good reason why everyone wouldn't be able to get along just fine, and everything would continue pretty much the same as before the revolution, except that it isn't necessary to feed a class of parasitic capitalist exploiters any longer, so that a lot more stuff is left for everyone else.
Chapter 14 is also very interesting — Wagemueller is interviewed by a group of French journalists and takes the opportunity to advocate the use of his Nazi methods (“We met guerrillas in Russia. When they gave us too much trouble within a specific area, we carted off the entire male population to Germany. Two days later there was no terrorist movement in the district.” (p. 277)) and indulge in yet more anti-communist rantings and general geopolitical bloviation (pp. 278–81).
Here's an example of a particularly rich anti-communist rant from p. 78: “Genocide is a Communist specialty. Even Hitler's extermination camps were modeled after Stalin's death camps in Siberia.”
He brags on p. 109, commenting on a successful move against
the Viet Minh: “encirclement had always been a German specialty.”
Yup, it worked marvellously at Stalingrad...
Incidentally, this book is somewhat hard to get at an affordable price. I found this somewhat surprising; after the first hardcover edition (NY: Delacorte, 1971), there were a number of trade paperback printings (Dell in the US, and New English Library in the UK), the last of which were published as late as 1988. So one would expect that there should be plenty of copies of this book; and yet apparently there is such a shortage of copies and such a high demand that secondhand copies on eBay are actually attracting bids in the $50–$100 range, and you can see copies for sale for as much as £100 on ABEbooks.com, Amazon and similar sites; I suppose someone eventually buys those as well. I'm surprised that it doesn't get reprinted in larger quantities if there's so much interest in it. There was a new printing in 2002 by Hailer Publishing, but as far as I can tell, this is also out of print and secondhand copies on ABE aren't really much cheaper than those of the earlier paperback copies from the 1970s and 80s. I managed to buy my copy on eBay for just $14 — it was buried in a lot of 17 military paperbacks and I guess that the seller didn't know that it's potentially worth much more, nor did any of the people interested in this book notice it mentioned in the auction description.
What to say at the end? This wasn't a particularly edifying read. I suppose that military fiction is a well-established genre, but this is the first book of that sort that I've read, so I can't say how it compares to other books in that genre. I've found it interesting as a novelty, but I don't think I'll be wanting to read more in this genre. It was sort of interesting to read about various military techniques, tactics, and tricks; I don't care much about warfare, and until now I've always read about it from a large-scale perspective, rather than on the level of a smaller unit such as the one described in this book. But sooner or later it would probably get boring to read more about people wading through the jungle and committing atrocities upon each other.
Another aspect in which this book is interesting is as a plausible speculation about how a diehard anti-communist zealot and ex-Nazi such as Wagemueller might have seen the first Vietnam war. But, again, Wagemueller is such an unlikeable character that one doesn't particularly care to read more about him. Elford later wrote two sequels to this book (Recall to Inferno, 1988, and Unconditional Warfare, 1991), but I doubt I'll read any of them.
All in all, buying and reading this book was a positive experience for me, but if I had paid $50 or $100 for it, rather than $14, I would consider it a disappointment.
See also this blog post about the book — a longish appreciation of the book by someone who, alas, thoroughly shares Wagemueller's ideology and approves of his methods. I do find it amusing, though, to see a Portuguese so keen on Nazism and white supremacy — I don't doubt that your typical WW2-era German Nazi would regard the Portuguese as seriously racially inferior to himself
Elfort wrote two sequels to The Devil's Guard, (Recall to Inferno, 1988, and Unconditional Warfare, 1991), but I doubt I'll read any of them.
F. Spencer Chapman: The Jungle is Neutral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949). Memoirs of a British officer that had fought with Malay guerrillas against the Japanese during the WW2. Mentioned here on pp. 83–4.
Jean Lartéguy: Yellow Fever. A 1965 novel that also takes place in Vietnam but at a later point in the war (1954). See this page. But where I first heard of this book was in George Adams' delightful Great Hong Kong Sex novel (1993).