Antoine Bargel

Oedipus Now

(From the testimony of Bui Minh Duc.)

On March 28th 1954, the French paratroopers launched a counter-attack on our position. I was just returning to my section with our daily rations of rice when the shooting started. Immediately, I grabbed my rifle and ran toward my fireteam. Lam, our leader, and Thanh, a new recruit two years my junior, were already firing at the approaching enemies. I joined in without a word, propping my back against the edge of our fighting hole, then turning around to shoot, folding back to reload.

After their initial advance, the paratroopers were now digging in as well, establishing a position about thirty yards from us. The shooting was relentless and there were already many dead on both sides. Soon, Lam was hit in the throat and fell to the ground, the blood from his wound first a powerful pink spray, then a progressively gentler gurgle of a liquid dark as mud. I felt a surge of panic, looked around quickly: there wasn’t anybody in charge anymore. Everyone was too busy shooting and trying not to get shot. With a knot in my gut, I reached over and took Lam’s machine gun and ammo. The blood from his throat was still flowing out, but his eyes were already set and glassy.

I checked that the machine gun was functional, then began firing. The recoil was considerably more powerful than with my single-shot rifle and I struggled at first to keep aim at the correct level. With my heart pounding and the deafening roar of battle all around, it took all my focus to remember what little training I had received in automatic weapons. But soon, applying the correct amount of pressure with my palms, I was managing to fire short, precise bursts at the French soldiers whose dark silhouettes rose above the horizon.

I looked to my side and realized that Thanh had been shot as well. There was a small hole in his chest and he was staring at the sky, not dead yet, breathing hard, grimacing with pain. He saw me looking and returned my stare for a moment, hanging on as long as he could, then closing his eyes. A spray of bullets hit the ground behind him and I lowered my head, checked my ammo, and again turned around to fire.

Soon, there was a pause, ending the first wave of the attack. I saw that eight of our twelve-man section were down, dead or wounded. I moved over to where the next fireteam had been and propped their machine gun back up, so that I could go back and forth and shoot from both angles. Further down the trench, I saw Phuong, our medic, lifting an injured comrade on his shoulders in order to carry him to the rear. Then the second wave started and I was constantly dodging, firing, switching stations, expecting to get shot at any time but determined to give it my all. I don’t know how long it lasted. At some point, the noise subsided again and I still wasn’t hit. But I was the only one left from my section.

Breathless, fighting the need to collapse to the ground, I considered this nightmarish sight: all my comrades taken out. A few were still moving feebly, most were dead. Everywhere, blood was flowing, making rivers and lakes in the soil. Flies were beginning to feast. Further to each side, the other sections barely fared better: I saw a few soldiers who, like me, had organized multiple positions from which to continue fighting. Among the wounded, those who could still move prepared grenades and reloaded guns. I saw Phuong coming back toward me and just then, a major explosion shook the ground and sent mud and human flesh flying all around.

It was the third wave of the attack. Forty yards out, I saw enemy soldiers advancing. I gestured to Phuong to join me, then began firing again. There were more explosions all around us. I stayed stuck to the ground and still wasn’t hit. But I heard Phuong, behind me, say: “My arms, I’m injured.”

I told him: “Go get cover, I’ll manage!”

But I had spoken too soon.

I heard a sudden clicking noise, then everything went dark. For a few seconds, I didn’t know where I was, then I started checking myself. I didn’t have any major injuries, only blood flowing on my cheeks, and I couldn’t see. I called Phuong and he said: “My Goodness! Your eyes!”

His tone of voice told me that it was serious, but I didn’t feel the pain until much later. I said: “Look, I still have my arms, I’ll shoot. You still have your eyes, tell me where.”

Phuong replied: “Ten enemies! Thirty yards out, right ahead.”

I emptied an entire clip, applying the same amount of pressure with my hands as I had before, trying to reproduce the exact same movements.

Phuong said: “Well done! They’re retreating! Shoot again! Right and left!”

I emptied a second clip. I couldn’t see anything, but I imagined bodies falling until all that remained was the horizon, a dark shadowless line under the burning sky.

Just then, another company from our battalion arrived to reinforce us. The enemy attack had failed. Phuong, who had lost too much blood, would die soon after. A medic bandaged my eyes and guided me back to a field hospital. It had been my first firefight in the war of resistance against the French, and was also the last.