…All of the men in this war torn land/Salute the nurses of Vietnam.
- Barry Sadler
Very often a new column brings together a number of threads from previous ones, weaving them together into a new tapestry with a unique pattern forming yet another swath of the grand tapestry of sex work. Today’s column is one of them; it is a very small section, just a tiny detail in a very large picture that is ignored, glossed over or at best mentioned in passing in most conventional histories. I’ve linked the other columns from which the threads come, so you can explore them at your leisure.
The story begins somewhere in antiquity, with the rise of the Ouled Nail, a Berber tribe whose women often worked as prostitutes in order to establish themselves before marriage. Though the custom clearly predates their conversion to Islam about the year 700, it is unknown exactly when it started (though in my story “Dance of the Seasons” I imagine it as already established in Carthaginian times). Like the Javanese people I described in Thursday’s column, they saw no conflict in continuing their traditional sexual practices, and their Muslim rulers allowed them to do so for over a thousand years. The French, however, had other ideas; after their conquest of Algeria in 1830 they treated the Nailiyat just as badly as they treated their own home-grown whores,
…[subjecting] them to arbitrary travel and residence restrictions, heavy taxation and ruinously expensive licenses, fees and fines. By the First World War they were reduced to working in specially-licensed cafes (owned, as usual in such regimes, by the politically-connected) whose management devised ways of extorting even more money from the increasingly-exploited Nailiyat. Thus deprived of their traditional means of livelihood, many of them jumped at the chance to earn good money in the new Bordels Mobiles de Campagne (BMCs), mobile brothels housed in trailer-trucks which were used to bring whores to soldiers at the front lines or in isolated outposts…
One of the songs in my first hooker songs column is about a French soldier who has a bad experience in one of these BMCs, which were used by the regular army until the concluding events of today’s column and by the Foreign Legion until about 15 years ago; the term is still used by some French people for the white vans which French prostitutes have used since 2003 to circumvent new anti-streetwalking laws.
The First World War ended 94 years ago today, and the occasion was celebrated as Armistice Day until the Second World War, after which it was known as Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth and Veterans Day in the US. It’s been my custom for the past two years to commemorate the day with a “hookers in war” theme which purely by coincidence has involved the French each time: two years ago I presented a biography of Mata Hari, and last year I explained how the French revenged themselves upon prostitutes for their humiliation at the hands of the Nazis. This anti-whore campaign led to the increased repressions which gave rise to the sex worker rights movement and eventually developed into the current insanity of attempting to impose the Swedish Model on France. Just as they did in 1945, French politicians have chosen a female figurehead for this crusade, this time in the person of a North African woman; I’m sure that isn’t a coincidence, given the association of the Ouled Nail with prostitution in the minds of many French.
That association became, if anything, stronger after World War I; due to French repression the Nailiyat could no longer make a living in the cafes as they once had, and so increasing numbers of them went to work in the BMCs. Whereas before the only Frenchmen who encountered them were those who travelled to Algeria, for almost four decades any man who had been in the French military had probably had sex with one. After World War II they were often joined by Vietnamese girls, especially in those BMCs sent to care for the troops in Indochina; thus it was that when about 14,000 French troops were airlifted into the town of Dien Bien Phu, more than 150 km behind the Viet Minh lines, they were accompanied by two BMCs staffed with a total of 18 Vietnamese and Ouled Nail prostitutes (the latter usually described as simply “Algerian”).
Though conventional accounts mention the fifteen nurses who flew in and out to evacuate casualties, these eighteen women who stayed with the men around the clock are often ignored or, if mentioned at all, treated as a kind of joke. Considering that the French hid their existence from American journalists and military advisors for fear of offending their prudish sensibilities (and thus endangering American support for their war), it is very likely that nobody would even remember them were it not for war correspondent Bernard Fall, who devoted a chapter of his book Street Without Joy to them. Fall spoke highly of their heroism, especially after the battle began in earnest. One of the flight nurses, Geneviève de Galard, was stranded when her plane was destroyed on the airfield by enemy fire; she gave the whores a crash-course in assistant nursing and they helped her to care for the sick and wounded and comfort the dying all through April of 1954. After the fall of the French garrison on May 7th Galard and the Nailiyat continued to care for the wounded until the Viet Minh allowed the French to evacuate them a few weeks later, but the Vietnamese women were arrested. For her courage and effort Galard was awarded the Légion d´Honneur and the Croix de Guerre TOE; the press dubbed her “L’Ange de Dien Bien Phu” and she was invited to the US, where she was given a ticker tape parade in New York and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being a “symbol of heroic femininity”. Meanwhile, the Ouled Nail who had displayed the same courage, resolve and concern for the soldiers were forgotten, while their Vietnamese sisters were carted off and incarcerated in brutal “re-education” camps of the sort which are still being used in Vietnam to this day (though the National Assembly voted this past July to close them for good next year and replace them with simple criminalization punished by fines).
Obviously, I have nothing against Galard, who certainly deserved the honors which were heaped upon her. However, it is equally certain that her assistants, women who probably were not really told the danger they were being flown into and yet rose to the occasion anyway, deserve far more honor than they received (doubly so for the Vietnamese women). So I hardly think that, in the absence of any power to confer posthumous knighthoods upon them, anyone has valid cause for complaint if I extend Galard’s title of “angel” to the valiant harlots of Dien Bien Phu.