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South Vietnam's Army - Equipped to Lose

"My doctor told me to forget every bad thing in the past."

It was not only Tung who had a difficult time as the interviews for Uprooted progressed. His brother, Co, also struggled with the stresses brought on by recalling the traumas of war.

Co's experiences were, if anything, more acute. He fought for the ARVN [Army of the Republic of South Vietnam] from 1963 till 1970, before being transferred to training duties.

Like his fellow northerners, who had fled Communist persecution in 1954, he had first-hand experience of what a Communist victory would inflict on the south.

He saw American advisers in the headquarters, but never saw them in the field, and only took orders from his Vietnamese CO.

“We were Vietnamese soldiers, we fought for our nation and our people. We were grateful to the US Army for coming to fight for the freedom of our people in Vietnam, but if we accepted commands from the American advisors, we would be acting like mercenary troops.”

Certainly his unit received air and artillery support, but he had no experience of fighting alongside Americans.

Concurrently, examples of ARVN cowardice by advisers in the pre-1965 years of conflict, and by GI's who undertook patrols and actions with ARVN units are commonplace. I had a recent email conversation with a veteran who wrote,

“On one joint mission in October, 1968, the ARVN rode on our tanks. When we surrounded a village, they would not get off and search it. Our captain had to literally point a gun at the head of the ARVN captain, and tell him to get his men off the tanks. They did. They went into the village. Lots of shooting. They had killed a number of chickens, and sat down to have lunch.”

Somewhere there is a disconnect.

That veteran also said, “virtually every soldier in my unit respected the adversary, often calling him 'Mr. Charles' and not 'Charlie.'”

Examples of cowardice and heroism can be found on all sides of the conflict. The adage goes that history is written by the winners. Co saw it that way when he told me,

“Today we are lost soldiers. Lost soldiers can not and should not tell good things of themselves because nobody wants to hear or wants to believe.”

But it should not be forgotten that during the heaviest phase of U.S. commitment, 1966-1970, the ARVN were still losing around twice as many men.

So why did the ARVN underperform against the VC, who appeared to have all the disadvantages of fighting a guerrilla campaign with few supplies and little support?

Well, they did control large swathes of the South Vietnamese countryside. And once the North Vietnamese Army began infiltrating in numbers they did have access to the latest weaponry, particularly the famed AK-47 assault rifle. Meanwhile, even by 1968, many ARVN units were still using French-era carbine rifles.

The southern-born ARVN soldiers had little ideological basis for fighting. Their government was venal and corrupt, and short-changed them at every opportunity. Many ARVN soldiers had to go home to get medical treatment. By the 1970s, ARVN pay was only one-third the subsistence level. In 1973 a 2nd Lieutenant was on $1 a day.

By contrast most VC soldiers believed in their cause. Their leader “Uncle Ho” was more than a father-figure. He was already acquiring deity-like veneration before his death in 1969.

Every Communist solder was part of a three-man unit that would conduct regular “self-examination” sessions with one another; reinforcing political doctrine and correcting one another's behavior.

The religious aspect of this indoctrination placed the Communist cause above the family in their soldiers' motivational hierarchy.

The VC also suffered incredible hardship. Many lived for months at a time underground in the thousands of miles of tunnels that were dug to evade bombs and patrols.

It is a testament to the effectiveness of their propaganda, that the Communists didn't suffer crippling desertions.

Probably the biggest single issue is that the Communists, having defeated the French in 1954, could take sole claim of the nationalist cause. “Vietnam for the Vietnamese.” The Americans, they said with superficial legitimacy, had simply replaced the French, so the ARVN were discredited by association.

Monetary and motivational challenges resulted in ARVN commanders making the disastrous decision to allow soldiers' families to move close to their fighting sons. The idea was they could offer support as ARVN pay plummeted.

The result was that soldiers deserted their units to protect their families, speeding the army's collapse in 1975.

To a large extent the VC chose where and when to engage their enemy. This gave them the initiative in battle and the crucial element of surprise.

While faced with a guerrilla conflict, General Westmoreland still formed up his army in the big division model that had succeeded in Western Europe and Korea. In 1954, ARVN generals were told they would not receive American support unless they followed the American model.

When he took over command in 1964, Westmoreland began to take the fighting out of ARVN hands. The South Vietnamese were relegated in their own war to pacification and support roles. When they were on the front line, the reliance mentality that all the American money and logistics had created, resulted in a situation where ARVN units would not attack VC positions until heavy artillery strikes had been completed.

Co referred to the Communist propaganda that the ARVN were puppet soldiers of a foreign power. A term they railed against, but which – deep down – bore some truth. It bore truth for both sides, but it was the ARVN and not the VC who suffered by the association.

The South also had a high rate of Communist infiltration within their ranks. And many, including General Minh, South Vietnam's last president, had brothers and friends fighting on the other side.

Little of the above was obvious to the GI's at the time, who saw the ARVN hesitate under fire, reluctant to advance and quick to hunker down or retreat. They were fighting to stay alive, not to kill the enemy.

Given the shame Co feels over the loss his army suffered, the loss of his country, and the personal loss of his homeland, it is astonishing that he shared as much as he did.

Had I known what I know now about the immediacy of that pain, of the emotional and spiritual ties to the land that the Vietnamese have, I might not have had the temerity to interview him in the first place. My early ignorance was perhaps a blessing in disguise, if only to be able to learn an essential part of the Vietnam story, that so many who endured it are trying to forget.

In many ways, the loser's stories are much more valuable than those of the winners. Those are the experiences with the most valuable lessons.

An excellent and rare western account of the ARVN is given by Andrew Wiest in his book, “Vietnam's Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN”.

Next week I will continue Mitch's story, with his 13-month tour in South Vietnam as a twenty year old Marine.

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