Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal In The ARVN. By Andrew Wiest. New York: New York University Press, 2008. ISBN: 0814794106. Bibliography, Index. Pp. 368. $70.00 (Hardback).
Considered a component of America’s defeat in Vietnam, historiographical discourse has marginalized the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) as a part of the problem. Epitomizing the haphazard handling of the Vietnam War, historians have often ignored the tactical successes of the ARVN. In battles with the Viet Cong, ARVN units demonstrated resilience and the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for South Vietnam. Moving away from the negative characterization of South Vietnam’s armed forces, in Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal In The ARVN, Andrew Wiest demonstrates that the ARVN was an effective fighting force. By tracing the careers of two distinguished combat veterans, Tran Ngoc Hue and Pham Van Dinh, the author corrects many of the assumptions historians wrongly associate with the ARVN.
According to the author, historians tended to describe the ARVN as an inept fighting force. Historians point towards corrupt and narrow-minded upper level leadership as endemic of the ARVN. Wiest states “perhaps the ARVN has served as the excuse from America’s lost war for too long” and that South Vietnam was not destined to fail. Wiest contends that, despite the incompetence of many senior South Vietnamese officials, combat commanders like Tran Ngoc Hue and Pham Van Dinh demonstrate that the ARVN had a chance at winning the war. The units led by Hue and Dinh achieved noteworthy tactical successes in a war undermined by poor long-term decisions. Representing the potential that existed within the ARVN, Hue and Dinh offer insight into how well the ARVN could perform. Hue and Dinh witnessed the effects of government corruption and indecision on ARVN morale. Both Hue and Dinh offer insight into the issues that handicapped ARVN efforts throughout the war. Moreover, Hue and Dinh led by example and thus symbolize the devotion of thousands of South Vietnamese in the war against the North Vietnamese.
For Wiest, many of the problems that plagued the ARVN stemmed from American decisions. The Military Assistance Advisory Group trained the ARVN as a conventional fighting force dependent upon logistics and firepower. Wiest notes that the ARVN suffered from constant misuse. Rather than fighting side by side, American leadership relegated the ARVN to junior member status. Wiest states that marginalization of the ARVN occurred during the war with American forces taking on the majority of combat operations and limiting the ARVN to security actions. Since the task of destroying the North Vietnamese fell on the shoulders of American soldiers, ARVN troops found themselves operating on the periphery of combat operations. The shift in purpose served to weaken the ARVN by forcing it to train for entirely different duties. Nevertheless, the units under Hue and Dinh achieved numerous successes against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units. Despite operating with inferior weaponry and limited manpower, Hue and Dinh used superior tactical expertise to overcome larger and better equipped NVA formations. Such achievements became meaningless once Vietnamization went into effect. With the withdrawal of American fire support, ARVN units found themselves out gunned by NVA formations.
Relegated to the margins of Vietnam War scholarship, the battlefield accomplishments of the ARVN received significant attention in Vietnam’s Forgotten Army. Throughout his work, Wiest articulates an argument grounded on fresh evidence. According to Wiest, new evidence affords a deeper understanding of the actions of the ARVN during battles like Tet and Dong Ap Bia. Both the US military and American historians ignored the role of ARVN forces in the retaking of Hue City. Acknowledging the prowess and bravery displayed by US Marines, Wiest notes, however, that ARVN soldiers fought the toughest engagements in Hue City. In contrast, the traditional interpretation of events concludes with the Marines liberating Hue City while ARVN troops gazed lazily from the sidelines. A similar belief extends to Dong Ap Bia, where the common understanding states that American soldiers again carried the day and defeated the North Vietnamese forces singlehandedly. Through the use of interviews and fresh research, Wiest argues that Dinh and his troops were the first to reach the top of Hamburger Hill, not the Americans. These conclusions raise many questions over the subjectivity of Vietnam War scholarship. While resurrecting the image of the ARVN, the author makes every effort to maintain the significance of the sacrifices made by American soldiers. For example, when noting that the ARVN fought gallantly in Hue City, Wiest emphasizes that the Marines, too, earned their place in Corps lore.
Hue and Dinh experienced the outcome of South Vietnam’s defeat differently–Hue a prisoner for thirteen years and Dinh changed sides and fought against the ARVN–their experiences encapsulate the ARVNs efforts to win the war. Throughout his work, Wiest uses the experiences of Hue and Dinh as a lens into the ARVN. While acknowledging the political issues that undermined the ARVN, Wiest uses Hue and Dinh to demonstrate that South Vietnam had a chance at victory. The failures of the ARVN, concludes Wiest, find roots in the decisions made by American and South Vietnamese officials. Such failures, however, do not detract from the tactical victories of the ARVN. For Wiest, far too many South Vietnamese soldiers served and died for their cause to be futile.