Book Review – The Vietnam War-An Assessment by South Vietnam’s Generals, ed. with essays by Lewis Sorley
Anyone with an interest in the Vietnam War has seen the many perspectives on that multifaceted conflict, affected by nationality, politics, branch of service, rank and gender. Some viewpoints have been given a more frequent forum than others and among the most unfairly neglected have been those of the Republic of Vietnam, which the United States largely created, propped up, manipulated and finally abandoned. Lewis Sorley, a veteran and scholar whose writings have often proposed that the South Vietnamese could have established a viable government and a military to defend it if the United States had given it more of a chance, has compiled in this new work analyses of various aspects of the war through the eyes of senior Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces officers.
American Vietnam veterans, whose impression of his ARVN allies’ quality typically range from inconsistent at best to corrupt and inept at worst, may be surprised at the professionalism with which the high-ranking Vietnamese make their observations in The Vietnam War: An Assessment by South Vietnam’s Generals. Far more enlightening is to follow the course of the war through different eyes, which only serves to show the rift that existed between the Americans and the government they were in Vietnam to assist. While shedding overdue light on many commanders who fought with patriotic dedication and skill, they do not shrink from admitting that the influence of French as well as American military training, combined with a traditionally low Vietnamese opinion of the military profession and an uncertainty as to their ultimate fate, bred a habitual tendency toward cronyism and corruption that the Vietnamese officer corps found hard to break.
While comparing the poor intelligence that preceded the 1968 Tet Offensive with the greatly improved intel that helped thwart the North Vietnamese offensive of 1972, Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung points out that much of the surprise achieved by the Communists stemmed from their penchant for combining political with military considerations, resulting in actions that seemed, in strictly military terms, illogical.
One of the most telling confessions—perhaps one that sums up the fundamental reason for the war’s outcome—comes at Hoang Ngoc Lung’s conclusion regarding strategy and tactics: “Another of Sun Tzu’s maxims was ‘know yourself and know your enemy, and you will win victories in a hundred battles.’ The leadership of the Republic of Vietnam knew its enemy; but it neither knew itself or its ally.”
Both the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have published numerous histories of the war. The Vietnam War: An Assessment by South Vietnam’s Generals is an overdue overview from a major participant whose perspective is just as instructive and no less deserving of being read and compared with the other two.
Texas Tech University Press, 2010
This Review appeared in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam magazine.