Was the Vietnam War essentially “unwinnable” because of the incorrigibly venal, consistently corrupt and—worst of all—egregiously incompetent South Vietnamese government officials and senior military commanders? Frank Scotton, a former foreign service officer who spent at least part of every year from 1962 to 1975 in Vietnam working for the United States Information Agency, thinks so.
In his extensive and detailed memoir, Uphill Battle: Reflections on Viet Nam Counterinsurgency, Scotton looks back on the 1975 fall of Saigon and the final North Vietnamese offensive that quickly overwhelmed the U.S.-trained and -equipped Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He concludes: “There really never had been anything wrong with the courage and endurance of the [ARVN’s] basic soldiers, experienced noncommissioned officers, and junior officers. The problem was inadequate leadership higher up the chain of command.”
The reason inept ARVN generals kept their jobs is no secret, Scotton says. In a corrupt system maintained by patronage, blind loyalty to political bosses in Saigon easily trumped battlefield competence in the selection of generals. The military leadership problem was worsened, Scotton notes, “by the deaths in combat or helicopter crashes of some of the best officers, who led from the front.” Most telling is the author’s conclusion that the South Vietnamese government, our crucial ally in the war, “failed to develop a viable political ideal for which men would risk dying.”
Although most Americans who served in Vietnam were involved in combat against North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong main force guerrillas, Scotton fought the “other war,” the counterinsurgency effort (then variously called “revolutionary development” or “pacification”), a grassroots program to get South Vietnam’s population to support the Saigon government. Over the years, he worked closely with a cast of South Vietnamese and American officials, civilian and military, that reads like a “Who’s Who” of counterinsurgency, notably including John Paul Vann, Robert Komer and William Colby.
Uphill Battle seems a particularly apt title for this memoir. Scotton describes his efforts to build effective counterinsurgency programs at the local level against dedicated and experienced Communist operatives, South Vietnamese government corruption and frequent opposition (or, at best, indifference) from senior U.S. officials in Washington and Saigon.
Considering that Scotton wrote this book four decades after the events he describes, it is a remarkably detailed account of his experiences. He explains that “stored boxes of maps, correspondence, books and other research material” helped him reconstruct his experiences so thoroughly. Although readers may find Scotton’s frequent barrage of unfamiliar Vietnamese names (of individuals and places) tough going, those who persevere will be rewarded with a truly first-rate firsthand account of Vietnam’s “other war.”
Scotton has included very useful appendices, chiefly an extensive glossary of Vietnam War abbreviations and terms, as well as a “Persons of Interest” list, identifying more than 160 people that he mentions. The book has 16 pages of personal snapshots showing Scotton with various Americans and Vietnamese between 1962 and 1972. Readers would have greatly benefited, however, from the inclusion of at least one map showing the locations of the countless places the author refers to.
Finally, Scotton deserves praise for giving all proceeds from the book’s sales to the publisher, Texas Tech University, “in appreciation for the university’s maintaining the Vietnam Center and Archive.” In an era when seemingly every high-ranking politician and government official feels compelled to write a book hoping to cash in on his or her public service, Scotton’s stance is refreshingly principled: “It is ethically questionable for retired officials to profit from their own accounts of service for which they have already been compensated.” Well done, Mr. Scotton.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s April 2016 issue.