Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN
by Andrew A. Wiest. New York University Press, New York, 2008, softcover $35.
Vietnam’s Forgotten Army is a powerful account of irony, coincidence and history as it traces the path of South Vietnam’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from beginning to end. The book focuses on two ARVN officers. Lieutenant Colonel Tran Ngoc Hue served from 1963 until 1970, when he was captured. He spent 13 years in POW camps including the notorious Hanoi Hilton. Colonel Pham Van Dinh served from 1961 until 1972, when he surrendered his unit to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and defected. Using oral interviews with Hue and Dinh as well as archival and secondary sources, author Andrew A. Wiest explores the different fates that befell them.
According to Wiest, a history professor at University of Mississippi and author of numerous books, Americans have unfairly reported how well the ARVN fought. An example is the 1968 Battle of Hue, where the ARVN did most of the fighting and dying. Dinh and Hue fought with great courage, sometimes side by side, and both emerged heroes. Another example is the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, where an ARVN battalion fought its way to the summit ahead of 101st Airborne soldiers, only to be ignored in American accounts of the battle.
Wiest believes that the United States and South Vietnam were on the brink of victory. Tet was a “cataclysmic defeat” and “unmitigated disaster” for the enemy, and that the Viet Cong were “smashed” as an effective fighting force. But the numerous ARVN victories, based on favorable body-count ratios, never seemed to have long-term political benefits. Wiest provides no evidence that the enemy felt on the brink of defeat or contemplated surrender. Low levels of combat really meant the enemy controlled the level of fighting, not that they had been beaten.
After reaching a peak in military activity in 1969, the United States began withdrawing soldiers from Vietnam. The ARVN tried to fill the void created by the American departure, but it was stretched too thin. As U.S. combat units left, so too did U.S. advisers to the ARVN, reducing its ability to receive U.S. fire support. In 1971, Laos was invaded in order to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Although many ARVN troops fought bravely, their senior commanders proved inept. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese Army fought with unexpected ferocity and the South Vietnamese took 45 percent casualties.
In 1972 the NVA launched an invasion across the Demilitarized Zone, attacking all ARVN bases in northern South Vietnam. The ARVN was outgunned and outnumbered. Pham Van Dinh was commander of the major ARVN firebase at Camp Carroll. With no hope of resupply and dwindling stocks of food and ammunition, and having already lost 500 men, Dinh was told he would receive no reinforcements, but was expected to fight to the end. Enraged and feeling abandoned and sacrificed, Dinh instead surrendered the base and his unit to the North Vietnamese. Dinh felt more Vietnamese than South Vietnamese, and Wiest does a good job of explaining the difficult circumstances that led Dinh to betray his country.
The failure of ARVN leadership to reform effectively, coupled with U.S. insistence on creating an ARVN based on an inappropriate American military model, dictated the different fates that befell Dinh and Hue, two soldiers who followed very different paths of honor and service. Today Hue is a U.S. citizen. Dinh is still troubled by how the war turned out, asking the author, “America is still in South Korea. Why are you not still in South Vietnam? What did we do wrong?” Wiest shows what went wrong. He puts a human face on the ARVN in a first-rate narrative that will be of interest to all.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.