Did the Republic of Vietnam deserve to lose the war? That certainly seems to be the major theme presented by the U.S. media’s war coverage: South Vietnam’s government wasn’t “democratic enough” to merit America’s support and its armed forces didn’t fight hard enough to gain a victory in the 1955-75 war of aggression waged by North Vietnam’s ruthless and repressive Communist regime.
Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, author of this outstanding book presenting accounts of South Vietnamese veterans who made it to Australia after the war, agrees that an egregious double standard was applied by Western media to the two warring countries—consistently condemning the South while excusing the countless war crimes committed against it by the North: “The politicization of the war, the presence of a substantial foreign press corps, and opposition of the war in the West led to every flaw in South Vietnam being magnified while a corresponding silence existed on human rights violations in North Vietnam and communist war crimes.”
Yet, the greatest disservice is to South Vietnam’s patriots who fought to preserve that democratic republic—in some cases fighting for the entirety of the county’s quarter-century-long existence. All of those who served in the South’s forces have essentially been erased from historical memory, including veterans who survived the war. Tens of thousands perished in brutal post-war Communist “re-education camps” or were worked to death in the victor’s stark “New Economic Zone” forced labor camps.
The victorious North not only persecuted former South Vietnamese soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, but also eradicated their very existence by desecrating their monuments and even bulldozing their military cemeteries into oblivion. Only those veterans and their families lucky enough to escape the country after Saigon’s fall in April 1975—fleeing in what is known as the Vietnamese diaspora—were able to preserve the memory of a tragically lost democracy and its staunch defenders.
South Vietnamese service members are the unknown soldiers of the Vietnam War. Histories of the war focus almost exclusively on the U.S. or North Vietnamese militaries and consistently ignore South Vietnam’s forces. As the author notes: “South Vietnam is for the most part absent in the historiography of the Vietnam War. The experiences and aspirations of its people have been silenced, and the service and sacrifice of its soldiers negated.”
Indeed, even North Vietnam’s failed commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, still undeservedly gets hagiographic books written about him as North Vietnam’s architect of victory. But the South Vietnamese military —which lost a quarter of a million men killed in action and nearly 1 million seriously wounded—has largely been ignored, forgotten or dismissed as irrelevant.
This excellent and much-needed book, however, gives voices to those unknown soldiers of the Vietnam War, and constitutes an important and necessary addition to the burgeoning scholarship of the war.