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North Vietnamese Army Soldier 1958-75

by Gordon L. Rottman, Osprey Publishing, 2009, $18.95

For the average American interested in military history, the North Vietnamese Army soldier, or bo doi, has held little of the fascination generated by such enemy soldiers as the British Redcoats or the Japanese kamikazes. For all its troops’ near-nondescript appearance, however, the United States’ ultimate failure to defeat what was primarily a light infantry army gives the NVA a unique distinction that warrants its fair share of attention.

In No. 135 of Osprey’s “Warrior” series, Gordon Rottman, a Special Forces Vietnam veteran with background in intelligence, among other things, has compiled a detailed dossier on the recruiting, training, indoctrination, equipment, tactics, morale and everyday life of the bo doi.

As with so many aspects of the Vietnam War, interesting contradictions emerge. The NVA soldier made his way south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail with cunning and patience, sometimes taking up to six months when inclement weather and enemy interdiction measures interfered.

The North Vietnamese Army soldiers’ resourcefulness and endurance in the field was quite remarkable. Yet when committed to pitched battles, especially storming firebases, the NVA displayed an obliviousness to the concept of fire and maneuver. Contrasted with the stealthy approaches of their sappers, the NVA rank and file’s suicidal rushes on fortified positions often resulted in 50 percent casualties.

For those who may wonder how the NVA prevailed in the end, Rottman’s description of the usually improvised, and frequently appalling, medical facilities available to the wounded—if they were available at all— might leave them still wondering. That they prevailed just the same might explain an adjunct of Murphy’s Law for Grunts I used to hear in the Army: “The side with the simplest uniforms wins.”

North Vietnamese Army Soldier 1958-75 should give the Vietnam War scholar a better idea of what the Americans and South Vietnamese were up against. It should also leave Vietnam veterans counting some blessings that, the war’s outcome notwithstanding, he did not have to fight it the enemy’s way.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here