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ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army

ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army by Robert K. Brigham. University Press of Kansas, 2006, 250 pp.

The Army of the Republic of Vietnam never became a fully legitimate arm of the government because of misguided policies, poor leadership, and a failure to create a Vietnamese army with origins in and connections to Vietnamese culture and history. Robert K. Brigham makes his case convincingly in this welcomed post-revisionist monograph on a maligned army. He does so not with recycled English-language sources but instead relies on documents from the Vietnamese Archive in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamese-language books and memoirs, and dozens of interviews of ARVN veterans. Indeed, Brigham only used oral histories he could corroborate with other sources.

Among the strengths of this book are the author’s analyses of ARVN conscription and the relationship between the draft and morale and family life. Conscription was nothing new to Vietnam, but historically it had been molded to the rhythms and requirements of family and agricultural life through terms not exceeding one year. When the ARVN increased the term to two years in pursuit of a stronger army, village agriculture and family life suffered severely from the loss of the backbone of the labor force. Consequently, the government prevented soldiers from fulfilling obligations to their families, forcing them to behave in a way that is shameful within that culture. Morale plummeted. By the late 1960s, soldiers brought their families with them to encampments or shanty towns so that they could care for each other.

Army life discouraged the soldiers because they did not receive adequate weapons and combat training prior to field operations and because the government made no effort to explain in political and cultural terms the reasons why they needed to sacrifice and fight for the government and idea of South Vietnam. This was the policy of RVN president Diem and his successors, because they feared a nationalistic, patriotic, and motivated ARVN might someday hold them accountable for corruption, failed policies, and the like. The ARVN was notorious for a high desertion rate, but Brigham points out that perhaps “only 20 to 30 percent of the soldiers listed as deserters actually were” skirting their duties out of fear or malice (p. 48). Over half of the deserters actually served in units to which they were not assigned. Many deserted to see their families and eventually returned to their units. Brigham thus accomplishes one of his goals: dispelling ill-founded conclusions with sound analyses. For instance, he refutes the myth that wounded US soldiers received preferential treatment over their ARVN counterparts.

In analyzing why the ARVN soldiers fought—in spite of poor training, poverty-level pay, and abject facilities—Brigham arrives at several inferences. Because training and training facilities were so substandard, a conscript’s initial experience was that of alienation. Not only was he going to be away from his family for years, the ARVN lacked the spirit to function as a substitute family. Interviewees asked, “How can you build a nation without a well-trained army that knows why it is fighting and then gets to fight?” They also asserted that they did not fight for their buddies because ARVN small units lacked closeness and cohesion. Brigham concludes that soldiers fought on behalf of their families.

Brigham observes that the ARVN displayed better fighting skill, endurance, and effectiveness than is commonly credited. The discussion of the Battle of Ap Bac is excellent, and Brigham notes a couple of battles in which the ARVN fought very well, one of which Military Assistance Command, Vietnam called “a brilliant performance” (p. 94). Unfortunately, the author devotes only 28 pages to an assessment of the army’s abilities in combat. While he defends the South Vietnamese performance during Tet, that offensive receives only two pages. Brigham scarcely mentions Lam Son 719 in a single sentence, and the 1972 Easter Offensive gets two paragraphs of coverage. Although his intent “is not the story of men and maneuvers during the Vietnam war, or even the story of the ARVN in battle,” a fuller coverage of battle would have strengthened his thesis that by the early 1970s soldiers fought to keep their families together. Armies exist to fight. The topics of this book—conscription, family life, morale, training, and politics—all influenced the fighting effectiveness of the ARVN. An analysis of its battle performance would have completed his social history of the ARVN by more thoroughly tracing the connections between society and culture and the army’s deeds in war. Vietnam War historiography still awaits the definitive history of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Perhaps Professor Brigham will satisfy this need with a second edition of his most recent work.

Glaring defects are rare. Brigham states that “From 1969 until 1973 the Nixon administration launched one of the most massive air campaigns in history” (p. 100). Actually, that air campaign did not become “massive” until March of 1972. There were only 2,107 “attack” sorties over North Vietnam from 1969–71, in contrast to the 41,057 in 1968 and the 21,496 in 1972 (Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back, 304). He also claims that “most modern armies in a time of war” are not “built on the draft,” (p. 7) a surprising assertion given the reliance of armies during both world wars on conscription.

Aside from its contribution to our understanding of an under-studied aspect of the war, ARVN is especially relevant to the US military’s current effort to upgrade its understanding of non-Western cultures and languages. Americans equate combat skill solely with functions they can engineer, such as training in weapons and tactics, and materiel support like equipment and firepower. ARVN demonstrates that there is a straight line from cultural underpinnings to unit combat effectiveness. Brigham provides an example of the consequences of ignoring familial values, priorities, concepts of honor and responsibility, family obligations, and political training for an armed force expanding during wartime. I recommend ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army to scholar and policy maker alike.

Michael E. Weaver, PhD

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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