by Harry F.
They were small, talked in sing-song squeaks, put a
smelly fish sauce on their food, and often held hands with
It is not surprising that American troops sent to
Southeast Asia -- mostly young, indifferently educated, and
molded by a society with too much self-esteem and too little
understanding of other cultures -- found it hard to
empathize with South Vietnam's soldiers.
Still, it is a pity that many veterans of the Vietnam
War have joined radical agitators, draft dodgers and
smoke-screen politicians to besmirch the honor of an army
that can no longer defend itself. To slander an army that
died in battle because America abandoned it is a
contemptible deed, unworthy of American soldiers.
Perhaps some find my assertion incredible. How can I
possibly defend the armed forces of South Vietnam? Everybody
"knows" they were incompetent, treacherous and cowardly,
isn't that so?
No, it is not. This article will outline some of the
more compelling evidence against this scurrilous mythology
and also examine why such a mythology arose to begin with.
Of course, the South Vietnamese forces were imperfect.
They had their share of bad leaders, cowardly troops, and
incidents of panic, blundering and brutality. So did the
American forces in Southeast Asia.
In some respects -- organization, logistics, staff work
and leadership -- South Vietnam's armed forces did lag
behind U.S. forces. But how could one expect otherwise in a
developing nation that had just emerged from colonialism and
was suddenly plunged into a war to the death against a
powerful enemy supplied by the Communist bloc?
In fact, many of the weaknesses exhibited by the South
Vietnamese forces were identical to the ones displayed by
the U.S. armed forces during the American War of
Independence, even though late 18th-century America had
several advantages: the whole scale of the Revolutionary War
was smaller and easier to manage; America's colonial
experience, unlike Vietnam's, had fostered local
self-government and permitted the country to develop some
truly outstanding leaders; the British were less persistent
than the North Vietnamese; and the French allies did not
abandon young America the way the U.S. government abandoned
But in any case, organization, logistics, staff work and
even leadership are not the qualities at issue in the
slandering of the South Vietnamese forces.
Two questions touch on the real issue. Were South
Vietnamese fighting men so lacking in character, courage,
toughness and patriotism that Americans are justified in
slandering them and assigning them all blame for the defeat
of freedom in Southeast Asia? Were U.S. soldiers so much
better than their allies that Americans can afford to treat
the South Vietnamese with contempt? The answer to both
questions, I submit, is a resounding "No!"
The objective "big-picture" evidence is clear. The Tet
Offensive of 1968 was supposed to crack South Vietnam's will
to resist. Instead, South Vietnamese forces fought
ferociously and effectively: no unit collapsed or ran. Even
the police fought, turning their pistols against heavily
armed enemy regulars. Afterward the number of South
Vietnamese enlistments rose so high, according to reports at
the time, that the country's government suspended the draft
call for a while.
In the 1972 Easter tide Offensive, isolated South
Vietnamese troops at An Loc held out against overwhelming
enemy forces and artillery/rocket fire for days, defeating
repeated tank assaults. I later met a U.S. adviser who
described how a South Vietnamese infantry squad in his area
was sent to destroy three enemy tanks. The members of the
squad dutifully destroyed one tank, then decided to capture
the other two. As I remember, they got one, but the other
made its escape, with the South Vietnamese chasing it down a
road on foot. The soldiers got chewed out upon
returning...for letting one tank get away. The squad's
performance may not be the best demonstration of military
discipline, but the incident demonstrates the high morale
and initiative that many South Vietnamese soldiers
possessed. Certainly it does not support charges of
As further evidence, consider South Vietnam's final
moments as an independent nation in 1975, when justifiable
despair gripped the country because it became clear that the
United States would provide no help (not even fuel and
ammunition). Yet one division-sized South Vietnamese unit
held off four North Vietnamese divisions for some two weeks
in fierce fighting at Xuan Loc. By all accounts, that battle
was as heroic as anything in the annals of U.S. military
history. The South Vietnamese finally had to withdraw when
their air force ran out of cluster bombs for supporting the
Once I saw a television documentary about an Australian
cameraman who had covered the war. Unlike U.S. reporters, he
spent much of his time with the South Vietnamese forces. He
attested to their fighting spirit and showed film footage to
prove it. He also recalled visiting an enemy-controlled
village and being told that the Communists feared South
Vietnamese troops more than Americans. The principal reason
was that Americans were noisy, so the enemy always heard
them coming. But that would have been immaterial if the
South Vietnamese had not also been dangerous fighters.
However, the most important evidence of South Vietnamese
soldiers' willingness to fight comes from two simple,
undeniable, "big-picture" facts -- facts that are often
ignored or disguised to cover up American failure in
Fact One: The war began some seven years before major
American combat forces arrived and continued for some five
years after the U.S. began withdrawing. Somebody was doing
the fighting, and that somebody was the South Vietnamese.
Fact Two: The South Vietnamese armed forces lost about a
quarter-million dead. In proportion to population, that was
equivalent to some 2 million American dead (double the
actual U.S. losses in all wars combined). You don't suffer
that way if you're not fighting.
How, then, did the South Vietnamese get their bad
Certainly there were occasional displays of incompetence
and panic by South Vietnamese forces. The same can be said
of U.S. forces. I knew an American artillery commander whose
gunners once had to defend their firebase by firing canister
point-bank into enemy ranks because the U.S. infantry
company "protecting" them had broken in the face of the
enemy assault and was huddling, panic-stricken, in the midst
of the guns.
That incident does not mean the whole U.S. Army was
cowardly, and occasional breakdowns among America's allies
did not mean all South Vietnamese soldiers were cowards. Yet
one would think so, the way the story gets told by some
veterans -- and by the political apologists for a U.S.
government that left South Vietnam in the lurch.
The truth of the matter was best stated nearly two
centuries ago when a British woman asked the Duke of
Wellington if British soldiers were ever known to run in
battle. "Madam," replied the Iron Duke, "All soldiers run in
Even a cursory study of military history confirms this.
Civil War battles reveal a continuous ebb and flow of
bravery and fear, as Confederate and Union units alike first
attacked bravely, then crumbled and fled under horrendous
fire, before regrouping and charging again. No armies ever
laid more justified claim to sheer self-sacrificing heroism
than those two, yet they were subject to panic as a routine
price for doing bloody business on the battlefield.
Author S.L.A. Marshall describes how one American rifle
company in World War II fled in panic from a screaming
Japanese banzai charge: a second unit fought on, quickly
killing every Japanese soldier involved (about 10), and
discovered that most of them were not even armed.
If the same thing had happened to a South Vietnamese
unit, it undoubtedly would have been cited repeatedly by
self-appointed pundits as incontrovertible proof of the
cowardice of all South Vietnamese troops.
Why? We've already hinted at the answer. It all depends
on the color and native tongue of the troops involved. The
ugly truth is that the South Vietnamese forces' false
reputation is rooted in American racism and cultural
I can personally attest to the pervading, massive and
truth-distorting reality of the phenomenon. When I arrived
in Vietnam in June 1969, I immediately began to witness
continuous displays of ignorance and contempt by some
Americans toward the Vietnamese people and their armed
White troops, black troops, and civilian Americans such
as journalists -- all were equally afflicted. This
passionate hatred of Vietnam and its people had an
astonishing power to become contagious.
I knew an American captain with a graduate degree from a
prestigious university in cinematography (presumably a
specialty that improves visual perceptiveness). He once
returned from temporary duty in Thailand singing the praises
of the Thai.
"They send their kids to school," he said, contrasting
them with the South Vietnamese. He was surprised, but not
repentant, when I pointed out that there was a Vietnamese
school right next door to our compound! Hundreds of little
kids in bright blue-and-white school uniforms could be seen
there daily -- by anyone whose eyes were open. But this
filmmaker apparently could not see them.
It is ironic that the Vietnamese -- who by reputation
honor learning more than Americans do and who raised South
Vietnam's literacy rate from about 20 percent to 80 percent
even as war raged around them (and despite the enemy's habit
of murdering teachers) -- were accused by the filmmaker of
having no schools.
Because he was fighting in a foreign country and was
separated from his family, this American had built up a
hatred for Vietnam, and he wanted to believe the Vietnamese
people were contemptible. Therefore, it was important to him
to believe that they had no schools; and his emotions
literally interdicted his optic nerves.
Imagine the feelings of the undereducated masses of
American troops faced with a strange culture in a
high-stress environment! Perhaps one cannot blame the troops
for their ignorance. Heaven knows the U.S. command made only
the most perfunctory effort to educate them about Vietnam
and the nature of the war.
However, that is no excuse for veterans to pretend that
they understand what they saw in Vietnam. America's Vietnam
veterans must be honored for their courage, sacrifice and
loyalty to their country. But courage and sacrifice are not
the same as knowledge. Fighting in Vietnam didn't make
soldiers into experts on the country or the war, any more
than having a baby makes a woman an expert on embryology.
What most U.S. soldiers did there taught them little or
nothing about South Vietnam's culture, society, politics,
etc. Few Americans spoke more than a half-dozen words of
Vietnamese; even fewer read Vietnamese books and newspapers;
and not many more read books about Vietnam in English.
Except for advisers, few Americans worked with any
Vietnamese other than (perhaps) the clerks, laundresses and
waitresses employed by U.S. forces.
Most important for our purpose, few U.S. troops ever
observed South Vietnamese forces in combat. Even the ones
who did rarely considered the attitude differences that must
have existed between soldiers like the Americans, who only
had to get through one year and knew their families were
safe at home, and troops like the South Vietnamese, who had
to worry about their families' safety every day and who knew
that only death or grievous wounds would release them from
the army. The Vietnamese naturally used a different
measuring stick to determine what was important in fighting
Journalists were no better. Consider a biased TV report I
heard in which a reporter denounced South Vietnam's air
force because -- despite Vietnamization -- it "let the
Americans" fly the tough missions against North Vietnam.
In fact, it was the United States that would not let the
South Vietnamese fly into North Vietnam (except for a few
missions in the early days of the bombing). The American
leaders wanted to control the bombing so that the United
States could use it as a negotiating tool.
Not wanting the South Vietnamese to have any control over
bombing policy, the U.S. forces deliberately gave them
equipment unsuited for missions up North. South Vietnam did
not get the fighter-bombers, weapons, refueling aircraft or
electronic-warfare equipment necessary for such missions. It
was an American decision.
The TV reporter in question either was ignorant of that
fact or chose to ignore it in order to do a hatchet job on
the American allies. Considering his blatantly biased words
and tone of voice, I concluded that any ignorance he
suffered from was deliberate.
Another example of media bias came during the Khe Sanh
siege. If you asked a thousand Americans which units fought
at Khe Sanh, most of those who had heard of the battle would
probably know that U.S. Marines did. But it would be
surprising if more than one out of the thousand knew that a
South Vietnamese Ranger battalion had shared the rigors of
the siege with American Marines. Other South Vietnamese
units took part in supporting operations outside the
besieged area. The U.S. media just did not consider the
American allies worthy of coverage unless they were doing
something shameful, so these hard-fighting soldiers became
quite literally the invisible heroes of Khe Sanh.
All this -- soldier and media bias -- came together
clearly during news reports of the 1972 incursion into Laos.
Consider a TV documentary a decade ago. It included film
of some American GIs being interviewed during the Laotian
fighting. These guys, themselves safely inside South
Vietnam, were "explaining" the South Vietnamese army's
struggle in contemptuous, racist remarks. The reporter then
suggested that these American GIs understood the situation
better than the American generals.
The incursion, of course, is the source of the infamous
photo of a South Vietnamese soldier escaping from Laos by
clinging to a helicopter skid. This image was and is held up
to Americans again and again as "proof" of South Vietnamese
In fact, it is a classic example of photography's power
to lie. What happened was this: The South Vietnamese were
struck by overwhelming Communist forces. The U.S.military
failed to provide the support that had been promised because
enemy anti-aircraft fire was too strong. There were reports
of U.S. helicopter crews kicking boxes of howitzer
ammunition out the doors from 5,000 feet up, hoping the
stuff would land inside South Vietnamese perimeters. The
helicopters simply couldn't get any closer.
Given that context, consider the way Colonel Robert
Molinelli, an American officer who witnessed the action,
described it in the Armed Forces Journal of April 19, 1971:
"A South Vietnamese battalion of 420 men was surrounded by
an enemy regiment of 2,500-3,300 men for three days. The
U.S. could not get supplies to the unit. It fought till it
ran low on ammunition, then battled its way out of the
encirclement using captured enemy weapons and ammunition. It
carried all of its wounded and some of its dead with it.
Reconnaissance photos showed 637 visible enemy dead around
The unit was down to 253 effectives when it reached
another South Vietnamese perimeter. Some 17 of those men did
panic and rode helicopter skids to escape. The rest did not.
Now, some might consider dangling from a high-flying,
fast-moving helicopter for many miles, subject to
anti-aircraft fire, to be a pretty gutsy move. But, aside
from that, how can such an isolated incident -- during a
hard-fought withdrawal-while-in-contact (universally
acknowledged to be just about the toughest maneuver in the
military inventory) -- be inflated into condemnation of an
entire army, nation and population?
The answer is racism. The guys hanging from the
helicopter skids were funny-looking foreigners. If they had
been Americans, or even British, the reaction undoubtedly
would have been one of compassion for the ordeal they had
Evidence for this is found in how Americans responded to
the British retreats early in World War II.
There were some disgraceful displays among British forces
at Dunkirk and elsewhere. At Dunkirk a sergeant in one
evacuation boat had to aim a submachine gun at his panicky
charges to keep order on board. On another boat soldiers had
to pummel an officer with their weapons to keep him from
climbing over the gunwale and swamping the boat. In Crete, a
New Zealand brigade had to ring its assigned embarkation
beach with a cordon of bayonets to keep fear-stricken
English troops from swarming over the boats.
Yet the image of Britain's lonely stand against Hitler in
1940 is one of heroism. That's perfectly justified by the
facts, and isolated incidents like the ones described above
should not detract from the overall picture of courage and
It is certainly true that South Vietnamese forces gave an
undistinguished performance in the final days, with the
exception of the incredibly heroic defense of Xuan Loc.
Yet there are reasons for that. And there are reasons to
believe that, with more loyal support from the Americans,
the South Vietnamese could have turned in more Xuan
Loc-style performances and perhaps even have saved their
The real issue again is not just how the South Vietnamese
performed, however; it is how their performance compared
with the way Americans might have performed under similar
And the truth is that American troops -- if they were
abandoned by the U.S. the way South Vietnamese were --
probably would perform no better than the South Vietnamese
Remember: the United States had cut aid to South Vietnam
drastically in 1974, months before the final enemy
offensive. As a result, only a little fuel and ammunition
were being sent to South Vietnam. South Vietnamese air and
ground vehicles were immobilized by lack of spare parts.
Troops went into battle without batteries for their radios,
and their medics lacked basic supplies. South Vietnamese
rifles and artillery pieces were rationed to three rounds of
ammunition per day in the last months of the war.
The situation was so bad that even the North Vietnamese
commander who conquered South Vietnam, General Van Tien
Dung, admitted his enemy's mobility and firepower had been
cut in half. Aside from the direct physical effect, we must
take into account the impact this impoverishment had on
South Vietnamese soldiers' morale.
Into this miserable state of affairs the North Vietnamese
slashed, with a well-equipped, well-supplied
Yes, the South Vietnamese folded. Yes, they abandoned
some equipment (much of which would not work anyway for lack
of spare parts) and some ammunition (which they had hoarded
until it was too late to shoot it or move it, because they
knew they would never get any more). So whose fault was
that? Theirs... or America's?
Yes, South Vietnam's withdrawal from the vulnerable
northern provinces was belated and clumsy, leading to panic
and collapse. But how could the South Vietnamese government
have abandoned its people any earlier, before the enemy
literally forced it to?
For a while the South Vietnamese hoped the American B-52s
would return and help stem the Communist tide. When it
became clear they would not, understandable demoralization
The fighting spirit of the forces was sapped, and many
South Vietnamese soldiers deserted -- not because they were
cowards or were not willing to fight for their country, but
because they were unwilling to die for a lost cause when
their families desperately needed them.
Would Americans do any better under the conditions that
faced the South Vietnamese in 1975? Would U.S. units fight
well with broken vehicles and communications, a crippled
medical system, inadequate fuel and ammunition, and little
or no air support -- against a powerful, well-supplied and
confident foe? I doubt it.
Would the South Vietnamese have won in 1975 if the U.S.
government had kept up its side of the bargain and continued
matching the aid poured into North Vietnamese by the
The answer is unknowable. Certainly they would have had a
fighting chance, something the U.S. betrayal denied them.
Certainly they could have fought more effectively. Even if
defeated, they might have gone down heroically in a fight
that could have formed the basis for a nation-building
legend and for continued resistance against Communism on the
Even if the South Vietnamese had been totally defeated,
wholehearted U.S. support would have enabled Americans to
shrug and say they had done their best. However, the U.S.
did not do its best, and for Americans to try to disguise
that fact by slandering the memory of South Vietnam and its
army is wrong.
It is too late now for Americans to make good the
terrible crime committed in abandoning the South Vietnamese
people to Communism. But it is not too late to acknowledge
the error of American insults to their memory. It is not too
late to begin paying proper honor to their achievements and
their heroic attempt to defend their liberty.