Harry F. Noyes III
They were small, talked in
sing-song squeaks, put a smelly fish sauce on their food, and often held hands
with each other.
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 South Vietnam.
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 cowardice.
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 ground troops.
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 Vietnam.
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 reputation?
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 battle."
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 chauvinism.
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 forces.
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 the war.
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 unworthiness.
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 its position.
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 been through.
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 devotion.
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 country.
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 circumstances.
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 did.
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 tank-and-motorized-infantry blitzkrieg.
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 set in.
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 Communists?
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 Afghan model.
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.
Re-print with permission of Harry F. Noyes III and Vietnam Magazine/PRIMEDIA History Group.
Harry F. Noyes III (BA, University of the South; MA, University of Hawaii) served four years of active duty in the Air Force after his ROTC commissioning in 1967. He was an information officer at Norton AFB, California, and Yokota AB, Japan, and a film researcher/scenarist at Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam. Presently a civilian public affairs specialist at Headquarters US Army Health Services Command, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he has been editor of the joint Army-Air Force Wiesbaden Post, Wiesbaden Military Community, West Germany, and a reporter covering military affairs at Fort Head, Texas, for the Killeen Daily Herald. He has written articles for a variety of publications.