Generally speaking, I have found that positive attitudes and a deeper understanding by Americans for their ARVN allies often emerge after a sustained period of living, working and fighting together, such as the “era of big battles” in 1967, when American and South Vietnamese units fought beside each other. After a hard day’s fighting, many G.I.s remembered sitting down with their Vietnamese counterparts to talk about their families, pulling pictures of loved ones from their breast pockets. It dawned on many G.I.s that, unlike their limited yearlong or 18-month tour of duty, most South Vietnamese soldiers served an indefinite length. These local men had to fight until the end of the war, not knowing that the day the war ended was also the day they had to be separated from their families again.
The two sides also bonded in the small-unit combat that typified much of the war. For every story about South Vietnamese scouts retreating at the first shot, leaving the Americans alone in the jungle, there’s a positive story — say, about an ARVN soldier carrying a wounded American adviser on his scrawny body to the safety of the landing zone. And there are stories on the other side, like one of how an American adviser decided to break all regulations to call in American helicopters to evacuate a seriously wounded ARVN soldier. (Had he waited for a South Vietnamese chopper, as he was supposed to, it would have been too late.) Or another story of an American Marine sergeant who recalled almost getting court-martialed just for eating with the South Vietnamese. With his voice trembling with emotion, the veteran recalled challenging his superiors, “If we do not break bread with them, how could we fight alongside them?”
If such camaraderie existed in combat, where do the negative stereotypes come from? Setting aside racial prejudice, we can find one source in the operational relationship between American and ARVN forces. The Americans lifted ARVN morale but also created an overreliance on their military support. American advisers who were assigned to ARVN units had the sole authority to call in tactical air support under a heavy firefight. It makes sense that, over time, some ARVN officers might have become too dependent on the technological superiority of their American counterparts, and that some Americans might have concluded the ARVN officers lacked endurance and resiliency.
And of course, many American combat troops never encountered ARVN in the field, since the two usually performed very different strategic roles: The Americans handled combat operations while ARVN took pacification and territorial security. Even though American leaders in Saigon set up mobile training teams to work with ARVN units in 1967, the time they had to spend with each unit was rather limited.
Perhaps the biggest source of division and misunderstanding was the war itself. Soldiers from both sides fought amid immense social turmoil, political uncertainty and military pressure. Soldiers on both sides asked, Whose war is this? What are we fighting for? And it was often hard for Americans, confused and often demoralized, to differentiate between the communist guys supporting North Vietnam’s cause and the local guys who were supposed to be their allies.
For some Americans, the answers came readily and sympathetically. They believed the ARVN soldiers were good soldiers, fighting as hard as they could to defend their country. They were allies fighting global communism. “I would do the same thing for my countrymen on American soil,” one American veteran said. But others resented what they saw as an unequal burden. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who fought in Vietnam and later led America and its allies in Operation Desert Storm, said: “It was their country, their battles. Eventually they would have to sustain it. I thought we should give them the skills, the confidence and the equipment they needed and encourage them to fight. Yet while our official position was that we were sending forces to help South Vietnamese fight, the truth was that more and more battles were being fought exclusively by Americans, rather than by United States and South Vietnamese units together.”
We know very little about our veterans, much less about the South Vietnamese veterans who fought alongside them.
We don’t know what their daily experiences were like, to be underarmed and often on the outer edge of the defenses, sometimes deployed as little more than cannon fodder. Some 254,250 South Vietnamese died in combat between 1960 and 1975, nearly five times the number of Americans, in a country of just 15 million people. We did not hear what they heard, we did not feel what they felt, we did not see what they saw on the forlorn battlefields. Who are we to judge the American veterans of the Vietnam War and their local allies whom they came to consider friends or brothers, either to romanticize or victimize, valorize or demonize them? And when they speak about their experiences, did we really listen?
Today the courage and sacrifice of the ARVN soldiers is all but forgotten — in Vietnam, it was erased by the victorious side; in America, by historical neglect. One of the few places they are commemorated is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park in Angel Fire, N.M., which I visited over Memorial Day. Alongside bricks inscribed with the names of several veterans from Australia and South Korea, there are a few names of South Vietnamese veterans, not all of whom were able to arrive safely and adopt American soil as their second home.
One of those names belongs to my father. He was an ARVN soldier who died when I was 14. Even long after the war, I never heard him speak ill of the Americans, or the Communists. Standing beside his brick, I teared up, appreciating this sole place on earth that recognizes my father’s service — not in humiliation and hate, but in honor and love. This sacred place not only remembers and honors the sacrifice of those who served their countries from all sides, but it also calls for genuine reconciliation and lasting peace.
Studying the American soldiers’ perspective toward the ARVN, one of whom was my own father, and listening to the American veterans’ stories have been humbling and elevating parts of my academic journey. The American-ARVN relationship was highly complex, and a moving example of human experiences in an extreme situation. Their tale has been silenced, misunderstood, simplified and politicized for too long. We might think we get it, but we know very little about our veterans. We should and need to learn more. If veterans speak, we must listen.