Dong Ap Bia is a double-humped mountain covered in broad-leaved subtropical forest, rising a thousand feet above A Shau Valley in central Vietnam. By the end of May 1969 there was scarcely a tree left alive on Dong Ap Bia, which had been pulverized by artillery barrages and airstrikes as three US battalions fought to drive a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment from the summit of what the Americans had taken to calling Hamburger Hill. The nickname referred to the heavy casualties sustained by US forces, particularly those of the Third Battalion of the 187th Infantry Brigade under the hard-driving Lieut. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, who, after ten days of struggling through fortified enemy positions, finally reached the top of the mountain on May 20. The battle ended with the annihilation of the NVA regiment, but press coverage of the fighting reinforced the American public’s sense that the war had been fought to a stalemate, particularly after US forces abandoned the hill they had won at such cost. Hamburger Hill was the last major confrontation between American and North Vietnamese ground forces: under pressure to reduce casualties, the Nixon Administration accelerated its program of “Vietnamization,” training and equipping the South Vietnamese (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) to carry on the fight, while withdrawing US troops. From the beginning of the war, Americans had been reluctant, as LBJ put it in 1964, to “send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” After Hamburger Hill, they no longer would.
The traditional account of Hamburger Hill treats it as a microcosm of the Vietnam War: a bullheaded American officer driving reluctant GIs to conquer useless territory, a tactical victory that became a strategic defeat, with the South Vietnamese themselves absent from the field. But according to University of Southern Mississippi history professor Andrew Wiest’s new book, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN, the traditional account is in one crucial respect wrong. The 3/187th under Honeycutt did not capture Hamburger Hill. The summit was first taken by an ARVN battalion commanded by a remarkable South Vietnamese officer, Col. Pham Van Dinh. Dinh and his battalion, arriving as reinforcements on May 19, had sneaked up the hill via an unexpected route the next morning and could have mopped up the remaining NVA forces from the rear. But they were ordered off the summit by US commanders, apparently so that Honeycutt and his men could take credit for the victory.
Wiest’s book falls broadly within the recent wave of “revisionist” histories of Vietnam, and it addresses a real inconsistency in the liberal consensus narrative of the war, which holds that the government of South Vietnam was much like the Iraqi government today: a regime no one would fight for, a dysfunctional pseudo-state propped up by American largesse and corruption. “Without an ideology or even a positive purpose to inspire loyalty,” as Stanley Karnow’s seminal history Vietnam has it, “the Saigon leaders could only purchase fidelity.” In the works of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and other critical war reporters, the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN) appears as a sham government riven by factional intrigue.
But if South Vietnam was a corrupt regime no one would willingly fight for, then how does one account for the millions of men who served in the ARVN, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed fighting the NVA? Why are more than a million former citizens of South Vietnam and their descendants living in the United States today, and why do so many of them still fly the barred yellow-and-red South Vietnamese flag? Clearly, someone was willing to fight for South Vietnam. Who?
Wiest’s narrative approaches these questions by focusing on the interlocking stories of two of the army’s brightest officers, Dinh and his contemporary Lieut. Col. Tran Ngoc Hue. Both men were born near the city of Hue to families with long ties to the imperial and colonial regimes, and embodied a patriotic South Vietnamese anti-Communism little seen in the classic American accounts of the war. According to their Vietnamese colleagues and American advisers, Dinh and Hue were competent, aggressive and personally noncorrupt. Dinh pioneered the use of “surge”-style counterinsurgency techniques to drive the Viet Cong out of a Communist-controlled district in 1967, and both men distinguished themselves in the 1968 Battle of Hue, where Hue’s elite armored battalion sealed the victory by capturing the former imperial palace at the heart of the city’s citadel.
Historians have concentrated on the role of US troops in freeing Hue, slighting the ARVN. Wiest convincingly argues that, to a certain extent, the ARVN has been depicted as corrupt, incompetent and irrelevant because American journalists (and, later, historians, novelists and filmmakers) were embedded with American troops and reported the war to an American public. Americans saw themselves as the protagonists in Vietnam; they were quick to blame the ARVN for any failures and were unwilling, like Colonel Honeycutt at Hamburger Hill, to grant them credit for fighting their own war.
Wiest is right to note the contempt in which many US soldiers held the ARVN. Former CBS reporter John Laurence, in his war memoir The Cat From Hue, recalled that US special forces, surrounded by enemy troops at a jungle firebase, sardonically proposed replacing the ARVN soldiers defending their camp with a stoical North Vietnamese officer they had just captured: “Let’s put this guy on the north wall and get rid of these God damn ARVN. He could probably hold it by himself.” Why, the Americans often wondered, were “their Vietnamese” so much better than “our Vietnamese”?
Even Wiest acknowledges that such American critiques were not entirely misplaced. Granted that some of those in the ARVN fought hard for Saigon, the question remains why more didn’t. That question hinges on the issue of loyalty, which remains relevant today in America’s nation-building exercises in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Republic of Vietnam was created by foreign powers out of the remnants of a colonial regime to serve foreign ideological and strategic aims. How much allegiance could it really command from its soldiers and citizens?
Not enough, Wiest is forced to conclude. Col. Pham Van Dinh, the unsung hero of Hamburger Hill, went on to become the most famous turncoat in the history of the ARVN. On April 2, 1972, finding the units he commanded isolated in the face of the NVA’s massive Easter offensive, and effectively abandoned by his superiors, Dinh surrendered with all his officers and men to the Communists. The NVA treated him leniently, assuring him that he and his men could rejoin their families sooner if he joined their cause, and playing his Confucian loyalty to family against his loyalty as an officer. Several months later, Dinh agreed to join the NVA, on the condition that he would never have to fight against his former comrades. The year before, Hue had been captured along with his paratroop unit during Operation Lam Son 719, the South’s botched attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos; politically minded generals had refused to commit armored units they depended on to cement their power. As Wiest writes, “The fates that befell Dinh and Hue…are symptomatic of the flawed nature of the Vietnam War as a whole.” However patriotic and dedicated Dinh and Hue may have been, they were fighting for a Vietnamese state that was weak and rotten, and for an army that never outgrew its dependence on its American patron. Dinh defected to a stronger, less corrupt Vietnamese state, while Hue became a prisoner of it and ultimately immigrated to the United States.
No book about the Vietnam War can be simply a book about the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s Forgotten Army appears in the midst of a raging debate over American armed interventions abroad and over the proper lessons to draw from Vietnam for the war in Iraq. The argument has proceeded in roughly three stages. First, liberals opposed to the invasion of Iraq argued that the success of the insurgency there, as in Vietnam, demonstrated the foolishness of overconfident American military interventionism. Later, military experts on Vietnam, including active-duty officers John Nagl, H.R. McMaster and David Petraeus, pursued a narrower technical argument: that US armed forces were far too focused on conventional warfare between main-force standing armies and had forgotten the lessons of Vietnam regarding counterinsurgency warfare. (This argument has succeeded in reshaping US military doctrine and strategy in Iraq, and has made Petraeus’s career.) Finally, conservatives have argued, on various grounds, that the United States could have won in Vietnam, that only the disloyalty of liberal Democrats undercut America’s successful military effort and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and that Democratic support for a withdrawal from Iraq threatens to do the same.
This last argument, widely called the Dolchstosslegende, or “stab-in-the-back myth,” after its counterpart in Germany in the 1920s, appeared early in Vietnam. In 1968 the Marine colonel and counterinsurgency advocate William Corson was already deploring the appearance of “an American version of the German ‘stab in the back’ myth” among the officer corps. One subscriber to the theory is Democratic Senator Jim Webb, who served in the Marines in Vietnam and is now a prominent opponent of the Iraq War. He also supplied the foreword to Wiest’s book. Webb has written elsewhere that he, like many conservatives, believes that South Vietnam could have survived had Congress not decreed an end to US bombing support and military assistance for the ARVN in 1975. Webb is motivated by remorse for what he considers the United States’ betrayal of his former ARVN colleagues, and in the foreword he finds himself unable to forgive defector Pham Van Dinh entirely: “In human terms, few of us have the standing to condemn anyone who decided to choose a different side in a brutal, seemingly never-ending war. But loyalty to one’s comrades is the glue that binds all military service.”
The claim that the United States’ disloyalty to its ally was the cause of South Vietnam’s collapse has received its most extended treatments in two recent revisionist histories of the war, Lewis Sorley’s A Better War and Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken (reviewed here by Rick Perlstein, October 15, 2007). Triumph Forsaken, which ends in 1965, makes the unusual claim that the first key betrayal came not in 1975 but in 1963, when the United States approved a military coup that toppled President Ngo Dinh Diem, whom Moyar–in contrast to virtually every other historian of Vietnam–views as an effective national leader. In terms of Wiest’s arguments, Moyar’s more relevant work is Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam, focusing on the years 1967-72, which was published in 1997 and has just been reissued with a new chapter drawing inferences for the Iraq War.
One curious revelation in Phoenix and the Birds of Prey is that, just as for some liberals Iraq has always been about Vietnam, for Moyar Vietnam has always been about Iraq. His research on Vietnam, he writes, began with a course on the war he took as a sophomore at Harvard in 1991, when he was alienated by widespread student opposition to the Gulf War. But Phoenix and the Birds of Prey is not simply an apologia for American militarism written by a radicalized campus conservative. Much of the book is a sober and detailed organizational history of the Phoenix program and other US and South Vietnamese efforts to gather intelligence on the Viet Cong and its “shadow government” in the countryside, and to recruit, capture or kill its members. The question of the Viet Cong shadow government leads Moyar directly to the vexed question of South Vietnamese loyalties, and of which side was better able to inspire them.
In the early 1960s, Moyar believes, that side was clearly the Viet Cong–particularly its political wing. Moyar sees South Vietnam as a typically corrupt, incompetent, occasionally brutal Third World dictatorship, little better or worse than many others. The Viet Cong, however, were different: selfless, hardworking, ideologically sincere. “The Vietnamese Communists were one of the few groups in the Third World that were able to achieve the subversion of individual and family loyalty that is needed to build a more effective and fair government,” he writes. The Viet Cong systematically assassinated government officials, but they also eliminated corruption, winning the sympathies of villagers whose chief interests were peace and stability. Intriguingly, Moyar argues that many of the measures counterinsurgency advocates have criticized the United States for failing to employ in Vietnam were, in fact, tried but failed simply because South Vietnam had inferior personnel. “The Allies generally attempted to use suitable political and military programs against the enemy,” he writes. “Their failure resulted from the lack of competence and will among the South Vietnamese charged with implementing these programs.” This is a telling point. South Vietnam did, after all, try to employ a strategy of protected hamlets similar to the one the British used to defeat Malaysian Communist insurgents in the early ’50s; it failed in part because of corruption and mismanagement by South Vietnamese officials.
Moyar then moves on to the Phoenix program, launched in 1967, which was characterized by antiwar activists as a US government operation to assassinate Viet Cong civilians that led to widespread executions of innocents. This seems to be a largely confused charge. Phoenix was an intelligence coordination program that aimed to bring together CIA, military and various South Vietnamese agencies to target the “VCI,” or Viet Cong Infrastructure. Moyar argues that Phoenix was not directly responsible for many deaths, in part because, apart from a brief period when it was under CIA management, it never functioned very well. Various programs did target Viet Cong civilian officials, just as the Viet Cong assassinated government officials; but the South Vietnamese agencies tended to be more effective than the Americans, who rarely had enough information to identify specific individuals for capture or assassination. The Phoenix program reported large numbers of VCI “neutralized” (captured, defected or killed), including more than 8,000 killed in 1970. But these statistics may be meaningless, because the agencies responsible for the killing–US and ARVN main forces, special South Vietnamese units called PRUs and many others–often reported unrelated kills as VCI in order to make themselves look good to Phoenix officers.
Moyar argues that the Viet Cong shadow government was incapacitated by the early 1970s, in part because of intelligence efforts like Phoenix but mainly because of other factors: the tremendous casualties the VC suffered during the failed Tet offensive of 1968, the destruction in VC-controlled areas caused by heavy US and ARVN combat operations, the forced evacuation of VC-controlled territory and the increased effectiveness of South Vietnam’s village-level popular defense forces. The Viet Cong’s degraded capacity for governance, in turn, led it to lose the allegiance of more of the population, such that by the early 1970s it was no longer an existential threat to government hegemony. By this time, the South Vietnamese populace was loyal to no one but was trending away from the Viet Cong because the GVN seemed stronger and hence more likely to provide stability.
This is a reasonable argument, but it is derailed by Moyar’s taste for partisan sophistry. In Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, he spends pages arguing that US and ARVN killings of Viet Cong officials should not be termed “assassinations,” because such officials often carried guns, or traveled with soldiers, or moved about at night, making them “in essence, soldiers.” Those who did not carry guns, or moved by daylight while keeping their VC roles secret, were “spies and terrorists”; and even those who lived openly as VC officials were “traitors,” making them legally liable to execution. How convenient. Worse, Moyar goes out of his way to stage implausible attacks on any argument he perceives opponents of the Vietnam War to have made. In Triumph Forsaken, he claims that the idea that Vietnam’s Communists were deeply nationalistic and wary of China, and thus would not be foot soldiers in a monolithic Communist advance, was wrong: Vietnam had deep historical links with China, and Ho Chi Minh had admired and collaborated with Mao for decades. This would be an interesting argument had the question not been settled in 1979, when Vietnam and China fought a border war and broke off diplomatic relations for twelve years.
Moyar’s greatest weakness is his tendentious use of sources. Early in Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, when he is praising the Viet Cong, his chief source appears to be the same one used in many classic liberal accounts: the voluminous RAND interviews with Viet Cong captives and villagers. When he turns to defending the Phoenix program, however, he begins relying uncritically on the testimony of American and South Vietnamese officers. He cites South Vietnamese military and police, and US advisers, who claim that few civilians were executed because targeting required identification by multiple sources. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Later, he cites translated Communist documents as irrefutable evidence of US and GVN intelligence successes (“even the enemy admits…”). Such documents are equally likely to be the product of the Vietnamese Communists’ required self-criticism sessions; Communist reports of penetration by government spies may represent excuses for organizational failures or propaganda in internal political purges.
Moyar’s difficulties with sources are not entirely his own fault. The Vietnam War remains such a bitterly polarizing conflict that impartial sources are hard to come by. Wiest, too, has problems with sources. Who, for example, substantiates his claim that Dinh and Hue never engaged in the routine petty corruption other ARVN officers practiced? What justifies his claim that Dinh and Hue were presciently critical in the early 1960s of the South’s failure to employ counterinsurgency tactics and win hearts and minds? Judging by the footnotes, no one but Dinh and Hue themselves. Just as troubling is Wiest’s use of ARVN body counts; in virtually every engagement, the ARVN is reported to have inflicted more casualties than the enemy, usually far more, such that one begins to wonder how the South could possibly have lost the war. Here, again, loyalty precedes knowledge: one cannot know what to believe until one has decided whom to trust.
Americans have always had a difficult relationship with the issue of loyalty. We believe ourselves to be a creedal nation, where loyalty to country is synonymous with loyalty to the Enlightenment ideals upon which it was founded. In fact, things are considerably more complicated even in the United States, let alone in countries where loyalty is explicitly sectarian or familial, or during the process of nation-building or civil war, when the entities demanding citizens’ loyalty are still half-formed. Benedict Arnold, appearing at such a juncture in American history, made it easy for his compatriots to judge him a traitor: he betrayed the Continental Army for money. Pham Van Dinh was a more difficult case. He surrendered to save the lives of his men and, at a deeper level, because he had lost faith that his country’s leadership would ever be able to govern. The Vietnamese Communist Party then demonstrated its characteristic subtlety in a sustained effort to turn Dinh. It argued that the Hanoi government was the true Vietnamese government and that by switching sides, Dinh would, in the larger sense, be remaining loyal to his nation.
The loyalties of the South Vietnamese citizenry in the early 1970s, as even Moyar argues, were murky and fluid. Exhausted by decades of war, most were willing to back any regime that displayed the organizational strength and determination to govern. Which side displayed such strength? Which side was able to inspire its citizens’ loyalty? The answer is in plain sight. Shortly after Tran Ngoc Hue’s paratroop unit was devastated and taken prisoner in Laos in 1971, a group of American POWs were marched north toward Hanoi through the same area, just north of the town of Tchepone on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of them, 25-year-old infantryman David Harker, is cited in the 1975 book Survivors: Vietnam POWs Tell Their Stories, by then-New Republic reporter Zalin Grant:
Each day on the trail we passed battalion after battalion of fresh North Vietnamese troops heading south. They walked single file, strung out for long distances, carrying new AK’s, SKS’s, B-40 rockets, heavy machine guns with wheels, and mortar tubes. They humped along quietly, it was hot and a little hazy, and we sometimes got by without their seeing us.
Twenty-six years after Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence, seventeen years after Dien Bien Phu and six years after the United States sent half a million troops to fight them, North Vietnamese men and women still volunteered by the millions to go south and fight for a unified Vietnam. They would continue to do so for four more years. It is impossible to explain away those columns of troops pouring south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and difficult to imagine what could have stopped them.
The implications for American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are not reassuring. Wiest concludes that the United States’ intervention reinforced the South’s fatal dependence on outside help: “The ARVN became spectators instead of participants in what should have been its war.” Like Colonel Honeycutt at Hamburger Hill, we were unwilling to let South Vietnam take the lead, to stand or fall on its own. When we finally did, it fell. The more the United States propped up South Vietnam, the less capable it became of inspiring loyalty.
The sharpest statement of this conundrum comes from Pham Xuan An, the former Saigon correspondent for Time magazine, who turned out, after the war, to have been a crucial Viet Cong agent. As Larry Berman’s recent biography Perfect Spy relates, An was bitterly disappointed by Communist rule. He had attended college in California and had developed close lifelong friendships with American colleagues. Nevertheless, interviewed by Morley Safer for his 1990 book Flashbacks, An said he had no regrets. “As much as I love the United States, it had no right here,” he said. “The Americans had to be driven out of Vietnam one way or another. We must sort this place out ourselves.”