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.