Andrew Wiest’s excellent book helps to fill a yawning void in the history of the Vietnam War. While thousands of books have been written about the war from the American and Vietnamese communist perspectives, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) has been treated by western historians largely as what communist propaganda claimed it to be – a force of incompetent “lackeys” whose efforts had little impact on the outcome of the war itself. Little attention has been devoted to the experiences, the contributions, and the courage of the ARVN soldiers who fought for decades under appalling conditions and for reasons that few Americans truly knew or understood.
Professor Wiest tells the fascinating story of two young ARVN officers, Pham Van Dinh and Tran Ngoc Hue, whose lives paralleled one another to an amazing degree but who made starkly different choices when confronted, as both were, with the grimmest choice a soldier can face. Pham Van Dinh and Tran Ngoc Hue were both the products of well-educated, middle-class families, both were natives of the Vietnamese imperial capital city of Hue, and both spent their entire military careers in the ARVN 1st Division, by all accounts perhaps the finest division in the entire South Vietnamese Army. Both Dinh and [End Page 1332] Hue compiled excellent combat records. Both men played major roles in the battle to retake Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive, where their performance was so outstanding that both were awarded U.S. military decorations (the Bronze and Silver Stars) for their courage and achievements in that protracted and bloody battle. Professor Wiest rightly points out that the vital role ARVN units played in this battle has been largely ignored by American historians.
After Tet, as the war wound down for the American army but heated up for ARVN, both men went on to command units that were suddenly confronted with desperate situations in which their only choices were either to surrender and go over to the enemy side or face inevitable defeat, capture, and imprisonment, or death. Tran Ngoc Hue, fighting in Laos in early 1971, made one choice, while, Pham Van Dinh, as a regimental commander facing impossible odds during the 1972 Easter Offensive, made another. Professor Wiest does an outstanding job of explaining the political and psychological elements that factored into each man’s decision.
As a description of two vibrant and important personalities this book works very well, and the story of these two men is illustrative of the many brave ARVN officers and enlisted men who fought, and died, for their cause during the Vietnam War. However, on another level Professor Wiest relies on the opinions of these two officers to offer some general critiques of U.S. military strategy in Vietnam, and here the book is at times less persuasive.
Throughout the book Professor Wiest echoes Dinh and Hue’s criticism that in the 1950s and the early 1960s the U.S. military “forced” the ARVN leadership and President Ngo Dinh Diem to build ARVN into a “conventional army” rather than, as the ARVN generals and Diem supposedly wanted, one focused on counter-insurgency. Wiest insists that this was a fundamental strategic error.
In fact, as anyone who has studied the Vietnam War and the writings of North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap knows, the Vietnamese communist “people’s war” strategy was not a classic insurgency. The communists waged the war with a strategy that was a unique amalgam of low-level guerrilla warfare and large-scale conventional tactics. An ARVN army configured primarily for counter-insurgency would have been eaten alive by the big communist main force attacks that began in 1964; indeed, even the “conventional” ARVN force that the U.S. created and that Wiest so criticizes proved too weak to resist these conventional blows. It was that weakness, not the ARVN’s inability to deal with guerrillas, that forced the U.S. to send in American...