- Steel and Blood: South Vietnamese Armor and the War for Southeast Asia
Of the several thousand tomes published about the Vietnam War, only a few English-language viewpoints written by our Vietnamese allies grace the bookshelves. The South Vietnamese perspective, constrained by cultural and linguistic [End Page 1020] barriers, is unfortunately marginalized in the war's literature for Americans. Due to these barriers, U.S. historians, even if interested in South Vietnamese motivations and actions, are left with little except military adviser reports, obscure embassy cables, or shallow news articles. Thus reduced to bit players, the South Vietnamese have become caricatures; either cowardly incompetents or corrupt warlords, with an occasional brave soul or hard-fighting unit briefly mentioned. A more balanced and deeper picture of America's wartime partner has long been needed.
Former armor Colonel Ha Mai Viet has offered precisely that, a penetrating insight into the battlefield contributions of the South Vietnamese tank officers who fought alongside their American friends. His book details the contributions of a small but influential element of the ARVN, its armor/cavalry forces. Unknown to most, by war's end the armor branch had grown considerably from its French roots. In 1975, Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi's 3rd Armored Cavalry Brigade, the III Corps organic tank unit, was undoubtedly the most powerful brigade-size element in the ARVN. Reflecting a rare combined arms outlook, Khoi built a formidable combat out-fit from previously independent armor, artillery, engineer, and ranger units. His merged brigade was still defending outside of Saigon when the final surrender came.
Viet spent ten years traveling the globe, tracking down and interviewing many of his former comrades-in-arms. He portrays the heroic deeds of his fellow soldiers while unflinchingly condemning South Vietnamese leadership errors. Covering two main topics, Combat and Military History, Viet outlines twenty-three separate battles from the ARVN side. The bulk of the Combat section covers the Tet Offensive, Lam Son 719, the Easter Offensive, and the bloody retreat in 1975 from the Central Highlands. He also provides rich details on unknown battles such as the terrible clash at Dambe in Cambodia in 1971. The Military History part provides unique facts on the formation and growth of the ARVN armor/cavalry branch from 1954 to 1975, including unit commanders, weapons, and organizational structure.
Brilliantly translated, no future work on Vietnam battles will be complete without reviewing this publication. Colonel Viet has provided a tremendous amount of fresh information, almost all of it oral history. That is the strength and weakness of the book. Like all interviews, the ones in this book only provide the participant's side. For example, the account by Colonel Nguyen Van Dong concerning the Central Highlands retreat, while new and highly informative, perpetuates the myth that Brigadier General Pham Duy Tat, the II Corps Ranger Commander, was responsible for the convoy on Route 7B. Tat, when presented with Dong's remarks, categorically denied the accusations, a point of view absent from Viet's book. This is not to cast fault, as Viet was only interested in the stories of his armor colleagues. Yet without access to That's perspective, the unsuspecting historian would perpetuate the story. Unfortunately, as General Cao Van Vien once told the reviewer, the war remains much like the movie "Rashomon": the truth is subjective to the individual. Colonel Viet nevertheless deserves enormous credit for his industrious research and fine account. His is a major and much needed addition to the history of the Vietnam War. [End Page 1021]