The Need for a Formulation of a Just Cause for the ARVN
Lacking objectivity and an analysis-synthesis of scientific method, the majority of foreign news media and historians have mistakenly assessed the ARVN as merely an army at the service of the policy of French colonialism and subsequently of the American policy in Vietnam, in the internationally strategic point of view, while ignoring the reality aspect and the ideological evolution of the ARVN as well as the ever-changing historical facts. People with academic diplomas and the superb news media system of the free world have misguided the average mind of the general public, and of outer layer of the academic intelligentsia as well. The North-Vietnamese Communists, on the other hand, have used such skewed assessments as a legalistic justification for the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of thousands of military and political personnel of the Republic of Vietnam after their invasion of South Vietnam, and for the death of a multitude of innocent Vietnamese who perished in the waters and in the hands of pirates while attempting to escape by sea in search of freedom. Fortunately, the free world, including the United States, had shown compassionate responsibility in welcoming the victims of the Communist regime.
Recently, the phenomenon of South Vietnamese flags fluttering in the skies all over the free world, the funeral ceremony for a couple of ARVN soldiers conducted by the US Army in Arlington cemetery, the erection of memorial sites in the honor of American and Vietnamese combatants, and conferences and symposiums on the role and just cause of the ARVN, are starting points leading toward an official and legal tribute which will be paid to the ARVN in the very near future. The consequence of such tribute is that the surviving ARVN will have the legal justification to liberate the entire Vietnam or to lend support to a revolution by the people within the country, which will eradicate the dictatorship of the Communist Party in the future in principle, although the ARVN has ceased to exist in reality. Furthermore, out of sense of responsibility, the free world will back up the surviving ARVN in its effort to restore freedom in Vietnam because they had abandoned their ally in 1975. In addition, in the world’s opinion, the Communists will become war criminals for their acts of imprisonment and torture or massacre of prisoners.
Rendering honor to the ARVN in the future can be misconstrued or criticized by the communist bloc as merely a short-term policy of the free world. Therefore, paying tribute to the just cause of the ARVN must be demonstrated and evaluated objectively by historians of the world. This story told by an ARVN soldier does not have the ambition of proving this premise, but only the wish of providing genuine and living facts related to this premise. Historians will find thousands of similar stories during these past three decades, which will allow them to analyze and synthesize objectively and scientifically for a just cause premise of the ARVN. These are the conditions for the just cause to attain transparency and magnanimity in the future. Furthermore, memoirs of communist cadres, declassified American, Chinese and Russian documents from various archives, and current movements reclaiming freedom and democracy by Vietnamese inside the nation are valuable treasures for historians to compare and to evaluate the just cause of the ARVN.
Aspirant Lieutenant Bui Thuong
I had the honor of knowing Aspirant Lieutenant Bui Thuong when he was assigned as executive officer of the recon company belonging to 46th Infantry Regiment around September 1963.
He once was a Catholic monk; he enlisted in the army in order for his children and his people to enjoy the freedom of religion - not to become a slave to the French- after he heard the news that the Communists in Quang Binh Province killed his father because of his Catholic belief. During his military service in the French army, he witnessed the difference in convictions among the Vietnamese soldiers: some joined the army because of economic reasons or to become servants to the French; some, like him, joined the Communists to fight against the French out of patriotism, but then left the Communists because they refused to join the Communist Party; some, realizing that Communism was at odds with the Vietnamese cultural heritage, chose to lean on the French power to fight against the Communists at the initial stage, with the intention to reclaim national sovereignty once they matured politically and militarily. After 1950, he noticed that the majority of the military personnel preferred nationalism to slavery under the French. By 1965, he saw that the ARVN had transformed entirely, from a composite army in terms of ideology to an ARVN with a strong aspiration of national independence. He quit the Can Lao party, took leave of his wife and six children and volunteered for a combat unit, the 46th Infantry Regiment in September 1963, but he never revealed the motive behind his action. Besides long-range reconnaissance tasks in Hau Nghia Sector, the Recon Company/46th Infantry also assumed the task of building strategic hamlets, which provided him with ample opportunities of exercising his patriotism, his leadership, and his skills in mass propaganda. He often visited and chatted with soldiers, and nurtured their patriotism by explaining to them the just cause of the ARVN. In particular his performance in the area of mass propaganda was quite inspirational to me. He often organized political sessions geared to the simple minds of the villagers, with great attention paid to the seating protocol: the presiding role was always given to the head of the village who sat at the first row among the elders; the next rows were assigned to the younger audience; and the last rows were reserved to the Recon Co/46th Infantry. He did not lecture much, but rather focused on listening to the wishes and questions of the villagers. His answers reflected his political convictions that the Nation takes precedent to Religions, and Religions should not interfere with politics; all Religions should be treated equally; freedom of religion is a legal entity in the RVN constitution; the Army assumes the task of defending the territories of a free Vietnam and protecting the South Vietnamese people against the threat or massacre of the Communists; South Vietnam does not accept the general referendum as dictated by the Geneva Accord, because President Ngo Dinh Diem did not participate in and did not sign this accord; and the RVN is a legal government elected by the people after the Geneva Accord, championing freedom and democracy; the Communist regime in the North is an unconstitutional regime because the North has never organized a free election to select Communism over freedom and democracy, or elect Ho Chi Minh to be the leader in the North; the Communists tricked the Vietnamese into opposing the French in order to save the country, because in reality the Communist party was an instrument in the expansion of Communism, lead by Communist Russia and China…
After more than a month building strategic hamlets, the recon company returned to its independent long-range recon role. The affection shown by the villagers in the farewell ceremony, the decreasing of deserters down to zero, while the number of VC killed or captured increased within a month were proofs of Aspirant Lieutenant Bui Thuong’s exceptional leadership and charisma among the population.
He once again demonstrated his combat experiences, his courage, and his compassion during the period the company conducted long-range recon independently. He always volunteered to go with the lead platoon in order to share his combat experiences with the young platoon leaders. Every time he saw soldiers and me clapping our hands in delight when artillery shells hit bull eyes he looked at us with an air of concern and reservation. He was not sure the enemy got killed and worried those innocent villagers and animals got hurt. When nighttime came he started arguing those artillery shelling could harm the just cause of the ARVN, because he had witnessed indiscriminate artillery shelling on innocent peasants and piracy acts committed by the French army. If there was definitely no indications of the enemy being hit by artillery shells that night, he would lecture me on sensitivity toward innocent peasants then he would reprimand me for my tendency of showing off my skill in the use of artillery. Such nights reminded me of bedtime lectures I received from my mother for all of my daytime vagaries with other kids who were my friends. During his lecture, I fell asleep and started snoring. Next morning, as soon as I opened my eyes, he resumed his lecturing for falling asleep while he had not finished pouring out his inner thoughts. Upon seeing my laughing out loud, he burst out laughing louder than me, because it suddenly dawned onto him that my infant-like face reminded him of his children’s faces during the time he lived in Saigon: they also fell asleep like me each time he lectured them at bedtime. He suddenly changed his facial expression into seriousness and defended me in saying that by using pre-emptive artillery fire could limit casualties before the company assaulted, especially since the reconnaissance company was operating independently and therefore it needed artillery and air supports to cover and encourage the combatants. And so, no matter what he said, he found a way to justify it! He kept on lecturing and I kept on doing it my way!
During a long-range recon operation along River Vam Co Dong, the Recon Company did not encounter enemy resistance while maneuvering the whole morning. Aspirant Lieutenant Thuong suspected that the enemy would ambush the last planned target; he cautiously deployed his unit in an open space on crouching positions before launching the lead platoon to assault the dense forest. Following an hour of continuous artillery pounding this last objective, the Recon Company assaulted the edge of the forest after crossing the open space of the rice paddy without encountering any enemy resistance; however, he started to grunt upon seeing two dead cows hit by artillery fire lying at the edge of the forest; he kept on grilling me how to compensate the poor owners of these two cows; then he scolded me for calling in concentrated artillery firepower. Suddenly his facial expression changed rapidly, from sadness to sternness of a martial arts master, when two soldiers showed him a weapon stained with an enemy's fresh blood. He quickened his steps, moving forward with his lead platoon in the pursuit of the fleeing enemy that had been heavily decimated by our artillery firepower. Once again I witnessed with surprise the transformation of his facial expression, from fiery as of a warrior to benevolent as of a saint, when he saw an enemy deadly wounded by our artillery fire. He gave order to the medic to treat the prisoner’s head wound, who was left behind by his comrades, then he knelt down next to him and asked him what could he possibly do at his very last moment. Just a few drops of water had allowed the wounded enemy to depart life in comfort and in peace, following a long sigh. He hastily closed the enemy’s eyelids and said a prayer of deliverance for him. This was the first time the soldiers witnessed the sainthood trait of him. That night he asked me out of curiosity why I did not pray Buddha for the enemy because he knew I was a Buddhist from Hue.
A few weeks later, the Recon Company operated at regimental level in order to penetrate deeply into a VC stronghold near to the Cambodian border in Duc Hue District. A friendly battalion fell into an ambush and clashed heavily with the enemy at the last objective. Orders came from the Command Post of 46th Infantry to attack the rear of the enemy from the left flank of the friendly battalion; Aspirant Lieutenant Thuong volunteered to accompany the two lead platoons with me because he well knew I was eager to come to the rescue of a classmate, Vo Tinh, who was wounded while commanding his company’s counter-attack. At that moment, foes and friends were too close to one another, rendering the use of artillery impractical. Aspirant Lieutenant Thuong and I, together with the two platoons gave assault into the enemy line after throwing diversionary smoke grenades. Seeing me lurching forward with a tiny pistol, he managed to run before me with an automatic rifle to give me cover. The enemy, who was within 10 meters, gunned him down. Two grenades thrown by the soldier on my left cut down four enemies, allowing me to kneel down next to him. He passed away so fast, without pain; his eyes remaining wide open as if he wanted to keep looking at the enemy. I closed his eyelids and held his body and cried uncontrollably like a child. Dear Thuong, why did you have to die while the country needs you more than me! You closed the enemy’s eyelids, but the enemy did not do the same to you! You prayed for the enemy, but the enemy did not pray for you! As for me, I dare not pray Buddha for you because I know you are a Catholic saint.
Corporal Tran Tan
I had the honor of knowing Corporal Tran Tan when he was assigned to the 2nd Company of 1/8th Battalion as a 2nd private. Seeing he was rather frail, I appointed him a cook in the Headquarters Headquarters Company. He was disappointed with this assignment and requested to be transferred to the recon squad of 2nd Company. I turned down his request because this unit was established outside the table of organization and equipment of an infantry company, and was composed of volunteers with ample combat experiences. After two weeks, he had demonstrated his cooking talents, and started seeking to converse with me because we had the same Hue accent. He opened up by talking about his family situation: his father was killed by the VC because he had joined the Dai Viet party to oppose the French and even the VC; he was also a member of Dai Viet, and had to leave his paternal village and took refuge at a relative’s home in Hue’s inner city; still, Hue was too small in allowing him to blend in, which compelled him to take his wife and two children to Saigon; in July 1964, seeing that the military situation had worsened seriously, he decided to join the army to help the country. He used to observe the recon squad practicing hand combat with me every day, and one day he took the courage to challenge me when I was practicing hand combat with the squad leader. To my surprise, he countered all my attack moves with ease and dexterity. Then, with lightning speed, he closed in behind me and locked my body. I attempted to unlock his grip, but all my efforts failed. Suddenly, he loosened up his locking position and allowed me to regain the upper hand with an elementary counter move. Soldiers clapped their hands to congratulate me, unaware of my embarrassment while I was standing in front of a true martial arts master. I bowed to him and considered him my teacher in martial arts. While the soldiers were startled by my deference toward him, he modestly requested to become a member of the recon squad. From that moment on, he became a long-range scout and the hand combat instructor of the recon squad. He used to put a ginger candy into my hand whenever I joined the recon squad in night ambush outings. The taste of mild sugar flavor mixed with hot ginger flavor kept my mind alert while waiting for the enemy to show up. Each such time, I heard the chucklings of the long-range scouts lying nearby me; they spread the rumor that Tan tried to bribe me with ginger candies to make me accompany the recon squad. In reality, Tan did the same favor to them when he saw they too were tired or bickering with one another. From that moment on he got the nickname of the “candy long-range scout”. The word “keo” in Vietnamese means “stingy”, and it suited him because he did not drink or gamble and was very stingy in his personal expenses. His wife always received in full all of his paychecks, except when he needed to buy ginger to mix with sugar that was part of his monthly ration.
I retain an unforgettable anecdote when the recon company operated in Tan Thanh Dong belonging to Binh Duong Sector. One evening, he asked me if I wanted to catch a VC fundraising operator that night or not. I was surprised and asked him about this intelligence information. I learned that he had set up an intelligence network among the local people three weeks after we started to operate in this area. Not convinced, I nevertheless decided to accompany the intelligence squad. Tan led the squad and I followed his footsteps in the night. The intelligence squad crawled through the door of a house with lights still on. I saw the fundraising operator sitting comfortably at a desk, counting the money. I plunged in to catch him alive, when I heard a burst of bullets rushing by me toward the direction of the kitchen. I realized that it was the quick thinking minded Dai Viet member, private Tan, who had saved my life when I saw two enemies’ corpses with two automatic rifles lying on the floor. He was promoted to corporal in this raid.
On May 8, 1965, 1/8th Battalion was attached to 9th Regiment in operation Loi Phong in the VC stronghold of An Nhon Tay. The entire 9th Regiment and 1/8th Battalion fell into the enemy’s ambush by 1:00 p.m. Both units fought valiantly and repulsed several assaults until ammunition ran out; however, there were no artillery and air supports for three hours. Finally, the regimental commander had to order his troops to withdraw to the nearby empty rice paddies in order to maneuver toward Cu Chi district of Hau Nghia province. 1/8th Battalion covered the rear and 2nd Company covered 1/8th Battalion’s rear in this troop retreat without air and artillery supports. The enemy knew our intention to withdraw and kept on assaulting 1/8th Battalion and fired heavily at the combatants of the battalions of 9th Regiment who were running uncovered in the rice paddies. I witnessed hundreds soldiers with yellow scarves around the neck gunned down all over the rice paddies, then those with red scarves around the neck of the two companies and the HHC of Captain Cua in the hundreds while 2nd Company was repulsing two enemy’s assaults to cover Captain Cua’s retreat. I witnessed Tan killing many enemies with bayonet and bare hands in the last close combat, before the company attempted to catch up with 1/8th Bn HHC because Captain Cua lost control of his two companies that were running ahead of him. When the recon squad pierced enemy’s encirclement line to escape to the open rice paddies, nobody had munitions left to lend cover fire for the rear troops, Tan had the initiative to crawl to a machine gun of a yellow-scarfed gunner dead long time ago, and used it to fire at the enemy in pursuit of the last units of 2nd Company. At that moment four helicopters appeared unexpectedly and circled above the target to support the last troop units that just broke out of enemy’s encirclement and poured out into the open rice paddies. He abandoned the machine gun, which ran out of bullets with its canon still hot red and ran toward the back. He immediately seized a light machine gun from a yellow-scarfed soldier KIA and fired directly at about 30 enemies who just emerged from the edge of the forest. I witnessed a multitude of enemies gunned down when he still had two bullet clips in his hands. Suddenly I saw Tan collapse with the light machine gun. I crawled quickly toward him and grabbed his hand right at the moment he exhaled his last breath. I closed his eyelids and let 4 long-range scouts took turn to carry his body along with the company to catch up with Captain Cua who was waiting. The Captain embraced me and we wept together in sorrow for the lost of a beloved soldier KIA. Up in heaven, Corporal Tran Tan no doubt knew that he was the only one among all the soldiers who participated in this operation whose body was carried to Cu Chi district that night, because the 2nd Company and one battalion of the 9th Regiment had to stay behind in order to follow the rescue troops in the task to gathering dead bodies of friendly troops the next day.
Two days later, I visited the families of KIA soldiers at the quarters of soldiers’ families in the base camp after I left General Tran Thanh Phong’s office. Tan’s wife and two children donned in funeral white dresses were mourning next to his coffin in a room covered by incense burning. I knelt in front of him with incense sticks in hands to pay tribute to a talented martial arts master, a patriotic member of Dai Viet party and a valiant combatant of the ARVN. I respectfully handed to Tan’s wife his wallet and an envelope containing collection money from members of 2nd Company. She held the wallet to her chest as the last gift he reserved for her, and then she burst into tears, “My love! Why have you departed while we have not yet fulfilled our dreams!? Rest in peace, I will do my best to raise dutifully our children.”
I don’t know the whereabouts of Tan’s wife and his two children; have they grown up to become good citizens? Are they allowed to embrace the party of their liking or have they been indoctrinated with communism? Do they know and are proud that they had a hero of the ARVN as a father? As for me, each year on May 8, I burn incense sticks with a ginger candy to commemorate the one who had saved my life, a martial arts master and a fearless combatant of the ARVN.
Colonel Nguyen Van Cua
I had the honor of knowing Colonel Nguyen Van Cua when he became 1/8th Battalion Commander with the rank of captain. He demonstrated the gallantry of an elder classmate when he came to my defense appearing before an authoritarian division commander. When troops of 2nd Company just jumped out of trucks in the 5th Infantry Division’s parking lot on May 10, Captain Cua and two company commanders in impeccable uniforms signaled me to follow them to report to the division commander. Upon entering the office I noticed immediately that the pair of two barn owl like eyes of Brigadier General Tran Thanh Phong were starring at my dirty and blood stained outfits. He suddenly banged the desk in anger, “What type of officer dresses like a beggar!” I was still affected by the heroic deaths of Tan and combatants of my company, and went for broke, criticizing the division commander for delaying air and artillery supports and munitions supplies as well for his absence on the battlefield. He tore the dossier that contained an award proposition to the 1/8th Battalion, and then rang the bell to call in the military policemen to imprison me. Captain Cua calmly stood up and requested to be imprisoned with me, and then the two company leaders also requested the same treatment as the battalion commander. When Captain Hoang, Class 15/VNMA, let in two military policemen, Captain Cua had just finished recounting the battle occurring at An Nhon Tay. General Phong dismissed the two MPs then apologized for his out of line tantrum.
A few days later, Captain Cua came to have dinner with me and slept over with the 2nd Company. That night, he confided in me his patriotic ideal, his revulsion of the massacre of patriots who fought against the French and the communist inhumane killing of Cao Dai’s and Hoa Hao’s religious leaders because they did not embrace communism; he foresaw the threat of communism and decided to join the army to fight against the communists, then the French, in order to regain independence for Vietnam.
Around two weeks later, 2nd Company got the chance to revenge the deaths of Tan and other combatants of 2nd Company in the battle of An Nhon Tay. In the road clearing operation along QL 13 from Bung Cau to Ben Cat of Binh Duong province, the entire 1/8th Battalion minus 2nd Company fell into the ambush of an enemy’s battalion. 3rd Company was ambushed south of Ben Cat and suffered heavy loss, and was forced to withdraw to Command Post/8th Regiment at Sub-Sector Ben Cat. 1/8th Battalion Command unit and 1st Company were ambushed and encircled at Bung Dia. Captain Cua and 1st Company fought back valiantly, and pushed back three enemy assaults, while giving order to 2nd Company in operation at Bung Cau to rush back to rescue the battalion. General Phong flew above the battlefield in order to direct in person the counter-attack and resistance of 1/8th Battalion. Troops’ morale was high because of the division commander’s presence; 2nd Company regrouped to attack enemy’s rear from the south in order to pierce through the enemy’s battalion command defensive line, forcing the enemy troops to scatter in panic. When General Phong landed his helicopter down to inspect enemy’s casualties and captured weapons, he witnessed Captain Cua and the1st Company leader still holding grenades in their hands ready to fight to the end with the enemy. He recommended battlefield promotions to Captain Cua and the two company’s leaders. The day he was promoted, Captain was saddened because the names of the two company’s commanders were not listed on the promotion document. He consoled me by intervening with the division commander to let me attend the Class 7 of Battalion Commander in Dalat, in order to become the 1/9th Battalion Executive Officer to a new Battalion Commander, Captain Nguyen Van Vy, auguring a three-year downfall phase in my military career.
When I received the transfer order to assume the 1/9th Battalion Executive Officer, Major Cua invited me to have dinner at his residence, in order to inquire the reason I ordered a Chinese civilian not to cater Vietnamese prostitutes to the American GIs at Lai Khe. I merely responded because it was a matter of national pride. He derided me because of my narrow mind and discriminatory attitude, and then he tried to investigate who had given me the order that was not in line with the TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment). I was put in a dilemma, because of the two opposite directions taken by two of my superiors; nevertheless, I did not want Captain Vy to assume the responsibility of the order he had given me because I had promised before executing this out of TO&E mission; that was why I did not reveal the truth to Captain Cua, and accepted full consequence of my foolish action. Later on, I came to know that my new commander was also a competent general: he had infused new life to 5th Division by appointing many young officers of the VNMA into leadership positions, such as LTC Chau Minh Kien, an ARVN hero and an exceptional battalion commander of Class 19/VNMA, as 1/8th Battalion Commander, Captain Thieu of Class 19/VNMA as 4/8th Battalion Commander, Captain Nguyen Ky Suong as 2/8th Battalion Commander, Captain Le Sy Hung as 5th Recon Company Leader; furthermore, my new commander gallantly approved my transfer to VNMA as I wished in the beginning of 1969, and he also approved my advanced training in the United States prior to my VNMA’s transfer. It was LTC Cua who made the recommendation to General Hieu to commute my transfer order to VNMA upon my return from abroad to assume the position of 1/8th Battalion Commander in the end of 1969.
Each time I visited him when he was Binh Duong Province Chief, he expressed concerns about the life and security of the population, which reminded me of Aspirant Lieutenant Bui Thuong, the heroic long-range scout some few years ago. Because of his love toward the population, he was kept at the province chief position for more than 5 years until the fall of the country, although he had requested to command a combat unit several times. In the beginning of April 1975, he reiterated to me on the international long distance telephone line that he would stay to fight with the combatants, and would not flee the country. He kept his promise and died in the communist prison, as a classmate of mine, Nguyen Van Hiep, told me.
Brigadier General Tran Thanh Phong
When Captain Cua and the three Company's commanders just came out of Brigadier General Tran Thanh Phong's office, Captain Hoang, Class 15/VNMA, pulled me aside and whispered to me, “The Commander is understanding, don't you dare be insolent or troublesome!” I retorted, “Didn't you teach me to talk frankly!” He threw a condescending look at me, “OK, let me apologize to the Commander since I have taught you to behave that way.” I don't know how Hoang had persuaded General Phong, but from that moment on I noticed that the General changed his leadership style entirely, from haughty to friendly, from commanding a battle from his office to shouldering the combatants on the battlefield fearlessly. It was unfortunate that he left the 5th Division too soon and did not get the chance to make use of his talents after his metamorphic change.
Brigadier General Le Nguyen Vy
Brigade General Le Nguyen Vy was the person who sympathized with my downfall when he was still 9th Regiment Commander. Whenever he visited the battalion, he did not fail to mention to me that my transfer from one battalion to another was beyond his authority. Oftentimes, at lighter moment, he advised me to seek an audience with the “Authority” to present the truth because Captain Nguyen Van Vy, my former 1/8th Battalion Commander, had just left the army. Seeing that he could not convince me after three years, he counseled me go to the United States for further training and to request to be transferred to the VNMA where I would be of better service. Meanwhile, he assigned me to the regimental command unit to spend time playing chess with him and listening to his military career stories. The reason he joined the military was similar to Captain Cua's; however, he had a wider strategic vision than Captain Cua, in that he was concerned that the anti-war movements in the United States would strongly affect the American policy in the future; he tried to find a strategy of “Self-Sufficiency” for the ARVN in case the Americans gave up Vietnam. The two-month period living with him allowed me to know him to be a devoted patriot with a fanatic anti-communist stance.
When I returned to my country, I learned the news that the order of my transfer to the VNMA had been canceled. I realized at this moment that my destiny was still attached to the 5th Infantry Division. When he met me, he told me the good news that the curse cast on me all these years had been dispelled by a visionary and charismatic leader, Major General Nguyen Van Hieu. While awaiting my assignment to 1/8th Battalion, I again listened to his passionate discourses on the topic of self-sufficiency although he had not found how to implement it. Neither was he satisfied with my understanding of the anti-war movement in the United States, which made him decide to travel to the United States to get further training as a means to get a better understanding of this issue. A few days prior to my return to 1/8th Battalion, he proudly recounted the outstanding military exploits of 1/8th Battalion under the command of LTC Chau Minh Kien, Class 19/VNMA, then his sorrow when he witnessed the deterioration and defeat of the battalion in the Iron Triangle area after LTC Kien's death in action. He was also ashamed in finding out that the accomplishment of 1/8th Battalion was pale in comparison to an American battalion's in the Dong Tien program after the death of LTC Kien; he then told me this was the opportunity to know what it means by national disgrace if 1/8th Battalion performs worse than an ally unit.
One month later, he was elated in seeing that the achievements of 1/8th Battalion were 4 times more better than an ally battalion (see Assessment of 5th Infantry Division). He liked the most the “Insert, Move, Mine, Assault, Extract” tactic used in the Iron Triangle. Before saying goodbye to 1/8th Battalion, he was proud and happy like a kid when he witnessed the Platoon Leader of the Recon Platoon/1/8th Bn training his recon platoon and the American's in the use of this new tactic; in particular how to transform a manually controlled Claymore into an automatic mine, or an artillery shell into an automatic or a controlled mine.
In the beginning of 1974, he phoned to inquire about my well being and to ask if I wanted to return to 5th Division or not. I honestly let him know that I had been ordered by General Tho to prepare myself to go to the United States for advanced training. In the middle of April 1974, he sent an emissary to An Dong Officers Club to tell me to come to see him before my departure to the United States. He was at that time a Colonel and a Division Commander. He appeared older and more majestic than four years before, but he was still enthusiastic and energetic as before. He asked why I had to go to training during the current critical situation of the country. I honestly presented to him that my new plan of action was to fight against the anti-war movement and the left-wing news media, and also my intention to submit my request for military discharge while I was studying abroad. He hastily took out a small notebook to transcribe names and addresses of a few students studying abroad and of Americans that he had tried to rally to his cause during the one-year he was studying abroad and gave them to me. I asked his opinion about the Paris Agreement. He reiterated his predictions he formulated when he played chess with me in 1969, however he stated that he would fight to the end with his soldiers. Finally, he advised me to visit General Hieu before I went abroad. Sensing my hesitation to go to Bien Hoa, he told me to go outside to chat with Suong, Class 16/VNMA and wait for him. After about 15 minutes, he called me in and let me know that General Hieu would have lunch at noon in the An Dong Officers Club the following week and he wished to meet me there. I stood up and solemnly saluted a “Samurai” warrior of the 20th century.
Major General Lam Quang Tho and his General Staff
A month of working at the Organization Bureau of the VNMA had made me aware of the complexities and difficulties of a general staff officer. In the past, VC sappers had infiltrated and attacked twice the VNMA, they even penetrated deeply and opened fire in the office of the VNMA commandant. Following two attacks, they assassinated the cadet military affairs director, an honest and model colonel, while he was asleep in his bedroom at the Cadets’ Regiment. The new Table of Organization & Equipment (TO&E) that my two predecessors, Organization Bureau Chiefs, had prepared, was still not approved by the JGS after several submissions… Nevertheless, that did not prevent me from performing smoothly my task of a general staff officer with Major General Lam Quang Tho until an incident occurred on the graduation day of Class 25 in the end of 1972. After that incident, I lived under constant pressure when I had to perform tasks that were not defined in the TO&E pertaining to an organization bureau chief assigned by General Tho, beyond the normal tasks of a general staff officer.
According to TO&E, the Organization Bureau was tasked to organize operations, to train cadets in general staff, to secure the defense of the facilities and to organize the graduation of the cadets. On the Graduation Day of Class 25/VNMA, General Cao Van Vien’s attaché conveyed a wrong departure time to the General. Therefore, the General took his time eating breakfast, while General Tran Thien Khiem, the presiding VIP of the Graduation Ceremony, had departed on time as planned. When I discovered the gaff, there wasn’t sufficient time to report it to General Tho, so I took it upon myself to give order to General Khiem’s attaché to have the car stop at Ho Xuan Huong for sightseeing, then I gave order to General Vien’s attaché to urge the General to skip his breakfast and to hurry up to arrive at the ceremony stand before General Khiem. General Tho was standing 10 meters nearby and saw troops of the Prime Minister’ s Security team pointing their weapons at me while I calmly gave out the order in the name of General Tho without seeking prior approval of General Tho. Today, I seize this opportunity to apologize to both of you, General Khiem and General Vien, and appreciate your magnanimity in not reprimanding me for causing inconvenience to both of you in the graduation ceremony of Class 25/VNMA in 1972. In particular General Vien had approved my promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and had selected me for attending advanced training in the United States in 1974. Despite the fact I did not act as dictated by general staff’s principle, the ceremony was a success and General Tho submitted the request for my promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He then went on instruct me to perform many other tasks that were out of line in terms of general staff’s principle from that day until the day I went to the United States to attend my advanced training in 1974.
During the time I served a combat unit at company and battalion levels, I was not at all aware of the power held by MACV in Saigon; however, I came to know it when I assumed the task of preparing the draft of a new TO&E for VNMA. Just like my two predecessors at the helm of the Organization Bureau, the new TO&E draft was still rejected by the JGS two more times. Out of desperation I sought advice with General Tho who taught me the right way to proceed. I was told to bypass the military hierarchical ladder and to contact directly with MACV in Saigon. And that was it! The new TO&E was approved; general staff officers as well as other cadres would benefit from the same promotion criteria as those in combat units. General Tho valued the dedication of officers serving at the academy and was very pleased with this new TO&E because it allowed him to submit promotion requests for officers of the general staff, the instruction staff and cadres in the Cadets’ Regiment.
To counter internal enemy cells, General Tho ordered me to devise a counter-attack plan, totally different from the official defensive plan issued to commanders of key positions, to be submitted solely to him for review. He cautioned me that this secret plan should be known only to him and me, and told me, when circumstances required such as his absence during the enemy attack ... I would execute this secret plan in his name. This out- of- line order panicked me and I made the suggestion to disseminate it also to the Chief of Staff to avoid my career being shortchanged as when I was with 1/8th Battalion. He revealed to me other incredible information about my Chief of Staff: he had been under military security’s monitoring quite a long time; therefore he could not be entrusted with the lives of cadets. It made me more insecure having to work with a Chief of Staff under investigation; I asked General Tho why the military security didn’t just catch him. He told me that this was how the professional counter-intelligence people operated. Besides, this was the beauty of a free and democratic system, entirely different with the “Rather make mistakes in killing than overlook a target” policy of the Communists; they kill the persons they have suspicion while we only condemn somebody when we have evidences in our hands.
A few weeks later, he engaged me in another game that was not within the role of the Organization Bureau as defined by the TO&E. He instructed me to organize in secrecy the intelligence network involving the civilian population in the areas of Ap Thai Phien and Khu Chi Lang. I immediately tried to avoid performing that task under the pretext that I had never undergone training in intelligence; and I also respectfully made him know of my repulsion toward the spying game or the use of back door alleys. He simply rebutted me by saying, “Well, aren’t we part of the Military Academy!”
I did not like at all bypassing my chief of staff in performing my job because I knew it would create friction between the two of us, which would then affect negatively my subordinates; for that reason, I did not use them in these out- of -line tasks. General Tho’s ordering directly the General Administration Bureau/VNMA to submit a request only for my promotion after the Class 25’s graduation was the starting point for the rocking waves between the chief of staff and me, because my CofStaff suspected that I had bypassed him in soliciting directly General Tho. Three months later, I was promoted ad hoc LTC in a normal yearly promotion, which increased my Cof Staff’s suspicion. Auguring the crashes was the CofStaff’s refusal to submit the special promotion request for two officers who headed two sections in my Bureau, and Meritorious Certificates after the graduation ceremony, while many officers who headed sections in other bureaus were awarded with Meritorious Certificates. The CofStaff took over my office, and moved my office around from one location to another about three or four times. He gave order to the Officer, Head of Defense and Security Section of the Organization Bureau, to accompany cadets on mission in Central Vietnam, despite the fact I had advised him that the Officer, Head of Defense and Security Section, did not have to go with the cadets and it did not correspond to his function as defined in the TO&E of the Organization Bureau- a tactical operation officer and an instructor of general staff to cadets. The CofStaff created internal disturbance in the Organization Bureau by inciting the officer in charge of operations in the Tactical Operation Center to disobey my order. One night, I came to the TOC to inspect ambush positions of the Long-Range Recon Squad. I was surprised to find out that one key ambush position to intercept the enemy’s communication line at Thai Phien hamlet had been ordered by the CofStaff to be moved to another position, which was tactically unsound. I seized this opportunity to test the CofStaff by telling the officer in charge of operations to have the ambush team revert to its original position. He refused to obey my order, and called the CofStaff to report my order and awaited new order from the CofStaff. The CofStaff ordered him to execute my order. As for the security clearance issue of my CofStaff and the cadet safety matter, I determined it was about time to voice my disagreement to the CGS for only one issue, his infringement with general staff principle– the TOC was under direct control of the Organization Bureau– I disciplined the Officer in charge of operations with a 15-day internment for disobeying the immediate superior and for bypassing military hierarchical protocol, with the intention to test the CofStaff’s reaction. He was clever in agreeing with me and in not interfering any more with the Organization Bureau; nevertheless, the relationship between the CofStaff and me became tense since that moment.
I started to get tired of this cat and mouse situation and resorted to study mathematics to ease off the tension of my mind. General Tho sympathized with my predicament and advised me to study journalism and he then would nominate me for training in the United States. I followed his advice and registered to take the second year of journalism at Van Hanh University in Saigon. A classmate of Class 17/VNMA helped me in getting course lessons from Saigon, and I was able to study and passed the course without difficulty. Early 1974, General Tho let me know that I was approved to attend the CGS in the United States. It was during that period that I came to know the personality and competence of General Tho. He complained about the deterioration in the quality of meals served to the cadets due to inflation, although he had set up a strict monitoring system of thefts. He felt confident in the area of defense because he just learned of the imminent military discharge of the CofStaff for reasons of personal security; and he had the civilian intelligence under control. He understood the need for psychological warfare against news media and the enemy’s propaganda in the United States … His convincing arguments had helped me in transforming from a rigid professional soldier to a flexible loner venturing in a far away country. In February 1975, General Tho sent me the news I would be honorably discharge from the army as my wish in order to pursue my new path in life.
After 1975, I learned that my CofStaff was a spy for COSVN, which made me admire more General Tho; and I stopped regretting performing those tasks not in line with general staff’s principle while I served under such a competent general.
Major General Nguyen Van Hieu
Major General Nguyen Van Hieu was the person who had provided me with the chance to getting out of my destitute condition during my period of downfall and for me into a period full of challenges and adventures which fulfilled the dream of a soldier. He had appointed me to my position without any personal gains and solely based on my military records and the recommendations of Colonels Nguyen Van Cua and Le Nguyen Vy. He had saved my life, without being aware of it, when he flew his C&C helicopter above my head in a rapid counter-attack against a sapper squad of a VC battalion, which planned to attack the 5th Infantry Division HQ in Lai Khe in early 1970. He had demonstrated his sense of responsibility, courage, shrewdness and competence of a field commander defending the frontier, when he shouldered the combatants of 8th Task Force in the 1971 Snoul Operation. Furthermore, he was an honest and virtuous general, with a clear vision of the political and strategic behind-the-scenes in the national and international stages. He was indeed a visionary and charismatic leader of the Republic of Vietnam that Vietnam had lacked for more than a century; however, opportunity presented itself too late to allow him to deploy his talents. In late 1972, he had demonstrated to me his anti-communist patriotism and shared with me his predictions pertaining to the new policy adopted by the United States after the visit to Red China by Nixon.
Just one hour eating lunch with him at the An Dong Officers’ Club in late April 1974, I knew he was an outstanding international strategist, besides his outstanding intellectual and military talents. He understood clearly the danger of losing the country after the Paris Agreement, the anti-war movement in the United States, the Watergate scandal of President Nixon and the law limiting the war power of the United States President. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast with policies of “Drinking to the Last Drop”, “Finishing the Job Despite Allies’ Dropout”, “Fighting Tooth and Nail Against the Enemy”… He had a ready plan for “Delaying Tactical War” with a diplomatic line of action in the international arena; however, “Man Proposes and God Disposes”, and conditions did not allow him to save the match move against the Republic of Vietnam.
When I accompanied him to the parking lot, I came to realize that a new mission which was not in line with the TO&E was awaiting me when General Hieu revealed to me the letter President Nixon had sent to President Thieu in which he promised with Thieu the United States would intervene in the Vietnam War if the VC transgressed seriously the agreement. I respectfully saluted the visionary and charismatic leader, a “Samurai” warrior of the 20th Century.
In July 1975, I released a sounding balloon about the letter of promise although I failed to find a copy after almost living a year in the United States. However, my action got me an introduction letter from the White House to meet with the Delegate of VC Observer in the United Nations in New York. After a three-hour presentation of General Hieu’s will in a tiny room near the rooftop of a skyscraper, I went home with hope about the outcome final phase of the war. However I had failed when I learned that military and civilian cadres of South Vietnam continued to be imprisoned and when I learned about the mysterious death of Dinh Ba Thi, the person who had listened to my sincere presentation, I knew right away that Le Duan and the Communist Party had discarded the patriot will of General Hieu. Then the changing events in history had shown me the damaging consequences of the country when Le Duan rejected General Hieu’s will: the Vietnamese-Chinese War, the relinquishing of in land and sea land territories to Red China, the imbalance in the international strategy for Vietnam nowadays…
Thoughts of an ARVN Soldier
The Vietnam War has its origin way back in the 18th century, when Nguyen Anh sought help from the army of a foreign country in defeating a national hero, King Quang Trung. Following were the waves of colonialism, of economical and cultural expansionism that European countries imposed on Asian underdeveloped countries, then the “Containment Doctrine” carried out by the United States in Southeast Asia. Challenged by these enormous pressures, some countries were able to withstand and preserve their independence and traditional culture such as Thailand, while Vietnam was devastated, colonized and destroyed. History shows that the foreign policy and the character of Thailand had helped avoid the strategic chess game of foreign powers, while the wrong foreign policy adopted by the Kings of the Nguyen Dynasty and the character of the Vietnamese had contributed in placing Vietnam on the orbits designed by chess players from foreign countries. This is an important topic for ethnologists in exploring the differences between the people from Thailand and from Vietnam, in order to facilitate the necessary transformation of the Vietnamese character in its attempt to end the ideologically civil Vietnam War, which is reaching its final stage.
I grew up and then became a soldier of the ARVN; and therefore I only write from the perspective of a tiny pawn on the international chessboard dominated by chess players of foreign countries. As a consequence of the sudden withdrawal of one of the chess players ─ The United States ─ the ARVN had failed in defending the people of the South who cherish freedom and democracy. Nevertheless, the ARVN was an army with a just cause and its own pride. The ARVN soldiers had a clear understanding of their role in the fight against the Communists in order to defend the freedom of South Vietnam. On the other hand, the Communist Party was successful in deceiving the NVA soldiers into fighting for atheist communism, which is against their own traditional beliefs and their own ways of life. The ARVN soldiers like the government of the RVN had no other choice in receiving allies’ aid, but they categorically refused to become any foreign countries’ slaves. The North Vietnamese Communists, on the contrary, while also forced to seek aid from the Communist Bloc, agreed to become its slaves, like in the cases of land reform in the North, of 1975 invasion of the South under Russian pressure…The ARVN was also unfortunate in the lack of national leadership, while the North Communists got a cunning and cruel leader, Ho Chi Minh, and hid their undertaking under the label of fighting against the French and then the Americans to defend the country. The ARVN and the RVN government demonstrated humanitarian concern in carrying out a bloodless land reform, as well as magnanimity toward the Communists in implementing the open-arm and humanitarian prisoner policy, while the Communists treated with cruelty and without consideration of human rights the South-Vietnamese combatants when they agreed to lay down their weapons in order to avoid an unnecessary bloodshed in a fight that had reached its final stage. History’s timeline has shown that the North-Vietnamese Communists committed widespread missteps: the secret agreement with the Chinese Communists of ceding in land and sea land territories, the corruption and discord amidst Communist rank and file, and the poverty and the chaos in the Vietnam society. It also has shown the shameful transgression of the North Vietnamese Communists before the scrutiny of the opinion and the history of the Vietnam War. Today, the despicable conduct of a few overseas Vietnamese when they returned to their country, the overzealous anti-communist outburst of a few Vietnamese residents abroad, the machiavellian machinations of some individuals, or the subservient bargaining with foreign superpowers, all these are consequences of the wrong, mischievous and petty policy of the North Vietnamese Communists.
A conflict can only be resolved peacefully and permanently with both sides jointly building up the country when they have mutual respect and mutual compassion. The North Vietnamese Communists are having the upper hand at the present time. Therefore it’s their responsibility to put an end the ideologically civil conflict ─democracy and communism. This requires that they have the courage and patriotism to put away their current unstable and legally unfounded powers. Such is the condition of Vietnam, which wants to escape the dominance of the two foreign chess players who are now commencing a new game in our beloved Vietnam. Let’s wait and see!
Tran Van Thuong