Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army

Robert K. Brigham

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Scorned by allies and enemies alike, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was one of the most maligned fighting forces in modern history. Cobbled together by U.S. advisers from the remnants of the French-inspired Vietnamese National Army, it was effectively pushed aside by the Americans in 1965. When toward the end of the war the army was compelled to reassert itself, it was too little, too late for all concerned.

“Brigham’s interviews vividly capture the feelings, aspirations,and fears of foot soldiers as they prepared for battle and coped with imminent defeat.

—The Historian

“Brigham exposes . . . accepted wisdom [about the Army of the Republic of Vietnam] to the harsh glow of scholarly analysis. In a wide-ranging study enriched by hundreds of interviews with South Vietnamese soldiers and their families, he examines the training, the leadership, and the morale of the South Vietnamese armed forces, as well as the social environment in which they operated during two decades of intense internal conflict. In the process, he concludes that while there was undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in the ARVN’s public image, there were a number of extenuating circumstances that must be taken into account before rendering a final judgment about its performance during the Vietnam War.

—American Historical Review
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In this first in-depth history of the ARVN from 1955 to 1975, Robert Brigham takes readers into the barracks and training centers of the ARVN to plumb the hearts and souls of these forgotten soldiers. Through his masterly command of Vietnamese-language sources—diaries, memoirs, letters, oral interviews, and more—he explores the lives of ordinary men, focusing on troop morale and motivation within the context of traditional Vietnamese society and a regime that made impossible demands upon its soldiers.

Offering keen insights into ARVN veterans' lives as both soldiers and devout kinsmen, Brigham reveals what they thought about their American allies, their Communist enemies, and their own government. He describes the conscription policy that forced these men into the army for indefinite periods with a shameful lack of training and battlefield preparation and examines how soldiers felt about barracks life in provinces far from their homes. He also explores the cultural causes of the ARVN's estrangement from the government and describes key military engagements that defined the achievements, failures, and limitations of the ARVN as a fighting force. Along the way, he explodes some of the myths about ARVN soldiers' cowardice, corruption, and lack of patriotism that have made the ARVN the scapegoat for America's defeat.

Ultimately, as Brigham shows, without any real political commitment to a divided Vietnam or vision for the future, the ARVN retreated into a subnational culture that redefined the war's meaning: saving their families. His fascinating book gives us a fuller understanding not only of the Vietnam War but also of the problems associated with U.S. nation building through military intervention.

About the Author

Robert K. Brigham is Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College and author of Guerilla Diplomacy: The NLF's Foreign Relations and the Vietnam War and, with Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series