“More than one talked about ARVN soldiers’ penchant for walking hand in hand as they headed out to battle”

Perhaps no one came out of the Vietnam War with a reputation as tarnished as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Since well before the war ended, ARVN soldiers were made an easy and ready scapegoat for America’s losses, a stereotype that found its way into academia and popular culture. We’re told they were incompetent cowards who often shirked their duties, leaving the hard work to the Americans.

As a Vietnamese student at an American university with an extensive archive of Vietnam-era oral histories, both written and tape-recorded, I’ve had a unique opportunity to dig deeper, to find all the ways that this story is flimsy and unfair. Unique because it’s not about showing that American soldiers were wrong — rather, I’ve come across account after account from American veterans talking about the courage and effectiveness of their allied brothers, the South Vietnamese soldiers.

Of course, I’ve come across many Americans with negative attitudes about ARVN. But a lot of them were rear-area personnel, people who never fought alongside ARVN and, I imagine, drew inaccurate conclusions from secondhand accounts they’d hear on base. Other negative accounts focused more on cultural differences than anything else. More than one talked about ARVN soldiers’ penchant for walking hand in hand as they headed out to battle. An American radio specialist who served in Binh Duong in 1967 could not understand it, even many years later: “That was kind of strange to us. I don’t think it was any more than they were just good friends, and that’s what they did over there, but it just seemed kind of strange.”

Other American veterans found it strange that the families of ARVN soldiers would often follow them to camp. As one G.I. contemplated: “So these troops were largely draftees. They went into the field with their wives and kids along with them in trail. When they set up the night defensive position, it was like the extended family was there. They did not want to go out and fight in many cases. They just wanted to survive and take care of their families.”

Lead Marines of E Company, Second Battalion, with soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) during a break from patrolling near Da Nang in 1965.Credit…

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