Serve with Honor and Pride

Michael Do

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum[1]

The history of Vietnam is the history of a ceaseless struggle over four thousand years to survive harsh conditions and threats from foreign invasions. Vietnamese are peace-loving people but were pushed to a dangerous situation of extinction. They had to fight and became the finest and most experienced combatants in the South East Asia region in order to maintain their independence and conserve their distinguished culture.   

Looking at the map of South Asia, anybody would realize that Vietnam – in the 20th century – is the most important location in terms of strategy and geopolitics. According to the old concepts of strategy, Vietnam is the door opened to the vast region of South East Asia that is rich in natural resources. Vietnam could provide any kind of economy with a big army of hardworking laborers and also a huge number of consumers. Vietnam was the target of dozens of invasions from many Chinese dynasties over four thousand years; then, the French in the late 19th Century and the Communists in the second half of the 20th century. 

History has its ups and downs; the people have their successes and failures. In order to survive, our ancestors have to fight and sacrifice continuously for thousands of years. Their sweat and blood have soaked and fertilized the green carpet of our land.

The images of the Vietnamese soldiers exist on every page, every chapter of literature and arts – both popular and scholarly.

More than four thousand years ago, in the south region of the Yangtze River (today’s Chinese Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong provinces), there settled one hundred Viet tribes of which the Au Viet and Lac Viet were the origins of Vietnamese people. Huangdi, a legendary leader of a tribe that originated from the west region invaded and defeated the Viets in a great battle. He became the first Chinese emperor in 2697 B.C. The  Chinese territory expanded northward to the Yellow River valley which is commonly held to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Two of the surviving Viet tribes, Lac Viet and Au Viet, united and created the Au Lac Kingdom in today’s South China. Au Lac Kingdom was ruled consecutively by 18 kings of Hong Bang clan until the first Chinese invasion to colonize the kingdom in the next one thousand years.

Many times during Chinese domination, our ancestors revolted and gained brief independence. Trung Sisters defeated the great armies of Han’s dynasty in 43 B.C. and stood firm for three years. The next hero queen was Trieu Nu Vuong who defeated the Chinese Easter Wu’s armies (The Three Kingdoms Era in Chinese history). She became famous thanks to her steadfastness when saying “ I would stomp on the thunder, ride the cruel wave, stab the giant shark on the East Sea; rather than bow the head accepting the fate of a servant. ”

In 937 A.D., the hero King Ngo Quyen defeated the South Han’s armies on Bach Dang River. Vietnam regained long-lasting independence until the French invasion in 1884.

The Chinese would not stop their ambition. Each time a new dynasty rose to power in China, they sent armies to invade Vietnam again. The Vietnamese never gave in! Even in 1075, General Ly Thuong Kiet, after defeating the Chinese Song armies on Nhu Nguyet River, led his troops to invade three Chinese southern provinces. He only withdrew after the Chinese emperor promised not to harass Vietnam again.

When Genghis Khan occupied a vast territory from the Pacific Ocean West coast to Poland and Russia of Europe down to the Persian Gulf, Vietnam was the only country that  defeated the mighty Mongolian armies of Ogedai and Mongke, both on land and on water.

Prince Tran Hung Dao, who three times crushed the Mongols, was not only the victorious commanding general but also a brilliant strategist and politician. He was the author of two famous masterpieces:  A Patriotic Address to the Soldiers and The Art of War

In the battle of Bach Dang River in 1228, General Tran ordered his men to use small boats to ambush. When the tide was rising at its peak, he lured the giant warship of the Mongol Navy into the chosen part of the river where his men had planted hundreds of sharp long spikes. The Chinese fleet was trapped. As the tide receded, 400 enemy ships stuck and were destroyed by Vietnamese junks. About 80 thousand Chinese troops, both navy and infantry, were killed, wounded, and captured. General Tran learned this tactic from King Ngo Quyen.

The Tran dynasty had full awareness of the importance of the military. They founded the Giang Vo Duong which was the first military academy to train the officers. They held military contests every year and awarded the Doctor’s degrees to the top candidates.  

When the Tran dynasty became weaker, the Chinese Ming emperor sent troops to conquer Vietnam.  In 1418, the peasant Le Loi and his followers rose up against the invaders. He was very good in the guerrilla war. With the help of the wise advisor Nguyen Trai, the resistance movement finally drove the Chinese out of Vietnam in 1428. Le Loi founded the Le dynasty, renamed the nation Dai Viet (Great Viet), and declared himself King of Pacification.

Nguyen Trai, the chief advisor, strategist, and propagandist of King Le Loi; was known for his political activities to inspire the soldiers and the people to support the resistance. His masterpiece “ Binh Ngo Dai Cao ” (Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu) was considered the first Constitution of Vietnam. 

The Le dynasty lasted 360 years, the longest monarch in Vietnamese history.

In the last two hundred years of the Le dynasty, the Nguyen and the Trinh clans rose to power as the kings became weaker and weaker. Trinh Lords were the rulers of northern Vietnam while Nguyen Lords ruled the southern part (today’s central Vietnam). The civil war lasted a half-century of stalemate and a century of peace before the fighting resumed in 1774 as the Tay Son dynasty emerged.

Taking advantage of the Vietnam civil war, in 1788, the Chinese Qing Emperor Qianlong sent two armies of five hundred thousand troops to invade Thang Long Citadel, the Capital of Dai Viet.

Nguyen Hue, a military genius, in a matter of days, mobilized 100 thousand soldiers from central Vietnam rushing to the capital citadel. On the eve of the lunar new year (January 1789), when the Chinese troops were preparing to celebrate the New Year festival, Nguen Hue made a surprise and fast and fierce attack against Chinese forces. In just four days of fierce battle, Chinese troops were disastrously defeated by the Viets. Almost all Chinese generals and over half the number of soldiers were killed in action, but only the top commander   Sun Shiyi abandoned his men and fled for his life back in China.

After the big victory, Nguyễn Huệ was resentful, trained his army, built large warships, and waited for an opportunity to take revenge. He set the goal in 1792 to invade China. If he did not die young, he might have claimed back the territory of two provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi – the cradle of the Viets.

Nguyen Hue – Quang Trung Great Emperor – was regarded as the most successful military commander in Vietnam’s history.

On the long journey from the creation of Au Lac Kingdom in Southern China to the Nguyen Dynasty in today’s Vietnam, Vietnamese people have invaded and colonized the Kingdom of Phu Nan, the Kingdom of Champa, and the Eastern part of the Khmer Kingdom. The Nguyen Dynasty ruled the unified independent state of Viet Nam from 1802 to 1945 when the last emperor Bao Dai was forced to step down and yield the power to the Communist Ho Chi Minh.

At the peak of her power, Vietnam was an empire that included Laos, Cambodia, North, Central, and South of Vietnam.

Following the French Revolution in 1789, the technological revolution in Europe brought to the western world a big change in all aspects of life. Meantime, the Eastern countries – except Japan – were still embracing the traditional backward society. In 1884, Vietnam fell into the French domination after being defeated in several battles in which the Viet Army mismatched the French in terms of  weaponry.

Not a single day during 80 years of suffering the French cruel domination did our people pause their dream of regaining independence. The resistance against the enemy spread from the royal court to the remote countryside throughout Vietnam. Emperor Ham Nghi left the luxurious life in the citadel to join the movement in the jungle. He was captured and exiled to Algeria in December 1988. The young Emperor Duy Tan was caught while planning a secret rebellion. He was also exiled to French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean in May 1916.

Ho Chi Minh was a member of the 3rd Communist International. After several years of training in a Communist spy school in Moscow, Ho came back to Southern Chine to found the Indochina Communist Party in 1930. In May 1941, Ho founded the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, aka Viet Minh) which was disguised as a national united front to attract the nationalist elements.

In August 1945, when Japan surrendered to the allies, Ho took advantage of the void in power in Vietnam to declare the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnamese. He betrayed the nationalist parties and murdered their leaders one by one until all nationalists were eliminated from Ho’s Communist government.

The First Indochina War between Communists and the French ended in 1954 when the two sides signed the Geneva Accords. Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam as a socialist state and South Vietnam as a republic.

Ho Chi Minh and his Communist gang would not let the people in South Vietnam live in peace. The goal of the 3rd Comintern was to expand the Communist ideology and regime all over the world. With tens of thousands of troops left behind in South Vietnam, Ho started the guerilla war to harass the legitimate government of President Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1960, the Vietnamese Communist Party declared the goal to liberate South Vietnam. The National Liberation Front was founded at the 3rd Communist Party National Congress.

In the following 15 years, the Vietnam War escalated to a conventional war with the involvement of hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese Army troops entering South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Starting from small units in the French Indochina army, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam grew to a mighty force with eleven infantry divisions. The elite forces Marine, Air Borne, Ranger, and Special Forces had the strength equivalent to about five divisions. South Vietnamese Army, at the height of its power, had almost a million soldiers, the Air Force had 63 thousand personnel, and the Navy had 42 thousand. 

Until 1963, the situation in South Vietnam was notably improved. The people lived a rather happy life, under the good care of the government and a stable economy. Marguerite Higgins, an American journalist who visit Vietnam that year stated that “.. Vietnamese armies continued this summer to gain in those areas of the country-side where the war is fought the hardest.[2] ”

She also praised the government  for “one of the biggest gains in Vietnam was economic rather the military. Instead of having to import rice, as was the case a year earlier, the Vietnamese peasants had been able to export three hundred thousand tons of rice by late fall, 1963.[3] ”

The Buddhist rebellion, commandeered by the Communist agents embedded in the Church ranks, created a dangerous crisis that altered the situation. Helped by the dirty hands of the brigade of American correspondents, the Buddhist movement became a big threat to the regime.

Thanks to the distorted information on Vietnam’s military and political issues, the American administration considered President Ngo Dinh Diem an obstruction to the democratic process in South Vietnam. It switched the green light for a coup-d’etat to overthrow the patriot Ngo Dinh Diem. In the next two years, the gang of corrupted generals – who bowed to the pressure of the Buddhist monks – only fought each other for power.

The military situation worsened. North Vietnam poured tens of thousands of regular troops to the south each month. The war entered the second phase with Communist big units engaging in battle.  The conventional war started!

Even with the presence of five hundred thousand US and allies troops, we could not stop the flow of North Vietnam’s regular army big units infiltrating the South day and night via the Ho Chi Minh trail.

In fact, the ARVN did not have enough manpower to encounter the enemy who used the tactics of both guerilla and conventional warfares. The tactic allowed the small team of the enemy to harass our major bases while they could gather a big army to overrun our outposts.

It’s unfair when the American correspondents said in their reports that the ARVN troops refused to fight and passed the burden to the Americans!

Those correspondents sat in the air-conditioned rooms of the luxury hotels in Saigon and fabricated the stories to defame our army. Had they joined our rangers, parachutist, marines, or even our infantrymen in military operations, they would realize that we had fought bravely and gained brilliant victories like any of our allies’s units.

In January 1968, the Communists violated the cease-fire truce in Mau Than lunar new year days. They unleashed simultaneously a series of offensives upon the major cities of South Vietnam. The sudden attacks occurred at the sacred time when our people celebrated the new year, and our army allowed 50% of the force to join their families in celebration.

Although unexpected, our troops reacted quickly and pushed back the enemies. In Hue, Vietnamese and US Marines fought for 21 days to recapture the old capital city.

The Communists’ General Offensive failed. They suffered a big loss as tens of thousands of their troops were killed in action. Their infrastructure was exposed and almost destroyed.

In 1972, Communists repeated their general offensive on three major battlefields: Quang Tri, Kontum, and An Loc. This time, they engaged many fresh infantry divisions from North Vietnam with the reinforcement of hundreds of Russian made advanced armored tanks,

Our troops again proved their military capacity and determination to win by fighting very bravely to retake the Quang Tri old citadel, to hold firm Kontum and An Loc after a months-long of siege.  

In Thiet Giap ! The Battle of An Loc, April 1972, Lt Colonel Jame H. Willbankks praised the ARVN :

“ The ARVN had indeed won a decisive victory against overwhelming odds in the desperate battle of An Loc, and in many cases, the courage, skill, and endurance of South Vietnamese officers and soldiers were exemplary.[4] ” (p.64)

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese young men responded to the call of the fatherland; we joined the army voluntarily and most of us – after graduation – chose the combat units knowing that we would the sacrifice sooner or later.

On the days when the Communists entered Saigon, Generals Nguyen Khoa Nam, Le Van Hung, Le Nguyen Vy, and Tran Van Hai ; Colonel Ho Ngoc Can, Colonel Nguyen van Long and many others committed suicide rather than submit to the enemies.

When in Communist concentration camps, we proved our steadfastness when facing threats, torture, starvation, and many other ways of ill-treatment. Tens of thousands of us were murdered in the camps; their families would never see again their beloved ones.

We have been always proud of being the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces. We did not fight for any regime, but the ideal of freedom and democracy. We fought for our country and our people.

We still believe our anti-communist cause is just, and we will continue the fight till our last breath.

In some articles in this book, I will analyze the advantages and disadvantages the ARVN have experienced in the war and the reasons why we lost the war in 1975.

[1] A Latin phrase that means If you want peace, prepare for war.

[2] Our Vietnam Nightmare, p.130.

[3] Our Vietnam Nightmare, p.130.

[4] Thiet Giap! The Battle of An Loc, April 1972, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (Fort Leavenworth, KS), 1993, published as The Battle of An Loc, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 2005.