The roots of the ARVN’s appalling performance versus the soldiers of the NLF were due to motivation. The low motivation of the ARVN and the high motivation of the NLF was due to historic, cultural and social factors.
The history of the Northern part of Vietnam is thousands of years older than the South. The Northern Vietnamese had not long themselves, in grand historical terms, colonised the southern portion of Indochina from the Chams and Cambodians, before being themselves usurped by the French. The Viet people of the North were as a result a more homogenous, conservative and cultured people when compared to those in the South. The South was still regarded as ‘frontier territory’ by most Vietnamese. As a result the ‘Vietnamese’ who occupied the south were a fractured and fractious bunch compared to the northerners. There were far more ethnic minorities and disparate religious groups in the south. Each ethnic and religious group not only guarded against each other, but also against the hated Cambodians and Laotians This was the status quou in the South even before the French took over late in the 19th century. The chaotic political situation that the US inherited and frustrated them so much had its roots in the South’s history.
Ho Chi Minh’s subordination of Vietnamese nationalism and his homespun ‘low key’ communism played perfectly to his northern, conservative audience, who truly (and quite correctly) believed that they were better than what their French masters allowed them. It was HCM’s defeat of the hated French, who as a colonial power were simply bastards, which gave HCM and the communists a political legitimacy that was exceptionally hard to match. It was this political legitimacy allied with the fact that the VM and PAVN were self evidently fighting a foreign enemy that provided much of the motivation for the Bo Doi.
Almost everything about HCM’s Vietnamised version of communism assisted in the motivation and morale of the communist soldiers. Firstly, unlike the ARVN the communists adopted the same system of promotion adopted by the Australian Imperial Forces in both World Wars – Merit. It didn’t matter if you were a bricklayer in the AIF, if you had leadership potential and military acumen you would be promoted. It was the same in the Viet Cong and the PAVN. It didn’t matter if you were a ‘rice paddy person’ and not a member of the urban elite. If you had the goods when the bullets were flying you would be promoted. Motivation in any organisation is best when it is driven from the bottom and not imposed from the top. In this important respect the PAVN and VC totally outclassed the ARVN.
The communist system of the ‘three man cell’ of which all soldiers were consigned was an instrument of social control on one hand, but an obvious source of comfort, solace and support on the other. Ultimately a person may sign on for Ho and Country but when the chips were down, as a result of the ‘cell’ system, Vietnamese communist soldiers were fighting for their mates. They couldn’t hope for much medical attention if wounded, but they could absolutely rely on the fact that the other two members of his ‘cell’ would die trying to get him to it. Something that seldom could be said for their ARVN rivals.
The existing social situation in the South had been made worse by the French. The PROVN report makes this quite clear. Social stratification between the urban elites and rural poor were much more marked in the South than in the North. The urban elites, of especially Saigon and Hue, provided the government officials to the Provinces and the officer corp to the ARVN. To quote Bergerud -These military elites running South Vietnam, disdained the rural population, believing themselves masters rather than servants of the people. They were driven by sordid personal motives and viewed government and military service as an avenue for financial gain through corruption.
The middle class too were disdainful of the rural masses, from which the foot soldiers of the ARVN were drawn. However they had contempt as well for their government and were suspicious of the crude and uncivilised Americans (and dare I say, the cruder and even more uncivilised Australians) Therefore they often had respect and admiration for the NLF.
The great majority of the population, and therefore the ARVN, were the peasantry. They were fatalistic, weary and suspicious of a government that continually broke its word and were susceptible to the promises (no matter how hollow) held out by the NLF of a better future.
The communist soldiers of the NLF had the benefits of historic and cultural solidarity, which was completely lacking in the south. Communist comradeship actually meant something to an NLF soldier. It rarely meant much to the ‘put upon’ and exploited ARVN peasant soldier.
Haughty arrogance, petty demagoguery and the absolute incapacity to admit an error were the hallmarks of the South Vietnamese urban elite. This elite constituted both the ARVN Officer Corp and minor Government functionaries. It is no wonder then that the average private in the ARVN was sick to the teeth of the mindless incompetence and extraordinary hubris of their ‘masters and betters.’
It is little wonder too, that barely a shot was fired at the PAVN tanks that rolled into Saigon in 1975. The officer Corps were the first to desert and the soldiery simply stripped off their uniforms and went home to their hamlets.
What is a wonder was that the rate of ‘fragging’ in the ARVN was as low as it was.