Academic journal article Military Review

Praise the Host and Pass the Fish Sauce: Medical Advisers in the Vietnam War

Academic journal article Military Review

Praise the Host and Pass the Fish Sauce: Medical Advisers in the Vietnam War

Article excerpt

I was not sure what to expect when I was first assigned as the officer in charge of an embedded training team in support of the Afghan National Security Forces in 2006.1 had once read David Donovans Once a Warrior King: Memories of an Officer in Vietnam, the autobiographical story of an adviser in Vietnam, but he was a combat arms officer, and I was a Medical Service Corps officer. (1) Recognizing that the role of advising was not a new military mission, I wondered what the experience of medical advisers had been in our last sustained war, Vietnam.

As one reads through memoirs, reports, and analyses written before the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive, the goal of enabling a fledgling country to become self-sustaining was emerging and doing well. The medical field, in particular, benefited from dedicated advisers and other medical personnel providing education and assistance to their military medical counterparts. In addition, civilian and military patients reaped the harvest sown by the various medical assistance programs.

The roles of advisers in Vietnam specifically those in the Army Medical Department, are presented here as a reminder of the valuable work those individuals accomplished and as potential historical lessons for similar future counter-insurgency missions.

The Command

The U.S. advisory effort in Vietnam began in 1950 with Military Advisory and Assistance Group--Indochina support to the French. In 1955, it then became the Military Advisory Assistance Group--Vietnam (MAAG-V) and was augmented with the Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission the following year. It initially focused outward on fighting an invasion from North Vietnam, while other nonmilitary agencies worked internally with the Vietnamese Civil Guard and the Self-Defense Corps.

Beginning in 1959, MAAG-V turned toward the emerging insurgency, refocusing on counterinsurgency operations. As the situation deteriorated in South Vietnam from 1961 to 1964, adviser and combat support to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, also known as the South Vietnamese Army) increased. Advisers, however, were forbidden to participate in direct combat alongside Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) and to operate near international borders. Consequently, the advisers organized into mobile training teams that rotated throughout conventional units, ranger units, and the Montagnards in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program. To oversee this increased adviser population and mission, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was established in 1962.

With the chaos following the death of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem in late 1963 and an increase of successful Viet Cong attacks in the south, Gen. William C. Westmoreland took command of U.S. forces during a tumultuous period in June 1964. American cadre assigned to ARVN units were deemed at an acceptable level, and beginning in 1965, U.S. command interest turned toward the buildup of U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam. Consequently, MACV became an operational headquarters for these forces and focused less on the advisory and counterinsurgency roles from previous years. Now, the main U.S. effort was command and control of combat units instead of embedded advisers. Because RVNAF units did not serve under U.S. commanders, unity of effort replaced unity of command and resulted in advisers having a U.S. chain of command and their advisees having a separate chain of command. South Vietnamese units answered to South Vietnamese commanders while American advisers answered to other Americans in charge of combat forces. This disjointed union created a physical battle space where U.S. and RVNAF units occupied positions near each other, but not necessarily in synchronization. American advisers would now have an even more difficult situation. (2)

To mitigate the risks involved in focusing primarily on the command and control of U.S. forces, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program was established under a civilian deputy to the commander of MACV in April 1967. …

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