In Buddha's Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War

By McMahon, Robert J. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2012 | Go to article overview

In Buddha's Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War


McMahon, Robert J., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


In Buddha's company: Thai soldiers in the Vietnam War

By RICHARD A. RUTH

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011. Pp. x + 275. Photographs, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

In the now vast scholarly literature on the Vietnam War, the participation of the non-US foreign forces that fought for the Saigon regime may constitute one of that conflict's few understudied subjects. Thailand sent 37,644 military personnel to South Vietnam, mostly between 1967 and 1972, a contingent that became the third largest operating in that embattled country--behind just those of the United States and South Korea. Two special units of the Royal Thai Army and one each from the Royal Thai Air Force and the Royal Thai Navy served in South Vietnam; 539 Thai military personnel died there.

In this novel account of Thailand's contribution to the Vietnam War, Richard A. Ruth attempts to tell the story of the Thai 'volunteers' from their own perspective. To do so, he conducted interviews with 60 Thai veterans of the conflict. Lengthy passages from those oral histories pepper this book, offering a rare and revealing glimpse into the personal experiences, motivations, and recollections of ordinary Thai servicemen, most of whom hailed from poor, rural regions of the country. For the most part, the author eschews an examination of the international history of Thailand's role in the Vietnam War. The fact that the Thai National Archives still prohibits scholars from examining most materials relating to that topic makes his predominant emphasis here on the social and cultural aspects of Thailand's Vietnam War both sensible and innovative, if also somewhat limited.

Above all, Ruth seeks to reconstruct the world-views and ground-level experiences of the Thai Expeditionary Forces. He especially emphasises the common meanings that soldiers ascribed to their Vietnam tours of duty, highlighting the transformative impact that their service had on so many of the Thai volunteers. While devoting some attention to the combat operations and non-combat missions of the Thai military contingent, Ruth displays substantially more interest in other matters: the symbolic significance of the expeditionary force within Thai political culture; the rampant consumerism among Thai soldiers, fostered by the amazing cornucopia of goods they were exposed to at American PXs (US army based retail store); their relationships with South Vietnamese civilians, especially women; the spirituality and beliefs systems of the volunteers; and their often strange encounters with what Ruth describes as the 'metaphysical landscape' of South Vietnam. …

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