Essay: PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam)

Once approved by the Province Committee, the Military Affairs Committee allocated the operational tasks among its Military Staff (reconnaissance to study the objective and construct a sand model), Political Staff (sending a cadre to contact local civilians to glean their reaction to the proposed attack, and to make sure the attacking soldiers had sufficient morale), and a Rear Services Staff (determining if the local population to sustain an attacking force, and provide labor). An attempt was made to maintain need-to-know security right up until the attack’s commencement, which if even suspected of having been compromised, the operation would be cancelled; something that occurred far more often than actual attacks. Once committed, PAVN forces would conduct a quick advance to the targeted area’s assembly positions, which could involve several dozen kilometers in a day. A quick attack followed, which having previously conducted reconnaissance focused on the enemy’s weak spots via a strong fight, assault, and pursuit. On an attack’s successful completion, PAVN soldiers worked to rapidly secure the battlefield to remove weapons and casualties, before conducting a final ‘quick’ egress component involved exiting the battle area to a pre-arranged rendezvous point where the force dispersed into smaller groups.

The PAVN’s primary small unit was the three-man cell, in which each man felt as a brother to the other two, with each providing support for each other. If an individual lacked the expected motivation and commitment, his issue was elevated to his squad leader. Barring resolution, the case went to the political officer, which if still unresolved, the soldier would be removed so as to not ‘infect’ his comrades. In an effort to reflect and improve upon actions, ‘criticism and self-criticism’ sessions were held. After action, units could get up to 10-15 days in a quiet zone to rest, although fewer periods were more common before being returned to combat or labor duties. Many soldiers preferred to have only a few days off for rest, in part to remain sharp, but often commanders or comrades pressured them to return as soon as possible. On the train, two PAVN would normally lead small groups by 20m-30m. VC prepared base camps, and provided intelligence and guides for PAVN reconnaissance teams, with laborers volunteered from the local population. The PAVN continually shifted its organizational goals to meet a tactical situation, and ’emulation’ campaigns were to keep the soldier informed of the group’s goals that provided a basis for measuring their contribution. The PAVN launched a ‘Troop Training and Combat Competition- An Emulation Plan,’ designed to intensify its combat effectiveness against the US, in which it illustrated that a company that destroyed one American platoon, or two ‘puppet’ ARVN platoons to receive a ‘good’ rating. Annihilating two US platoons or an ARVN company warranted a ‘fair’ designation. Individuals could also receive a special status for actions, including ‘Assault Hero’ or ‘Valiant American Killer.’

‘Everybody had to engage in combat to learn by experience. Moreover, there would be no second battle without a first one. Also, there were platoon leaders who had been engaging in combat for several years, had much experience, and were always with my unit. Therefore my assignment to the position of company commander was no problem.’ (First Lieutenant, Ha Tam, Commander 3rd Company, 14th Battalion PAVN)

Command and Control

The Communist command structure was intentionally complex and ponderous in order to provide redundancies to accommodate for casualties. PAVN soldiers had considerable confidence in their superiors, especially as many had fought during the First Indochina War, and often saw them as surrogate parents or respected elders. Leaders were expected to emphasize personal contact, demonstrate expertise, and project a nearly puritanical professional ethics code; something that was secondary to martial talent. He operated at the front alongside his men, with most projecting a demanding persona, played favorites, and criticized the sick or wounded for implied malingering, which together with a considerable lack of individual freedom and harsh discipline often served to degrade morale. In contrast to the commander’s role, the unit’s political leader, who had equal standing as second in charge, was tasked with maintaining morale, instilling Communist-inspired enthusiasm and aggressive, fearless behavior; they also monitored the men for signs of demoralization or flagging spirits. Approachable, amicable, and friendly, the political leader worked to motivate the men, and made every effort to only discuss battlefield or political successes. As part of their role Soldiers lived and ate with their military and political leaders.

Attempts at communist indoctrination were not always successful, but focused on teaching that the Americans were invading the South to oppress and exploit the Vietnamese people, as previous invaders had done. The US was portrayed as using the administrative entity of South Vietnam as a springboard from which to invade the North, and other neighboring countries. Leaders had few options in offering rewards, allocating money or vacations were nonexistent, and instead used awards, commendations, and bounties. Physical punishments and incarceration were seldom used, except in extreme cases where a soldier might be assigned to a ‘reeducation’ camp for two to six months. Generally, when a soldier was accused of laziness or ‘freedomist’ thoughts, in which they acted for their own convenience, group sanctioned criticism tended to shame the offender to adjust their attitude. The PAVN leader’s legitimate power rested mainly on Vietnamese cultural values, such as fatalism, nationalism, and respect for elders and as the government that appointed them was respected for its effectiveness.

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