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South Vietnam - Desertions

Desertions continued to be a thorny matter. Several times, the Joint Chiefs pointed to the lack of a mobile strategic reserve as a critical ARVN weakness. But no such reserve was created, mainly from worry that shifting territorially based divisions more than short distances would trigger large-scale desertions. The primary loyalty of many ARVN soldiers went to their families and villages, not to the government in Saigon or to the Republic of Vietnam. The leaders in Hanoi also had to cope with draft dodging and desertion; yet they were able to send hundreds of thousands of men down the Ho Chi Minh Trail - and that, ultimately decided the war's outcome.

The encouraging gains in the manpower situation made in late 1964 lasted only briefly owing to the rising number of "unapproved leaves" during 1965. Desertion rates tended to be confusing because the South Vietnam government classified as deserters those individuals with less than ninety days' service who were absent without leave (AWOL) more than six (later fifteen) days, and those who were absent more than fifteen days while en route to a new duty station. It was also suspected that desertion and recruiting statistics included some persons who had illegally transferred from one force to a more desirable one-for example, from the South Vietnam Army to the Popular Forces.

Orders published during 1965 removed all effective disciplinary restraint to desertion by allowing deserters to escape prosecution by signing a pledge not to desert again, after which, rather than being jailed, they were returned to duty. Before this step the armed forces code of military justice had provided strict penalties for desertion in wartime, ranging from six years imprisonment to death. The reduction in severity of punishment for desertion was partially explained by the overcrowded conditions of Vietnamese jails and Vietnamese unwillingness to levy harsh penalties for what was not considered a serious crime. But desertions from all components of the Vietnamese armed forces had risen from 73,000 in 1964 to 113,000 in 1965 and it seemed likely that this trend would continue in 1966.

In 1967 the South Vietnam armed forces desertion rate had been reduced to 10.5 per thousand, but efforts to lower this figure still further were unsuccessful. Traditionally, desertions had always increased just before the Tet holidays and 1968 was no exception. As before, the joint General Staff asked all commanders to cooperate in minimizing this practice and tasked the Central Political Warfare Agency with publicizing news reports on trials of deserters by radio, television, newspapers, and magazines. Other measures were to make examples of typical offenders, to impose severe sentences, and to hold mobile court sessions. In addition, the agency prepared special radio broadcasting and TV programs for servicemen on New Year's Day. Annual leaves were to be granted on New Year's Day only to outstanding individuals who had a number of children, and units were still enjoined to remain within the established 5 percent leave system.

These measures notwithstanding, a considerable number of soldiers were absent from their units at the start of the enemy's Tet offensive and, in the heavy fighting that followed, absenteeism rapidly increased. The monthly desertion rates continued to rise to 16.5 per thousand in July (13,056 deserters), the highest count of any month since mid-1966, and reached an all-time high of 17.2 per thousand in October. Then, as the fighting subsided at the end of 1968 and in 1969, the desertion rate fell and again became stable at about 12 per thousand. Of course, all these rates were normally doubled and tripled in the individual tactical infantry units where most of the burdens of war were felt.

This time the South Vietnam government acted quickly to keep the rate at acceptable levels. On 27 September the Joint General Staff dispatched a directive establishing "quotas" or acceptable maximum rates of desertion for all commands. The directive stated that failure to meet these standards would result, in the punishment or relief of commanders. Other measures followed. In October the Joint General Staff directed an increase in the award of the Gallantry Cross, primarily for lower ranks in combat units to include the Regional and Popular Forces, raised the number of personnel authorized to be on leave from 5 to 10 percent, and granted a graduation leave of ten days to those completing basic training (over and above the fifteen days of leave authorized annually). In addition, all sectors (provinces), special sectors, and special zones were told to organize guidance sections to aid personnel on leave and to include transient billets, messing, and transportation arrangements.

The South Vietnam armed forces also participated in the implementation of the National Police Records System. This system provides for the establishment of a central fingerprint file with a related system for furnishing information on all "wanted" personnel. The target date for completion of the fingerprinting of all the men in the South Vietnam armed forces was 31 January 1969. This program assisted in the identification and apprehension of deserters, especially those who deserted to enlist in other units.

Despite these new measures, the problem of desertion in the Vietnamese armed forces, and particularly within the Army and Marine Corps, was a matter of continuing command concern to Military Assistance Command and the Joint General Staff. South Vietnam armed forces gross desertions for 1968 totaled 139,670 and were still the largest single cause of manpower loss. As a result of JGS antidesertion program in 1969, some progress was made and the number of deserters dipped to 123,311. In 1970 gross desertions were 150,469; however, 23,716 returned for a net loss of 126,753. This pattern, with no apparent trend, continued in 1971.

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