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The Military's Place in Society

PAVN exerts a great deal of complicated direct and indirect influence both on party and government policy-making and on everyday non- military life. It is so well integrated into the social system that there is no precise point at which it can be said that the military ends and the civilian world begins.

By official definition, Vietnam is an egalitarian, proletarian-based classless society. This means that PAVN is not an army of the people--although it must serve all of the people-- but that it is an army of the proletariat. Society is supposed to support PAVN as well as police it to assure that the armed forces meet the requirements of the new social order. Conversely, PAVN is charged with assuming, in alliance with the party, the leadership of the proletariat and of society in general. PAVN is expected to be all things to the people and special things to the party. It must both lead the people and serve them. It must be loyal both to the political line and to the military line, even when these conflict. It must act as the vanguard of the party yet be scrupulously subservient to it.

Despite the praetorian qualities of Vietnamese society--the result of centuries of martial cultural influence--PAVN, like its predecessors, is not militaristic in the sense the term is understood in the West. Nor is there in Vietnam what might be called a military-industrial complex, that is, a coalition of military and political vested interests that are distinctly separate from the rest of the social system. Rather, the relationship of the military and the rest of the society is symbiotic, marked by a strong sense of material and psychological dependence. Society's responsibility to PAVN, which is rooted in the Constitution, requires that all of the people support the armed forces in all ways. PAVN's duties to society, in turn, incorporate political and economic responsibilities as well as defense of the country. Complicating this relationship is the party, which is neither civilian nor military but has some of the characteristics of both.

The chief obligation of the average citizen to PAVN is military service, which is universal and compulsory. This duty long predates the advent of communism to Vietnam. Conscription in traditional Vietnam was carried out in a manner similar to the requisitioning of corvee labor. Village councils were required to supply conscripts according to population ratio (one linh or soldier for every three to seven villagers, depending on the section of the country). The 1980 Constitution stipulates that "citizens are obliged to do military service" and "take part in the building of the national defense force." Article 52 mandates compulsory military service as part of the state's efforts to "stimulate the people's patriotism and revolutionary heroism." In December 1981, the National Assembly promulgated a new Military Obligation Law stating that "military obligation is mandated by law and is a glorious task for a citizen. . . . All male citizens from all rural areas, city districts, organs, state enterprises, and vocational schools from elementary to college level, regardless of the positions they hold, if they meet the induction criteria of the annual state draft plan, must serve in the armed forces for a limited time in accordance with the draft law." Under the law there are no exemptions to military service, although there can be deferments. This practice has led to charges that extensive corruption allows the sons of influential party and state officials one deferment after another.

The draft is administered by PAVN itself and is conducted chiefly by a corps of retired officers stationed in district offices throughout the country. The process begins with registration, which is voluntary for all males at age sixteen and compulsory at seventeen. A woman may register if she is a member of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League. The draft age is from eighteen to twenty-seven. The enlistment period is three years for ordinary enlistees, four years for technical specialists and navy personnel, and two years for certain ethnic minorities. Youths who do not enlist and await the draft receive a military service classification, of which there are six. Draft calls are issued twice a year.

Since the beginning of the war in Cambodia, the draft call has been accompanied by enlistment campaigns to persuade youths to volunteer rather than wait for conscription. Recruitment drives have been conducted by PAVN veterans of the Cambodian war who have met with prospective soldiers in school yards, where they have presented lectures or shown films. A quota was set for each province, by village and urban ward, but often was not met. To make military service more equitable and attractive, a system of options was established, which included the "three selects program" and the "six opens program." The three who could "select," or have a voice in the draft process, were the family, the local mass organization (Vietnam Fatherland Front), and the production unit, such as a commune or factory. The "six opens program" involved the unrestricted posting of six elements of military conscription information in which there was a high level of public interest. This information included highlights of draft procedures, lists of draftees and deferments, and names of party officials, their children and their draft status. The purpose was to allow everyone to know who was and was not being drafted and why. A system of perquisites also was established as an inducement for families whose sons joined PAVN. The families were offered assistance in resolving their legal or class-status problems, in getting work papers or added food rations, and in obtaining permission to return from new economic zones (see Glossary).

The General Mobilization Order of March 5, 1979, in the wake of the Chinese invasion, suspended the voluntary enlistment periods. In 1987 the period of PAVN service was indefinite. The mobilization order also eased some restrictions on drafting southerners, such as the requirement that each draftee have a "clear history," meaning a proletarian background with no strong ties to the previous government or to its army, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam ( ARVN--see Glossary). After 1979 certain ARVN enlisted men and noncommissioned officers, chiefly technicians and military specialists (but not ex-ARVN officers) were drafted. Increasingly, draftees sent to Cambodia were from the South. The mobilization order also cracked down on draft resistance, which appeared to be widespread and even socially acceptable, especially in the South. A common method of draft avoidance was use of counterfeit military discharge papers, the fabrication of which was an extensive and lucrative enterprise; in 1981 two of five persons convicted of producing counterfeit discharges were sentenced to death in Haiphong. A common form of draft evasion was termed irregular compliance, i.e., the failure of a young man to register in the hope that the cumbersome bureaucracy would fail to catch up with him. In 1985 it was estimated that 20 percent of male youths in the South, and perhaps as many as 5 percent in the North, had not registered. Communes or factories, which did not want to lose the services of draftable individuals, may have tried to protect them from the local draft board. Because a quota system was employed, a common avoidance tactic was to supply a substitute known to be in bad health, who would then fail his physical examination. The People's Security Service (PSS) continually rounded up draft dodgers and deserters. Special teams called bandit hunters raided coffee shops, noodle stands, and other likely hangouts. Draft evaders faced a mandatory five- year jail sentence; deserters were returned to their military units for punishment. Measures were also taken against the families of inductees who failed to report. For instance, a draftee's family could be jailed, and the family's home or other property could be impounded until he reported for duty.

PAVN's chief function is to defend the homeland. Its second, equally important, function is to ensure the perpetuation of the existing sociopolitical system. It also has economic responsibilities and acts as a role model for the general population. PAVN's behavior is expected to instill the basic tenets of a Leninist system among the populace. It is expected to engage in class struggle and to eliminate antiproletarian sentiment in its ranks and in society in general. Individual soldiers are expected to set an example of proper socialist behavior by being dedicated, hard-working, incorruptible, and highly skilled in the performance of their duty. Above all, PAVN is expected to be a model of loyalty to the party and to Vietnam.

PAVN also is expected to bear a material responsibility in the economic sector. It is commonplace in Marxist-Leninist systems for the armed forces to contribute in some way to the economy. In Vietnam during the First Indochina War, PAVN units, mostly guerrilla bands, were forced to fend for themselves by living off the countryside and on the charity of friendly villagers. During the Second Indochina War, PAVN had a weak quartermaster system in the South and adopted what was called the "three-nine system," under which a PAVN unit was supplied with food for nine months of the year but supported itself for the remaining three, usually by gardening or bartering (lumber traded for food, for example). Implicit in this system was the notion that it was proper for a soldier to engage in nonmilitary economic production activities, an idea that was increasingly challenged with the growth of professionalism in PAVN's ranks. After the Second Indochina War, PAVN was instructed to assume a greater economic role. The Fourth National Party Congress (December 1976) called on the military to "dedicate itself to the single strategic mission of carrying out the socialist revolution and building socialism." PAVN not only accepted this challenge but proceeded to stake out a central claim in the economic life of the country. PAVN's soldiers, said General Giap, would fight the "bloodless war" of economic development as the "shock troops" of the economic sector. Military units began operating state farms, mining coal, building roads and bridges, repairing vehicles, engaging in commercial fishing, and participating in countless other economic ventures. Although the invasion of Cambodia in 1978 followed by China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979 necessitated heavy reinforcement of the China border region and the allocation of resources for combat, an enlargement of the PAVN in 1983 made it possible for the troops to resume most of their economic activities.

It was clear from the discussion of economic duties in Vietnam's military journals that not all PAVN generals were enthusiastic about the idea. The chief criticism was that it detracted from what was seen as the central PAVN mission--defense of Vietnam--which was regarded as a full-time task. Some military critics complained that economic duty "dissipate[d] the thoughts" of the soldiers, undermined military discipline, and was a cause of corruption. Troops themselves also complained of the arduous work involved, such as digging miles of irrigation ditches, the most hated assignment of all.

The armed forces, nevertheless, engaged in the production of weapons and military hardware, undertakings identified in the press as "national defense enterprises" and defined by PAVN as "production establishments of the armed forces." These included vehicle assembly plants, ordnance plants, and explosives factories. As in other societies with large standing armies, the question in Vietnam was whether it made sense economically for a military unit to engage in production: whether, for instance, it could grow rice more productively or build a bridge more efficiently than a civilian counterpart. Vietnamese officials appear to have decided in favor of military participation, for they incorporated PAVN production potential into long-range economic planning (see Economic Roles of the Party and the Government , ch. 3). Contingency plans existed that called for PAVN units to sign production contracts with central-level ministries or provincial-level agencies, just as agricultural collectives or construction enterprises were required to do. Tapping the skilled manpower pool represented by PAVN may very well be the key to significant long-range economic development in Vietnam.

Data as of December 1987

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