Vietnam's Army confronts powerful nonmilitary foes. [ on jump page: Vietnam Army's new foes ] Victorious in war against three major powers, Vietnam's military is struggling in peace time. Partly because of an ailing economy, the world's fifth largest army faces massive troop cuts. Infighting in Hanoi also hurts military morale.

After four wars in four decades, Vietnam's oversized Army is having trouble winding down for peacetime and coping with rapid changes in society. A few military leaders question the dominance of the Communist Party in many Army affairs, and appear worried over plans to demobilize nearly half of what is one of the largest armed forces in the world, Vietnamese officials and diplomatic observers say.

But such a debate over the Army's role is often done quietly or indirectly. For instance, in a new play staged last month in Hanoi and entitled ``Oath Number Nine,'' three soldiers abandon the front line to fight injustice back home. ``Your duty is to fight,'' the soldiers are told, ``Don't worry about the rear.''

In another play, entitled ``The Right to Happiness,'' one character speaks boldly: ``We are asked to liberate the world, but our stomachs are empty.''

The issues confronting the military have been highlighted by an apparent easing of tension in recent months with Vietnam's main adversary, China. Also, by mid-month, Vietnam claims it will complete the largest of its yearly troop withdrawals from Cambodia.

Ten years ago on Dec. 25, an estimated 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers entered Cambodia to oust the inimical Khmer Rouge from power, finishing the task within two weeks but unable to totally defeat their former Communist comrades in fighting since then.

This latest pullout, which would fulfill a Hanoi promise made last May to draw out 50,000 troops, has raised an urgency to the dilemmas facing the Vietnam People's Army. All the soldiers withdrawn this time will be demobilized, says Gen. Tran Cong Man, editor of the Army's newspaper.

Established on Dec. 22, 1944, with 34 guerrillas under Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, with the slogan ``politics takes command,'' the Army today carries a reputation for having repelled three great powers: France, the United States, and China.

But it is also villainized in American-made war movies seen worldwide and tagged by some as the ``Prussians of Asia.'' At home it is often criticized by young Vietnamese, mainly because many veterans abuse their party positions. Some Vietnamese even suggest that the next Communist Party leader must not be a military hero.

In an unusual move, the Army has begun to air its complaints over the past two years, ever since Vietnam's economy took a severe tumble and a reformist, Nguyen Van Linh, was chosen as the party's general secretary. As Mr. Linh has slowly consolidated his authority and focused on boosting the economy, the military has come under close scrutiny.

World's largest per capita army

With a population estimated at 63 million, Vietnam has a regular Army of more than 1 million men and women, plus nearly 3 million more in other services and paramilitary forces, making it the world's largest per capita military. It ranks as the fifth largest after those in China, the Soviet Union, the US, and India.

Now extended beyond its means and absorbing immense amounts of Soviet aid, the Army is awaiting large-scale demobilization in 1990. That's when Hanoi promises a final Cambodia pullout and when it also hopes for normal ties with China. Both are still two big uncertainties, although events are moving in that direction. About half of Vietnam's troops are stationed along the border with China, which once ruled Vietnam for nearly 1,000 years.

``Demobilization is going slowly but it depends on how China treats us,'' says General Man. One gauge of relations between the two countries is the level of daily mortar shellings across the border. Man claims China has reduced the shelling in recent years from about 900 to ``only about 150'' rounds a day.

Some officials in Hanoi suggest the size of the Army will eventually be equal to about 1 percent of the population, or perhaps 600,000 soldiers. The final size will depend on whether the party's Politburo can agree on the perceived threat from China. Last March, Chinese ships took over six small reefs claimed by Vietnam, killing dozens of Vietnamese soldiers, and setting back relations.

A large number of military layoffs and retirements have begun this year. The remaining 10,000 to 13,000 Vietnamese troops in Laos will be pulled out by the end of 1988, says Foreign Ministry officials, in addition to the 50,000 from Cambodia.

Even at the 1 percent benchmark, the Army will be larger than that in neighboring Indonesia, which is three times as populous as Vietnam. Also by comparison, China's military is about 0.3 percent of its population.

As part of trimming the Army, paramilitary units are being improved. In April, the monthly Army Review was renamed ``All-People's Defense Review'' to reflect the new thrust. Last October, a national meeting was held to prepare the paramilitary units, but reports indicate a general failure to understand or organize the new forces.

Factional-infighting in Hanoi over the Army's future - as often a clash of personalities as of issues - reflects a larger upheaval in the party's theories and practices, driven by a rapid plunge in average income and a decline in the party's prestige.

A limited democracy is being encouraged, as is less reliance on Soviet aid and advice. Subsidies are being cut and the press is being guided to expose ``negative phenomenon.'' Corrupt or incompetent party members are being purged. All of these quick changes are impinging heavily on the military.

But the essential struggle is over how much the party directs military affairs. Communist ideology, which calls for motivating soldiers with the spirit of ``class hatred,'' has required tight party control up to now. In the last two years, the party leaders have loosened day-to-day authority in the economy and cultural fields - but has changed little in directing the military.

After reunification of the country in 1975, a similar debate erupted over the military, but it was cut short by the wars with China and in Cambodia. Compromises reached in that debate, however, resulted in the the Army taking on economic duties, being partially demobilized, and modernizing itself with new technology.

Debate within the military

The new debate is more intense and far-reaching. In 1987, a new party Constitution included a whole new chapter on party leadership over the Army. ``The party leaders fear something from the Army,'' says one Hanoi-watcher in Bangkok. ``The military is not full of party members, most of them are draftees.''

This year, two of the party's original and eminent military strategists, Pham Hung and Truong Chinh, died, possibly altering the course of the debate. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, credited with brilliantly organizing the wars against the US and French, has had little to do with military affairs in recent years.

Mistakes made in fighting against China and Cambodia made the party realize it must alter a tradition of dual command between officers and political commissars. Since the early 1980s, more and more autonomy has been granted to military commanders.

A year ago, Col. Gen. Doan Khue, military chief of staff and a Politburo member, complained of too much emphasis being put on economic development, claiming it could ``hurt the thinking and feelings of those who have taken up weapons.'' After decades of war, he states, ``many people may more easily pay less attention to national defense.''

One military journal complained last June that soldiers were ``excessively exploited'' by the military's party members (cadre) who display an ``authoritarian psychology'' within the Army. ``Battalion cadres are not required to hang their own mosquito nets and are served food and drink by aides everywhere,'' it stated.

Disipline lax, corruption on the rise

Last April, the party issued a warning to stop some of the most serious military problems, such as corruption and a lack of care for veterans and soldiers' families. Recruitment drives have been reduced to once a year, and names of those called up for duty are now publicly announced to prevent ``irregularities'' in the draft.

``Army discipline is declining'' at an alarming level, wrote military writer Vuong Chat in October. The problem is ``odious and very strange for a revolutionary Army,'' and makes Army leaders anxious, he adds. Party cadre spend most of their time finding food for the troops. He put the blame on ``higher echelons.'' The sudden lapse in discipline cuts to the heart of the military's strength - being rooted in the people. The Army-people relationship, said a recent editorial in the party theoretical journal, has ``ruptured.''

Col. Gen. Le Duc Anh, defense minister and a Politburo member, recently wrote: ``The image of Uncle Ho's soldiers has not been the same as it used to be.''

The military has declared a campaign to restore discipline and renew goodwill with civilians. One suggestion was to use ``sworn brotherhood'' between soldiers and local youth. Last year, a top general was convicted and jailed, along with 20 accomplices, for running a black-market operation at Haiphong port. And soldiers have been asked to ``self-criticize more often.''

Many in the Army link their difficulties to the party's so-called economic ``renovation,'' with woeful reports of living conditions. Some Army units are short of food, according to a recent article by Lt. Gen. Le Quang Hoa. ``Our soldiers are not fed and clothed adequately, nor are there sufficient medicines. ... They live in cramped quarters which are hot in summer and chilly in winter; and their shoes, caps, blankets, sleeping mats, and mosquito nets are either insufficient or in tatters.''

In October, the party agreed to a military request to stop a program reducing rice subsidies to the armed forces.

Coping with unemployed veterans, now and especially after demobilization, haunts many in the party. Last year, the party declared that 40 percent of all overseas jobs, numbering about 100,000 and mainly in the Soviet Union, must be given to veterans.

This debate on Vietnam's military may be reaching a climax. Observers point to three recent articles written by the third-ranking military leader, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Quyet, whose comments may reflect an emerging consensus.

General Quyet, a member of the party's Central Committee and head of the military's political department, refutes the year-old complaint by the military chief of staff about economic matters being put first. He says the party's military commission has called for a ``basic and comprehensive'' review of the Army's cadre policy.

``At present, there are still cadres who cannot realize the new development of objective realities, some of which have forced us to refute many points of discussion which were once considered Marxist.''

The average age of cadre is too high and evaluations of their work ``almost nonexistent.'' In transforming a wartime Army into a peacetime Army that is ``small but high in quality,'' the cadre will be the nucleus ``at least until the year 2000,'' he writes. But at present, the numbers of Army cadre remains ``excessively large,'' too concentrated in the upper ranks, and weak and deficient.

Quyet warns that ``the Army must seek ways to save itself instead of remaining passive.'' Benefits provided by the party are deficient, he adds. Delays in demobilization and the bad living conditions have created unrest among younger officers who want promotions.

The military's difficulties, he contends, ``far exceed those of the country in general'' - and are even more difficult for those who have left the Army.

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