Normally, I try not to excerpt from books hot off the press unless they offer new historical perspectives on recent events. This ground-breaking book seems long, long overdue, and the rest of the chapter from which I’ve quoted is available online. It offers a useful corrective to those who view every regional conflict through the lens of their own far-removed national partisanship, those who see every wartime ally of a hegemonic power as a bought-and-paid-for puppet, or those who imagine that Buddhists cannot be just as warlike as members of any other religion.
The most important of the Thai national symbols constructed during the war was that of the volunteer soldier. He was an idealized man who was brave, devout, patriotic, and selfless. His image was the incarnation of modern Thainess in an age of anticommunist furor. For a while, he would be hailed—in Thailand at least—as what was intrinsically good about the Thai nation in the postcolonial age. He would restore honor to the Thai military in the wake of its ignoble adventures during World War II, and make the goals of the military appear consistent with those of the civilian population. In the years before 1973–1976, when this idealized soldier-citizen was put to sinister use by the Thai military and by the Thai paramilitary vigilante organizations that emerged from the military’s dark shadows, he was someone to be admired, envied, and supported.
As symbols, the Thai volunteer soldiers reflected the evolution of Thai society in several critical ways. They stood at the nexus of many of the important themes that defined Thailand’s history in the 1960s. In this way they can be read as the embodiment of the changes that affected the country after World War II. These trends are related principally to Thailand’s relationship with the United States. In the period now known as the American Era, these troops became Thailand’s official representatives in the biggest US-dominated event: the war against communism in South Vietnam. They were physical reminders of America’s close relationship with Thailand during the period of the conflict. They wore American uniforms, carried American weapons, and conducted military operations according to American training. They departed and returned to Thailand aboard American ships and planes. They lived in an American-built camp bearing an American name. They carried American currency with which they purchased items of American material culture. The stories they carried back were as much about things American as they were about the people and culture of South Vietnam. Their repatriated casualties received prominent American visitors—some of them international superstars—in Thai military hospitals. And some of their dead ended up buried in American soil to be mourned far from home by American strangers. In an age defined by an American idiom, they bore the marks of close contact with the Americans.
The troops were also a product of the other great theme of the day: development (kan-phatthana). The American-built roads that transformed rural Thailand’s physical landscape and social and economic systems in the 1950s and 1960s also transformed its people. The infrastructure constructed with American aid, machinery, and advice profoundly altered the relationship between the people of the countryside and those of the urban center. For the first time in Thailand’s history, the people and circumstances of the rural areas rivaled those of the capital in importance to the national state. The need for industrial labor, construction workers, and service employees brought waves of internal migrants from what had once been Siam’s hinterlands to live and work in Bangkok. The newcomers changed the face of Bangkok, a city whose dynamism had previously been understood to be almost the exclusive product of the Chinese immigrant and entrepreneurial energies. And in doing so they changed Bangkok’s self-image. These upcountry people redefined what it meant to be Thai. Their migration patterns from rural to urban were not one-way journeys. Their ties to their homes and the seasonal nature of the farms they left behind contributed to the exchange between two formerly antithetical geographic cultures. The newly mobile brought back the ambitions, ideas, and perspectives of the capital city. These men and women became a migratory population whose outlook was simultaneously rural and urban, traditional and modern, settled and restless.
The Thai volunteer soldiers were products of this age of rural transformation. Changes in national politics, economics, and education were influential agents in the formation of their outlook. Their individual stories describe the profound changes under way in areas where the people had only recently begun to see themselves as belonging to the center, as being truly Thai. This process of transformation coincided with some of the earliest academic studies of Thai regionalism. The experiences of the Thai volunteers complement such studies as Charles Keyes’ Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand. The stories of their youth and young adulthood, of their time before, during, and after their tours of duty in South Vietnam, are the stories of rural Thailand in this era. The rapid expansion of government public schools, and the emphasis on national loyalties over local loyalties, encouraged rural youths of this era to consider themselves subjects of the state to an unprecedented degree.
Although they were not the first generation to be educated in Thailand’s government schools, the volunteer soldiers were the first to have been schooled at a time when secondary education was a possibility for all children of the rural poor. The expansion of upcountry secondary schools and technical colleges provided some of these people with the educational infrastructure for more advanced degrees and also the broadened ambitions and expectations that come with higher learning. Similarly, the traditional intrusions of the state, obligations such as taxes and conscription, were less odious, if not less onerous, to a young population that saw its adult fate as entwined with that of the nation. As per the requirements of the Royal Thai Army’s guidelines for the recruitment of soldiers for South Vietnam, all of the volunteers had graduated from secondary school, a newly possible feat for the rural poor. Many of them had continued their education while serving as draftees in the army. The sheer number of volunteers who qualified for service in South Vietnam was a reflection of the rise in education levels throughout the country. As young adults, many of these men had wanted to elevate their social status but had failed so far. Most of them had missed out on the opportunities available to the expanding middle class located almost exclusively in Bangkok’s urban sphere. Unwilling to join the unskilled labor force in the capital, they pinned their hopes on gaining positions as civil servants—bureaucrats, policemen, and teachers—in the upcountry provinces of their births. Lacking the advanced education to become teachers and the connections needed to secure a spot in the provincial government, these young men became soldiers. Even this avenue was only a stopgap measure. Like the civil service, the Royal Thai Army lacked the capacity to absorb all of those who sought long-term careers. With the exception of the few who had made a career in the military, most soldiers served only two years as conscripts. The opportunity to reenlist with the Queen’s Cobra Regiment and the Black Panther Division represented an unexpected second chance at an army career.
The strong desire the volunteer soldiers expressed to visit foreign lands and learn about neighboring cultures reflected a correlated elevation in ambitions as well. The largely rural population of young who volunteered for service in South Vietnam had taken the government’s mantra of kan-phatthana and applied it to themselves. A tour of duty as a member of the celebrated volunteer corps confirmed their personal worth as well as their value to the state. Going to South Vietnam became a major goal in their personal program of change. To this day, many veterans cite their time in South Vietnam as the pinnacle moment in this process of transformation. Long after they returned home, and long after they had spent the monetary rewards they had acquired as compensation, the lingering aura of exceptionality garnered them a measure of distinction, of a special social status, in the societies that had produced them. Many got jobs that were better than they would have previously expected. And, a generation later, their children enjoyed even better lives, thanks to the continued financial, educational, and health benefits and expanded horizons that Vietnam service provided.
The Thai volunteers saw themselves as Buddhist warriors. Theravada Buddhism—especially the layman’s expression of Buddhist culture popular in Thailand in the 1960s—played a critical role in the lives of these soldiers and in the national adventure that sent them to South Vietnam. Thailand’s sangha (Buddhist ecclesiastical order), after some deliberation, sanctioned their military mission. The Supreme Patriarch and other prominent monks blessed the departing troops and the returning casualties in public ceremonies. The military units transported Buddha icons along with their weapons and support equipment. A crowded Buddhist altar dominated by a Sukhothai-style Buddha statue was set up in the Thai contingent’s field headquarters as the backdrop to all meetings with the Thais’ “Free World” allies. Some troops put Buddha images on their military vehicles. And the most emblematic symbol of the Thai fighting man was the string of Buddhist amulets that ringed his head and filled his pockets. Some soldiers brought as many as 100 tiny Buddha statuettes—enough to field a full combat company—for their protection. These iconic symbols would impress their American GI counterparts, facilitate their illicit trading schemes, and neutralize foreign magic in the spirit-rich forests of Bien Hoa.