“Be glad to trade you some ARVN rifles. Ain’t never been fired and only dropped once.” — Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket.
Many audience members may think this famous line served no other purpose other than showing a few Marine characters’ attempts to negotiate the cheapest deal possible with a Vietnamese prostitute and her pimp.
In fact, the remark is full of meaning when it comes to the relationship that American infantrymen shared with their South Vietnamese counterparts during the war.
Cowboy’s quote in the film was meant to surface the idea that the ARVN — or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam — didn’t do their part during combat operations.
For many Vietnam vets, that statement couldn’t have been more truthful.
When the U.S. entered the war in the mid-1960s, the goal was to aid South Vietnam with American personnel and equipment to help defeat the communist North.
Many of those South Vietnamese troops serving during the era were members of a militia known as the “Popular Force” or “PF.” Their mission was to protect the local villages from deadly Viet Cong attacks. Many Vietnam vets believed the PF fed intel to the enemy instead of engaging them.
Meanwhile, ARVN troops would patrol alongside selected Marine and Army units taking the fight to the enemy.
“A few of the ARVN units would stay and slug it out,” Vietnam veteran James “Doc” Kirkpatrick states. “But for the most part, they didn’t do shit.”
James “Doc” Kirkpatrick served in Vietnam at Fire Base Stallion (Hill 310) with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 7th Marines as a Hospital Corpsman from 1968 – 1969. Kirkpatrick had more negative run-ins with South Vietnamese troops than he’d like to remember.
While the NVA would consistently pound it out against American forces, the ARVN would commonly hesitate during the skirmishes and egress out of the area before the engagement was over — leaving their rifles behind.
This action severely upset American forces, diluting their respect for their counterparts.
Many Vietnam veterans were unclear about what the South Vietnamese’s actual goal was during the war, especially when experiencing first-hand the south’s lack of effort when compared to the North’s passion to fight.
Doc Kirkpatrick believes the South just didn’t care enough — or wasn’t well enough equipped — to fight the enemy. So the Americans were left shouldering the burden.