Ruff Puff by Phil Tompkins

Before reading Phil Tompkins’s Ruff Puff: A ‘MAT’ Team Leader’s Story (Amazon Digital Services, 291 pp., $10.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) I knew what Ruff Puff meant but had never heard of MAT. Tompkins wasted little time in informing the reader that it’s the acronym for “Mobile Advisor Teams.”

In 1969-70 he served as an Army officer with a five-man MAT team of Americans in Quang Ngai Province working with his “brothers-in-arms, the local militia soldiers and South Vietnamese government officials in this small part of a historic fight for the very survival of the Republic of Vietnam.”  Th locals were the South Vietnamese military’s Regional Forces and Popular Forces—RFPFs or Ruff Puffs.

I found this book fascinating because it was about a part of ther war in South Vietnam that I knew little about. It’s also a part of the war that gets little attention in the literature. What attention if gets is often dismissive of the Ruff Puffs. I encountered them in South Vietnam and always found them to be pleasant folks, but they seemed like poorly armed amateurs up against forces that would roll over them soon. The author shows a lot of affection for the most pitiful and ragtag of them all, in our efforts toward “war and ‘nation building’ at the rice-roots level.”

When Tompkins focuses his story on the Vietnamese local militias and the war he waged with them, his book is strong and interesting. It illuminates how things worked in the provinces with the province chiefs. Tompkins was warned when he arrived in South Vietnam, that the RFPF men “would sometimes run away in a firefight or even defect to the other side.”

They carried with them the necessities for cooking lunch, which they would have at a certain time of the day and then take a siesta. This went against Tompkins’s training, but he adapted to this custom, and to most of the customs of the Vietnamese he fought with.

“I was one of the few Americans that loaded up everything with the pungent nuoc mam—and when I would sweat (which was often) I smelled like a native!”  Tompkins loved the Vietnamese people he worked with and it shows on every page of his memoir.

Tompkins in Vietnam

He also mentions his reading, which included Catch-22.  He loved the book, which he calls “a totally irreverent military satire.”

But Tompkins strays from his worthy narrative often to indulge in rants. There is, for example, a not-uncommon anti-REMF tirade, which he describes rear echelon personnel as “the people that re-told the wildest ‘war stories’ and made the most of the souvenirs they had had once they got back to “The World.’”

When this REMF got back to “The World” in late 1967, no one wanted to hear about my war, let alone anything like a bloody war story. I kept my mouth shut, as did most of my recently returned veteran friends.

Tompkins complains bitterly about the news media, which he calls “the left-wing press.” And he has little good to say about the culture of the 1960s; “do-gooders who hated the war effort”; and the ARVN troops. He sees the Tet Offensive as a decisive blow against the Vietcong, not as the surprise to the American military who had claimed we had the enemy on the run.

Also, Tompkins is in denial about the ending of the war. “We didn’t lose,” he says. ” We quit.” He also has trouble believing that the Phoenix Program was as bad as some have said it was—and he can’t spell it consistently, either.

He also questions the reality and extent of the My Lai Massacre because of what he says was biased reporting by the U.S. news media. “We will never know the real truth about My Lai because of that,” he claims. It “was almost as if the American news media was the puppet of international communism.”

The book also suffers from the overuse of exclamation points! Not to mention that Tompkins’s use of commas is, at best, hit and miss.

The author states that Americans who opposed the war “weren’t really against the war, but were against the draft” and “were afraid they would wind up in our shoes—or in a body bag!” He says that those who were against the war “for selfish reasons of their own (cowardice in most cases)” embraced the “atrocities of My Lai as their own personal cross.”

If you are comfortable with these statements, read this book. In between all of the author’s rants is a lot of valuable information about the Ruff Puffs and their fight against communism.

—David Willson

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