Working-Class War

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Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam Book by Christian G. Appy; University of North Carolina Press, 1993 The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill & London

Working-Class WAR:

American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam



I began this work as a doctoral dissertation in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard University. Thesis advisers usually discourage their students from choosing subjects as broad as this one. However, my advisers, Stephan Thernstrom and Robert Coles, graciously encouraged me to pursue the topic I found most compelling. I am deeply grateful for their help and generosity.

I am most indebted to the many Vietnam veterans who told me about their lives. The private, in-depth interviews I conducted with approximately 100 veterans are crucial sources for this book. While most of these oral histories were collected from men living in Massachusetts, I also interviewed about two dozen veterans from places as varied as Alabama, Texas, California, Illinois, and Virginia. Almost all were army and marine noncareer enlisted men; they were, that is, the sort of men who comprised the vast majority of American forces in Vietnam. Among that group, I tried to interview people with a wide range of experiences and perspectives -- draftees and volunteers, combat and rear-echelon, right- and left-wing, working- and middle-class. In quoting from these interviews I decided to use pseudonyms, a decision I shared with veterans before we began our talks. I believed some veterans would feel freer to speak openly knowing that their identities would not be revealed.

In addition to individual interviews, I attended a weekly Vietnam veterans' rap group from 1981 to 1988. I am very thankful to Marie Cassella of the Dorchester House and to the veterans who attended

Facing the Wall

We face the wall, beholding the names of the dead. We see ourselves on the smooth surface, our clothes rippled by the breeze, shading a space of chiseled names. Our reflections seem small at first -- pale and fleeting against the granite's dark permanence. This is a memorial, however, not a monument. Silence, sadness, a kind of timid wonder may fall upon us, but not because they are exacted by monumental size or grandeur or pretense. With time, in fact, we are enlarged, not diminished, in the presence of the wall. It draws us closer. Our reflections deepen. We feel an almost irresistible need to touch the letters cut in the gleaming, black granite. Offerings are placed along the base of the wall: a flower, a faded photograph, a poem scrawled on lined paper and secured by a rock, a pair of old jungle boots, a small statue of St. Francis, a figure of Buddha, a frayed shoulder patch of the First Infantry Division. Thousands of gifts are left at the wall, items ordinary and bizarre, some so obscure only the dead could know their meaning: a childhood toy, perhaps, or a lost bet made good; an inside joke about a certain long patrol in the A Shau Valley, a hated officer, or an R&R in Bangkok.

The Vietnam Memorial was built in 1982 to honor the 58,191 Americans in the armed forces who died in Southeast Asia from 1959 to 1975. Of course, it is more than that. It is also a site of profound cultural communication, a symbol of the war, and a repository of our nation's history. Yet the memorial thwarts those who would precisely define what the

Working-Class War


Where were the sons of all the big shots who supported the war? Not in my platoon. Our guys' people were workers. . . . If the war was so important, why didn't our leaders put everyone's son in there, why only us?

-- Steve Harper

( 1971)

"We all ended up going into the service about the same time -- the whole crowd." I had asked Dan Shaw about himself, why he had joined the Marine Corps; but Dan ignored the personal thrust of the question. Military service seemed less an individual choice than a collective rite of passage, a natural phase of life for "the whole crowd" of boys in his neighborhood, so his response encompassed a circle of over twenty childhood friends who lived near the corner of Train and King streets in Dorchester, Massachusetts -- a white, working-class section of Boston. 1 <24268248>

Thinking back to 1968 and his streetcorner buddies, Dan sorted them into groups, wanting to get the facts straight about each one. It did not take him long to come up with some figures. "Four of the guys didn't go into the military at all. Four got drafted by the army. Fourteen or fifteen of us went in the Marine Corps. Out of them fourteen or fifteen" -here he paused to count by naming -- "Eddie, Brian, Tommy, Dennis, Steve: six of us went to Nam." They were all still teenagers. Three of the six were wounded in combat, including Dan.

His tone was calm, almost dismissive. The fact


"Boy, you sure get offered some shitty choices," a Marine once said to me, and I couldn't help but feel that what he really meant was that you didn't get offered any at all. Specifically, he was talking about a couple of C-ration cans, "dinner," but considering his young life you couldn't blame him for thinking that if he knew one thing for sure, it was that there was no one any where who cared less about what he wanted. -- Michael Herr, Dispatches

A draftee: "It was either go to Canada, go to prison, or go in the army. What choice did I have?"

A volunteer: "It was either college, a job, or the military. College was out of the question. We couldn't afford it. And I couldn't get a good job. So I enlisted." 1 <24268250>

These cryptic explanations hardly exhaust the range of attitudes among Americans who entered the military during the Vietnam War, but they do suggest the narrow boundaries of choice within which these men faced the prospect of military service. Whether draftees or volunteers, the great majority believed they had no real or attractive alternative. Even many who eagerly enlisted were drawn to the military as much by the pressures and constraints of their civilian lives as they were by the call of patriotism or the promised attractions of military life.

"It's not just a job. It's an adventure." So reads the recruiting slogan. But what other jobs were available? The economy as a whole in the 1960s did remarkably well. It was the final decade of the extraordinary postwar economic boom. Between 1960

Basic Training


They tore you down. They tore everything civilian out of your entire existence -- your speech, your thoughts, your sights, your memory -- anything that was civilian they tore out and then they re-built you and made you over. But they didn't build you from there up. First they made you drop down to a piece of grit on the floor. Then they built you back up to being a marine. -- Marine veteran Gene Holiday
A bus full of marine recruits pulls into boot camp. It is well past midnight, but a team of drill instructors (DIs) stands ready to pounce. As the bus rolls to a stop, one of the DIs jumps in and screams: "'You GOT THREE SECONDS TO GET OFF THIS BUS AND TWO OF 'EM ARE GONE.'" 1 <24268252>The men scramble and shove their way off, ordered to stand on yellow footprints painted on the concrete parade deck. As the men line up, a second DI roars out of a nearby shed. He marches up to one of the recruits and comes so close their faces almost touch. The DI screams in the boy's ear: "'You no good fucking civilian maggot. . . . You're worthless, do you understand? And I'm gonna kill you.'" Several other men are singled out for similar abuse. Then the drill instructor addresses the whole group: "'There are eighty of you, eighty young warm bodies, eighty sweet little ladies, eighty sweetpeas, and I want you maggots to know today that you belong to me and you will belong to me until I have made you into marines.'" <24268252>

Ominous Beginnings


It didn't take long to see that something was seriously wrong. There we were, flying into Nam on a fancy commercial jet, sipping drinks like a bunch of goddamn businessmen, and as far as we knew the VC were going to start shooting us up as soon as we touched down! And we didn't even have our weapons yet! I don't think there was a single rifle on the whole damn plane. It was crazy.

-- Luke Jensen

No one knew what to expect, but what they found was more bizarre and unnerving than anything they had ever imagined. From their first moments incountry, American soldiers were confronted with the war's most troubling questions: Where are we? What are we doing here? Where is the enemy? Whom can we trust? Where is it safe? What is our mission? The answers received provided little comfort or clarity. Instead, the green troops faced a series of confusing and incongruous experiencesominous portents of a yearlong tour of duty against enemies they could not identify, among allies who did not welcome their presence, and on behalf of a policy that was neither meaningful nor realizable.

In the beginning they arrived by ship. The First and Third Marine divisions, the 173d Airborne Brigade, the First Cavalry Division, the First Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the Twentyfifth, Fourth, and Ninth Infantry divisions: most of the major American combat units made their initial arrival in Vietnam by sea, thousands of men carried on large troop transports. In August 1965, for example, 13,500 men of the First Cavalry Division left on seventeen ships from Charleston, Savannah

The Terms of Battle

We could not defeat a people who carried ammunition on poles and who build bridges by hand. . . . The nation which put men on the moon was defeated by a nation where deputy ministers use outdoor privies. -- William Broyles, Jr., Brothers in Arms

"We're fighting Charlie in his own backyard." This was how American soldiers summarized the difficulty of warring against Vietnamese revolutionaries. How can you defeat an enemy who knows the land intimately, who has every reason to regard it as his own backyard, and who has fought for decades, even centuries, to rid it of foreign invaders -- the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and finally the Americans? U.S. troops were haunted by this question. Few were aware of the long history that shaped Vietnamese aspirations for a unified nation free of foreign domination, but the daily realities of warfare continually raised the nagging prospect that perhaps no military effort, however bloody or sustained, could remove "Charlie" from the land, dampen the fervor of his struggle, or undermine the support he received throughout the country.

Yet a conflicting voice posed a different question: how could the United States possibly lose? It had never happened before. Yes, the South did lose the Civil War, and there was the ambiguous stalemate of Korea, but never an outright national defeat. What is more, this tradition of victory enshrined a military ethic that made it intolerable even to imagine that some wars might be unwinnable. As George C. Scott proclaimed at the beginning of Patton ,

Drawing Fire and Laying Waste

The American fighting man in Vietnam is supported by the best that his country can offer. . . . He is swiftly moved into and out of combat. . . . He has a camera, transistor, hot meals and regular mail. If he is hit, he can be hospitalized in 20 minutes; if he gets nervous, there are chaplains and psychiatrists on call. It is little wonder that he fights so well, and quite comprehensible that his main concern in offduty hours is aiding Vietnamese civilians. - Time, 6 June 1967

In 1965, when the First Cavalry Division entered the war, the American mass media was dazzled by the prospect of helicopter warfare. It was as if the foot soldier had become a military anachronism. The First Cav arrived in Vietnam with an enormous fleet of fancy new helicopters and full of talk about "air mobility." They even added Airmobile to their name: First Cavalry Division, Airmobile. It was a cavalry not of horses but of flying "birds." Soldiers would mount the choppers and zip in and out of combat, apparently liberated from the ancient plight of the common soldier -- the miles of sweated marching. Time magazine celebrated the First Cavalry's new image with a purple encomium to the "First Team" and its vaunted mobility. "Freed by their choppers from the tyranny of terrain, the First Team can roam at will over blasted bridges, roadblocks, swollen rivers and jungle mountains to hit the V.C. from the northern tip of the nation to the delta." 1 <24268258>

A War for Nothing

I should make it clear that while I have tried here. . . to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armiesface each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for our troops must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor. -- Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1967

For soldiers, war is a directly confronted reality, not a theoretical abstraction. Their primary concern is survival, not salvation. They value quick reaction over thoughtful reflection, and with good reason: in a war zone, philosophizing can be dangerous. A soldier pondering the meaning of his experience might not see the trip wire across the trail or the sapper crawling through the weeds, and the risks are psychological as well as physical. What happens to the mind of a soldier who constantly tabulates the dangers besetting him, or who cannot stop wondering whether he is fighting for a cause that is just or worthy of the sacrifices made and the lives lost? Those who dwell on such matters risk more than increased anxiety, doubt, frustration, and guilt; they court insanity. 1 <24268259>

Critical thought can also lead to various forms of dissent: desertion, rebellion, outright mutiny. Soldiers who question the meaning or purpose of the war they are ordered to fight might avoid combat, shirk their duties, or join with others to resist orders. However, dissent in the military has a high price. Even to question orders can lead to official reprimands and demotion in rank, and more serious challenges to authority risk court-martials and imprisonment. In addition to punishment, the military

What Are We Becoming?


This lieutenant found a wounded Vietnamese laying in a rice paddy and he put his foot on the guy's chest. The guy is bleeding from dozens of holes. The lieutenant pushes the guy under water and says, "in goes the good water," then lifts his foot letting the guy float to the surface and says, "out goes the good air." He did this until the guy died. At the time I thought that was just a cute little story. -- Jim Barrett

In Vietnam, American soldiers referred to the United States as The World. "When I get back to The World. . ." was a standard conversational opening. The expression signified the soldiers' feeling of radical severance from a reality of familiar meaning. The war proved so pointless, so contradictory, and so alien to any common assumption about life, they could not even locate the experience in the known world. The war seemed to belong to an unearthly place, a nether world where morality was absent or hopelessly twisted, where rational behavior felt insane and craziness merely prudent, where allies were feared and distrusted as much as enemies, where land and people were destroyed in order to save them, and where killing was the highest purpose and survival the greatest reward.

How did soldiers define and respond to this other world? They could insist that it was bizarre beyond words, beyond imagination -- an unreal world. Yet it made very real demands and posed very concrete dangers. However meaningless their tasks may have felt, however removed from the pursuits and values they attributed to The World, soldiers were ordered to carry out quite specific acts. They

Am I Right or Wrong?

I wanna go to Vietnam Just to kill ol' Charlie Cong. Am I right or wrong? Am I goin'strong? -- Basic Training marching cadence

In 1969, a Vietnam veteran "wearing paint-spattered overalls . . . with a pair of work gloves hanging from his back pocket" stood on the sidewalk of a midwestern city. He watched a parade of several thousand antiwar demonstrators, most of them students, march along a downtown street. Soon, his face "livid with rage," the veteran began screaming at the protesters. Among the peace marchers was a contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. One of them, a blue-collar vet from Milwaukee, approached the angry counterdemonstrator and managed to strike up a conversation. It turned out both had served in the First Cavalry Division. Soon the antiwar veteran said, "Look, we were over there -we know what was going on."

"Damn right," the other replied. "Well, hell, you know we should have never gotten in there in the first place -- you know we didn't belong there."

"Yeah," the other guy said dubiously.

"Well, that's all we're saying. . . ."

"Yeah, but I just can't take them damn kids who don't know what we went through, saying we're all a bunch of killers, and that the Viet Cong are all saints."

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