Vietnam War Civilians Point Of View Research Paper
When Americans think of being at war, they might think of images of their fellow citizens suffering.
We count the dead and wounded. We follow veterans on their difficult journey of recovery from physical injuries and post-traumatic stress. We watch families grieve and mourn their dead.
But it was not always this way.
In fact, newspapers during Vietnam and earlier wars gave little space to portraying individual American service members. Journalists almost never spoke with grieving relatives. I learned this by researching depictions of American war dead in newspapers and textbooks.
Today, as the U.S. again escalates its 16-year war in Afghanistan, it is important to understand how Vietnam set a pattern for finding honor in inconclusive or lost wars.
Anonymous Vietnam War dead
I found that from 1965 to 1975, The New York Times mentioned the names of only 726 of the 58,220 American military personnel killed in Vietnam. Reading through every New York Times article from those years with the word “Vietnam” in it, I found biographical information was included about only 16 dead service members, and photos of 14.
There are just five references to the reactions of the families of the dead, and only two articles mention the suffering of injured American service members. Two other articles discuss the funerals or burials of the dead. This restrained coverage is far different from that of The New York Times or any other media outlet during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The U.S. military encouraged this change. As the Vietnam War dragged on there were mounting casualties, ever less prospect of victory and ever more reports of atrocities committed by American service members. In response, U.S. commanders searched for new ways to find honor in their troops’ struggles.
One way the military changed was the way it honored its members through medals. Medals have always been used by officers to reward and identify behaviors they want their troops to emulate. Before Vietnam, the Medal of Honor – the highest award given by the U.S. – usually went to those who lost or risked their lives by going on the offensive to kill enemy fighters. But during Vietnam, I found, the criteria for the Medal of Honor changed. More and more, those who served were recognized for defensive acts that saved the lives of fellow American troops, rather than for killing communist fighters.
Toward the end of the war and in all wars since, nearly all Medals of Honor were given for actions that got fellow American service members home alive, rather than helping win a war.
This shift echoed changes in the broader American culture of the 1960s and 1970s – a shift toward celebrating individual autonomy and self-expression. As a growing fraction of Americans achieved a level of wealth unprecedented in world history and unparalleled elsewhere in the world, claims that people deserved emotional fulfillment at school and work became increasingly salient.
Another way the military adjusted its approach was to loosen its grip on discipline. The military responded to insubordination within its ranks by allowing expressions of dissent. This aligned the military with the culture of individual expression in the civilian world from which its volunteers and draftees came. Civilians saw this new attitude in news photos of service members in Vietnam wearing buttons saying “Love” or “Ambushed at Credibility Gap.” This celebration of the individual, even in a disciplined military, made the life of each service member seem even more precious, and the effort to save such lives ever more praiseworthy.
Troops’ families also became a focus of attention in two ways.
First, the military replaced the practice of sending telegrams to dead service members’ survivors with visits from casualty assistance calls officers who delivered the news in person. This practice has continued in every war since.
Second, prisoners of war became objects of repeated attention from President Richard Nixon. Nixon used POWs as props to unfairly, in my view, attack the antiwar movement as insufficiently concerned with American troops. Journalists spoke with the prisoners’ wives and children, bringing attention for the first time to the emotional suffering of service members’ families.
The military’s focus on individual service members in the late years of Vietnam has created a permanent legacy. Since Vietnam, Americans’ tolerance for casualties has sharply declined. A majority of Americans turned against the Vietnam War only when the number of U.S. dead exceeded 20,000. In Iraq it took just 2,000 dead for a majority of Americans to oppose the war.
The U.S. now fights wars in ways designed to minimize casualties and avoid any troops being taken prisoner. Such casualty avoidance, through the use of high altitude bombing, drones and heavily armored vehicles, increases civilian casualties. It also limits interaction between civilian and American troops – making it more difficult to win over the support of locals in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Vietnam did not make Americans into pacifists, but it did make U.S. civilians far more concerned with the well being and lives of their country’s troops. At the same time, the end of the draft and shift to an all-volunteer force required the U.S. military to treat its recruits with greater respect. These factors ensure military service members will continue to be honored most highly for protecting each other’s lives, even when those actions occur during lost or inconclusive wars like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the correct number of troops who died in the Vietnam War – 58,220, not 58,267.
And yet even as Vietnam continues to shape our country, its place in our national consciousness is slipping. Some 65 percent of Americans are under 45 and so unable to even remember the war. Meanwhile, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our involvement in Syria, our struggle with terrorism — these conflicts are pushing Vietnam further into the background.
All the more reason, then, for us to revisit the war and its consequences for today. This essay inaugurates a new series by The Times, Vietnam ’67, that will examine how the events of 1967 and early 1968 shaped Vietnam, America and the world. Hopefully, it will generate renewed conversation around that history, now half a century past.
What readers take away from that conversation is another matter. If all we do is debate why we lost, or why we were there at all, we will miss the truly important question: What did the war do to us as Americans?
Vietnam changed the way we looked at politics. We became inured to our leaders lying in the war: the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, the number of “pacified provinces” (and what did “pacified” mean, anyway?), the inflated body counts.
People talked about Johnson’s “credibility gap.” This was a genteel way of saying that the president was lying. Then, however, a credibility gap was considered unusual and bad. By the end of the war, it was still considered bad, but it was no longer unusual. When politicians lie today, fact checkers might point out what is true, but then everyone moves on.
We have switched from naïveté to cynicism. One could argue that they are opposites, but I think not. With naïveté you risk disillusionment, which is what happened to me and many of my generation. Cynicism, however, stops you before you start. It alienates us from “the government,” a phrase that today connotes bureaucratic quagmire. It threatens democracy, because it destroys the power of the people to even want to make change.
You don’t finish the world’s largest highway system, build huge numbers of public schools and universities, institute the Great Society, fight a major war, and go to the moon, which we did in the 1960s — simultaneously — if you’re cynical about government and politicians.
I live near Seattle, hardly Donald J. Trump territory. Most of my friends cynically deride Mr. Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, citing all that was wrong in the olden days. Indeed, it wasn’t paradise, particularly for minorities. But there’s some truth to it. We were greater then. It was the war — not liberalism, not immigration, not globalization — that changed us.
In December 1968, I was on a blasted and remote jungle hilltop about a kilometer from the demilitarized zone. A chopper dropped off about three weeks of sodden mail and crumpled care packages. In that pile was a package for Ray Delgado, an 18-year-old Hispanic kid from Texas. I watched Ray tear into the aluminum foil wrapping and, smiling broadly, hold something up for me to see.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s tamales. From my mother.”
“What are tamales?”
“You want to try one?” he asked.
“Sure.” I looked at it, turned it over, then stuck it in my mouth and started chewing. Ray and his other Hispanic friends were barely containing themselves as I was gamely chewing away and thinking, “No wonder these Mexicans have such great teeth.”
“Lieutenant,” Ray finally said. “You take the corn husk off.”
I was from a logging town on the Oregon coast. I’d heard of tamales, but I’d never seen one. Until I joined my company of Marines in Vietnam, I’d never even talked to a Mexican. Yes, people like me called people like Ray “Mexicans,” even though they were as American as apple pie — and tamales. Racial tension where I grew up was the Swedes and Norwegians squaring off against the Finns every Saturday night in the parking lot outside the dance at the Labor Temple.
President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military in 1948. By the time of the Vietnam War, the races were serving together. But putting everyone in the same units is very different than having them work together as a unit.
Our national memory of integration is mostly about the brave people of the civil rights movement. Imagine arming all those high school students from Birmingham, Ala. — white and black — with automatic weapons in an environment where using these weapons was as common as having lunch and they are all jacked up on testosterone. That’s racial tension.
During the war there were over 200 fraggings in the American military — murders carried out by fragmentation grenades, which made it impossible to identify the killer. Almost all fraggings, at least when the perpetrator was caught, were found to be racially motivated.
And yet the more common experience in combat was cooperation and respect. If I was pinned down by enemy fire and I needed an M-79 man, I’d scream for Thompson, because he was the best. I didn’t even think about what color Thompson was.
White guys had to listen to soul music and black guys had to listen to country music. We didn’t fear one another. And the experience stuck with us. Hundreds of thousands of young men came home from Vietnam with different ideas about race — some for the worse, but most for the better. Racism wasn’t solved in Vietnam, but I believe it was where our country finally learned that it just might be possible for us all to get along.
I was at a reading recently in Fayetteville, N.C., when a young couple appeared at the signing table. He was standing straight and tall in Army fatigues. She was holding a baby in one arm and hauling a toddler with the other. They both looked to be about two years out of high school. The woman started to cry. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “My husband is shipping out again, tomorrow.” I turned to him and said, “Wow, your second tour?”
“No, sir,” he replied. “My seventh.”
My heart sank. Is this a republic?
The Vietnam War ushered in the end of the draft, and the creation of what the Pentagon calls the “all-volunteer military.” But I don’t. I call it the all-recruited military. Volunteers are people who rush down to the post office to sign up after Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center gets bombed. Recruits, well, it’s more complicated.
When I was growing up, almost every friend’s father or uncle had served in World War II. All the women in town knew that a destroyer was smaller than a cruiser and a platoon was smaller than a company, because their husbands had all been on destroyers or in platoons. Back then it was called “the service.” Today, we call it “the military.”
That shift in language indicates a profound shift in the attitudes of the republic toward its armed forces. The draft was unfair. Only males got drafted. And men who could afford to go to college did not get drafted until late in the war, when the fighting had fallen off.
But getting rid of the draft did not solve unfairness.
America’s elites have mostly dropped out of military service. Engraved on the walls of Woolsey Hall at Yale are the names of hundreds of Yalies who died in World Wars I and II. Thirty-five died in Vietnam, and none since.
Instead, the American working class has increasingly borne the burden of death and casualties since World War II. In a study in The University of Memphis Law Review, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen looked at the income casualty gap, the difference between the median household incomes (in constant 2000 dollars) of communities with the highest casualties (the top 25 percent) and all the other communities. Starting from almost dead-even in World War II, the casualty gap was $5,000 in the Korean War, $8,200 in the Vietnam War, and is now more than $11,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way, the lowest three income deciles have suffered 50 percent more casualties than the highest three.
If these inequities continue to grow, resentment will grow with it. With growing resentment, the already wide divide between the military and civilians will also widen. This is how republics fall, with armies and parts of the country more loyal to their commander than their country.
We need to return to the spirit of the military draft, and how people felt about service to their country. The military draft was viewed by most of us the same way we view income tax. I wouldn’t pay my taxes if there wasn’t the threat of jail. But as a responsible citizen, I also see that paying taxes is necessary to fund the government — my government.
People would still grumble. We grumble about taxes. People would still try to pull strings to get more pleasant assignments. But everyone would serve. They’d work for “the government,” and maybe start to see it as “our government.” It’s a lot harder to be cynical about your country if you devoted two years of your life making it a better place.
Let the armed services be just one of many ways young people can serve their country. With universal service, some boy from Seattle could find himself sharing a tamale with some Hispanic girl from El Paso. Conservatives and liberals would learn to work together for a common cause. We could return to the spirit of people of different races learning to work together in combat during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War continues to define us, even if we have forgotten how. But it’s not too late to remember, and to do something about it.Continue reading the main story
An opinion article last Sunday about the effects of the Vietnam War on the United States misstated the number of Yale graduates who died in the war. The number is 35, not three.