“I want what they want, what every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants: for our country to love us as much as we love it,” Rambo / First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985) the plea of every Vietnam vet who went to a war they didn’t want but did the best they could.
It is often argued that lack of public support doomed the Vietnam war effort. In this line of reasoning, public protests against the war undermined troop morale and the military’s ability to fight effectively. I would argue that this is wrong. It is true that opposition to Vietnam was intense by the late sixities. And that opposition was closely linked to the radical cultural politics of the sixties–to rock and soul music, to hippies and the alledged drug culture, and to the general critiques of “the establishment.” Most of you have probably seen a famous picture of a Vietnam war protestor placing flowers in the barrels of soldier’s guns. This picture can serve to symbolize the clash of two distinct worlds: the technological, regimented, uniform world of the “military industrial complex,” and the free, unstructed and anti-establshment approach of the hippies. Instead of being treated as heros, this argument goes, the soldiers were treated like the enemy when they returned home. You may even have heard that returning soldiers were spat on by protesters.
There is no historical evidence that this ever occurred. The American public had deeply mixed feelings about the war. And the fact that college students were exempt from the draft added to the gap, and the resentment, between student protestors and the soldiers and their families. Veterans often resented the fact that they served while others–often the more wealthy and priviledged–protested on college campuses. And opponents of the war had come to consider it, by the late sixties, as not just a misguided policy but an outright evil–an opinion I share. They sometimes regarded soldiers as complicit in this evil. The revelations of the My Lai massacre (see below) only strengthened this opinion. Vietnam dramatized class divisions, and divisions of political opinion, that Americans had not wanted to confront. Individual veterans may feel, and indeed may be right to feel, that their service to the nation went unappreciated. Students should be careful to sort out popular folklore–like the story that veterans were spat on–from historical fact.
The morale of troops in Vietnam was often quite low. The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was only 19. Again, draft deferments were available to those in college–if you were in college, you were exempted from the draft. As a result, the war was fought mostly by the children of the poor and less advantaged–and they knew it. Racial divisions emerges–see the recollections of Michael Rodriguez. 1/3 of US troops were estimated to be drug addicted.
The Vietnam war was often a horrendous experience for Americans. The soldiers lacked a clear sense of what the war was about–why are we here? In the field–“in country” there seemed to be no secure places–the enemy was everywhere. It seemed to some like a moral quagmire.
Lack of public support for the war intensified as evidence of the full awfulness of the war effort mounted. In March of 1968 an American unit was patrolling the village of My Lai in Central Vietnam. They had suffered recent losses, were frustrated by their inability to find the enemy and anxious for revenge. They rounded up unarmed women, children, and elderly civilians, raped the women, then opened fire. The killed over 300 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children: Private Paul Meadlo recalled:
We huddled them up. We made them squat downI poured about four clips several hundred bullets into the groupthe mothers were hugging their childrenwell we kept right on firing. They was waving their arms and beggingI still dream about it. About the women and children in my sleep. Some days, some nights, I can’t even sleep.
Under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, the soldiers of Charlie Company took a break for lunch, then went back to killing and burning. They were finally stopped by two American two soldiers from an airborne helicopter division, who threatened to turn their helicopter’s guns on them if they shot another woman or child. The Army did its best to cover the incident up. The two men who stopped the massacre were threatened, and the Australian newspaper which published the first stories was sued. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of journalist Seymour Hersch, the story became public news. In a trial that captured national attention, Calley was court-martialed and sentenced to three years. (The two men who stopped the massacre were given medals by the army in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre.) By the time of the My Lai incident, public protest against the war was exceeding protest on just about any issue since the Civil War.
Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968, claimed to have a secret plan for ending the conflict. But in fact he offered little new except the invasion of neighboring Cambodia by US troops in 1970. The invasion revived student protest, and in a famous incident four students were killed at Kent State University in Ohio, when Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed protesters.
In reaction to renewed protests, Nixon began withdrawing US troops, and arming the South Vietnamese army more heavily. This policy he described as the “vietnamization” of the war effort. US troops were reduced from 540,000 in 1968 to 60,000 by 1972.
To compensate for the loss of these troops, Nixon greatly stepped up bombing, especially the secret, undisclosed bombing of Cambodia.
Meanwhile, proof of the US government’s deliberate campaign of “misinformation” and deception was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in the “Pentagon Papers.” Historian Stanley Schultz writes:
The Pentagon Papers were a classified study of the Vietnam War carried out by the Department of Defense. Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department official, believed that the public had the right to know the secret details of the Vietnam War, so he released copies of the study to the New York Times and Washington Post. The first of the Pentagon Papers was the lead story in the Times on June 13, 1971. Nixon challenged this in the Supreme Court, which, however, upheld the right of the newspapers to publish the documents.
Nixon reacted in what for him was a typical fashion. Schultz writes again:
In response to the Pentagon Papers incident, the “Plumbers” were formed, among them G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and some Cuban dissident recruits. The “Plumbers,” in an attempt to discredit Ellsberg, broke into his psychiatrist’s office in search of damaging information on him. John Ehrlichmann had approved the burglary “if done under your assurance that it is not traceable.”
The White House “plumbers” were a covert organization Nixon’s aides put together to carry out “dirty tricks.” Their exploits ended when their break-in of the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington was discovered.
By 1972, the evidence was clear: the American public would no longer support the war in any form. Nixon and his National Security advisor Kissinger negotiated what they called “peace with honor,” in fact simply a recognition of defeat. In December of 1972, Nixon ordered the “Christmas bombing” of Cambodia and North Vietnamese cities. One month later, he halted the he bombing, and on January 27, 1973, peace was declared.
It was the United States’ first clear loss in a war, leaving 58,000 American dead. It had cost 140 billion dollars.
After an embarrassingly brief period, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Americans were treated to humiliating scenes of the evacuation of the US embassy by helicopter, and later attempts by Vietnamese who had been supporters of the US to flee their country by any means.
The newly united Vietnamese government was at first quite repressive and brutal, especially towards those perceived as supporters of the US.
But the domino theory was disproved–communist governments in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China do not act as one. After a period of brutal fighting, most have abandoned communism. Vietnam, remarkably, is now enthusiastically pro capitalist, and has become what Ho Chi Mihn promised it would be in the 1950s: a “fertile field for US investment.”
Americans will sometimes argue that “we could have won if” For example, Ronald Reagan regularly insisted that the US would have won if the government had made a wholesale commitment instead of a limited war. In the first Rambo movie Sylvester Stallone (who dodged the draft in the 1960s by moving to Switzerland) asks “this time do we get to win?”
The answer has to be “won what?” The US might easily have bombed Vietnam “back to the stone age,” as Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater put it. What sort of victory would that be? To preside over a blasted empty landscape and millions of dead civilians? Should the US have waged a more intensive war, and slaughtered millions to suppress a nationalist revolution for independence? Then the US would have ruled tyrannically over a country most of whose residents hated it and everything it stood for. What sort of victory would have been possible?
The Vietnam war was misguided from the start. It demonstrates very clearly the arrogance of power. Most of the major architects of the containment policy that lead to Vietnam–George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, Robert MacNamara–have unequivocally admitted they were wrong about the Vietnam war. “Containment” was a flawed policy, flawed by its indifference to the history of Southeast Asia. Its leaders’ obsession with “communism” led the US deeper and deeper into a tragedy. They believed in America’s mission, and in the automatic superiority of everything America did. They were wrong, and so was the war.
Soldiers returning from Vietnam were not treated as heroes, and “people of color, who had born the brunt of combat in war,” received the worst treatment when they returned, he said.
Veterans had to fight for VA benefits, an expanded GI Bill, counseling and treatment for stress syndrome and Agent Orange-related problems, said Kerry, who founded Vietnam Veterans of America.
Unlike previous American wars, soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were not treated as heroes, and soldiers were sometimes even condemned for their participation in the war.
Soldiers returning home from the war were no longer regarded as heroes but as “baby killers”. Young men sought to evade the draft by being conscientous objectors or leaving for Canada.
The Ghosts of War
The relationship between the soldiers of the Vietnam War was different from the relationships with people from home. The soldiers felt as if they could not tell the whole truth about the war through their eyes to their loved ones at home. The soldiers that they were with all the time understood the pain and confusion each other felt, yet no one talked about it. War changed how people had relationships with others. War could bring people closer or tear them apart.
The relationships between the soldiers and their families grew or forced them to become distant. The soldier did not want to worry his parents at home and knew that they would not understand what he was going through. In the Documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, directed by Bill Couturie, showed these relationships change. One soldier writes to his mother and tells her that for a second, he felt as if he was on vacation because it was so beautiful in Vietnam. One had to think that this man wrote this to his mother only for her to worry less. He did not want to tell her the whole truth on what was really going on inside of him. Would anyone from the outside world understand? “P.S. tell mom not to worry, there is nothing I can’t handle.”
The soldiers could handle the physical horrors that were happening to them, but the mental status of many of the soldiers were becoming breakable. How could you tell someone not to worry about you, when you do not even care what was going to happen to yourself. The soldiers were all prepared to die, but waiting was what was driving them crazy. They did not want to tell their 17-year-old girlfriend at home this because she would never understand. How do you tell someone that you love that you are loosing your mind and do even know who the enemy is anymore? Downplaying the whole war situation to your loved one was the only way to keep yourself sane and not make them worry too much about you.
All of the men were scared, yet did not know how to show it. They could not show it to their families in letters because that could do nothing but make your mother worry that you were not going to make it. “We all scared, one can see this emotion in each individual, some hide it with their mouth and others hide it with their actions. There is no way around it. We all scared.” The soldiers of the Vietnam War were terrified only because they did not want to die.
Humans are not born killers, and do not know how to play the role of one. The soldiers tried to play this role as best as they could, but some failed. The families and loved ones of the men of the war did not know the role playing was taken place because the soldiers did not want to share it with them. What could someone at home do make them less frightened? The soldiers did not want people at home worrying about them. “Don’t worry about me, it wont do anyone could.” Having people who love you worrying about you all the time only puts more pressure on the soldiers than they already had. The felt they were forced into a job they did not want to do but must do it anyway. “I’m scared, not scared enough to quit, I am a marine.”
The relationships between the soldiers and their loved ones changed to do the fact that the experiences of war could not be demonstrated onto a piece of paper. Their families were not there and did not experience what the soldiers did. The loved ones of the soldiers grew closer to the soldiers only out of worry. The soldiers grew closer to their families because they did not want to die. “Vietnam can kill me, but it can’t make be care.” is the Poster slogan of the movie Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The men who were send to train to go to the Vietnam War shared a special relationship between each other that no one from the outside world could understand. They were all scared, yet did not know what they were in for. They knew they could die, but that was not a huge worry for them at that moment. The pain and sadness of going to war was shared with all the men in this camp. Full Metal Jacket showed how the Vietnam War made different relationships between the men fighting in it. They all shared different bonds with each other over different reasons. Some of these marines did not want to show their fear to anyone because it would make them look weak. Private Joker was someone who was terrified of war, but did not want to show it to anyone else. Private Pyle represented the fear and anxiety in all of the soldiers in the war. Private Joker felt the same fear in Pyle and tried to help Pyle and himself overcome the fear.
Joker did not want to admit that the insecurities Pyle had were feelings he shared. This was why he hesitated and then hit Pyle five times with the bar of soap and towel, four times more than everyone else. Pyle was his friend but he did not want to admit he was like Pyle. These men where trained to be kill the enemy. Pyle killed who he thought was his enemy, himself. The relationships between Joker and Pyle were the bond of terrifying anxiety.
Joker became a close friend with Cowboy because they both shared fear but did not show it. Cowboy and Joker were both laid back and afraid. They shared the connection of not showing your fear, but still having a conscience. They both did not want to be there and questioned why they were in war. Joker and Cowboy shared a friendship that was honest and authentic only because the understood what each other was feeling. They shared a conscience that would not let Vietnam get the best of them.
Staying sane was one of the essential survival tips during the Vietnam War. Rafterman was close to comparison with Pyle. He was a quiet person, who wanted to be in combat like everyone else. He was assigned to take the pictures for Joker’s articles. Joker did not want Rafterman around because Rafterman acted as Jokers subconscience. Joker did not want to realize that Rafterman was him. Being scared was a feeling Joker did not want to show. The bond Rafterman and Joker shared was the feeling of fear. Joker did not comfort him when he was scared only because he did not know how to comfort himself in the situations of war. Rafterman wanted to be on the field, but when he was faced with that situation he panicked and did not know how to handle it. He did not want to kill, nor did Joker. They shared the fear of feeling like a killer. Not showing human emotions during the Vietnam War was what Animal Lover symbolized.
The Marines wanted to turn all of its men into killers. Animal Lover represented how playing the role of a killer could turn you into one. He did not listen to orders and was responsible for Cowboy’s death by bringing him in the sniper’s range. Animal Lover and Joker did not have a healthy relationship because Animal Lover could see Joker’s conscience. Animal Lover did not have a conscience. He let Vietnam take all of his human qualities away from him and turned in him into a monster. Joker did not want to let that happen to him. Animal Lover and Joker did not get along only because Joker keep the faith that this dreadful real life nightmare would be over soon and to make the best of it as much as you can. Animal Lover turned his life into Vietnam.
War turned the soldiers’ emotions into one big roller coaster. They were not sure how they should feel or how they should react to other soldiers who were going through the same predicament. In The Things They Carry, by Tim O’Brien, showed the emotions and fear of these men, who did not know how to handle it. “War is nasty war is fun. War is thrilling war is drudgery. War makes you a man war makes you dead.” (p.87) The soldiers were not sure how to feel about being in war. Each man felt this way and felt each other’s confusion. “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” (p. 9) The soldiers did not want to admit to each other the pain they were carrying around. They were always together, yet they all felt alone.
The soldiers were thrown into war and where forced to become close with people they never knew before. “They carried their own lives.” (p. 15) Each soldier was responsible for all of the men in their unit, yet they had to worry about themselves first. They grew to trust and love each other. That was relevant in war. It did not matter who you were and where you came from they were responsible for each other.
Seeing people that you grew close with die right in front of your eyes felt painful scars on these men. “You win some…and sometimes you settle for a rain check. It was a tired line and no one laughed. (p. 12) Death of a close friend was something that could not be joked about. The relationships of these soldiers grew to such tight bonds, that they would go mad if a friend of just a few days ago were killed. Trying to image how this would feel is unobtainable by anyone who was not in the Vietnam War.
The soldiers of the Vietnam War had a silent love for each other. It might have not been expressed, but it was there. People who where in the war could never image the bonds the men shared with each other. The families grew more attached to the soldier because they were frightened. The soldiers were more scared than anyone could image. No one knew how they should feel about the war. The soldiers and the families were confused. Some relationships grew stronger while some weakened.
Love was something that kept the soldiers from insanity. The men felt they had to kill because that was why they were there. Human nature does not teach someone to kill, but to love. The Vietnam War showed a lot of people the true meaning of love and made secure relationships for life.
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Directed by Bill Couturie.
Full Metal Jacket. 1987. Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
O’ Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Copyright 1999 – 2003 OPPapers.com
This is an important part of US history because it was the first war in
which there was no clear winner. 57,685 US soldiers were killed, and triple
that amount were wounded. Even those who returned to the United states
without physical damage suffered from depression, and had to live with
memories of the carnage and destruction that they saw. What bothers me
about the war is that even though these men risked their lives to fight a
war that had nothing to do with them only because their country was
anti-Communist, they have been seemingly forgotten by their country. Many,
especially those who suffered physical trauma, have no jobs and are forced
to beg for food on street corners and live under bridges.
The first book I read was Bouncing Back. It was a collection of the
experiences of a group of Air Force pilots who were gunned down and taken
as prisoners of war. The post-POW lives of the Air Force pilots I read
about contrasted greatly with those of the Marines I read about in The War In I
The Marines lived dirty lived in the Jungles of Vietnam. One of the
best things about The War In I Corps was its great descriptions of the
things the Marines had to go through. As Richard A. Guidry put it : “In a driving
rain, laden with heavy packs, our platoon lumbered toward its place in the long
line of men sprawled in the thick sticky mud…. The rain added a slimy quality
to the crust of dirt and fungus that encased my body. Running my fingers
across my arm was like following the tracks of a snail.”3 It really gave me
a feel for what they were going through. It made me wonder how they didnt
just not fight. The war wasnt theirs, but due to bad luck they were stuck
in this horrible jungle forced to fight an enemy they had no reason to hate.
Living like animals with practically no food and little or no contact with
Their families. Under the same conditions I think I would sit under a tree and
wait it out.
While finishing the book, I remembered a discussion we had in class
about whether or not the soldiers were considered as individuals. Guidry
explained how military thought of them:
” To them we were just parts of the machine, no
different from cannons or jeeps. We were superfluous;
they were there to fill their clipboards. Apparently,
nobody wanted to stop the infiltration, because it resulted
in a steady stream of favorable statistics, a couple dozen
kills a week at very little cost. That looked good for
everybody, and might even mean promotions for the
lower ranking officers. But down in the ranks, those of
us wit our faces in the mud knew that thinking was not
going to win the war”4
His book is full of accounts of superiors putting the troops in danger
when there was clearly a better way, and hiding in foxholes leaving the
soldiers without a leader to tell them what to do. So many injustices were
done in fact that a Lieutenant was murdered, and Guidry and his troop
planned to murder theirs.
Bouncing Back was a more inspirational book. The characters had
reason to live, even though they were trapped in POW camps. They dreamt
of a better place, and fought the interrogators as hard as they could. They
set up a tapping code to communicate along the walls, and would even teach
each others the things that they had studied in college.
The interesting thing about the book is the way the Air Force pilots live
their lives when they werent fighting as compared to the Marines. They
in air-conditioned rooms. Three square meals a day, as compared to the
Marines who had one ration a day (on a good day), and half a ration every
other day during long battles where they could not get food into the
For Al Stafford (the main POW in Bouncing Back), however, the good
life ended only three weeks after he entered the war. After being hit from
behind by a SAM missile he ejected from them plane. ” He used his survival
radio to make one transmission to Compton (his superior). Sorry boss,
Stafford said Ill see you after the war.”5 He later had to throw away
radio, his only contact with the people that cod save him, in fear that he
would be tortured by the Vietnamese till he called for a rescue. He even
though of committing suicide by overdosing on the morphine he carried, but
instead decided on throwing it away, so that he wouldnt be able to. So
this early in the war, the horrors of the POW camps were already known.
I believe the worst torture Stafford had to endure was being without
water. “As time passed, Staffords awareness shifted away from his physical
pain and the uncertainty of his situation and focused on one single fact and
sensation: he was thirsty… He got down off the stool, onto his knees, and
licked the floor where he tiles joined, hoping some water had a accumulated
there. When that failed, he tried licking damaged places on the wall,
that some water had sweated through.”6 It was only his second day without
water, and he had to wait three more.
The book continues to describe the horrible conditions in the rooms,
the small amounts of food, and the torture that they had to go through on
occasion, but never was any soldiers ordeal described the way Staffords
Its amazing how some people can persevere. After spending eight
years as a Vietnam POW Stafford was released. When he returned home
his wife was still waiting for him, and the only problem he suffered was
After returning from the war, many Vietnam veterans suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is characterized by persistent emotional problems including anxiety and depression. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 20,000 Vietnam veterans committed suicide in the wars aftermath. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, unemployment and rates of prison incarceration for Vietnam veterans, especially those having seen heavy combat, were significantly higher than in the general population.
Having felt ignored or disrespected both by the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) and by traditional organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, Vietnam veterans have formed their own self-help groups. Collectively, they forced the Veterans Administration to establish storefront counseling centers, staffed by veterans, in every major city. The national organization, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), has become one of the most important service organizations lobbying in Washington, D.C.
Robert K. Brigham, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
In conclusion, Vietnam was an actual war that 50,000 human beings died fighting. The war concluded with Communist victory in 1975. Faced with the superior foe that could not be drawn out in the open, allied forces found themselves repulsed and decimated at every turn. Submission and withdrawal were inevitable. Media attention focused on events such as the My Lai massacre in which American soldiers killed innocent civilians. In this climate, returning soldiers shunned their uniforms and medals and simply tried to fit back into American life. The veterans of the war returned home to unemployment and social rejection because few revered their service to the country in this volatile time. Only in the 1990s and in the millennium are Vietnam Veterans receiving the positive attention soldiers of foreign wars had received in the past. Memorial Day parades and monuments now include Vietnam Veterans, as well.
Hammond Concise Atlas of World History, 5th Edtion, Geoffrey Barraclough
Vietnam War Chronology, New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation
“We were that which others did not want to be.
We went where others dared to go, and did what others failed to do.
We asked nothing from those who gave nothing , and reluctantly accepted the thought of eternal loneliness..should we fail.
We have seen the face of terror, felt the stinging cold of fear, and enjoyed the sweet taste of a moments love.
We have cried, pained, and hopedbut most of all, we have lived times others would say were best forgotten.
At least some day we will be able to say that we are proud of what we are.VIETNAM VETERANS” EXORCISM Returning to Vietnam, By Gary McMahon
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Directed by Bill Couturie.
Full Metal Jacket. 1987. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. O’ Brien, Tim.
The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.