Vietnam and the New American Way of War

Here was a new generation . . . grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.
– F Scott Fitzgerald

Baghdad falls to US forces.
– 2003 headline

By Brian Downing

When Saigon fell and the last Huey was pushed overboard into the sea, Americans looked back with dismay on their many foreign entanglements that had culminated in the recent calamity. Those who cared to look ahead saw little prospect of war. Surely, they thought, the nation had learned from a war that had brought so much turmoil, cost fifty-eight thousand lives, and ended in defeat.

But Americans settled into a period of inwardness and few saw the new way of war coming into being. The military rebuilt itself, largely independent of the breadth of society, and became the most fearsome army in the world. War-making, in astonishing contrast to post-Vietnam sensibilities, became a de facto presidential power, legitimized by invocation of national security arguments only desultorily debated. This power was ceded by congress and endorsed by a gratefully uninvolved nation.

The Post-Vietnam Nation

Confident that an old militarized society had expended itself, Americans embarked on lives of career, consumerism, and privacy. Rootedness in a past and the hold of religion had given way amid the war. Life became more atomized and hedonistic and less deferent to old notions of propriety and civility. The insightful historian Christopher Lasch noted in 1979 that Americans had created for themselves a “culture of narcissism.”

Postwar sensibilities held that military gambits had been integral parts of US history and had led the country onto the path of global empire. William Appleman Williams observed at the intemperate high point of the war: “Empire is as American as apple pie. Or as American as the ever westward moving frontier. . . . Or as American as saving the world from the devil. Or as American as the veils that Americans have woven to obscure the harsh reality of their imperial record.” (“Rise of an American World Power Complex,” in N. D. Houghton, ed., Struggle against History: U.S. Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolution [New York: Clarion, 1968], p. 1.) Embarking on another foreign war was thought impossible.

After the incandescent victory of the Second World War, generals were revered, but twenty-five years later they were vilified as hidebound militarists. The armed forces were seen as a redoubt of an atavistic warrior caste and the unfortunate youths forced or tricked into serving. Veterans of the war in Vietnam were deemed losers, or deranged, or at least as people to be avoided lest they remind one of a disagreeable past.

The military drafted over a million young men during the war – a major basis for opposition to the war. Military service had once been an obligation, a duty owed one’s country, but amid the war, it was seen as an unjustifiable intrusion on education and privacy.

When Richard Nixon became president in early 1969, he shifted the combat burden onto the S. Vietnamese army. By the end of 1970, US troop levels had been reduced 30%, casualties 55%, and draftees 45%. Concurrently, Nixon reduced then later ended conscription and based the military on volunteers attracted by pay incentives. Most saw this a victory and happily returned to personal concerns. Military service was now for others.

Partial Reemergence of the Martial Spirit

In the fall of 1979, Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage for well over a year. Many Americans saw the events as an understandable response to past meddling when the US (and Britain) overthrew the Mossadegh government and reinstalled the shah. Many others, however, were angered that a small country could humiliate them.

Patriotic and even martial sentiments swelled. Self-flagellation and self-absorption had gone on too long and aversion to the use of force had been a mistake. People yearned for the day when America’s prestige and might were supreme, when all nations respected the US or at least feared it. In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan invoked images of the Western frontier, old-time heroes, and the victory of World War Two. This was based more on Hollywood than on actual events, but wars and politics are usually befogged by myth. Reagan won handily and embarked on a concerted effort to revitalize patriotism, with pride in military power the centerpiece – as it more often than not is.

Military spending went up sharply. The nation recommitted itself to the global contest with the Soviet Union – an “evil empire” against which American virtue and might were once again pitted. WW2 battleships – symbols of the nation’s power and its victory at sea – were returned to active duty. As the economy recovered from a deep recession, all seemed right in the land once more.

Today’s Military

The early years of the volunteer army were unpromising. Many recruits were disciplinary problems; morale and cohesion, already problematic after years of war and tumult, worsened; experienced NCOs and officers left the service in large numbers. In less than a decade, however, as a result of both internal military policies and external social change, the military became highly skilled, exceptionally professional, and devastatingly effective.

The military is far more homogeneous than in conflicts of the previous century. It is drawn disproportionately from rural areas and small towns where orientations toward military service and national traditions are far stronger than in most cities and suburbs, and where Vietnam is a shameful event in the nation’s history – one that must never be repeated and one that had to be avenged.

The experience of Vietnam left many cultural legacies, one of which was the diminution of unrealistic expectations about war. Vietnam movies created a sobering template for young people just as WW2 movies had made a glorious one for their fathers. In post-Vietnam movies, war is hard and cruel, often pointless. Politicians are inept, spineless, and corrupt – polar opposites of the idealized soldier, who is often a maltreated Vietnam soldier.

Victory in a traditional sense is elusive or even irrelevant; heroism goes unrewarded; suffering ennobles; and tragedy is simply part of the deal, raw as it is. Meaning is found not in shining victory or effusive homecoming, but in the initiation into the brotherhood and an attendant sense of honor and accomplishment in playing parts in momentous events far from the ordinary – events few others will experience, comprehend, or appreciate.

Soldiers today acquire a great deal more training than counterparts did during World War Two and Vietnam when urgent requirements precluded more than a few months of training before overseas deployment. Mastery of weaponry, physical power, and long-term solidarity with fellow soldiers created, in time, an extraordinary professional ethos that has only a little resonance with the experience of veterans of previous wars, most of whom simply put in their time for the duration, often grudgingly and often disdainful of career NCOs and officers around them.

It is less difficult to socialize recruits into the ways of war than in past generations. Post-Vietnam America is markedly less religious and much coarser and more violent, making reluctance to fight and kill less of a problem. Between impulse and action, the shadow no longer falls. Armies once had to devote considerable energies, during training and with soldiers new to combat, to breaking down reluctance to take human life. The coarseness and violence pervading American life have made that task less difficult, and violent predispositions, though problematic in civilian life, are channeled into national objectives by military authority and institutions.

A quick campaign in Grenada (1983) brought effusive public praise – quite unexpected in many quarters still attuned to post-Vietnam expectations. Six years later, George H Bush sent troops into Panama for another splendid campaign, and in 1991 the military devastated the Iraqi army in just a few days. Spirits soared as when the Third Reich and Imperial Japan surrendered. Returning troops were welcomed with hearty pats on the back and ebullient parades down main street. American might was once again shining and seemingly limitless. The problems of the world could be quickly solved by military action.

The public rethought the Vietnam War or at least the treatment of those who served in it. Popular films depicted the sacrifices they made, and memorials were built on the Mall and in towns across the country. A few years later, aging World War Two veterans enjoyed renewed appreciation, especially after the success of the powerful film Saving Private Ryan.

The public once more honored military service, and activism in world affairs came along. Everyone ever to wear a uniform was a hero – a well-intentioned convention born of guilt; but as any war veteran will attest, one that trivialized the word and signaled ignorance of military matters. War became something mysterious and unknowable – an all but sacred undertaking that could not be comprehended and should not be questioned. Armed conflicts were quick spectator events in which unknown actors and half-forgotten myths played themselves out around the globe. Casualties there were, but happily they were few. And more happily, almost no one knew anyone in uniform.

Wars and Public Life

Wars no longer involve the public as they had in every war since the Continental Congress raised forces to win independence. Even the Vietnam War, oversimplified as a poor man’s war, drew from the middle- and upper-middle classes as not every young man from those strata availed himself of a deferment. Pride in military service was still pervasive at the outset of that war, though it became one of its unenumerated and unmourned casualties.

Today, soldiers are drawn from comparatively narrow social strata. They serve in the military, fight their nation’s wars, and suffer the casualties. Enlistments went up following the September 11th attacks and even several offspring of the well-to-do took the oath, but most people confined their expressions of patriotism to admiring the nation’s might and calling for retribution. For the bulk of the country there is neither cost nor involvement. A bumper sticker or a silent moment during the news suffices as a show of support for the troops. Only graying and aged veterans question the justness of the casualties falling so heavily on narrow social strata.

The Iraq War led to spirited but unfocused protest rallies. Most were more like colorful folk festivals than concerted political action. The putative issue at hand was intermixed with and obscured by numerous unrelated causes. Demonstrations sought to recreate the antiwar movement of the sixties – a time of romantic and mythic meaning to the gathered. Opposition had little effect on the prosecution of the war or the president’s reelection.

Antiwar activists diligently avoid criticism of the military, at least in public. This too is a legacy of the old antiwar movement, which unfairly and boorishly savaged anyone in uniform from a four-star general in the Pentagon to a corporal just back from the A Shau. This aspect of the antiwar movement later gave rise to a sense of guilt that strengthened respect for military service.

Few Americans today openly criticize the military, regardless of its judgment or conduct. That would be deemed unpatriotic and threaten to revisit the divisiveness of the sixties. Few Americans today have any substantive acquaintance with military matters and cannot speak from experience or with insight, only with great passion – most of which is short-lived.

©2011 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a veteran of the Vietnam War and the author of <i>The Military Revolution and Political Change</i> and <i>The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam</i>. He can be reached at .

6 responses to “Vietnam and the New American Way of War

  1. Well, lionizing Nixon and Reagan is like going down the rabbit hole. BUT, I think some of the foregoing, as it comes from a Veteran’s perspective, is by its very nature a bit skewed. Having been an anti-war activist during the Nam years, I was also very pro-veteran and worked very hard in the POW/MIA ranks. I am not very sure what the point of this article is? And by the way, THANK YOU to the author for serving. I never thought that, or think that, warriors should be reviled, unless they are really in it for the wrong reasons. The current wars are all the wrong reasons, but we were all lied to BIG TIME, so I cannot throw blame around. BRING ‘EM HOME, BRING ‘EM HOME!

    • Thanks for your comment Morgana. This is just the brutal and unpleasant facts. The author isn’t lionizing Nixon or Reagan, I’m sure, just laying it out. The point that struck me hard was this. We now have a professional military that is highly cohesive and loyal to one man, the President of the United States. That’s chilling, even though you, I, and others paying attention probably knew the constituent facts. One man can invoke all this power. The War Powers act, like so many congressional frauds, didn’t really restrict war powers. It made unilateral war making legal. I love the part in Bugliosi’s book calling for Bush’s indictment that says – even though the White House declarations to Congress justifying the war contained outright lies, critical to the case, most members voted yes without even bothering to read it. Thank you for your service too!!!

  2. “the shadow no longer falls.” You picked out the lines that struck me the hardest. It wasn’t necessarily planned, the desensitization, but there is certainly a rush to take advantage of the results. I’ve been reading about the time the right wingers call the “good old days,” a book called “1877.” The author describes conflicts between settlers and native Americans in Colorado and the US Army’s campaign against the Nez Perce. In both conflicts, there was sizable public support for the native Americans. That reminded me of seeing Avatar in a large theater, feeling the strong sentiment for the creatures. I thought, don’t they know this is about us and third world nations? The 19th century folks knew what it was about and they were not able to do much to stop things. What chance do we have with so little insight?

  3. Michael: The chance that we have is people like us surviving the oncoming fall…and tired as we may be, rebuilding a better society from the scrap heap. I guess.

  4. The first thing that bothered me about this article was the way it generalized and over-simplified. For instance, the author credits Nixon with ending the draft. In reality, the draft would have expired in June, 1971, but Nixon requested a 2 year extension of the draft that February. Despite a Democratic filibuster in the senate, Nixon eventually got his extension. It expired in June, 1973. And while the administration did gradually reduce the involvement of American ground troops, this was unavoidable, both due to public opposition and extremely low morale of American troops.. What Nixon did do was expand the war into Cambodia and Laos, with disastrous consequences for the populations.
    My brother and several of my friends fought in that war. The author states “Veterans of the war in Vietnam were deemed losers, or deranged, or at least as people to be avoided lest they remind one of a disagreeable past.” By whom? “Antiwar activists diligently avoid criticism of the military, at least in public. This too is a legacy of the old antiwar movement, which unfairly and boorishly savaged anyone in uniform from a four-star general in the Pentagon to a corporal just back from the A Shau.” This evokes images of the mythical demonstrators spitting on soldiers returning home created by the press. In reality, many of the demonstrators were veterans themselves, and were held in high regard in the anti-war movement. How many of the demonstrations against the Vietnam war were organized by Vietnam Veterans Against The War?
    “The Iraq War led to spirited but unfocused protest rallies. Most were more like colorful folk festivals than concerted political action. The putative issue at hand was intermixed with and obscured by numerous unrelated causes. ” I would remind the author that the anti-war movement of the sixties was also part of a larger social movement, and for many of us that social movement has been a constant. While I empathize with his feelings, war has always been a very divisive issue in this country. One thing that has changed is the coverage of the protest movement in the mainstream media. Mainstream coverage of protests today is largely non-existent.
    As for patriotism, this is a mental illness in which those suffering from it divide humanity into imaginary pieces, and believe the piece which they belong to is somehow superior.

  5. @bd: well spoken, my friend. I wholeheartedly agree.

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