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Class and the Burden of Fighting the Vietnam War
on June 17, 2000
The main premise of this book by Christian Appy, AssociateProfessor of History at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is thatthe burden of fighting and dying during the Vietnam War fell disproportionately on young working-class and poor men. According to Appy, "2.5 million young American enlisted men" served in Vietnam, and "[r]oughly 80 percent came from working-class and poor backgrounds." It is Appy's view that "[c]lass, not geography, was the crucial factor in determining which Americans fought in Vietnam." Appy goes on to state: "Vietnam, more than any other American war in the twentieth century, perhaps in our history, was a working-class war." That is a provocative thesis.
In the introduction, which is centered on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the 58,191 names inscribed on the wall, Appy asks: "What sorts of people were they? How did they come to fight in Vietnam?" According to Appy: "[T]hose who fought and died in Vietnam were overwhelmingly drawn from the bottom half of the American social structure." Appy explains that "[p]oor and working-class soldiers, whether black or white, were more likely to be trained for combat than were soldiers economically and educationally more advantaged." In particular, Appy examines a white, working-class section of Boston, about which he writes that "boys who grew up in Dorchester were four times more likely to die in Vietnam than those raised in the fancy suburbs." Appy also identifies East Los Angeles and the South Side of Chicago as "major urban centers...[which] sent thousands of men to Vietnam,"as did Saginaw, Michigan; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Stockton, California; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Youngstown, Ohio; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Utica, New York. These facts are compelling. So is the poignance of the bitterness which resulted. For instance, Appy quotes a firefighter who lost a son in Vietnam: "I'm bitter. You bet your goddamn dollar I'm bitter. It's people like us who gave up our sons for the country." If Appy had proceeded to develop these points and to analyze their social consequences more fully, this would have been a marvelous book. However, only Chapter 1, entitled "Working-Class War," and Chapter 2, "Life Before the Nam," are devoted to information and insights about the role of the working class and poor in this conflict. According to Appy, most Vietnam-era draftees and volunteers "had no real or attractive alternative" to military service because "[p]oor and working-class youth - those most likely to be drafted - were least able to secure stable, well-paying jobs," in the mid-1960s, and "[c]ollege was not a realistic option for most working-class men." Appy also writes: "The draft determined the social character of the armed forces by whom it exempted from service as well as by whom it actually conscripted or induced to enlist....From 1964 to 1973, 2.2 million men were drafted, 8.7 million enlisted, and 16 million did not serve." According to Appy: "The student deferment was the most overtly class-biased feature of the Vietnam era draft system." For instance, according to Appy, "working-class men saw military service as a natural, essentially unavoidable part of life, one they believed would at least maintain their social and economic standing, whereas "men from wealthier families were likely to view the military as an agent of downward social mobility." Appy argues that "the fundamental factors moving people into the military were economic and institutional." According to Appy, many working-class men enlisted during the Vietnam War-era because, "[w]ith the prospect of a dead-end job, little if any chance for college, and the draft looming on the horizon," most "saw enlistment as a way of `getting over' the unavoidable." Appy proceeds to explain that "white, working-class men did not regard military service as an opportunity so much as a necessity (nothing else to do, draft pressure, duty, job security) so much as a necessity (nothing else to do, get away, leave school)." He adds: "For black volunteers, economic and social improvement often were decisive motivations." These facts and analysis are invaluable. Much of what follows, however, is familiar, and some of it is, frankly, tedious. Appy spends seven chapters answering these questions: "What was the nature of the war they waged? How did [the working-class and poor soldiers] respond?" For instance, Appy devotes several pages to the hazing and physical abuse which were typical of Vietnam-era Marine Corps basic training, but we're already familiar with this from a dozen books and movies. Similarly, virtually all readers, other than newcomers to the literature of the Vietnam War, know: "Attrition was the central American strategy; search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress." I do not mean to suggest that Appy's insights are inaccurate. He writes, for instance: "For soldiers, war is a directly confronted reality, not a theoretical abstraction," and "[s]oldiers in Vietnam were preoccupied with survival." But those observations lack the sharp focus on working-class and poor military men in Vietnam which I had expected. And, when Appy does focus on working-class and poor military men, much of this book is anecdotal, drawn from interviews the author conducted between 1981 and 1987 with approximately 100 Vietnam veterans. In my mind, there is a genuine issue as to whether this is a sufficiently large sample from which to draw conclusions.
The introduction and first two chapters of this book are superb, but I was disappointed by much of the rest of it. There is still plenty of room for research and analysis of the role and experiences of working-class and poor men in the Vietnam War.