Week 8: Apocalypse Now

The Vietnam War looms large in the modern history of armed conflict. It is not difficult to see the impacts that the war had on every element of American living. It was a massive and obvious military loss, a personal tragedy for countless families, and a bellwether for an increasingly cynical political landscape. To be precise, “more than 3 million Americans… served in the Vietnam War. An estimated 100,000 Americans fled the United States to avoid serving in the conflict, and approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted” (Digital History, ‘The War’s Costs’). The US public was more than happy to express that it had reservations about entering Vietnam, and protests continued to characterize 60’s and 70’s political discourse.

Those being sent overseas to fight the Viet Cong were broadly young working class men. After recovering from the mental shock of realizing that rich people didn’t volunteer en masse for service, a sober analysis reveals that the structures in place weren’t made for anyone except the working class. Military service was so common among this demographic because “the institutions most responsible for channeling men into the military—the draft, the schools, and the job market—directed working-class children to the armed forces and their wealthier peers towards college” (McMahon quoting Appy, 252). Recruiters flocked to schools and low-income neighborhoods rather than country clubs and Beverly Hills in no small part because the nation wanted its fighting done by those it deemed expendable.

Morale quickly fell thanks to the horrendous parade of gore and viscera these soldiers were put through. Civilian deaths skyrocketed while support back home plummeted. Often these men would see each other die horrifically. Per one veteran, “to shoot and kill somebody, turn your head and walk away isn’t hard, it’s watching him die that’s hard, harder than you could imagine and even harder when it’s one of your own men” (McMahon quoting Robinson, 239). It grew harder every day to arrange the pictures sent from Vietnam into a flattering portrayal of America, and so “by the late 1960s, the sense of purpose which the American soldier took to Vietnam had evaporated” (McMahon quoting DeGroot, 267). These soldiers were, in their estimation, lost in a foreign place for no good reason.

In lieu of evidence to the contrary, we must assume that a class divide exists within the military today. Traditionally, the middle class is overrepresented in the armed forces, but if scholars are to be believed in their warnings over the vanishing of America’s middle class, it is easy to conclude that the vast majority of the US’s fighting will soon be done by people for whom military service seems the best and only financial option.

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