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

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 ”œculture 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: ”œEmpire 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.” (”œRise 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 ”œevil 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.

©2012 Brian M Downing

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

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  • While I think this is a good summary of events and results, I’m uncomfortable with the phrasing implying that all this just happened. There were powerful interests working very hard and with access to a lot of money who pushed a military agenda. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-congressional (he originally cited all three and was convinced to remove the “congressional” from the delivered speech) complex was hard at work to insure that the U.S. government kept the war gravy flowing.

    Maybe it’s just the circles that I run in, but I think there is a lot more objection to war than you imply. The right wing Wurlitzer effectively marginalizes it. And this is political — in 2004, John Kerry decided to run on his military heroism. Delegates to the Republican National Convention decked themselves out in mock purple heart band-aids, and the TV commentators went right along with this being appropriate. What it all showed was that the oligarchs of both parties agreed that war is the answer, and just manipulate the details for partisan advantage.

    Attitudes towards the military as recounted in polling and reports are eminently flexible. See the huge brouhaha over Chris Hayes’ comments. And none of this has much to do with whether Americans support the wars. According to polls, the majority opposed attacking Iran. After a “support the troops” propaganda wave (why bother to set yourself apart in an emotional situation when your opinion doesn’t have any effect?), the majority returned to opposing the war.

    Our princes love war, and they insure that the military drumbeat pervades our society.

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