Class, Death and Vietnam:
A Review of Christian Appy’s Working Class War.
University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
The American involvement in the Vietnam War remains an important issue in American politics. This is because it takes into itself executive powers, Congressional oversight, the American role abroad, popular opinion and, as this review is concerned with, class and its relation to the makeup of combat forces. The book here under review deals informally with the experiences of working class men in Vietnam. This is “informal” in the sense, while the book is largely written in normal expository prose, a good portion of the work is concerned with anecdotal memories of many who fought in the war and their experiences both as working class soldiers and their life after the war. While the anecdotal approach can be irritating and non-methodological, it does have its benefits in seeing the real opinions of these men.
The major issue that the author seeks to deal with is not merely the experience of combat, that has been done over and again. What is more important to the author is dealing with the contradiction of drafting men into a war that they could not understand and did not identify with. Ultimately, this argument rests on the idea that French Indochina is far too removed from the normal American consciousness in a way that Germany is not. But this argument rests upon the idea that Vietnam was not worth fighting, and even more, that many thought the US was fighting on the wrong side (174-176). In turn, this argument rests on the assumption that the Nazis were the ultimate evil, and the Stalinist system in both the USSR and Hanoi was not. Since Stalin murdered more than Hitler, and this is usually the justification of the US battling in Europe, it would seem to work double for Vietnam and Korea on the same argument. Yet, the author cannot make this connection since he is a radical leftist by his own admission. However, he does hold that, since World War II demanded a much larger commitment from the US population, the class issues did not matter as much, due to the huge size of the draft. Therefore, the class issues did not matter nearly as much and therefore (one might assume) the war was much more popular.
The real meat of the book, and one worth reading, is that, by 1970 (and this seems to be the main year that the author deals with, odd since it was so late in the war), a full 80% of the American combat troops in Vietnam were of the lower classes (11-13; 23-30). But this figure is likely higher in that many “white collar” workers were of the clerical class, only slightly removed from the stereotypical blue collar work. Of course, those who went to college or seminary received deferments until they finished their studies, leading to a large spike in the number of graduate degrees at the time. And even worse, those who did not fight ended up doing much better, both mentally and professionally, than those who went (220ff).
The author cites several polls in 1970 that show, despite stereotypes to the contrary, that roughly 48% of the working class wanted the US to withdraw from the war, while 40% of white collar workers did (41). These poll numbers say very little. First, 1970 was a very late date. By that time, the US was involved in Vietnam longer than in Europe in World War II. Secondly, the very fact that these numbers are close undercuts the class argument of the book. And furthermore, the fact that a slight majority of working class people wanted the US to remain in Vietnam at this late date in the war completely undercuts the argument of the book. The fact is that the Vietnam war, regardless of the well concerned and funded marches on Washington, remained vaguely popular right up to the early 1970s.
Another substantial element of the work that bears mentioning is that the working class justified their laboring status precisely in their going to Vietnam while the upper classes did not. Marxists call this “mixed consciousness” in their typical condescending way, in that the working classes embrace their status and are proud of it, while drawing “reactionary” conclusions from it. In other words, their class solidarity is not based on their exploitation by the bosses, but rather the fact that they fought for their country and the white collars did not.
What is true however, is that the working class fought the Vietnam war, while the white collars stayed home by and large. The American combat troops, however, came to loathe the war for the following set of reasons. First, more abstractly, they could not identity with the stated aims of “containing communism.” But they could a generation earlier, identify with containing Naziism and fighting with Stalin. It seems that the unstated assumption that makes “sense” out of this is that the war in Europe was backed by a huge propaganda campaign both by the state and by private media. Vietnam was just the opposite, anti-war views were a regular scene on the nightly news. Of course, the fact that the war was televised played its part. But more abstractly, the South Vietnamese government could not seem to get its act together. The Americans could not be said to be fighting for “democracy” when the government of the South was an unstable and oligarchic military dictatorship, and an incompetent one to boot (49-51; 267). This lack of competence in the South Vietnamese government, in this writer’s view, is the main reason why the US was forced to withdraw. Further, in all the literature on Vietnam, the specific policies and issues with the Southern government and its inability to gain the support of the Southern peoples, is the one major area that is largely left un analyzed and hence, a gaping hole exists in the understanding of this war.
Third, the US combat troops were fighting an unconventional war. The American, trained in typical European warfare, was unprepared to fight a guerilla war, but was prepared to fight such a war on the Japanese-occupied islands a generation earlier. Friendly fire kills were a large proportion of American casualties for this reason. The strategy, according to Appy, is to wait until patrols got ambushed, and then the air strikes would be called in to hit the unit that did the ambushing (184-187). But as far as strategy goes, this seems almost calculated to create mutiny. Further, such issues as hazing (86-87), the racial angle, where black troops failed to see how the Vietnamese nationalist was his enemy (277), and the question of self-determination (210-211) all eventually worked on the consciousness of the working class combat troops. Add to this the appalling poverty of the Vietnamese people and the young age of the average Vietnamese soldier (193-195; 174-175), the combat soldier came to hate the war.
There is so much wrong with this argument it is hard to see where to start. All wars are loathsome. Korea also saw the killing of 15 and 16 year old kids fighting for Mao. What American soldier could have possibly identified with the war aims of World War I or the Spanish-American war? Or Korean for that matter? Yet no major anti-war movement came into existence and no pontificating about class discrimination came to play a role. What was different about Vietnam? If anything, this interesting but ultimately misguided book forces us to ask that question. The answer can only be that the elites both in government and in media rejected the war, and this was because they had rejected the Cold War in general. But if this is even partially true, then it fails the consistency test. If the US fought in Europe to fight Hitler, who is said to have killed over 5 million in camps, then how was the Cold War a problem, when Stalin and his creature, Mao, killed far more? Not to mention the uncomfortable fact that the Cold War is the direct result of the US intervention in Europe on the side of the men who killed the most, Stalin and Beria.
Ultimately, the only real explanation is that the left, including many government and media elites, came to identity with Marxism, regardless of its human cost. This is what made Vietnam different, and what really undercuts the entire premise fo the book under review. The book ultimately fails at its task, to justify the anger at the war, but also raises more questions than its answers.