The American Soldier in Vietnam

views updated

The American Soldier in Vietnam

More than 2.5 million American men served in Vietnam during the war. Some of these men were career military officers. But many others were poor or working-class teenagers who enlisted or were drafted into the military right out of high school. A large proportion of the U.S. troops consisted of African American men from the inner cities, the sons of immigrants from factory towns, and boys from rural farming communities.

Upon arriving in Vietnam, American soldiers found themselves in a strange land of watery fields and dense jungles. This unfamiliar environment made their jobs more difficult and unpleasant. Their feelings of vulnerability were increased by strained relations with Vietnam's rural communities. In the early years of the war, some U.S. soldiers expected the South Vietnamese people to greet them as heroes. Instead, the local farmers and villagers usually viewed the Americans with distrust or even hostility. In fact, some South Vietnamese civilians (people not involved in the military, including women and children) actively helped the Viet Cong guerillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) that the Americans were fighting against.

Never knowing who to trust, the U.S. combat troops experienced constant fear and anxiety during their frequent patrols of the villages and countryside. They knew that the enemy was all around them, but their main form of contact came through traps or ambushes rather than large-scale battles. As a result, many American soldiers became increasingly frustrated with the war and the U.S. strategy. "How can you defeat an enemy who knows the land intimately, who has every reason to regard it as his own backyard, and who has fought for decades, even centuries, to rid it of foreign invaders?" Christian Appy writes in his book Working-Class War.

The tense atmosphere and frustrating nature of the war eventually caused a significant decline in the motivation and performance of American forces in Vietnam. Some American soldiers reacted to their situation by lashing out violently against the Vietnamese, while others took out their anger on U.S. military leaders. Some used drugs or alcohol to help them cope with their experiences. As the overall situation for American troops became worse, race relations within the U.S. military also deteriorated.

The draft

Since 1973, when U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam, Americans who have served in the U.S. military have done so voluntarily. During the Vietnam War, however, at least one-third of the American troops were selected for military service through an involuntary process known as the draft. A government agency called the Selective Service collected the names of all American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. When a man's name was drawn, he was required to report to his local draft board for evaluation. There, he would either qualify for a deferment (an official delay of military service), or he would be inducted into the armed forces. In this way, many young men ended up serving in Vietnam whether they wanted to or not.

There were some legal ways to avoid or delay military service. For example, young men who had physical problems, were enrolled in college, worked in an industry that was vital to the war effort, were needed at home to support a family, or joined the National Guard might be granted deferments. Altogether, 27 million American men came of draft age during the Vietnam War years. About 60 percent, or 16 million, of these draftable men avoided service in legal ways. Of the 40 percent that did serve in the military in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only about 2.5 million went to Vietnam. The rest remained in the United States or served on bases in Europe.

The ten percent of the draft-age generation that ended up serving in Vietnam consisted of three groups of relatively equal size. One-third were volunteers who had chosen to join the military. Many of these men were career soldiers or recent graduates of military academies. Another third were drafted into the military. The final third enlisted because they expected to be drafted soon. In some cases, men who entered the service by enlisting rather than being drafted received better duty assignments.

A "working-class war"

Since the draft officially ended in 1973, many people have studied the role it played in determining the racial, ethnic, and social class makeup of the American troops in Vietnam. These studies have concluded that the average U.S. soldier was a 19-year-old man from a poor or working-class family who had not attended college. Such findings have confirmed the widespread belief that U.S. draft policies unfairly targeted the segments of American society with the least political power. "Vietnam was a place where the elite went as reporters, not as soldiers," reporter David Halberstam noted. "Almost as many people from Harvard won Pulitzer Prizes [a prestigious award for journalism] in Vietnam as died there."

Many of the ways in which draft-age men received deferments favored those who were wealthy and well-educated. For example, wealthy young men could afford to remain in college full-time—and even pursue advanced degrees following graduation—in order to qualify for student deferments. But these deferments were not available to students who had to work their way through college on a part-time basis. In addition, wealthy young men could obtain deferments for physical problems more easily than poor or working-class men. Rather than trying to convince a draft board that they were physically unable to serve in the military, these men could get a note from their family doctors. Finally, wealthy and educated young men were more likely to be aware of all the ways they might avoid military service. In fact, antiwar organizations often held meetings on college campuses to inform potential draftees about their options.

Appy estimates that the American forces in Vietnam consisted of twenty-five percent poor, fifty-five percent working-class, and twenty percent middle-class men. Very few U.S. soldiers came from upper-class families. Many of the men who served in Vietnam were minorities from the nation's inner cities. African Americans accounted for about fourteen percent of the American forces. Many other U.S. soldiers came from small rural towns or farming communities. According to Appy, about two percent of Americans lived in towns with populations smaller than 1,000 in the 1960s. But about eight percent of the U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam came from towns that size.

Although the draft did tend to target men from working-class homes, there were other factors that led these men to fight in Vietnam in greater numbers than other groups. For example, many of these men inherited strong family traditions of military service and felt it was their duty to join the armed forces. "My father had served, everyone in our community had served. My two brothers served over in Vietnam," veteran Dave Christian told Michael Maclear in The Ten Thousand DayWar. "I hailed from a steel community and we handed out 29,000 boys from my county alone."

In addition, men from poor families tended to have fewer job options in civilian [non-military] society. Some of them considered the military a good place to receive training. "The Marines provided them with a guaranteed annual income, free medical care, free clothing, and something else, less tangible but just as valuable—self-respect," former U.S. Marine Philip Caputo explains in A Rumor of War. "The man who wore that uniform was somebody. He had passed a test few others could. He was not some down-on-his-luck loser pumping gas or washing cars for a dollar-fifty an hour, but somebody, a Marine."

The men who served in Vietnam also tended to be younger than the U.S. soldiers who had fought in previous wars. The average age of American troops in Vietnam was nineteen, compared to an average age of twenty-six for U.S. soldiers in World War II (1939–45). During most of the Vietnam War, nineteen-year-olds were not even allowed to vote. The voting age in the United States changed from twenty-one to eighteen in 1971.

Partly due to their young age and working-class backgrounds, the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam did not tend to be well-educated. As of 1967, eighty percent of the American troops had a high school education or less, and only six percent had completed four years of college. In comparison, forty-five percent of the generation that reached draft age during the Vietnam War attended college. Many people criticized the government policies that selected mainly young, uneducated men from the nation's less-affluent families to serve in Vietnam. "Where were the sons of all the big shots who supported the war? Not in my platoon," veteran Steve Harper noted in No Victory Parades. "If the war was so important, why didn't our leaders put everyone's son in there, why only us?"

The combat soldier's experience in Vietnam

When American soldiers arrived in Vietnam, they entered a land, climate, and culture that was very different from the United States. For example, the weather in Vietnam tended to be very hot and humid. During the spring "monsoon" season it would rain nonstop for days at a time. The fertile river valleys tended to be flat and fairly open, but also extremely wet. Vietnamese peasants grew rice in these lowland areas in wet fields known as paddies. The valleys were surrounded by steep hills and rugged mountains that were covered by a thick jungle of trees and tropical plants.

Combat troops spent much of their time patrolling the countryside in small groups, searching for Viet Cong guerilla fighters or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces. Sometimes they would set out on foot from a U.S. base camp. Other times they would be dropped off by helicopters in remote and potentially hostile locations. They would march for days or weeks at a time, carrying heavy packs full of food, clothing, weapons, and ammunition. During the time they spent on patrol, they rarely had an opportunity to bathe or enjoy a hot meal.

No matter where in Vietnam these American units patrolled, the landscape made travel difficult. In the rice paddies, the U.S. soldiers often slogged through water and mud that came up to their waists. When they got back on dry land, they had to check their skin for blood-sucking leeches. In the jungles, they often had to hack their way through dense vegetation. Sometimes it would take an entire day to move two miles. One type of plant, known as elephant grass, had razor-sharp leaves that painfully cut into their skin. They also had to deal with swarms of mosquitoes. In the mountains, they exhausted themselves by marching up and down steep hillsides. Many soldiers became ill from drinking dirty water or developed painful sores on their feet.

These tiring and unpleasant patrols made up much of an average U.S. combat soldier's experience in Vietnam. "Perhaps the best single image with which to synthesize [combine different ideas into one] the physical experience of the American combat soldier in Vietnam would be that of a column of men spaced about five yards apart; burdened with 80-pound packs; wearing thick armored vests called flak jackets; carrying rifles, mortars, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and three or four canteens; and patrolling on foot through jungles, mountains, or rice paddies," Appy writes. "Among the infantrymen, the 'grunts,' this was known as 'humping the boonies.'"

Hours of boredom and seconds of terror

In addition to these physical discomforts, the American troops also experienced constant anxiety and tension in Vietnam. As they marched through the rice paddies and jungles, U.S. combat units never knew when enemy forces would suddenly appear. They spent long periods of time searching the countryside without ever finding Viet Cong or NVA forces. In 1968, for example, American patrols encountered the enemy on only one out of every hundred missions. When the two sides did meet, they rarely fought large-scale battles that allowed the United States to use its superior firepower. Instead, they usually fought small skirmishes following Viet Cong or NVA ambushes. "You go out on patrol maybe 20 times or more and nothin', just nothin'," a soldier told Time magazine in 1965. "Then, the 21st time, zap, zap, zap, you get hit—and Victor Charlie [the Viet Cong, or VC] fades into the jungle before you can close with him. "

Viet Cong guerillas liked to launch surprise attacks at night or during bad weather in order to gain an advantage over the Americans and their powerful weapons. They also hid in villages or dense jungles and fired upon U.S. troops as they passed by on patrol. NVA troops controlled the time and place of most of their battles with American forces. They usually started firefights by ambushing U.S. combat patrols. After a while, some U.S. soldiers began to feel like the purpose of their endless patrolling was to serve as bait for attacks by enemy forces. After all, such attacks gave American military leaders information about the size and location of NVA troops. They needed this information to pinpoint their bombing raids.

Even though U.S. combat patrols encountered Viet Cong guerillas and NVA soldiers only rarely, they often found evidence of enemy activities. For example, enemy forces buried land mines and set booby traps throughout the countryside of South Vietnam. These carefully hidden explosive devices caused a great deal of death and suffering among the American troops. In fact, mines and booby traps accounted for between twenty and twenty-five percent of U.S. casualties (killed and wounded soldiers) during the Vietnam War.

American combat soldiers had to remain alert at all times, even when they were exhausted from many hours of patrolling. Besides looking for enemy troops, they had to watch out for tiny trip wires that caused hidden hand grenades to explode, and for signs of digging that might indicate a landmine or a dangerous pit. The constant threat of triggering a hidden explosive caused some soldiers to become paralyzed with fear and indecision. After all, every spot where they stepped or sat might lead to injury or death. This tense atmosphere took a heavy emotional toll on the U.S. troops.

Some veterans have described their experiences in Vietnam as long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sudden and unexpected terror. "Looking at your watch, counting the days, marking off the days you have left in Vietnam on a little calendar drawn on your helmet," veteran Tim O'Brien remembered of his time on combat patrol. "It is monotony punctuated by moments of sheer terror, just horrible stuff. And after the war is over you don't remember the monotony and the boredom and the mosquitoes and the heat. You remember those few moments of real terror."

U.S. soldiers' feelings about the Vietnamese

As they traveled through the countryside looking for enemy forces, American combat patrols routinely entered and searched South Vietnamese villages for hidden weapons, extra supplies of food, young men of military age, and other possible signs of Viet Cong activity. The combat patrols rarely found any strong evidence linking the villages to the Viet Cong. But somehow they knew that the enemy had been there. O'Brien compared searching South Vietnamese villages to hunting a hummingbird (a tiny bird that flies very quickly with a darting motion): "You would get to one village: nothing there. Another village—and nothing there. The enemy, the hummingbird that we were after, was just buzzing around. You secure a village, you search it, and you leave, and the village reverts [goes back] to the enemy."

One reason that many U.S. soldiers suspected that the South Vietnamese villagers cooperated with the Viet Cong was that the villagers never seemed to trip land mines. The Viet Cong did not want to blow up villagers, because they depended on the local people for supplies and other support. So they trained the villagers to recognize subtle signs of a mine or booby trap. For example, the Viet Cong might tie a piece of grass into a knot, with the loop end pointing toward the hidden explosive. "Here's a woman of twenty-two or twenty-three. She is pregnant, and she tells an interrogator that her husband works in Danang and isn't a Viet Cong," former marine E. J. Banks recalled to Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History. "But she watches your men walk down a trail and get killed or wounded by a booby trap. She knows the booby trap is there, but she doesn't warn them. Maybe she planted it herself."

Over time, as mines and booby traps killed and injured more American soldiers, U.S. combat patrols grew angry that the villagers did not warn them of nearby dangers. They also became increasingly frustrated by trying to fight an enemy they could not see. Some soldiers reacted to their fear, anger, and frustration by treating the villagers very harshly. In some instances, they beat up women, children, or elderly men who refused to give them information. Other times, they burned down huts and destroyed food supplies.

The South Vietnamese people were very poor, and they suffered great hardships during the war. Thousands of villages were destroyed by U.S. bombing missions or American combat patrols. This destruction left many Vietnamese people homeless and forced them to live as refugees. Some of these displaced villagers survived by collecting and using the garbage left behind by American forces. For example, some refugees sorted through dumps near U.S. military bases and carefully saved scraps of food, metal, or wood. Others begged for handouts from passing soldiers.

At first, many U.S. soldiers felt sympathy for the South Vietnamese people. Some gave candy to the children and tried to help in other ways. Over time, however, American troops' view of the Vietnamese began to change. Some soldiers began to resent their constant demands for food and money. Others grew angry that the South Vietnamese did not seem to appreciate American efforts to save their country from a Communist takeover.

Part of the problem was that most American soldiers did not understand the South Vietnamese people and culture. "My time in Vietnam is the memory of ignorance," O'Brien wrote. "I didn't know the language. I knew nothing about the culture, nothing about the religion, nothing about the village community. I knew nothing about the aims of the people—whether they were for the war or against the war . . . . The final effect was of a moron wandering through a foreign land, or a blind man wandering through a foreign land."


In the early 1970s, the American public was shocked by a series of news reports about atrocities (acts of extreme cruelty or brutality) committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Many factors combined to cause American combat troops to lash out violently against Vietnamese civilians. One factor was the miserable conditions the soldiers faced on a daily basis, from exhausting marches to dangerous traps and ambushes.

Another factor was the frustration and uncertainty the U.S. soldiers felt toward the Vietnamese people. Many American troops felt that they could not trust anyone Vietnamese—including peasants, farmers, bar girls, old women, and children—because they might be agents of the Viet Cong. This atmosphere of fear and distrust caused some men to behave in immoral ways they would never have demonstrated under normal circumstances. "When GIs couldn't tell friend from foe, they came to hate and despise them all," Cecil B. Curry explains in Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era. "Viewing all Vietnamese as less than human released American boys from their own humanity."

Some experts claim that U.S. military policies also contributed to the atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam. One of the main U.S. strategies for winning the war was to kill as many Viet Cong and NVA forces as possible. Rather than trying to capture and hold territory as they had in previous wars, American military leaders hoped to use bombing attacks and combat forces to break the enemy's ability and willingness to fight.

For troops in the field, this strategy placed a strong emphasis on "body counts," or the number of enemy soldiers killed. In fact, many U.S. combat units measured their progress by how many Vietnamese Communists they had killed. But since it was often difficult to tell friends from enemies, the emphasis on body counts led to many civilian deaths. "The military mission became to inflict casualties and the primary reason for existence became to minimize your own casualties. And you were sort of walking that tightrope the whole time," veteran James Webb recalled in Working-Class War. "Ethical confusion is the only word that I can use. It just sort of mounts."

There is no doubt that some American soldiers committed atrocities during the Vietnam War. In the My Lai massacre of 1968, for example, U.S. troops raided a South Vietnamese village and killed between 300 and 400 innocent civilians (see box titled "The My Lai Massacre" in Chapter 12, "Nixon's War (1969–1970)"). But many other American soldiers conducted themselves honorably throughout their time in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the poor treatment the South Vietnamese people received from some American soldiers led to greater support for the Viet Cong and NVA. "Why didn't they get behind us? Why didn't they care that we were dying for them?" veteran Tobias Wolff asked in Time. "Every time we slapped someone around, or trashed a village, or shouted curses from a jeep, we defined ourselves as the enemy and thereby handed more power and legitimacy to the people we had to beat."

Decline in U.S. morale and performance

During the early years of the war, many American servicemen supported the U.S. government's decision to become involved in Vietnam. They believed it was important to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. As a result, the morale of American troops was fairly high—at first. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, both the morale and performance of the U.S. forces declined rapidly. As the number of American casualties increased, some soldiers were overcome by fear. Others grew frustrated with the U.S. military strategy, which seemed to risk their lives on endless patrols without any clear purpose.

Another reason for declining morale and performance was the one-year tour-of-duty rotation schedule used in Vietnam. In previous wars, U.S. troops were required to serve for the duration of the conflict. But during the Vietnam War, individual combat soldiers were rotated into and out of the country on a one-year schedule. Rather than following orders and trying to achieve military goals, some soldiers focused only on staying alive for those 365 days. They tried to avoid combat whenever possible and did not form close relationships with other members of their military units.

Some historians blame the American antiwar movement for the decline in the motivation and performance of U.S. troops in Vietnam (see Chapter 8, "The American Antiwar Movement"). As the war dragged on, opposition to it became more widespread and vocal. American soldiers knew that the war was unpopular at home. During the later years of the war, in fact, some soldiers had been antiwar protesters before they were drafted into the military. The atmosphere back in the United States caused many American soldiers to question their involvement in Vietnam, and to resist the orders of U.S. military leaders.

Desertions, fraggings, and drug use

The decline in morale among U.S. troops contributed to a number of significant problems, including atrocities, desertions (when a soldier leaves the military illegally before his term of service has ended), violence toward officers, drug use, and strained race relations. Desertions became a major problem during the Vietnam War. The number of U.S. soldiers who left their units for more than 30 days without permission increased from 15 per 1,000 in 1966 to 70 per 1,000 in 1972. About 100,000 U.S. soldiers were discharged from the military for such offenses. Antiwar groups claimed that the increasing numbers of desertions proved that the American combat troops opposed the war. In reality, few soldiers left their units during combat patrols of South Vietnam—partly because it was even more dangerous to travel through the countryside alone.

As American soldiers grew more frustrated with the war and how it was being conducted, some began to take out their frustrations on officers. Many officers who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam were good leaders who earned the respect of their men. But some officers seemed to place their own desire for glory and promotions ahead of the safety and welfare of their units. For example, U.S. soldiers resented officers who directed dangerous field combat from the safety of high-flying helicopters or distant command posts. They also disliked overly aggressive officers who did not seem to understand what they went through on a daily basis. Soldiers who resented or distrusted their officers sometimes refused to follow orders or even resorted to violence.

The intentional use of violence toward unpopular officers was common enough in Vietnam that a new word was invented to describe it. "Fragging" initially referred to the practice of using a fragmentation weapon (an explosive device, such as a hand grenade) to murder an officer. But the term was later used in reference to any deliberate act of violence toward a higher-ranking person. For example, disgruntled soldiers might sabotage a helicopter or shoot an officer during combat with enemy forces. The U.S. military reported 730 fragging incidents between 1969 and 1971, which resulted in 83 officer deaths. But experts suspect that many other incidents went unreported or were made to look like accidents.

Another problem associated with the decline in morale of U.S. soldiers was increased drug use. Drugs were inexpensive and easy to obtain in Vietnam. Many soldiers used them to escape from the boredom of their daily lives or to rebel against military authority. Others resorted to drugs when they could not cope with the violence they witnessed. "Drugs became the main expression of discontent—in effect, an inoculation [form of protection] against 'Nam,'" Michael Maclear explains in The Ten Thousand Day War. Drug use was especially common on military bases and in support units. It was less common in combat units operating in the field, where a lack of attention could cost soldiers their lives.

Drug use became a severe problem between 1969 and 1971, when the U.S. government was beginning to withdraw American troops from Vietnam. Marijuana use peaked at 58 percent of U.S. forces during this period, while heroin use increased from 2 percent of American soldiers to 22 percent. The hard drugs American soldiers used in Vietnam were much more powerful and addictive than the versions available in the United States. As a result, as many as 500,000 U.S. soldiers became addicted to drugs. In 1971, for example, 5,000 American soldiers were hospitalized for combat wounds, while 20,500 were treated for drug abuse.

Strained race relations

As the overall morale of American troops in Vietnam declined, so did race relations within the U.S. military. In the early years of the war, many African American men viewed military service as a positive thing. They believed that the military offered opportunities for training and career advancement that were not available to them in civilian society. But such attitudes began to change as black soldiers faced discrimination in Vietnam.

For example, black soldiers often found themselves passed over for promotions. Only two percent of officers in the U.S. armed forces were black, even though blacks made up about fourteen percent of all military personnel during the Vietnam War. In addition, black soldiers often received less desirable housing and duty assignments than white soldiers in the same unit. They tended to be assigned to dangerous combat duty more often than white soldiers. As a result, African Americans made up twenty-five percent of the U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam during 1965 and 1966.

For the most part, race relations remained positive in American combat units. Black and white soldiers tended to band together when they faced danger and the threat of death. But race relations deteriorated significantly in non-combat support units and base camps during the late 1960s. In some cases, African American soldiers intentionally segregated themselves from the rest of their unit. They stuck together and often refused to associate with whites. At the same time, some white soldiers in base camps made racist comments or displayed racially insensitive symbols, like the Confederate flag (the symbol of the slaveholding South during the American Civil War). In some cases, racial tensions exploded into violence. Such incidents contributed to the overall decline in the performance of American troops in Vietnam.


Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Baskir, Lawrence M., and William A. Strauss. Chance and Circumstance: TheDraft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Curry, Cecil B. (as Cincinnatus). Self-Destruction: The Disintegration andDecay of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.

Ebert, James R. A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam,1965–1972. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1986.

Helmer, John. Bringing the War Home: The American Soldier in Vietnam andAfter. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books,1997.

Lewy, Gunter. America in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam, 1945–1975. New York: Avon Books, 1981.

MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Polner, Murray. No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Starr, Paul. The Discarded Army. New York: Charterhouse, 1974.

Words to Know

Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and individual rights.

North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.

NVA The North Vietnamese Army, which assisted the Viet Cong guerilla fighters in trying to conquer South Vietnam. These forces opposed the United States in the Vietnam War.

South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.-supported government.

Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.

Military Dogs in Vietnam

About 4,000 dogs served with the American military in Vietnam during the war. Some of these animals were pets that were donated to the armed forces by American owners. As military dogs, they were trained to sniff out booby traps, land mines, tunnels, snipers, and hidden stashes of weapons and other supplies. The dogs also served as sentries at U.S. bases and helped drag wounded American soldiers to safety in medical units. The dogs were so effective in helping the American soldiers avoid enemy traps that the North Vietnamese placed a high value on killing them. Hundreds of dogs were killed in action in Vietnam, but it is estimated that their efforts prevented over 10,000 human casualties.

Charlie Cargo, an American soldier who served as a dog handler in Vietnam, remembered an occasion when his dog, Wolf, saved his life: "He latched onto my hand. He gave me a friendly nip on the hand and looked at me. Wolf absolutely would not let me go by him. I looked straight ahead and not more than two feet away was a tripwire [a trigger for a hidden explosive device]. And I would have died right there with him if he wouldn't have found that wire."

Sadly, only 200 of the American military dogs returned to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War. Official U.S. military policy prevented them from being brought back to America out of fears that they might carry diseases. Instead, the dogs were classified as "surplus armaments" (extra military equipment) and either put to sleep or left with the South Vietnamese army when the U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973.

Many American veterans, as well as citizens who had donated their pets, were angry and disgusted at the treatment the military dogs received. After all, these dogs had served their country as loyal soldiers, and many of them were considered heroes for saving men's lives. "That's just unheard of to do that to a four-footed soldier," U.S. Army dog handler John Burnam stated.

Since then, the contribution of American military dogs has been recognized in several books and documentary films. On February 21, 2000, a memorial was dedicated in Riverside, California, to honor the American military dogs who served in Vietnam and other wars. In addition, the U.S. government agreed to change its policy so that war dogs would no longer be left behind when American troops were withdrawn from a conflict.

The Land Becomes an Enemy

To some American combat soldiers in Vietnam, mines and booby traps turned the land into an enemy more frightening and deadly than the Viet Cong. In the following passage from his book A Rumor of War, former Marine Philip Caputo describes the emotional toll these hidden explosive devices took on the troops:

The foot soldier has a special feeling for the ground. He walks on it, fights on it, sleeps and eats on it; the ground shelters him under fire; he digs his home in it. But mines and booby traps transform that friendly, familiar earth into a thing of menace, a thing to be feared as much as machine guns or mortar shells. The infantryman knows that any moment the ground he is walking on can erupt and kill him; kill him if he's lucky. If he's unlucky, he will be turned into a blind, deaf, emasculated [changed so that he is no longer a man], legless shell . . . . Walking down the trails, waiting for those things to explode, we had begun to feel more like victims than soldiers.

Soldiers Feel Strong Emotions

For some American combat soldiers, the constant anxiety and tension of their time in Vietnam served to heighten their senses and emotions. In the following excerpt from a New York Times Magazine article, Tim O'Brien recalls the deep love he felt during the war:

Vietnam was more than terror. For me, at least, Vietnam was partly love. With each step, each light-year of a second, a foot soldier is always almost dead, or so it feels, and in such circumstances you can't help but love. You love your mom and dad, the Vikings, hamburgers on the grill, your pulse, your future—everything that might be lost or never come to be. Intimacy [close, personal contact] with death carries with it a corresponding new intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air. You love the miracle of your own enduring capacity for love. You love your friends in Alpha Company—a kid named Chip, my buddy. He wrote letters to my sister, I wrote letters to his sister. In the rear [non-combat support areas], back at Gator, Chip and I would go our separate ways, by color, both of us ashamed but knowing it had to be that way. In the bush, though, nothing kept us apart. "Black and White," we were called. In May of 1969, Chip was blown high into a hedge of bamboo. Many pieces. I loved the guy, he loved me. I'm alive. He's dead. An old story, I guess.

About this article

The American Soldier in Vietnam

Updated About content Print Article