Working-Class War

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

Summary

Written in 1993 by historian Christian G. Appy, “Working-Class War” explains the role that many working-class youth played in Vietnam, and how they bore the brunt of the conflict as opposed to those from more privileged backgrounds. In the book Appy goes through several stages of a soldier’s life in the military, beginning with their entrance into the military. In the book Appy gives the reader various statistics that illustrate his facts regarding the role of the working class in the Vietnam War. It addition, the book contains many first-hand accounts from Vietnam Veterans from diverse backgrounds explaining their experiences.

In the first section Appy describes how many working class young men ended up in the military in much higher numbers then their middle class peers and gives various reasons for this, both economical and cultural. For example, when it comes to the draft, working class youth had fewer options to avoid the draft. Many of them were too poor to attend college, thus they were unable to receive educational deferments. At the same time, many were not aware of the various medical exemptions from military service, and how they could get a civilian doctor do write them an exemption that would probably save them from serving. Also, Appy also includes many accounts of working class youth who felt compelled to serve for various reasons. These included a lack of employment prospects, a feeling that it was better to enlist than risk getting drafted, and the feeling that if one evaded military service, they would be shaming their family.

In the next section Appy describes what many working-class youth went through when the entered basic training. He, and many of those he interviewed describe it as a dehumanizing experience designed to break a person’s will. Ironically though, the process of basis training seemed to be harder on those who were of a middle class background. Appy and many of his interviewees attribute it to the harsher background that many of those from the working-class.

One of the aspects of military life that affected those from the working class was their job assignment in the military. Because of a lack of education or low scores on intelligence tests, many working class youth in the military were given assignments as combat infantrymen rather than soldiers working in non-combat situations. Appy also goes into great detail describing, with numerous first-hand accounts, the hardships faced by combat infantrymen in Vietnam, a majority of whom were from working class backgrounds. In addition to illustrating the hard conditions, Appy argues that these men were victims of a strategy in which they were used as bait to attract Viet Cong fighters who would then be attacked by American Artillery and Air Power. He also explains how very few of these soldiers understood the conflict they were fighting in, and how little their commanders told them about Vietnam and what they would face.

In addition to illustrating what many working class soldiers faced in Vietnam, Appy describes the hardships that many faced when they returned. Many of them felt isolated from the rest of society. While on one hand, they found defaulting fitting in with the older generations of veterans from the Second World War and Korea, they also had hostile relations with many of those in their generation from more privileged backgrounds who had the ability to go of to college. While many did not agree with the war in Vietnam, they were agitated by middle-class college students who protested against a war that, because of their privileges, they did not have to fight in. Appy considers this to be a byproduct of the class conflict between the middle-class and the working-class that was intensified as a result of the Vietnam War. Also, on the medical issues, both physical and mental, Appy argues that because of their economic background, many working class soldiers were unable to receive the same quality of care that middle-class veterans could afford. These experiences illustrate a war whose burned fell harshly on young Americans from working-class backgrounds.

Commentary

Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

I have to admit that I found this book more interesting than any other I have read so far in this course. In addition to providing various statistics and information backing up the author’s argument that working-class youth bore the brunt of the Vietnam War, “Working-Class War” gives the reader many powerful portrayals of both military life for the common soldier but also a view into the lives of many working class individuals during the Vietnam conflict. Because the war in Vietnam is rather recent in our nations history, I think it is important for a study of Vietnam to include first-hand accounts. I also think that the first-hand accounts from working-class backgrounds are important since many historians and other academics may not come from similar backgrounds. My only real critique of the book is that sometimes I felt it sometimes resorted to generalizations about the war and those who fought in it. However, I feel that Appy gives the reader a great insight into the lives of many of those who fought in Vietnam.

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