The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 45 (Fall 1993).
Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, a book by Christian G. Appy published this year, is the most piercing and informative work yet on U.S. imperialism’s carnage and defeat in Vietnam. In part an effort to counter right-wing notions that Vietnam was a just war that “the left” wouldn’t let America win, the book also raises questions that liberals and even leftists avoid.
Appy is successful in achieving these goals because he examines the U.S. participation in the war through the lens of class structure and class conflict. He details the lives of American soldiers in Vietnam: their class backgrounds, military training, war experiences (both as victims and victimizers), as well as the post-combat attempts of survivors to deal with what they lived through. He provides a human and realistic account, using personal interviews and rap sessions with scores of veterans. He combines this personal touch with facts, figures and information. But he fails to draw the revolutionary conclusions that flow from this material.
The book doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive analysis of the Vietnam War. Its central point is that the U.S. armed forces—particularly the enlisted men following orders, doing the fighting and suffering the casualties—were overwhelmingly and disproportionately from the working class.
By itself, this is nothing new: recruits for modern imperialist armies in general have come from the proletariat. This stems from both the working class’s numerical predominance in capitalist society and the ruling class’s penchant for having those less fortunate do its dirty and dangerous work.
But Appy demonstrates how this rule was particularly acute in Vietnam. Unlike World War II, whose vast scale demanded a mobilization of all social strata, Vietnam was more limited, and the military was determined to channel bourgeois and even middle-class youth away from combat. This was done through a variety of methods: student deferments, payoffs to doctors to declare potential recruits unfit, technical deferrals, draft board biases, connections (like Dan Quayle’s) that get you into the stateside National Guard.
As well, the middle class was obviously under far less economic compulsion to enlist. Appy estimates that working-class and poor youth composed a full 80 percent of the enlisted ranks. (This figure is actually low in that it excludes youth from “white collar” families, many of whom are in fact working-class.)
One might assume that Blacks, getting screwed every other way in this society, would make up a disproportionately high percentage of the war casualties. Actually, Black casualties for the entire war were only slightly disproportionate. However, in the early part of the war, Black casualties were running at nearly twice the rate of white. Only after intense reaction from the Black movement and the increasing radicalization of Black youth did their percentages drop.
Appy also points out that the number of working-class war casualties as a whole in 1969, the year of highest American fatalities, roughly matched the number of American workers who died that year in industrial accidents. What a perfect demonstration of capitalism s consistently deadly use of its workforce—in war and “peace."
Vietnam added another sick twist to the use of workers as cannon fodder. The U.S. military command preferred a conventional set-piece war where superior firepower could be brought to bear in massive actions. But in Vietnam they faced a mobile guerrilla army with popular support in the countryside. It was the latter’s strategy of countless small actions over dispersed territory (including the extensive use of mines and booby traps) that prevailed.
To get even a limited engagement, the typical invaders’ tactic was to send patrols on hot, long treks through rice paddies or dense jungles. The brass’s actual hope was that such patrols would actually get ambushed: that way artillery and air power could be called in to maul the enemy (even if that meant chalking up heavy “friendly fire” casualties). In a word, the infantry “grunts” were used as expendable bait. As one highly-decorated machine-gunner summed up the nighttime version of this tactic:
The purpose … was for you to walk up on Charlie and for him to hit you, and then for our hardware to wipe them out. We were used as scapegoats to find out where they were. That was all we were—bait. They couldn’t find Charlie any other way. They knew there was a regiment out there. They weren’t looking for just a handful of VC. Actually, they’d love for us to run into a regiment which would just wipe us out. Then they could plaster the regiment (with air strikes and artillery) and they’d have a big body count. The general gets another damn medal. He gets promoted. “Oh, I only lost two hundred men, but I killed two thousand.” (p. 184)
While Appy focuses on the plight of the U.S. soldiers, he does not miss the point that the main victims of the war were Vietnamese, from the North and the South. Between 1.5 and 2 million were killed during the war—not to mention other casualties and destruction. A great many casualties were civilians, most of whom died at the hands of American forces. This is not surprising, since, as Appy notes, the thrust of U.S. policy was a racist attitude toward Vietnamese. All “gooks” were potential enemies to be watched, interrogated—and, if caught “where they weren’t supposed to be” or among “Vietcong sympathizers,” killed.
Another key point for Appy is countering the notion that the working class was the bastion for pro-war feelings in the country. Among the informational nuggets:
One survey, taken in the same year the media invented the term hard-hats (1970), found that 48 percent of the northern white working class was in favor of immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, while only 40 percent of the white middle class took this dove position.
And when the entire working class including Blacks was included, the percentage for withdrawal went up.
The working-class youth that volunteered for service did not do so out of any John Wayne-type patriotic fervor. In fact, a large-scale survey in 1964 found the biggest single reason for volunteering was to avoid being drafted! This was even more so when the survey was repeated in 1968. Patriotism was the answer of only 11.2 percent in 1964 and 6.1 percent in 1968.
At the same time, there was a more pronounced opposition among workers to anti-war demonstrators than to the war itself. Why? Appy is right on the money.
This, I think, indicates that working-class anger at the anti-war movement—primarily a middle-class movement—often represented class conflict, not conflict over the legitimacy of the war. (p. 41)
He quotes a firefighter who lost his son to the war:
It’s people like us who give up our sons for the country. The business people, they run the country and make money from it. The college types, the professors, they go to Washington and tell the government what to do…. But their sons, they don’t end up in the swamps over there, in Vietnam. They’re deferred…. Let’s face it: if you have a lot of money, or if you have the right connections, you don’t end up on a firing line in the jungle over there, not unless you want to….
I think we ought to win that war or pull out. What the hell else should we do—sit and bleed ourselves to death, year after year? I hate those peace demonstrators. Why don’t they go to Vietnam and demonstrate in front of the North Vietnamese?… The whole thing is a mess. The sooner we get the hell out of there the better.(p. 42)
This viewpoint illustrates vividly what Marxists call mixed consciousness. Here elementary working-class resentment towards the war is welded in contradictory fashion to reactionary sentiments.
Another example, from a returning veteran:
Last week, I had to be in Chicago; I ran into a “Resist the Draft” rally on the street. At first I smile: kids at it again, just a fad. Then I started getting sore. About how I had to go and they could stay out. Cosco went in and he was the straightest guy I ever knew. My Negro buddy didn’t like the war, but he went too. I just stood there and got sore at those rich kids telling people to “resist the draft.” What about us poor people? For every guy who resists the draft one of us gotta go and he gets sent out into the boonies to get his backside shot at. One of their signs read “We’ve Already Given Enough.” And I thought, “What have they given?” (p. 301)
Again, mixed and contradictory views. But even in confusion, this analysis demolishes the “Resist the Draft” position, exposing its class bias and inability to do anything about capitalist militarism. And that position was characteristic of the liberal anti-war movement: not only did it have a middle-class social base, it had a middle-class political program.
Many Black soldiers, Appy notes, had a somewhat different attitude toward anti-war views, if not “the movement.” They saw Black leaders—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, SNCC, the Panthers, Muhammed Ali—taking strong positions that the war was imperialist and racist. One soldier said:
We didn’t really feel that we were fighting for our country; half the brothers felt it wasn’t even our war and were sympathetic with Ho Chi Minh.
Appy demonstrates the class gap between the working-class soldiers and the middle-class and bourgeois anti-war movement. But he does not draw the conclusion that capitalism is inevitably imperialist, the fundamental enemy of working people everywhere.
Why was the U.S. in Vietnam? Capitalism, in this epoch of imperialist decay, is impelled to maintain a system of oppressed nations as sources of cheap labor and raw materials. The Stalinist leaders of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (NLF) themselves stood for a form of statified capitalism—Ho Chi Minh’s Stalinists had butchered revolutionary Vietnamese workers led by Trotskyists after World War II in order to accommodate to French and U.S. imperialism. Still, the fight for national independence was a blow to the world imperialist system. The “domino effect” of a defeat would reverberate across the “third world” and was a real concern for the imperialists.
Appy avoids any anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist conclusions. In fact, while touching at certain points on a “big picture,” e.g. some history of Vietnam and aspects of American foreign policy, he does not coherently address the relation of the war to the world in which it took place. He obviously feels the war was “wrong” but does not clearly say why. Without seeing the class reasons behind the seemingly irrational actions of the U.S., the imperialist intervention is reduced to a “mistake,” missing the essence. It helps build the illusion that imperialism can be re-directed and reformed.
Appy’s inability to draw anti-imperialist conclusions becomes acute when he addresses the issue of the main victims of the war, the Vietnamese, and what they should have done. He says, “One might argue, as I have, that atrocity was intrinsic to the very nature of American intervention in Vietnam, that given the policy of fighting a counterrevolutionary war on behalf of a client state incapable of winning widespread support among its people, American atrocities were inevitable.” (p. 267)
But he evades the question of whether the Vietnamese were right to defend themselves, even if under Stalinist leadership. Instead, he levels his major criticism against “radical” American opponents of the war. Describing those who sided with the NLF as a tiny minority of students, he says: “Those who did embrace America’s official enemy contributed to the isolation of the anti-war movement.” He thus implicitly opposes any support for the fight against imperialism—or at least for Americans solidarizing with such a fight.
The revolutionary position was to give “military,” not political, support, to the Stalinist-led forces—that is, to fight for the defeat of the U.S. without indulging in any glorification of the NLF. Imperialism was the biggest criminal and the immediate danger to the workers of the world.
The key to building a working-class anti-war movement is to link opposition to the war to defense of the interests of the working class, not to middle-class moralism. Pacifism, draft resistance and conscientious objection are strategies that have always been rejected by the working class in practice. Proletarian communists say that revolutionary workers should go to war with their class brothers and take the only possible course for defending our class: turning the imperialist war into a class war.
To this end, revolutionaries help their fellow soldiers understand the imperialist and class nature of the army and the war; we raise, for example, the demand that the officers should be chosen by the soldiers themselves, so that workers are not turned into cannon fodder by racist, incompetent and anti-working class officers. We fight for full political and union rights for soldiers. We oppose class privileges for bourgeois youth: no student deferments, no special officers’ academies, no ROTC. We show that military training and arms are essential tools for building a workers’ militia at home that can defend strikes and working-class communities against cops, scabs, thugs and fascists—and can be turned into a weapon for proletarian revolution.
This program is based on the “proletarian military policy” developed by Lenin and Trotsky. To our knowledge, the LRP is the only tendency in the U.S. today that upholds it. (See the article Marxism and the Draft in Socialist Voice No. 9 and our pamphlet, “No Draft” is No Answer!)
The revolutionary strategy against the Vietnam War was adopted by no section of the anti-war movement, not even that led by self-proclaimed revolutionaries. Of course, the revolutionary position would have been met with hostility, at least initially, by most American soldiers and workers (including those Appy interviewed and quoted). It would have been misunderstood as a way to get Americans killed.
But this would have changed over time. By the latter part of the war, opposition within the army was rampant. Orders were being ignored or disobeyed, soldiers were refusing to fight. “Fraggings” (attempted murders using fragmentation grenades) of officers by their own troops were becoming commonplace. An organized core of militants, anti-imperialist in tone, was emerging, for example in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As Appy shows, many Black soldiers saw right through the war’s racist foundations. By 1971, a retired officer and military analyst was forced to write:
By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state of approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous. (p. 247)
In this situation, a political program to win revolutionary-minded soldiers to the notion of American GI s turning their guns around—and connecting this with defense of the Vietnamese—was quite possible.
While Appy doesn t spell out his politics, his emphasis on the soldiers’ class resentments towards the anti-war activists meshes with a view expressed in a review of his book by an admirer of one of the main organizations responsible for the character of the U.S. anti-war movement, the SWP.
Appy describes the attitudes of the working class at home, whose sons were doing the fighting, and debunks the “Archie Bunker” hard-hat stereotype—the myth that most workers supported the war.
But he does make the point that there was a “class” antagonism between the working class and the antiwar movement…. “Working-class people opposed college protesters largely because they saw the antiwar movement as an elitist attack on American troops by people who could avoid the war."
For those who participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement, this statement is an oblique endorsement of the approach that was taken by the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC) and the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC), coalitions that were led by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party. Their strategy was oriented to building massive demonstrations around the slogan, “Bring the Troops Home Now!"—a slogan that was crafted to appeal to the deep-seated concerns of the working class and American GIs.(Joseph Ryan, in Socialist Action, June 1993)
In reality, the SWP more than anyone else was identified with the passive, legal peace marches that it policed for the benefit of grateful liberal politicians. Its strategy catered to middle-class draft-dodging. And while its slogan “Bring the Troops Home Now” sounds today like a call for sympathy with American workers, hardly anyone took it in that spirit then. It was a patriotic appeal to reformists, especially in the Democratic Party, who didn’t want it said publicly that the U.S. was waging war against Vietnam for imperialist reasons.
A similar appeal pervaded the short-lived movement against George Bush’s Gulf War in 1990-91: “Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home Now.” Both slogans fail to distinguish between identifying with the dangers soldiers face and the reactionary role they are called on to play. Thus they provided backhanded support to the imperialist war efforts and left the field to the liberal compromisers.
Appy does not connect his sympathy for the war’s working-class victims to any idea that American workers (and Vietnamese) could actually resist in a class-based opposition. Why does he come up empty after so many insights? The reason can only be cynicism towards the capacity of our class to fight against misery and defeat the capitalist enemy.
Appy recognizes that mainstream liberalism itself escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But his alternative is to praise other liberals like Martin Luther King Jr., who in the last years of his life articulated opposition to the war. But King was a barrier to developing a more radical and even revolutionary leadership against the war and for Black liberation. So despite his body blows to the limitations of the middle-class protest against the Vietnam War, Appy ends up with his own version of middle-class patronization.
It is a tragedy that a revolutionary leadership was not built during the Vietnam War. For all its problems, the anti-war movement contained many dedicated activists who could have been won to a revolutionary pole. Working-class resistance to capital’s offensive “at the point of production” was seething, and a rank and file upsurge in the early 1970’s coincided with increased working-class opposition to U.S. American involvement in Vietnam. Coupled with the mass soldiers’ dissension, the sparks could have built quite a fire.
Viewed in isolation, the conditions for an American revolution were not at their ripest during the Vietnam War: the imperialist economy still had life left in it, so it was difficult to dispel illusions in the system held by many workers. But the winning and cohering of huge sections of workers and soldiers and revolutionary-minded students into a revolutionary vanguard was possible. The domination of left-reformist politics, not objective events alone, was decisive in leading the anti-war movement to a dead end instead of a revolutionary beginning.
It is equally a tragedy that no proletarian leadership existed in Vietnam. (The Stalinists had cut it off at the roots in the 1940s.) For revolution is always an international question. The Vietnamese section of an internationalist party could have fostered a policy of revolutionary fraternization with American soldiers, appealing to them as class brothers. The NLF did make significant overtures to Black soldiers (to the Panthers in particular), and not without impact. “No Vietcong ever called me Nigger” said something real.
But the NLF, like the American anti-war left, had a middle-class leadership, and its effect was limited by that reality. A genuine Vietnamese workers’ revolution would have had a decisively stunning impact on Black American workers who were experiencing great radicalization at home and on the entire American working class struggle. Its potential effect on a whole round of revolutionary situations around the world can’t be underestimated.
Looking at the military now, it might seem that the potential for revolutionary organizing has disappeared. The U.S. military now appears “leaner and meaner,” a disciplined all-volunteer force that showed it could more or less efficiently implement imperialist demands in the Persian Gulf. But the volunteer army retains a mostly working-class base that serves largely out of economic compulsion. The “Vietnam syndrome” remains: there is still a great fear in the ruling class of alienating not only the working-class public but also its volatile military base, 30 percent Black and Latino, by any expensive, prolonged venture with high casualties.
That is why the U.S. has limited its heroic efforts to intervening in small countries like Panama and Grenada, where the mismatch would be of almost comic proportions. In Iraq, the U.S. faced a demoralized foe on open terrain favorable to the full use of its sophisticated arsenal, in particular air power, so it could minimize its own casualties. Where there is the slightest risk the Pentagon backs off or withdraws quickly, as in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti today.
As the world economic crisis deepens and imperial rivalries heat up, military forces will build up everywhere. (Even now, the U.S. has cut precious little of its armed forces as a “peace dividend” in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War.) If the imperialist capitalist system remains, not just another Vietnam but another world war is inevitable. The draft will have to be re-introduced, jingoism will rise and working-class youth will again be ordered to serve as bait on an even more massive scale in imperialist wars.
Understanding this eventuality is not enough: revolutionists must prepare for it. Working Class War is not just a good history book, it is a tool that shows the need for a working-class answer to war. Building the proletarian vanguard in and out of the military is critical. It is unfortunate that its author casts himself in opposition to it.