Volunteers [to top]

o other war in our nation’s history has produced more division, animosity, protest, and distrust of the military by society than the Vietnam War. Yet, at its beginning, the Vietnam War had a significant amount of support from the American people that was manifested in ways that relate to the citizen-soldier. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s 1971 Report on Selective Service and Military Compensation concluded that over 75 percent of those who served in the military from 1964 to 1965 were volunteers.1 The statistics for the entire Vietnam Era are even more revealing. From the period August 1964 to May 1975, 9.2 million personnel served in the military with 3.4 million actually serving in the Southeast Asia Theater. Of this latter number, 2.5 million served within the borders of South Vietnam during the war. Only 648,500 of the 2.5 million were draftees, or slightly more than 38 percent from the period January 1965 to May 1973. Nearly two-thirds of those service members who served in the Southeast Asia Theater in the Vietnam War were volunteers.2 Outside of the Southeast Asia Theater, the percentage of volunteers rises to nearly 75 percent for the Vietnam Era up through 1971.3

Motivation [to top]

eyond understanding that the majority of those who served during the Vietnam Era were volunteers, it is also important to understand the
  Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, Platoon Leader, B Co, 2/7 Cav, 16 Nov 1965. Photo by Peter Arnett.
motivation behind their service.  The recruits that entered the armed services in the Vietnam Era were comprised of “true” volunteers, “draft motivated” volunteers (thereby exercising some control over their branch of service and occupational specialty), and draftees.4 The motivations of those who volunteered were as numerous as any other time in our nation’s history. Some volunteered out of a sense of moral obligation or family tradition, while others sought enlistment in order to gain skills for use in the civilian sector or money for education.

hose that volunteered were men like Richard Davis, whose father had served and died in the service of his country during the Korean War. Davis enlisted in the Army as soon as he graduated from high school in 1967 and volunteered for the Special Forces.5 Others served out of a sense of their moral obligation.  Men like W. D. Ehrhart, who writes in his online PBS essay, “The Volunteer” that: “I kept coming back to the thought of delaying college long enough to serve my country. I'd written on the cover of my school notebook John Kennedy's clarion call: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ Now I had my chance to answer that challenge.”6

Representation [to top]

hose who served during the Vietnam War came from vastly different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. While popular conceptions about those who served in Vietnam point to a participation gap between America’s upper class and lower class, the statistical evidence does not support this assertion. Michael Useem and his national survey in the fall of 1968 demonstrated that there was no linear prediction of someone serving in the military based on their level of education or socioeconomic status. In fact, Useem found just the opposite; that is, rich and poor, well educated and under educated were underrepresented in the armed services of the Vietnam Era.7 Useem’s analysis suggests that from 1964 to 1968 it was middle class and middle educated who were represented in the military. Indeed, in
  Black soldiers carry and escort a wounded white soldier in Vietnam. Photo by Corbis Bettman.
considering the entire Vietnam Era, the difference between socioeconomic and educational factors between those who served and those who did not is minimal. The average combined parental income of surveyed Vietnam veterans was 8,423 dollars and 8,215 dollars for surveyed non-veterans. Additionally, the average combined parental education level for the veteran was 21 years and 20.4 years for the non-veteran. Finally, the average education level of the veteran and non-veteran was equal at 12.6 years.8 Nor was race a discriminating factor in determining who served in Vietnam. A detailed examination of the service data reveals that 88.4% of the men who actually served in Vietnam were Caucasian (including Hispanics); 10.6% (275,000) were black; 1% belonged to other races. Nor was there any over representation of minorities among those who were killed or wounded. In fact, 86.3% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasian (including Hispanics); 12.5% (7,241) were black; 1.2% belonged to other races.9

Identity [to top]

s in other American wars, those who served during the Vietnam Era usually served their initial term of obligation and then returned to their civilian lives. During their service, many of these citizen-soldiers retained much of their civilian persona. My own father, Doyne F. Bateman, Jr. who served in the Army from 1962 to 1968 as a Military Intelligence Officer, received as his farewell gift from his last unit a caricature of himself with long hair and a beard with the caption “When I am a civilian, I can do whatever I want.” It seems evident that for the members of my father’s unit in 1968, he was really a civilian at heart. Indeed, as Professor Cohen argues, this characteristic of the citizen-soldier is: “… perhaps most important, the true citizen-soldier’s identity is fundamentally civilian.” The “true citizen-soldier,” however, “is always at the core of his being, a member of civil society.”10

Conclusion [to top]

here are numerous myths that persist about the Vietnam War and the tumultuous time in our nation's history. Perhaps none is more pervasive than the myth that the Vietnam War was fought by a a group of draftees that were predominantly lower class and racial minorities. When this myth is subjected to historical analysis however, it becomes evident that it was the middle class that fought more than anyone else. Most were volunteers and most returned to civilian life when their initial term of enlistment or commission expired. Who fought America's longest war? Like many of the wars in our nation's history, it was the citizen soldier.

1 U.S. Congress, Senate, Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearings on Selective Service and Military Compensation, 92d Congress, February 1971, 58-59.

2 See the website “Vietnam War Statistics,” Available online at http://www.no-quarter.org/html/jake.html, accessed via the Internet on 20 October 2001. These statistics were compiled by the Veterans of Foreign Wars using open access information from the Department of Defense.

3 U.S. Congress, Senate, Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearings on Selective Service and Military Compensation, 92d Congress, February 1971, 58-59.

4 Peter Karsten, The Military in America: From the Colonial Era to the Present, (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 414.

5 Andrew Carroll, ed., War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, (New York: Scribner, 2001), 440.

6 W. D. Ehrhart, “The Volunteer,” available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/reflect/ehrhart.html, accessed via the Internet on 11 November 2001.

7 Michael Useem, “The Educational and Military Experiences of Young Men During the Vietnam Era: Non-linear Effects of Parential Social Class,” JPMS, VIII (1980): 15-29.

8 Sue E. Berryman, Who Serves? The Persistent Myth of the Underclass Army, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 1988), 39. Berryman compiled data on the social representation of the military for three episodes of war (World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War). The data came from two linked surveys, both conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census: the March, 1973, Current Population Survey (CPS) and the August-November, 1973, Occupational Changes in a Generation Survey (OCG).

9 See the website “Vietnam War Statistics,” Available online at http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm, accessed via the Internet on 20 October 2001. These statistics were compiled by the Southeast Asia Statistical Summary, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, available from the U.S. Army War College Library, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Additionally, the Combat Area Casualties Current File for Southeast Asia as of December 1998 was also consulted. This file, maintained at the National Archives and Records Administration, is the basis for the names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C.

10 Eliot A. Cohen, “Twilight of the Citizen-Soldier,” Parameters (summer 2001): 23-28.

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