A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972by James R. Ebert
Finally, a book that focuses completely on the life of the "grunt" (Army and Marine riflemen) in Vietnam--from I Corps in the north to IV Corps in the south, and from the early days of 1965 to the days of retreat in 1972. Military Book Club Dual Main Selection. Booklist "Editor's Choice." Photos.
- Random House Publishing Group
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A Life in a YearThe American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972
By James R. Ebert
Presidio PressCopyright © 1993 James R. Ebert
All right reserved.
April 25, 1966
We had to work last Saturday night so we stayed in Janesville last weekend. We got a nice paycheck this week. I made $132.50. I am going down to the bank today and put in a hundred dollars. I'll have over $400.00 in the bank then.
I wish they'd call me into the Army pretty soon, I'd like to get in there and get it over with. I'm still hanging doors down at the plant, and I am starting to like the job pretty good. Chuck and I are going to Black River [Falls, Wisconsin] this weekend. I'll try to talk him into stopping down to the farm.
In October 1966, at the request of their "friends and countrymen," Leonard Dutcher and some thirty thousand other American males aged nineteen to twenty-five reported for induction into the armed forces as a result of escalating American involvement in the war in Vietnam.
Eleven million Americans served in uniform during the Vietnam era, yet only one in four made it to Southeast Asia. Of the 2.8 million who did, fewer than 10 percent served in the "bush" as line infantry soldiers engaged in seeking out the enemy. Yet it was on theirshoulders and backs that most of the burden of the fighting fell in a war that left the vast majority of their peers, even those in uniform, untouched. Line infantry soldiers were the tip of the sword. It would be their lot as well to suffer much of the pain and the dying. Eighty-three percent of all U.S. casualties in Vietnam resulted from infantry combat operations. In a typical twelve-month tour, an infantry soldier stood a 3 percent chance of dying, a 10 percent chance of being seriously wounded, and a 25 percent chance of earning a Purple Heart. As in previous wars, so it was in Vietnam: Infantry soldiers were assessed much of the bitter cost of war so seldom considered when brave words are put to paper.
The young men who became infantry soldiers, as in wars past, came mostly from the blue-collar industrial centers and rural back roads of the nation, where people lived in old neighborhoods and were paid by the hour. They were the sons and nephews of veterans. They played high school sports. Often they were from minorities and even more frequently they were poor. When recruiters put placards in front of post offices or visited high schools, these young men responded. It was their tradition. They had been raised to be patriotic, to believe in America. It was important that they did, for as sociologist Charles Moskos observed, a soldier must have an underlying commitment to the worth of the larger social system for which he is fighting.
Although their trust in the country's leadership waned later in the war, they had been raised to believe in what Moskos referred to as the "legitimacy and superiority of the American way of life." They saw a world polarized by "good guy-bad guy" imagery, and left it up to their government to distinguish who was whom. The eighteen year olds paid little attention to the larger world beyond their friends, their cars, and their Saturday nights. They viewed military service as, if not exciting, at least honorable. But what was most striking about many of the men who found themselves in uniform fighting in Vietnam was that so few ever envisioned themselves ending up there.
Like the soldiers whom S. L. A. Marshall observed in World War II, the men who fought in Vietnam were "what their homes, their religions, their schooling, and their moral code and ideals of society had made them." As the 1960s gave rise to civil rights, youthful rebellion, and a substantial drug culture, the military in Vietnam mirrored each movement. Neil Sheehan wrote of the American combat soldier in 1969: "He goes into combat with the disenchantment and developed sensitivity of his generation." But if the American combat soldier had acquired the "sensitivity of his generation," he most likely did it after he was inducted into the military.
When eighteen-year-old James Raysor enlisted in the army in October 1965, he knew a lot about life in West Philadelphia but practically nothing about Vietnam. No one knew much about Vietnam then. As Raysor admitted, "To tell you the truth I was not into watching the news. I would rather watch 'Leave It to Beaver' or reruns of 'The Honeymooners.' I just wasn't involved with what was going on in Vietnam and didn't give it much of a thought."
The war was not an issue for Donald Putnam, either-until he entered the army in 1968. Three years of carnage and a personal vulnerability to the draft at the very height of the war had made little impression on him. He doubted he even knew where Vietnam was. Nor did he much care; after all, he recalled, "I was eighteen years old, fresh out of high school and having a good time. I was making real good money working where I was, and the draft was something you always thought of. But you never thought about Vietnam. All you saw was a little bit on the news. Hell, when you are eighteen years old, who watches the news? You are more interested in going out and having a good time."
A year later, in June 1969, Dan Krehbiel became concerned when he was drafted. By that time, he recalled, "Everybody had a pretty grim conclusion about the war. The general national feeling started to lean to 'Let's get out,' and that threw the soldier into a real sort of mind game." Krehbiel was in college, however, where the issue of the war was frequently debated.
Most young men were simply unable to see themselves involved in a drama that had no more reality for them than the other programs they viewed on nightly television. Many thought that Vietnam was one of those things that it was best not to worry about. Typical of many graduating high school students, Ed Hoban was definitely aware in 1970 that there was a war going on, but Vietnam just wasn't a topic of conversation among his friends in Le Center, Minnesota. Even after attending the funeral of a classmate who had been killed in Vietnam, Paul Boehm never considered the possibility of going to war. He remembers only that prior to entering the service he wasn't sure how to spell Vietnam.
Arguably, few young men just out of high school had the maturity or experience to assign a value to their lives or to understand just how fleeting life could be. War is a concept that can be understood only after the fact, and such understanding seems impossible to impart to those who have not shared an equivalent experience. Phil Yaeger sensed as much in hindsight. When he enlisted in the Marine Corps in March 1966, he found himself questioning the war's validity but admitted, "I don't think I was intellectually mature enough to really spend that much time thinking about it."
When Michael Jackson became eligible for the draft after graduating from Tennessee State College in June 1968, neither the draft nor the war consumed his thoughts. But being black and a bit more mature and better educated than many of his fellow draftees, his attention was drawn to issues of a more personal nature. "I guess like everybody else I watched TV news," Jackson recalled. "What was most meaningful to me before I went into the army was Muhammad Ali's stand against being drafted, and that had a lot of meaning to me and a lot of impact. It [Vietnam] was far, far away, so I didn't really give a lot of thought to it other than I knew I didn't want to be over there and be involved in it."
Yet the distance of the war and the immediacy of personal lives were relative qualities that could be brought together through the most unexpected circumstances. For many who would serve there, Vietnam suddenly became much closer and more vivid than they could have ever imagined. The war would become the central experience of their lives.
Military service attracts young people in peacetime and time of war for reasons both personal and patriotic. The majority of men who were called to serve in Vietnam went dutifully. Some volunteered with the intention of serving in combat; others enlisted for precisely the opposite reason. But somewhere between the extremes of aggression and avoidance lay the personal motivations that attracted nearly eight million Americans to enlist during the Vietnam era. For some there was the allure of adventure or travel. Others saw the service as an avenue for social and economic advancement, attracting young minority members and the poor of all races with promises of education, technical training, and self-respect. For still others, the military was expected to provide direction and discipline.
Vietnam was not a concern to those who entered the service prior to the summer of 1965 largely because full-scale American participation had not yet begun. Theirs were peacetime reasons for joining the military. Consequently, when the first American infantry units deployed to Vietnam in 1965, the majority of the men in their ranks were volunteers. During the course of the Vietnam War, 90 percent of conscripts went into the army, but in 1965 less than one-third (395,292) of the army's 1,199,784 active-duty soldiers were draftees.
The men who first deployed to Vietnam were, for the most part, professional, highly motivated, optimistic, and convinced of the legitimacy of their mission. The quality of those soldiers was equaled but never surpassed by the tens of thousands of troops who followed them there in subsequent years.
Gerry Barker was one of those early enlistees who seemed to gravitate easily toward the military. His father was a career army officer, so Barker grew up conditioned by war stories and martial trappings. He endured the transient existence of an army brat, rarely finishing a year in any one school. After high school he dropped out of the Richmond Polytechnical Institute and headed west to pursue a passion for rock climbing that led him to California Rock and the Yosemite Valley. Soon, however, the realities of making a living forced Barker to San Francisco, where, in 1962, while driving a delivery truck, "the bug hit me to try something different." He enlisted in the army. Infantry training, jump school, and a posting to the 82d Airborne Division followed in rapid succession. Barker liked it.
The military served as a form of social welfare for some, a relief mechanism for those in need of opportunity. But it was not the stellar opportunity afforded by the military that drew the sons of America's poor and minorities into the ranks; rather, it was a lack of chances for employment elsewhere that channeled them into uniform, lending credence to the observation by Charles Moskos that the military is not so much a "pull" as an avenue of career mobility as society is a "push."
Typical of many of the young African Americans pushed into military service was Willie Williams, who enlisted in the army in June 1962. According to Williams, "I grew up in a large, single-parent family and . . . to me [joining up] was the best thing to do because employment-there was nothing. So I joined the military in order to further myself and have money to help my sister through school."
Native Americans also contributed a disproportionate share of soldiers to America's combat forces due in part to a tradition of honor connected with the warrior archetype, and, as was the case for many African Americans, because of economic disparity, prejudice, and limited job opportunities. Robert Emery, a Native American from near Valentine, Nebraska, was no stranger to difficult times. He recalled that, "It was kind of a struggle just to stay ahead. My Dad had a heart attack in 1960 and he was unable to work for a while, so my Mom went to work. In 1965 two of my brothers went into the service, and it wasn't long after that, that I went into the service."
Many young men, minority members as well as whites, enlisted as a means of securing a better future and acquiring an education through the GI Bill. That was what drew Robert Moran, another Native American, into enlisting in November 1967.
I had an older brother who was in the army and he had gone to Vietnam about two months before I joined, so I figured I would join up and help him. All I could see on the news releases was that a lot of them was dying. They needed more men, but I actually wasn't into just fighting; I was figuring there wasn't anything on the reservation for me to do. That was a way for me to start doing something. I started in the military and figured later on I would go to college, use my GI Bill.
Excerpted from A Life in a Year by James R. Ebert Copyright © 1993 by James R. Ebert. Excerpted by permission.
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This is absolutely the best book I've read on Vietnam. It gives an overall insight into the life of a Grunt in Vietnam. Ebert is an excellent writer.
A well written view of the life of the 'working man' in Vietnam. This book is a must read for any history student studying the Vietnam War. This book gives its reader a better understanding of life in the boots of the grunt in Vietnam, a view that will make you change your mide about the hard life of America's infantryman.