Teenagers go to war

12 Nov

I’ve been reading a lot of military autobiography recently. Much of it is excellent: searing and reflective. One thing that comes through is that US soldiers from the Vietnam War seem considerably more disturbed than their contemporaries from World Wars One and Two. Why should that be the case? While it is impossible to qualitatively compare the horrors of particular conflict, it is safe to say that US soldiers fighting in World Wars One and Two, and Korea, witnessed considerable atrocity. So what makes Vietnam, and its veterans, different?
My theory is that US troops in the Vietnam War were the first modern teenagers to go to war. Certainly young men (and women) have been going to war since organized warfare began. But the Vietnam War was different in that the soldiers (some drafted, others voluntarily enlisting) were the first generation to experience the joys, freedoms and frustration of being a modern teenager. The United States was extraordinarily wealthy after WWII and it was an era of consumerism and massive cultural change. Many in this generation had been acculturated to a very optimistic version of the ‘American Dream’. They also had experienced immense freedoms of movement (primarily through increased access to motor vehicles) and forms of cultural expression that encouraged autonomy. Some even experienced the counter-culture of drugs and an alternative worldview that spoke of peace and love.
And then this generation ended up in Vietnam, in a war that few understood, fighting alongside unreliable hosts, and against an often unseen enemy. It was a war with plenty of atrocities (although qualitatively probably not much different from many other large-scale conflicts). The big difference, I would argue, is that this generation had tasted the promises of being a teenager only to have them taken away through a war that was hugely controversial at home. The other factor accounting for the searing honesty of many of the Vietnam era autobiographies is that publishers were more willing to publish accounts that deviated from the ‘stiff upper lip’ genre. As is clear from recently discovered secret recordings of transcripts from German WWII POWs, soldiers have always been keen on profanities. So the Vietnam troops were by no means the first to swear in a combat zone, but they were freer to reflect this in their autobiographies. The medicalization of trauma also opened up a new lexicon for troops to describe their experiences. But, for me, the deciding factor in making Vietnam era autobiographies so much more anguished is that it was the first was to have large numbers of modern teenagers in the ranks.

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