The United States of America has fielded combat troops all the way back during its very beginning, and since then has participated in numerous armed conflicts. The American combat soldier of the twentieth century had already participated in two world wars as well as the Korean War before seeing action in Vietnam. War is a vicious thing, claiming the lives of many millions of combatants and non-combatants alike over the course of history. During each conflict they found themselves in, the combat soldiers of all nations were faced with suffering and hardship like never before. World War I, the ‘Great War’, saw the application of new technology, and greater destructive force than any war prior to that. World War II saw further advances in destructive power, culminating with the creation and deployment of atomic weapons. Despite the terrors of these conflicts, the soldiers involved, in some aspects, had a simpler job in those times than in those to come. The American combat soldier in Vietnam had a more difficult job than his counterparts from previous conflicts because the enemy in Vietnam was not always clearly identifiable, the enemy did not use conventional tactics, and because morale failed as the reason for being in Vietnam became less clear and support from back home decreased.
The first thing that made the job of the combat soldier in Vietnam more difficult was an enemy that was not easy to identify. In an interview, one veteran, Herbert Rhodes, recalls: “One thing about Vietnam I always say today, when you’re out there in the field, you don’t know friendly from foe”. These soldiers were operating amongst a divided people, and many times the enemy would blend in with the civilian population. “The Northern Vietnamese Army, they wear uniforms…Vietcongs, they just wear everyday clothes. There were even ‘moles’ embedded with the local militia, the Popular Forces that Marines were assisting in the Combined Action Program”, according to Marine veteran Jack Cunningham. It was extremely stressful for the soldiers, and they were always on edge, as it was not a matter of knowing if, but that they would be attacked. Cunningham related in his experience: “I still feared the attack would come at any second”. Being constantly on the alert for extended periods of time was psychologically exhausting, and the Viet Cong actively took advantage of this to wear down the will of the marines. “They wanted us on edge” (Cunningham, 1989).
The second reason that the job of the soldier in Vietnam was more difficult was that the enemy employed guerrilla tactics and would not engage the soldiers directly. Cunningham mentions in his personal account that there were instances where “the Vietnamese communists hit from what seemed like every direction, yet we couldn’t see one” (Cunningham, 1989). The Viet Cong would often attack from the edge of the jungle, from positions that were difficult for the soldiers to see. Additionally, the Viet Cong made use of traps designed that would further add to the soldiers’ fear and demoralize them. Cunningham was able to forget his fear of traps, but there were instances where “My fears of getting killed by a booby trap started coming back” (Cunningham, 1989). In addition to this, snipers would harass the soldiers randomly, denying the soldiers any sense of security or safety while in the villages where they were stationed. This issue, combined with the inability to identify members of the Viet Cong wore away at the soldiers’ fortitude and mental health.
The third reason that the soldier in Vietnam had a harder job was that there was not a clear sense of purpose for being in Vietnam. Rhodes (2001) admitted in his interview “I really never understood the purpose for fighting the Vietnam War”. Tex Howard (2001), in his own interview, said when asked if he understood the purpose of the war “Uh… they told me it was to help stop communist aggression”. Many soldiers could repeat what they had been told was their reason to fight, but there are those who will admit that as the conflict continued, they seemed less and less certain as to why they were laying their lives on the line. This contrasts with the previous conflicts of the twentieth century, and those from before. In the previous wars, the stakes were more obvious. Isolationist America had been pushed into both world wars, and once at the breaking point, there was little doubt as to why the war ought to be waged. Further compounding the Vietnam soldiers’ faltering sense of purpose was the fizzling support for the war on the home front, which is the next point of discussion.
A fourth and final reason to discuss as to why the soldier in Vietnam had a harder job than those of the previous war was the lack of support from Americans back home. Consider that during the previous wars of the twentieth century, support back home was overall very strong. The public back home did what they could in support of the war efforts, and once the American boys returned, they were welcomed and celebrated as American heroes who prevailed against the common enemy and protected the American way of life. For the soldiers deployed to Vietnam, the difference could not be greater. Johnas Freeman, another combat veteran of the Vietnam war recalled in his interview that upon his return, most were indifferent and even viewed the soldiers as enemies, adding that “it made me feel bad that I had placed my life on the line for a country that really didn’t care anything about me” (2001).
The soldiers in Vietnam were fighting a war that many felt the US had no business fighting. Soldiers were increasingly regarded as senseless, immoral killers, not as heroes. Even while deployed, soldiers would encounter evidence that some people back home actually were in support of the enemy that hunted and harassed them on a daily basis. Cunningham (1989) told of one instance where this became apparent, when he wrote “We found a tunnel where we captured three Viet Cong (terrorists), $5,000 in American green money, $3,000 in American military money and boxes and boxes of clothes donated to the Viet Cong (‘Freedom Fighters’) from a student union from Berkley University in California”. This revelation was hurtful and frustrating to the combat veterans, according to Cunningham, and his units deployed in Vietnam had heard news of the demonstrations against the war back in America. This lack of support back home, and in some cases, what amounted to outright opposition, along with growing personal doubt regarding their need to be in that war in the first place sapped the morale of many of the soldiers, who were already enduring terrible circumstances on the battlefield.
After considering some of the situations and conditions that existed at the time, it can be concluded that the American combat soldier in Vietnam had a more difficult job than his counterparts from previous conflicts. Their job was made more difficult because the enemy in Vietnam was not always clearly identifiable, the enemy did not use conventional tactics, and because morale failed as the reason for being in Vietnam became less clear and support from back home decreased. This is not to say that the veterans of previous conflicts did not have an extremely difficult job. The reasons discussed above show, however, that the job of a soldier in Vietnam was that much more difficult than it had ever been before.