Vietnam: Who served? Who fought?
History is funny. Sometimes, the farther we are removed in time from past events, the more we know about them. As more and more scholars shift through the ashes of the Vietnam War, more and more old myths are shattered. Here are examples of Vietnam myths that were peddled by the liberal, mainstream media. None of them have any basis in fact:
The Vietnam War was fought mostly by conscripts. Most of the conscripts were minorities. Members of minorities suffered a disproportionate share of the casualties. Officers and senior non-commissioned officers weren’t killed or wounded as often as lower-ranking enlisted men.
In A Better War, an excellent history of the latter stages of the Vietnam war, Dr. Lewis Sorley, quotes a study by Susan Katz Keating that reveals: “Sixty-six percent of those who went to Vietnam were volunteers. Seventy-three percent of those who died were volunteers. In 1980, a Harris Poll found that 91 percent of the Vietnam veterans they interviewed said they were glad they served; 74 percent said they enjoyed their time in the military; and two out of three said they would serve again, even knowing the outcome of the war.”
As for the percentage of minorities to serving in Vietnam, the number was exactly representative of our overall population: 13 percent non-Whites compared to 87 percent Whites.
Because a high percentage of minority members served in the lower enlisted ranks rather than as officers, the uneducated guess would be that minority members suffered a disproportionate share of the casualties. Not so. The reason this did not happen was because the number of officers who were killed or wounded was disproportionately high. This was particularly true for Infantry and Engineer officers.
To lead effectively in the jungle, you had to be in the lead element. And, once contact was made, officers and non-commissioned officers had to move from unit-to-unit giving orders and positioning troops. Movement means greater exposure to fire. In addition, Infantry platoon leaders, company commanders and their radio operators were specifically targeted by the enemy.
Due to the small size of the Engineer Corps and the enormous need for engineering know-how, Engineer officers served more repetitive tours in Vietnam than even Infantry officers. Their losses were severe.
But was there some class disparity as to who served in Vietnam and who did not? As former Secretary of the Navy and holder of the Navy Cross, James Webb, writes in “Heroes of the Vietnam Generation,” there was a class disparity with regard to the Ivy League universities.
“Harvard College, which had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from the classes of 1962 through 1972. Those classes at Princeton lost six, at MIT two.”
Recall, it was the “best and brightest” from Harvard and the other schools of the eastern elite who were the right-hand advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as they led us deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War. Ironically, the “best and brightest” sent the fewest to fight and die. Meanwhile, the West Point and the R.O.T.C. classes from non-Ivy League schools such as Oklahoma and Nebraska and Texas A&M suffered most of the casualties. Marine officers, who usually come from the service academies or Naval R.O.T.C., had an 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded.
Were there other disparities? Yes, of those who went to Vietnam, only 15 percent saw actual combat. The rest were support troops. Al Gore, a support troop, served 141 days of a 365-day tour. George W. Bush flew the super-sonic, F-102 fighter-interceptor, but because we had air superiority, the F-102s weren’t needed. But at least both men served their country.
Others, like Bill Clinton, fled to England. Meanwhile, the 15 percent who saw combat fought well. No American unit ever surrendered in Vietnam. They fought to the death rather than surrender – a record not matched in previous wars.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.