The American Soldier Experience, from World War One to Vietnam

American Soldiers
Peter S. Kindsvatter explores the experiences of American soldiers from the First World War through Vietnam.

Book Review.

In American Soldiers – Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2003), Peter S. Kindsvatter examines war diaries and memoirs to help understand the wartime experiences of U.S. soldiers over the course of half a century. Of specific interest are the individual soldiers and small unit dynamics. To further his analysis, Kindsvatter also incorporates the analyses of other social scientists and psychologists. Interestingly, he also uses literary analysis as he discusses the depiction of the soldier’s experience by wartime novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway. This mix of sources, contends Kindsvatter, allows us to search for a “collective truth.”  Although an excellent book, I found the author’s relatively seamless inclusion of fictional accounts in the midst of primary sources – as when discussing white soldier attitudes toward working with their black counterparts – somewhat distracting and unconvincing.

Kindsvatter delves into the formative collective experiences of American soldiers, such as the reasons which prompted the decision to enlist (if voluntary) or to not desert (if drafted), experiences through basic training, and ultimately through combat. The author finds that, contrary to broad-brush understandings of the motivations of soldiers during each war (e.g. soldiers enlisting in the First World War were naïve and gung-ho, the soldiers in the Second World War were more grim but determined, while those in Vietnam were largely disillusioned and unwilling), soldiers entering each conflict were driven by a mix of motives. His discussion on the “soldierization process” – the “tear down” and “build up” that transformed the civilian into a soldier, establishes how citizens from a multitude of backgrounds were brought to a common capability prior to being deployed for war. Following this the bulk of American Soldiers details the experiences of the Army and Marines as they experienced the reality of combat – from dull drudgery to “life-or-death struggle…”

A vital dynamic that gets attention throughout the book is the soldier’s identification with his unit and the Army (or Marines). Basic training laid the foundation for identification as a warrior, but one that existed as part of a larger group. This group psychology was essential to developing loyalty, and “[s]uch loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” The relationship between soldiers, both horizontally with peers and vertically with leaders and subordinates, had a significant effect on performance and morale. Nowhere was this more evident than with the experiences of black soldiers. The American military was segregated until 1949, when the U.S. Marine Corps integrated, leading the way towards eventual full integration by the end of the Korean War (Kindsvatter points out that Executive Order 9981, signed by Harry Truman in 1948 and often credited with abolishing military segregation, only directed equal treatment of soldiers). Although the experiences of blacks and other minorities are brought up throughout the monograph, an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing race relations throughout these wars.

WEL

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