Vietnam War is regarded as one of the most painful and harshest conflicts in the American history. Probably, the most painful fact about this war was that thousands of young people went to the foreign and unknown territory, where they were killed or negatively affected by the war in different ways. Three American presidents, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, sent 3 million young Americans to South Vietnam. Furthermore, they were fighting in a war which was on the edge of the American consciousness. The number of American troops in the Vietnam War gradually increased over the years; from 15,000 troops in 1964 to more than a half a million soldiers in 1968. That was the era (1964-1973) of the “baby boom” generation, when 27 million people came of draft age. However, less than 10 percent of that generation went to Vietnam. This happened due to fact that military service in the period of 1950s and 1960s became less universal, in comparison to the Second World War period or during the Korean War (Appy 17-18). Therefore, it became obvious that the option of participating or not participating in American wars became completely optional for some members of the American society.
Vietnam War proved itself to be very costly, both in terms of economy and blood. It brought many economic problems, such as higher taxes, trade deficit, wage controls, inflation and a recession in 1970 and 1971 (Bates 90). However, its biggest implications were related to the working-class, which suffered significant consequences. Milton J. Bates explains the way in which the American drafting system functions during the 1960s:
“The American way of choosing military conscripts has always been selective, and in this respect it mirrors the country’s socioeconomic order as a whole. In theory all are created equal and all are treated equally under law. But in practice some are more equal than others; some earn more money, pay less in taxes, and enjoy a greater share of what Max Weber called life chances” (90-91).
Moreover, Bates elaborates further on this topic, saying that in the traditional stratification of American society (upper, middle, working, and lower classes), upper and middle classes live significantly less dangerous than the other two, especially during the wartime (Bates 91). The difference between poor and well-off Americans became obvious in the period of the Vietnam War Draft. This system was consisted of numerous local draft boards, which were intended to secure the support of the people. Members of these boards were usually older, well-educated, white-collar workers (Bates 92). According to Davis and Dolbeare, “the system placed the greatest burden of military service on rural, white, lower-income, non-college youths and physically and mentally acceptable Negroes” (cited in Bates 92-93). While describing several men from his platoon, Phillip Caputo explains the reasons which led those men to come to Vietnam:
“Most of them came from the ragged fringes of the Great American Dream, from city slums and dirt farms and Appalachian mining towns. With depressing frequency, the words 2 yrs. high school appeared in the square labelled EDUCATION in their service record books…The threat of the draft came with their eighteenth birthdays, and they had no hope of getting student deferments, like the upper-middle-class who would later revile them as killers...Others were driven by economic and psychological pressures; the Marines provided them with a guaranteed annual income, free medical care, free clothing, and something else, less tangible but just as valuable; self-respect”(27-28).
Caputo’s reflection shows the complexity of the interrelatedness between class and participation in Vietnam War. He shows that many soldiers from his platoon came from the working or lower classes. Furthermore, the higher social classes were able to afford professional advisory on different ways of draft avoidance. For example, students were able to find professional help on numerous college campuses (Appy 35). However, those students who could not afford to pay different expenses (primarily those from working-class) related to the life in the campus were forced to reduce their course load and find a part-time job. Consequently, they were no longer eligible for a deferment (Bates 93). Moreover, the draft avoidance in the working-class neighbourhoods was considered to be an act of cowardice. Therefore, the community support for draft avoidance in those neighbourhoods practically did not exist (Appy 35). These facts show the complexity of the data collected about the Vietnam War Draft by different scholars.
The ruthless and sobering experience of Vietnam War was, in most of the cases, reserved just for the unprivileged stratum of the American society. The young Americans from working and lower classes will also experience the brutalization and psychological metamorphosis caused by the unhuman war conditions.