Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2012-065
1 November 2012
Review by Kelly E. Crager, Texas Tech University
Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War
By Meredith H. Lair
Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 295. ISBN 978–0–8078–3481–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, Vietnam Print Version

Throughout the twentieth century, the United States has provided its armed forces with an unprecedented abundance of not only military hardware, but goods and services to alleviate the strains of serving in a combat zone. In Armed with Abundance, Meredith Lair (George Mason Univ.) examines the scope of this phenomenon during the Vietnam War. Delving into this under-researched and misunderstood aspect of the war, she provides a needed corrective to our understanding of the daily lives of American personnel in Vietnam.

This ambitious "reframing" (18) of the story of the Vietnam War begins with a relatively simple, but often overlooked, reality of modern warfare: far more American service personnel serve in a support capacity than in combat. Lair believes the American public's view of the Vietnam War is sharply skewed toward combat operations—the familiar story told by historians and journalists of a strategy of attrition, counterinsurgency, helicopters, large and small unit operations … the list goes on. But this concentration on combat has effectively robbed most Vietnam veterans of their history as noncombatant members of the military. Those who served as truck drivers, cooks, clerks, and the like were widely known in Vietnam as REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers); no books or movies celebrate their experiences. Hence the false public image of all Vietnam veterans exclusively as combatants.

The very real differences between combat troops and rear-area personnel in Vietnam, Lair writes, often caused bitter resentment: "REMFs" were perceived not only as avoiding more dangerous duties, but as taking advantage of the more comfortable living conditions in the rear. In short, "the relationship between infantrymen and rearward personnel was actually fraught with conflict" (19). Lair astutely observes that soldiers' experiences in the war depended on when they served, where they were stationed, and the unit they were assigned to, among other variables.

Lair identifies an unexpected detrimental effect of service in Vietnam: most men, serving in noncombat roles, soon realized that the visceral experience of combat would elude them for their entire tour, that they would never get the chance to test themselves in battle and prove their masculinity, as their fathers and uncles had in World War II or Korea. "It is axiomatic that boys go to war to become men, but what happens when military service fails to provide appropriate circumstances in which to prove oneself? … [Soldiers] wrestled with … conflicted emotions over serving in a war that did not meet their expectations" (18). As a consequence, they "adjusted their John Wayne expectations to demand comfortable living conditions, time for leisure activities, abundant recreational facilities, and easy access to mass-produced consumer goods" (10), But eventually they came to feel "alienated and betrayed because comfortable living conditions were no substitute for a war they were proud to fight and likely to win" (20).

"By voicing their dissent and engaging in activities that military authorities interpreted as evidence of low morale, soldiers subtly negotiated better terms of employment" (68). In response, American military authorities tried to avoid massive and pervasive morale problems by indulging the troops' desire for better living and working conditions. Base camps and rear areas were awash with inexpensive consumer goods and other amenities intended to boost morale and support for the war, both in country and back in the States, as the conflict dragged on and became increasingly unpopular. Lair expertly describes the sheer volume of the amenities; in the aggregate, the staggering statistics testify to the myriad efforts the US military made to keep its personnel satisfied. Soldiers, especially in the rear, were encouraged to purchase from the immense stocks of goods sent to Vietnam in an endeavor to prevent homesickness and prove the superiority of American culture over that of the communists and the Vietnamese. This was a "policy of plenty, … effectively rendering the U.S. Army a giant international grocery chain…. Combat was infrequent in Vietnam, but consumerism was universal" (71, 77, 146). For example, "During the [1968 Tet Offensive] North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters gravely tested American resolve, and the VRE [Vietnam Regional Exchange, charged with provisioning American soldiers] answered the challenge by inviting the troops to go shopping" (153).

The atmosphere of consumerism reached such proportions that life on a military post in Vietnam could fairly be compared to the carnivals of early modern Europe or even Mardi Gras:

If the focus is softened around the edges, a snapshot of the Vietnam experience captures something truly carnivalesque: a second life, a time outside time, in which appetites of all kinds—for food and drink, drugs, sex, and violence—were nourished and indulged; a process of transformation through which men became what they could not be in the normal order of things; a space in which weapons made the powerless powerful; and a grotesquerie of Americana in which the capriciousness of fortune was exposed …. [The soldiers found this] strangely wondrous. (184)

Despite this abundance, writes Lair, morale remained low and soldiers' discipline and commitment to the war continued to decline. Comfort and pleasure were the only rewards for their tour of duty in "the Nam."

Though the draft exploited economic and social vulnerabilities to draw young Americans into military service, many members of the U.S. occupation force did not hesitate to exploit the vulnerabilities of Vietnamese people, especially women, as they pursued the sensual pleasures of the Asian market. All these activities took place in a carnivalesque atmosphere that indulged young, male bodies even as the violence of the war literally tore them apart. Life in "the Nam" was lived close to the bone, and for many Americans who experienced it, nothing else in their lives would prove as memorable.… If [American personnel] chose to, they could luxuriate in excess, and only their return to the World provided a bottom to the Nam's well of desire. (184, 220–21)

In the end, Lair believes, the endless abundance, rampant consumerism, and general dissatisfaction with the war undermined morale, made personnel feel homesick and isolated, divided combat from support troops, created resentment among the Vietnamese, and intensified American troops' basest desires for the physical things that made them feel secure, however fleetingly.

This revised picture of the everyday life of the "average" US soldier in Vietnam is important in two ways. First, Lair rightly stresses that most military personnel do not serve in combat, even during wartime. Modern American warfare requires a vast support system to provide the people and materials necessary to accomplish the mission at hand. During the Vietnam War, American political and military leaders famously relied on technology and the exploitation of a powerful domestic industrial network to limit the threats to American soldiers' lives. Hence the disproportionate "tooth-to-tail" ratio in Vietnam, as great numbers of rearward personnel were necessary to administer the logistics effort. Base camps became sprawling cities, providing abundant creature comforts.

Second, Lair recognizes that soldiers' experiences of Vietnam could vary widely. Even for men who served in the same unit, circumstances in 1965 differed greatly from those in 1968 or 1971. Location was another determining factor. Serving in the Mekong River Delta differed from serving in the Central Highlands or near the demilitarized zone, with concomitant differences in the level of abundance. The sheer logic of Lair's treatment of these topics is most compelling.

Despite its strengths, however, the book suffers from questionable arguments. In particular, Lair's many generalizations regarding soldiers' mindset, their views on masculinity, and their attitudes toward the war and their experiences of it—to name but a few—are mostly unquantified and speculative, based on anecdotal evidence gathered from several soldiers' memoirs. The men's relationships with the military authorities are described on the lines of the workers-to-ownership model used by labor historians; while there are certain similarities, the military has never comfortably fit this pattern. Lair's claims that the Vietnam War was an "American creation" and that the South Vietnamese government was a "fiction" will certainly invite the criticism of historians. And many Vietnam veterans will remember their tour in Southeast Asia as quite other than a year-long shopping spree. The use of charged rhetoric too often detracts from Lair's argument: she calls the American presence in Vietnam an "occupation" more than a dozen times. Her assertion that Vietnam veterans have banded together in recent years only to lobby the federal government for enhanced veterans' benefits is cynical at best and unnecessary in a scholarly work of this caliber. In spite of these shortcomings, Armed with Abundance is a conceptually significant work that will inspire others to explore further a little studied area of military history.

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