Thick jungle. Heavy gear. Unbearable heat and humidity. A deadly yet invisible enemy. Thanks to countless volumes of memoirs and the reinforcement of popular narratives in movies, television, comic books, and novels, such images are easily conjured when one thinks of the "Vietnam Combat Experience." Yet they likely bear little [End Page 115] resemblance to the reality experienced by most U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam.
In this refreshing, original book, Meredith Lair attempts to disrupt and transform traditional narratives of the war by focusing on the overwhelming majority of American personnel in Vietnam who served in noncombat positions. Her goal is to "recalibrate the concept of wartime sacrifice to encompass more than just the actions of infantrymen . . . brave men, but men who are few and far between in modern American warfare" (p. 21). She succeeds remarkably well at this task, joining Christian Appy's Working Class War (1993) as the best of the social and cultural histories to date of U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam.
The book is organized thematically, exploring in turn the many differences between combat and noncombat duty; the nature and culture of U.S. bases in Vietnam; the "war on boredom" waged by the military to maintain and improve morale; the culture of consumerism among troops (in the cleverly titled "The Things They Bought"); and the carnival-like atmosphere experienced by many soldiers serving in noncombat positions. Only in this last chapter does Lair's argument lose a bit of focus and become somewhat repetitive, as she explores the "wonderland of contradictions that defined the Vietnam war zone" (p. 183). Even that chapter, however, is rich in detail, particularly the closing section that deals with noncombat veterans' mythologizing of their tours and trauma to claim a modicum of authenticity for their wartime experiences. In a well-crafted epilogue, Lair effectively connects her narrative to the contemporary experiences of troops serving in Iraq.
Throughout the text, Lair draws on a wide array of sources, including a number of collections at the National Archives in Maryland and the Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that have been long overlooked largely because they focus on noncombat, support, and logistical operations. She also incorporates memoirs from noncombat veterans and a wide array of unit newspapers from the time to great effect.
The view that emerges from these records contains dozens of [End Page 116] fascinating tidbits and anecdotes—among the countless gems is the tale of the lifeguards who inflated the "body count" of visitors to their pools to continue to justify their assignment. More importantly, however, Lair raises important questions about the meaning of service and sacrifice in modern warfare. As the U.S. military relies on increasingly lower numbers of combat personnel (not to mention private contractors) to prosecute a range of conflicts, the wartime experience of American personnel continues to change as well. Lair's bold and courageous book encourages us to ask difficult questions about what this means for traditional and often-outdated ideas about the military, soldiers, and citizens during wartime.
With clear prose and a strong argument, this book could easily be integrated into courses on the Vietnam War or military history more broadly. It is surely a must-read for any serious student of the war or of the modern American military.
Edwin Martini is an associate professor and associate chair of history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 (2007) and Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty (2012). He is currently working on a history of napalm.