Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 135-137
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Reading Athena's Dance Card:
Men against Fire in Vietnam
Russell W. Glenn, Reading Athena's Dance Card: Men against Fire in Vietnam. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. 214 pp. $34.95.
This slender and earnest, if somewhat peculiar, volume attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the American fighting man in Vietnam. As a professional soldier and the son of a career officer who served in Vietnam, Russell Glenn sets out to show that the Vietnam-era GI met the challenges of combat with courage and effectiveness comparable to that displayed by his World War II predecessor. Glenn also seeks to dispel "the grossly unjust stereotype of the Vietnam veteran as a social misfit and malcontent" (p.124).
The measure of soldier effectiveness used by Glenn is the willingness of an individual to discharge his weapon in combat. As Glenn points out, this particular indicator derives from S. L. A. Marshall, a once-famous military journalist. Marshall's considerable influence as a military analyst derived from his book Men Against Fire, published in 1947. Basing his conclusions on combat interviews conducted during World War II, Marshall advanced the thesis that no more than 25 percent of American soldiers in that conflict had actually engaged the enemy when ordered to do so. [End Page 135] The book became an instant military classic, spurring a belief (especially strong in the U.S. Army) that the central challenge of peacetime training was to devise ways of overcoming soldiers' reluctance to fire their weapons in combat.
Four decades after the publication of Men Against Fire—and fifteen years after the United States terminated its combat role in the Vietnam War—Russell Glenn sought to find out whether Marshall's indictment of the World War II soldier was also true of Vietnam-era troops. To that end, Glenn surveyed two groups of Vietnam veterans. One set of respondents consisted of members of the 1st Cavalry Division Association. The other respondents were career officers who in the summer of 1987 happened to be serving at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In all, a total of 302 veterans responded to Glenn's survey.
The results—appended to the text of Athena's Dance Card—demonstrate, to Glenn's satisfaction at least, that "the American soldier in Vietnam was rarely reluctant to discharge his weapon in combat" (p.37). Marshall's malady did not apply. "In that regard the nation's soldiers and marines were well prepared for the Vietnam War" (p.123).
Having established that key point, Glenn shifts his attention elsewhere. In a brief chapter on training he enumerates other defects in the American soldier's preparation for Vietnam, both prior to deploying and after arriving "in-country." In another chapter Glenn questions the cohesion-destroying personnel policies that dictated a standard twelve-month stay in the combat zone. In a subsequent chapter he finds fault with the abbreviated tenure of officers assigned to command. The sixth-month tourfueled careerism among officers and undermined soldiers' confidence in their leaders.
Much of this ancillary material is unexceptionable, perhaps even useful. But the core argument is dubious. The problems with it are both large and small. The negative stereotype of the Vietnam veteran with which Glenn has chosen to do battle faded long ago. Although arguably prevalent in, say, the late 1970s, it is now purely an anachronism. One might also question whether Glenn's surveys are representative or, to put it bluntly, trustworthy. The point is not to impugn the integrity of the veterans who answered Glenn's surveys. But the lapse of time since their Vietnam experience—in some instances two decades or more—and the continued controversy surrounding the war should instill a healthy dose of skepticism about the responses to questions such as "What percentage of soldiers in your unit regularly wasted ammunition ... because they were 'trigger happy'?"
These concerns aside, the fundamental problem here is Marshall and his thesis—the inspiration not only of Glenn's book, but...