The War Nobody Won 10

The enormous weight and complexity of the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf testified to the progress made by America in recon¬structing its military establishment since Vietnam. For the struggle in Southeast Asia had not only weakened the nation’s self-confidence but also sapped its strength. In 1980, General Edward C. Meyer, then the army chief of staff, warned Congress that he was presiding over a “hollow” force—short of personnel, experience and equipment.
The U.S. army had disintegrated as the war wound down during the early 1970s. With Nixon repatriating American troops, nobody wanted to be the last to die for a cause that had lost its meaning, and for those awaiting withdrawal only survival counted. Antiwar protests at home had spread to the men in the field, many of whom wore peace symbols and sullenly balked at going into combat. Race rela¬tions, cordial when blacks and whites had earlier shared a sense of purpose, grew increasingly tense. The use of drugs became so com¬mon that an official report estimated in 1971 that a third or more of the troops were addicted. Soldiers not only disobeyed their superiors but in numbers of cases actually murdered them with fragmentation grenades—a practice known as “fragging.” Morale further deterio¬rated following revelations of a massacre in which a U.S. infantry company slaughtered some three hundred Vietnamese civilians in the village of Mylai—an episode that led GIs to presume that their com¬manders were covering up other atrocities.
The broader impact of the war on the U.S. armed forces was even worse. Between 1965 and the departure of the last American combat soldiers in early 1973, the bill for Vietnam totaled more than $120 billion—much of which would have normally been invested in mod¬ernizing the nation’s defenses. As a result, the U.S. security structure had eroded, its divisions in Western Europe no match for their Warsaw Pact adversaries. Johnson’s reluctance to increase taxes or to introduce economic controls to pay for Vietnam had sparked inflation, which skyrocketed in 1973, when the Middle East producers stopped the flow of oil and later quadrupled its price. The costs of rebuilding the American arsenal thus soared. By 1975, U.S. defense expenditures in real terms were roughly $4 billion a year less than they had been a decade before. Reagan subsequently went on a spree with borrowed money to resurrect the country’s moribund war machine, and he furnished Bush with the sophisticated arms to wage the Persian Gulf conflict. But the cost contributed to a stupendous federal budget def¬icit.
Not only inflation had damaged America’s armed forces. To court voters, Richard Nixon had ended the inequitable and unpopular draft. He later regretted the move, as did many military professionals and political figures, both conservative and liberal. For one thing, GI sa¬laries, pensions and other perquisites had to be raised to civilian levels to encourage enlistments, and eventually the defense budget was con¬sumed by wages. Volunteers were also attracted mainly from among the underprivileged and the undereducated—youths least qualified to handle a contemporary army’s sophisticated technology. Antiwar sen¬timent had roiled college campuses, devastating reserve officer pro¬grams, whose enrollment fell precipitously from more than two hundred thousand in 1968 to some seventy-five thousand by 1973. An important source of bright, innovative leadership narrowed, and unimaginative bureaucrats took over much of the army’s manage¬ment.
Over the years, however, the U.S. army regained its strength, and its social profile slowly changed as well. By 1982, more than 85 percent of volunteers were high school graduates, compared to 67 percent two years before. Young men and women, unable to find jobs or to choose careers, preferred a well-paid stint in uniform to unemployment, and recruiters shifted their drives away from black ghettos to the white middle-class suburbs, with surprising success. Reeling from astro-nomical tuitions, college students joined the reserve as a way of cov¬ering their fees. And, though the horrendous memory of Vietnam did not fade, military service acquired a measure of respectability. But the army trailed in the Reagan administration’s catalogue of defense prior¬ities, far behind the development of nuclear weapons and other stra¬tegic hardware.
The Americans who fought in Vietnam had either been vilified by opponents of the war as killers or derided by its supporters as losers. For years afterward, many felt themselves to be members of a dis¬located generation, their place in society uncomfortable, undefined, embarrassing—as if the nation blamed them for its own sense of guilt or shame for the conflict. In reality, most GIs returned from Vietnam to blend quietly and unobtrusively back into the population. But news media portrayals of veterans were frequently two-dimensional dis¬tortions. Those with troubles were often depicted as bearded junkies strumming guitars in a California commune, and those who readapted were exalted as hucksters making millions in Texas real estate. Their overall image improved gradually, though, as the U.S. public dem¬onstrated new respect for the armed forces. They also earned esteem from the memorial in Washington, one of the capital’s most popular monuments. For the most part, too, they were described compas¬sionately in the tidal wave of Vietnam novels, memoirs, poems, mov¬ies, television shows, dramas and even musicals that emerged following the war. They were perceived in a fresh light as well in the numbers of high schools and universities throughout the country that offered courses on Vietnam to young students who were not yet born when the first American combat units landed in Southeast Asia. In several instances, the teachers were themselves veterans.

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