The group Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) staged dozens of protests. One action was a threatening and theatrical “search and destroy mission” that ran from Morristown, New Jersey, to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. When Nixon invaded Cambodia, the VVAW invaded DC in what the radical vets mockingly called “a limited incursion into the country of Congress.” The culmination of it all was the Winter Soldier hearings, in which vets documented US war crimes.
Ending the draft excised much of the disgruntled element from the ranks, but professionalizing the services has helped create a deepening military-civilian divide. Within today’s all-volunteer military there is much more intense solidarity than during the Vietnam era. After Vietnam the military also improved its housing, wages, benefits, food, and training; it reached out to the families of soldiers and modernized its disciplinary systems and promotions methods, all of which improved morale.
Another key difference between this war and Vietnam is the use of whole-unit rotations as opposed to individual rotations. In Vietnam a soldier was dropped into a unit for 365 days and then, if he survived, plucked out. In Iraq and Afghanistan, battalions (500 to 800 soldiers) train together, deploy together, and come home together. During Vietnam the constant flow of men in and out of line companies fighting the war seriously undermined unit cohesion and camaraderie.
“When I showed up in Vietnam we were just parceled out to different platoons as they needed us. I was called the FNG when I showed up — the fucking new guy,” remembers David Cline, a legendary activist and driving force within Veterans for Peace. “These kids today face a very different set of pressures.”
Is a Vietnam-style collapse of military discipline imminent? Some peace activists think so, pointing to the estimated 400 US military deserters who have made their way to Canada, 20 of whom have applied for asylum, and the roughly 9000 military personnel who have failed to report for duty since the war began (not all of them have been classified as deserters). Recruiting numbers, meanwhile, have flat-lined.
Yet while today’s military certainly faces a crisis of quantity, it does not have the Vietnam-era problem with quality.
During the Vietnam War the military had a sufficient number of troops — 500,000 in country for much of the war. The problem was qualitative: low morale, rebellion, combat refusal, drug abuse, a crisis of conscience. Today’s military is not falling apart, Nam-style. Rather, it faces a crisis of size: though expensive and hardware-heavy, the military is simply too small for the jobs at hand, and it is incapable of growing because too few recruits are joining up and too many veteran soldiers are leaving.
Despite growing cynicism about the Iraq war, indications are that morale, never super-high during prolonged combat, is not particularly low. Likewise, US training and equipment is among the best in the world. But 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, and 16,000 in Afghanistan — many on their second or even third deployment — is simply not enough. When one looks at special categories like translators, and civil affairs and intelligence specialists, the staffing shortage becomes even more acute.