Autumn 2017 edition - page 38-39

American military involvement inVietnam
between 1961 and 1973 is noted by many as one
of the most controversial periods of conflict in the
20th century and one which evoked widespread
public intolerance and anger, highlighted through
the protest movements which occupied the 1960s.
On March 8th 1965, the first US combat troops
stood onVietnamese soil, marking a key point in
the America’s challenge to communism during a pe-
riod of ‘red fear’. However, whilst many are aware
of the horrors of the war crimes committed against
Vietnam’s people and their exploitation by the
American Government, few recognise the extent to
which the conscripted and largely young American
soldiers could themselves be perceived as victims in
their own right. In this case, they would be viewed
not as victims of theVietnamese, but rather of
sweeping conscription policies and their own gov-
ernment’s foreign policy. These placed them at the
heart of a cycle of violence and fear, which, in the
case of many veterans, played a part in triggering
mental health issues, drug addiction, homelessness
and suicide.
The use of prescribed drugs by the American
military and issue of widespread illicit drug use by
soldiers, both during service and after returning to
civilian life, can be seen to support the argument
that American soldiers were exploited during their
service. A 1971 report by the ‘House Select Com-
mittee on Crime’ noted that between 1966 and
1969, over 225 million tablets of stimulants (most
of which Dexedrine) were used by the armed forces
inVietnam. Dexedrine is a drug which has common
side effects of nervousness, chronic trouble sleep-
ing and being easily angered or annoyed. It can be
argued that the military’s regular use of “pep pills”
such as Dexedrine led to the creation of the first
“pharmacological war” where soldiers became ac-
customed to fighting whilst under the influence of
drugs in an environment remembered by one vet-
eran as “without rules”. Furthermore, whilst figures
vary according to their source, evidence gathered
in 1971 by Congressmen Robert Steele and Morgan
Murphy can be seen to support the claim that illicit
drugs were used and suggests that the use of illegal
drugs such as Heroin whilst serving inVietnam was
surprisingly prevalent. Following a visit toVietnam,
they stated that over 15% of US soldiers had devel-
oped an addiction to Heroin as a consequence of
their service, yet despite this the military claimed
the ‘true’ figure to be just 2%. Later research which
attempted to test each soldier could be seen to sup-
port their data and revealed that roughly 40% of
soldiers had tried the highly addictive and danger-
ous substance. It is clear that the issue of drug use
remained prominent throughout US involvement,
so much so that, in June 1971 President Nixon an-
nounced the formation of the Special Action Office
for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP). This could be
seen as illustrative not only that American govern-
ment were aware of the issue, but further that
measures were being made to ensure the overall
impact was minimal considering the circumstances.
This also proved effective in practice, with the
reported number of users falling by approximately
10% by the end of the conflict. However, despite
this, there is also evidence to support the argument
that the use and effect of drugs inVietnam has
been significantly exaggerated. Morgan Murphy,
who collected some of the first evidence to support
claims of rampant drug use, later stated the figures
to be inaccurate and many other sources too sug-
gest the same. Evidence shows that just 5-7% of
those using during the war had developed a de-
pendence which continued into civilian life. Whilst
the true extent of the use and abuse of drugs may
not be known, its wide scale presence is undeniable
and certainly had negative effects to those serving,
even if only impacting a minority.
The psychological impact of theVietnam
War to soldiers was arguably the most devastating.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is known to
be the most widespread affecting mental health
issue, with a Study published by the National Vi-
etnamVeterans Readjustment (1990) suggesting
that over 15% of soldiers who fought in Southeast
Asia suffered from PTSD. The true figure is how-
ever unknown as many returningVeterans refused
to acknowledge the disorder and did not wish to
seek help. This may be because unlike those who
served inWorldWars I and II, VietnamVeterans
were, in most cases, not hailed as war heroes but
U.S. paratroopers carrying a wounded soldier to an am-
bulance helicopter during theVietnamWar, 1965
To what extent could the American Soldiers
of the VietnamWar be perceived as
victims of the conflict?
instead outcast. This led many to feel isolated
upon returning to America and attempting to
restart the routine of their old lives. This contin-
ues to be a major issue to this day and one the
American Government is yet to fully tackle. In a
recent article, John Draper who is project Director
of the National Suicide Prevention lifeline notes
that “suicide rates amongst VietnamVeterans are
the highest of any particular group” and suggests
that “Post-traumatic stress disorder and associ-
ated mental health problems” are to blame. The
combination of intenseVietcong guerrilla warfare
and the wide scale use of psychopharmacology
through psychoactive substances meant that a
large number of psychiatrists were employed dur-
ing theWar. This helped generate on paper one
of the lowest rates of combat trauma in recent
history. However, whilst this created the illusion of
thousands of mentally stable and seemingly unaf-
fected veterans returning home, the use of drugs
to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD meant that in
many cases issues became ingrained and embed-
ded within the minds of many young soldiers. Rudi
Gresham, a combat soldier who served inVietnam,
stated that “PTSD was not even recognized until
after theVietnamWar” and so it is no surprise that
manyVeterans found themselves vulnerable and
without help .
The high mortality rates and conscription
policies can also be seen to support the notion that
American soldiers, particularly those who were
African American, could be viewed as victims.
Figures show that during the period of direct Us
Involvement (1961-19720), approximately 50,000
soldiers were killed and the average age of the
deceased was just 23. African Americans made up
12.6% of the soldiers inVietnam during the height
of US involvement, despite accounting for just 11%
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