A Remembrance Day Pilgrimage

1 Dec

ImageDear reader(s),

I am so terribly sorry to have left you hanging for nearly six months, but this pesky little thing called life got in the way. Such nuisances as work, cleaning, and graduate school applications have eaten away nearly every second of my time, and when I wasn’t swamped with those things, I was out of town, fleeing Naples for the cleaner climes of northern Europe. But here I am, and with something presumably profound (?) to share with you: Remembrance Day in the Somme region of France, and a brief look at the origins of that day. 

I had a professor at USC, Dr. Seip, who taught me that in order to really, truly understand a war, one has to travel to its sites, to see what happened and where. In a way, this has become one of my two guiding principles in approaching history– the other is rather bizarre, so we’ll leave it for another day– because I truly think that in visiting historical sites, we are able to see and understand history in a way that we would otherwise be unable to. So it happened that my endlessly tolerant and supportive husband and I woke up at 2:45 am, drove to Rome, and flew to Paris with the intent of renting a car, driving to Amiens, and seeing the remnants of the Great War during the global day of remembrance that its destruction spawned. 

For me, it was a sort of pilgrimage. I needed to see the scarred earth, to understand that I was standing on the unmarked, untended graves of so many thousands of men; I needed to smell the air, stand in the trenches, and look out over a frozen No Man’s Land. Having been buried for so many months in books speaking of the destruction, I needed to see it for myself, to walk the ground, and understand a the war a little bit better. 

I am not an inherently spiritual person, but there is something that shakes one to the very core about seeing hundreds of cemeteries, thousands of graves marked simply, “Inconnu,” or “A Soldier in His Majesty’s Army.” So many lives, wasted. I’ve mentioned before that it for the soldiers that I am a military historian. I can leave battle tactics, strategies, and weaponry to others. They can have it. Rather, I want to understand how war impacts, and potentially breaks, though men and women who fight it. I want to know what it was like, because I believe, to the very bottoms of my boots, that if we understand this, truly internalize it, then we may be better equipped, if not to end it, then at least to mitigate its effects to the best of our abilities. So I stood on freezing cold hillside after freezing cold hillside, stared out into No Man’s Land from a landscape still pockmarked nearly a century later, and contemplated how it might have felt to have served in the Somme during 1916. 

What follows are a few observations made while standing on ruined battlefields and driving through small French farming villages. They are merely my own observations about the Great War, remembrance, and things I learned from walking the ground. 

1. The Great War was incredibly bloody. Although most of us look at the numbers, and remark on them, we fail to truly understand what this meant in terms of humanity until we see the graveyards. Within a one hour drive from Amiens to Péronne, we saw perhaps six or seven. Amiens and Péronne were a fair distance behind the lines. The drive from Péronne to Arras, which included Thiepval and Albert, had so many that we lost count. Easily seventy five, tucked into every town and every hillside. Although most of these cemeteries are not large, they speak to the absolute destructiveness of this war.

2. The distance troops had to run to get from the “reserve trenches” to the enemy trenches was minuscule, which throws into sharp perspective just how terrifying and how bloody the war was that it took men hours to travel what I could walk in a minute or two now. In running 100 meters, units could suffer almost 100% casualty rates. When I looked out over the old battlefield, I could better understand why these men suffered combat trauma on a level not seen before or since. 

3. I could see why the war was called “the war to end all wars.” Even as the product of the modern era, and well-versed in most of the wars of the 20th century, the level of destructiveness surprised me. Wandering through Beaumont-Hamel, there is hardly an inch of soil that is not scarred, either with a shell crater or a trench system. Trees are nearly nonexistent past the reserve trenches, with the exception of such skeletal remnants bearing the worrisome names of “the Danger Tree.” We pilgrims are warned not to wander too much, exhorted to remain behind the cordons: behind the ropes lie not only the remains of those poor souls who died in No Man’s Land and were never recovered, but also of thousands of pounds of unexploded ordnance. After the 1916 offensives, I can imagine that the entire Somme area had begun to resemble nothing so much as a barren hell. It is no small wonder that those who saw could hardly imagine another war after the trauma of 1914-1918. 


Let’s now depart from the realm of emotion and experience, and back into the lovely world of history. Each November 11th, we celebrate a day known as Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day, and Armistice Day. In 2013, I question how many Americans truly understand what Veterans’ Day is, why we observe it, and why it is so important that we continue to do so. 

On the eleventh minute, of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the guns that had pounded Europe for over four years fell silent, marking what many hoped to be the end of humanity’s violent course of warfare. One year later, in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson chose that day, so rife with meaning, as a national day of remembrance, stating: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”[1] These sentiments were also expressed by King George V of England, who, speaking on behalf of all British Commonwealth countries, wished to remember the fallen of the Great War and dedicated November 11th, in perpetuity, as a day of remembrance. 

In effect, Remembrance Day, as I prefer to call it, is meant to be about exactly that: remembrance, and thanksgiving. Although initially referring specifically to World War I and its casualties, since 1919, it has evolved into a remembrance of all sacrifices made during war. It is an opportunity for us, as average citizens, to contemplate the actions of a small group of men and women free from the political cloud. Whether or not we agree on the justness of a war (and I tend to be of the thinking that war is only very rarely just), we can agree that war is horrendous, and death occurring within its confines tragic. So, Remembrance Day gives us the opportunity to remember, to contemplate, and to imagine what war does to our societies and our cultures. Sometimes, I hope that if we are able to recall what it was that November 11th was meant to be about, the celebration of the end of war, and the collective mourning of war’s dead, that perhaps we might be more reluctant to support war in all but the most just of cases. 

One final discussion of Armistice Day– the poppy. Generally considered the symbol of the day, and of remembrance, it has two-fold meaning in the United States and the Commonwealth countries (other nations chose different flowers to represent mourning, loss, or remembrance). First, it represents the poem which is by now famous as paean to the Great War dead: “In Flanders Fields,” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. The poem’s famous first several lines, “In Flanders Fields, where poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row,” speak to the sheer number of war dead, and the juxtaposition of so much death in such a beautiful place. The poppy’s symbolism is meant to remind us not only of the poem, but also of its reflections on death. Its second meaning follows on these reflections of death: the red of the poppy symbolizes blood. It is meant to make us consider the blood spilled, the lives lost, and the generations wasted. For me, at least, it makes me consider the cost of war. Is it ever not too high a price?

[1] “History of Veterans Day,” Department of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, Veterans’ Affairs. Accessed 30 November 2013. http://www.va.gov.


“Armistice Day.” Wikipedia. 

“History of Veterans Day.” Department of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. Veterans’ Affairs. 

“In Flanders Fields.” Wikipedia. 

All images represented here are my own. 


The History of the Wedding Ring

8 May


Or, happy anniversary to me. Yes, that’s right– two years and a week ago, someone actually married me. He’s probably wondered what he was thinking at least several times, most likely when I’m waxing prolific on some obscure historical subject as we’re lying in bed at 10 PM on a work night (military alarm clocks go off at 5 AM!). Hopefully he continues to forgive those moments, however, because I really couldn’t ask for a better soulmate. He used to let me study for finals by reciting my study guide to him. For hours. That’s love.

Anyways, in honor of the occasion– at least, I’d intended such, but then got sidetracked teaching and lying on my couch and popsickles– I thought I would investigate the history of the wedding ring. Turns out, it was rather hard to discover, at least with a google search. So let’s take a look:

As far as most archaeologists can tell, the practice has its very earliest origins in ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs show women receiving rings made out of rushes and other grass-like material during marriage ceremonies. 

This tradition seems to have passed into Greek tradition, and from there into Roman. Rings, most frequently made of iron, were considered the last in a series of wedding presents given between the parties to the marriage. The ring was meant to symbolize the man’s strength, and the binding legality of the marriage contract. You could say, in a sense, that it also symbolized the man’s claim over the woman– she wore his ring, symbolizing her eternal connection to him. At this stage in the historical game, rings were still only for women, and men generally wore no physical symbol of his marriage. 

By around 860 C.E., the tradition of the wedding ring had made its way into Christian tradition, although only in fits in starts. The rings probably started in the Celtic Christian world, and were usually engraved with doves, lyres, clasped hands, or other symbols that were deemed “heathen.” So while the rings were periodically incorporated into the marriage ceremonies, it was likely only with reluctance that priests accepted them– likely because they were still trying to encourage young people to get married within the church, as opposed to in traditional, pagan ways. 

By the 13th century, however, the Church had decided to co-opt the ring. Sensing that it was a powerful popular symbol, they chose instead to make it their own. However, in the interest of ensuring that pagan symbols were not continued, they chose to re-envision the wedding ring as a smooth band made out of metal, generally silver or gold. Meant to be more spiritual in nature, a bishop even went so far as to explain the gifting of a ring as a “symbol of the union of hearts.”

It should be noted here, however– and rather unsurprisingly– that until fairly recently, marriage was usually not about love at all. It was a contract between two people, two families, or two dynasties. As such, the value of the wedding ring came to be critically important. It was seen as a gift of material wealth, or “earnest money,” not necessarily a symbol of eternal love. Which isn’t to lessen to current manifestations, or to suggest that all people historically married on a contractual basis. I’m quite sure that some people did, in fact, marry for love, and for those people, the ring would have been a symbol of love, in addition to a statement of value or wealth. 

This tradition continued on, relatively unchanged– and by relatively, I mean that styles changed, stones changed, engravings came and went, but that the practice itself was left mostly alone– until the beginning of the 20th century. Although some enterprising Victorians– I’m not sure about you, but I almost never think of Victorians as… enterprising. Color me surprised– tried in the late 19th century to sell wedding rings to men, their efforts were largely unappreciated. World War II is seen instead as the critical shift, when men were separated from their wives for sometimes years at a time. The ring became a memento, something tangible that reminded a soldier of his wife, family, and home. And after that… well, it’s become common practice, except for Prince William, who apparently is not a jewelry man. Nor is my husband, who upon wearing his wedding ring for the first time, proclaimed it was “itchy.” But now happily wears it and says it feels weird when he forgets. Go figure. 

So now we’ve seen a brief history of the tradition, but we’ve failed to talk about why the ring is worn on the fourth finger. Although cultures vary over ring or left hand, most place the ring on that awkward, non-bendy finger. There are three primary theories that I’ve managed to dig up:

1. This one is the most romantic, and largely the most popular. It suggests that the Greeks and Romans believed that the vein in that fourth finger led directly to the heart. The Romans called it the “Vena Amoris,” or the vein of love. So when wearing a wedding band on that finger, it was meant to connect it straight to the wearer’s heart. Lovely, if somewhat unlikely.

2. This one works very well in connection with Christian history. As part of the Christian marriage ceremony, the priest/minister/etc. would place the ring over each finger, reciting “In the name of the father (thumb), the son (index finger), and the holy spirit (middle finger). Amen (ring finger).” So by the time he’d finished blessing the ring and the marriage, he’d ended up on that fourth finger.

3. Finally, some have argued that the reason we all wear rings on that finger is simple practicality: it is the least used finger, besides the tiny pinky, on the human hand. So if the rings were made of a soft material, like gold, then it made sense to keep it as protected from the daily grind as possible.

Overall, I think the history of the wedding ring is interesting in many different ways. I’d like to just end with a brief reflection, perhaps on the progress that we’ve made as a society about time. A BBC news article that I consulted for this post mentioned the possibility that, in today’s society at least, the practice is very egalitarian: both men and women now traditionally wear wedding rings– in fact, the practice is now so common that the BBC, that bastion of excellent reporting, felt compelled to write a feature about Prince William’s decision not to wear one. In a sense, I agree. As we’ve seen, in Roman times, the ring symbolized ownership. In medieval and early modern, it symbolized the embodiment of contract– although sometimes it also symbolized love. And now, it symbolizes love and tradition. So, happy anniversary to me, and a great many thanks that I can wear my rings as a token of love and affection, and not of contract or ownership. 


Jacks, Matt. “The History of the Wedding Ring.” http://www.historyof.net

Robb, Stephen. “Wedding rings: Have men always worn them?.” BBC News, 8 April 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk

“The Origins of Wedding Rings and Why They’re Worn on the 4th Finger of the Left Hand.” Today I Found Out. http://www.todayifoundout.com

Wikipedia. “Wedding Rings.” http://www.wikipedia.com

Fighting for Uncle Sam: Cultural Internalizations

24 Apr


When we last left Vietnam, we’d just discussed that some of the young men and women who volunteered to go overseas in the 1960s did so because they had directly internalized the messages brought to them from their political leaders, especially the words of the Cold War presidents. For other soldiers, however, the connection between Cold War ideology and their own war was far subtler. Instead of direct internalization, they experienced what I’ve called, quite shockingly, indirect internalization, through the realm of cultural experiences. In particular, there seem to have been three primary cultural mechanisms that allowed these young men to absorb the Cold War and go off to fight in Viet Nam: popular culture in the form of films and other media, the ideal of masculinity, and the adherence to patriotic values. 

Let’s begin with the ideals of masculinity, those basic cultural definitions that inspire men into actions they might not otherwise take. Let’s be honest: even in today’s “modern” society, we seen men seeking to prove their “manhood” all the time; there are also a number of activities that are deemed masculine by us as an American culture. Foremost in the 1960s, and in large part today, is military service. There was a distinct sense that war was a transformational space; the place in which a boy could become a man. By sacrificing and fighting for these things he loved, he could prove that he was worthy of membership in the cult of masculinity. This duty was entrenched within American cultural standards and gender roles; young men believed that they had to follow in their forefathers’ footsteps, and go to war to protect America. Specialist 4 Peter Roepcke wrote to Gail (wife, girlfriend, or friend, in all likelihood) on December 6, 1969:

I remember in one of your letters you said you were surprised that I said that I don’t mind being here. Well in a way, that’s true. Sure I want to be home with you and have all the things we dream about. But yet being here makes a man feel proud of himself– it shows him that he is a man. Do you understand? Anyone can go in the Army and sit behind a desk, but it takes a lot to do the fighting and to go through what we have.

Specialist Roepcke’s letter, although hardly the only piece of evidence I have concerning this phenomenon, is I think one of its best representatives. Most critically, he distinguishes between simply joining the Army and actually serving in a war and experiencing battle. In his mind, although it seems he would like to be at home in America with Gail, but in order to be content with himself, to find his identity as a man, he must first fight in Viet Nam. Military service in a theater of war would prove his manhood, and allow him to develop a sense of pride in himself. What this meant in terms of Cold War ideology is complex. Put most simply, because the men had internalized it as part of their culturally obligation to serve in the military, a tool to prove their manhood, they accepted the causes of war more readily, and questions their leaders less.

The relationship that young men with patriotism and political ideology was considerably more complicated. Patriotism manifested itself as a love of country deeply rooted in the American past, and reinforced by the various patriotic rituals of American cultural life. For many, there was a sense that they were fighting for the same country and traditions that had been established in 1776, and defended throughout American history. Yearly rituals, such as Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans’ Day, coupled with the military memorials in nearly every town square across the nation, reinforced the historic pride in military service, and in the glory of the United States.In May of 1969, U.S. Marine Dale Nachreiner wrote to his girlfriend, Pat, “If they die they should be known as heroes because they die for a belief larger than if we should be fighting a war. They proved themselves as men who put their lives at stake for our country’s promises.” Nachreiner implied that the men dying in Vietnam were dying for their nation, not for a particular justification of war. His statement indirectly suggests that patriotism was the underlying reason that the men were in Vietnam, that they chose to fight for their country and the promises it made to others, which they saw as a cause greater than any other. In his mind, the honor of patriotism was far larger than the validity of the war itself; the men were there because they loved America, and that was all that mattered. In terms of internalization, this is at face value quite simple; it follows that patriotism allowed men and women to accept the words of their Cold War leaders without question. Yet this is not necessarily the case. Yes, I’m sure that there were a few people for which this was indeed true. However, for many, their doubt about the justifications for the Vietnam War were overcome by their belief in the inherent goodness of America. And for still others, those doubts were not overcome; Vietnam is marked just as much by the war itself as by the protest movements that shook the country to its core. Let’s focus on that middle group, though, the ones whose doubts were overcome by patriotism. I believe that this mechanism is directly linked to American Exceptionalism. They might have doubted the absoluteness of Johnson’s message about anti-communism, but they believed absolutely in America and its special role in the world. I would argue that, over a period of time– perhaps a lifetime of hearing the same cultural messages– that it ultimately enabled them to accept the justifications for war in Vietnam and enlist in whatever branch of the service. 

And here we are at the third and final type: popular culture. It plays off of the previous two, increasing their power, and driving a considerable number of young men into the arms of the military. Many young men were inspired by the movies they saw in theaters, especially those with John Wayne, which reinforced notions of masculinity and heroism, depicting war as a great adventure. These movies created the ultimate ideal of manhood, sacrifice, and patriotism, rolled into a 90 minute trifecta. One young, anonymous veteran remembered that from a very young age, “’we dreamed and fantasized of the day when we would take up arms and defend our country’s honor in some remote tropical jungle, returning home with a chest full of medals.’” Philip Caputo concurred, writing about his enlistment, “Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest.” So many of the men who ended up voluntarily in Viet Nam had been seduced by a romanticized notion of war; they saw only the honor and glory, remaining blissfully unaware of those traumas that go hand in hand with battle. For those that were inspired by John Wayne and Audie Murphy, their internalization was related both to the notions and masculinity and patriotism that we’ve just discussed, but also to the fact that in attempting to emulate their heroes, they needed to internalize the Cold War. John Wayne and Audie Murphy only fought for the good guys, so to speak. They never fought for an unjust cause, and always were meant to uphold the weak and downtrodden. Therefore, the experience in Viet Nam needed to follow. Johnson’s call to defend the Vietnamese, and later the Americans themselves, in Why Vietnam? would have rung quite true to those young men and women who sat in the cinema during the most formative years of their lives.

So here we are, arrived at the conclusion of our cultural internalizations. In summation, cultural pressures such as popular culture, traditional interpretations of masculinity, and historic notions of patriotism combined to create a society that placed a high value on military service as part of being either a good man or a good American. Although these pressures existed separately from the Cold War rhetoric, they were indirectly linked in the minds of the young men who served. Vietnam became the ground upon which men could act out their responses to the cultural stimuli. That they felt compelled to express masculinity and patriotism through stopping communism and making the world safe for democracy, as their leaders asked them to do, suggests that in the process of proving themselves members of American society, they internalized the messages and justifications of Vietnam. In effect, culture served as the medium that allowed soldiers to understand their service. Culture was one of the causal mechanisms that made real the ideology of the Cold War, and allowed for comprehension of internalization of that ideology. 

Tune in next time for our next to last installment (I can hear the collective sigh of relief already), about familial internalizations of Vietnam!



Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977), xii. 

Kyle Longley, Grunts (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008).

Dale Nachreiner, letter to Pat, May 1969, Dale M. Nachreiner Collection, Box 1 Folder 1, The Vietnam Center and Archives, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway Books, 1990).

Specialist Peter Roepcke, letter to Gail, 6 December 1969, in Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002).


Book Review: American Veterans on War

15 Apr


In all honesty, I thought I would have absolutely boundless energy this week for blog-posting; it was spring break, and there was no possibility of being called in, thank heavens. But here it is Thursday, and I’m writing what may amount to a cop-out of a post. Not that I don’t think it’s important, but perhaps, you might find it irrelevant. But we’ll give it a go anyways– you never know.

When I wrote the post reflecting on warfare, one of the books I mentioned for further reading was Elise Forbes Tripp’s wonderful work, American Veterans on War: Personal Stories from WWII to Afghanistan (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2011). While this book only focuses on American veterans, and because it is an oral history, out of necessity focuses solely on World War II and later wars, I find it is a compelling, and very deeply nuanced reflection on the realities of warfare– a book I would highly recommend to civilian and military alike.

Comprising of 55 narratives, Tripp has sought to unify a brief history of each war with raw description. Utilizing interviews that she herself conducted with local veterans, she provides both an unspoiled characterization of warfare– most specifically the pain and the chaos– and a guided discussion on the costs of war, both on those who fight and those who watch. By asking questions about present wars, or about the justifications for each veteran’s war, she teases out a narrative of both remarkable patriotism and internal questioning of purpose. Although the World War II veterans were without doubt more positive regarding their wartime experience than any other veterans in the work, they admitted that their experience was singular. Many veterans showed the ability to separate their love of country, and their actual military service, from the political machinations that are a hallmark of most wars.

The crucial importance of this book likes with that internal dialogue. It is an unfortunate habit of ours to equate soldiers and sailors with warmongers. Somehow, in protesting the war, we feel the need to also punish those who carried out actions. Tripp’s work helps us understand that soldiers are every bit as diverse a group of people as those of us who might protest a war: they’re liberals and conservatives, wealthy, middle-class, and poor… they enlisted for countless reasons, and experienced warfare in countless ways. And they have almost no power over where they’re sent, and whether or not they go to war. A soldier might have disagreed with the war in Iraq, and still found himself in Baghdad for 13 months. In an effort to not repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, we must be conscious that calling soldiers baby-killers and monsters will not change the acts that have occurred, nor will it sway the politicians in whose hands power over warfare rests. As Tripp’s interviews suggest, the men and women who fight the wars are often just as skeptical– if not more so– than the rest of us.

So if you’re searching for a fascinating, but still easy (no footnotes, or “dry” historical passages– dry, really? Harrumph) to read book that will alter your perception of soldierhood, please consider this book. My eyes were opened in so many ways, and I’ve read quite a few books on the subject.

Fighting for Uncle Sam: Direct Internalizations

6 Apr

I’m terribly sorry for the my extended absence, dear reader(s). I somehow got caught up in pretending to spring-clean, watching Downton Abbey, and reading some of my many new books (thank you, military thrift store!) As I recall (which possibly is not accurate), we’d left off the Vietnam saga with a brief analysis of how each of the Cold War presidents contributed to the underlying culture of Cold War justifications that, at least initially, prompted many young men to enlist in the military. Well, today, we’re going to take it one step further, and look directly at those internalizations. I know. You’re utterly thrilled, and you’ve been waiting with bated breath for just this very moment. 

Just a brief note about the sources before we begin. I’ve made these arguments based on a large number of letters and diaries– largely contained at Texas Tech now– from soldiers of all varieties, which contain quite a number of historical traps. Firstly, remember that this is my interpretation of these letters and diaries, and also that when a soldier writes a letter home, or even writes in his diary, the words on the page do not necessarily reflect reality. For example, it isn’t exactly polite–especially in 1968– to write to one’s mother that one joined the military to kill people. Instead, it sounds better to utilize lofty words of service, commitment, and national security to justify the reasons for enlistment. Therefore, I’ve tried to take everything presented with a grain of salt– within reason, of course. If hundreds of soldiers write the exact same thing, even allowing for the elevation of language in letters, it suggests that perhaps there is something to the theory. So let’s begin.


26th Marines at boot camp, 1967. Courtesy of 26th-marines.blogspot.com

Today, we’re going to look at direct internalizations of the Cold War culture and political ideology discussed in the previous Vietnam post. Direct internalizations were representative of those soldiers who simply accepted the rhetoric presented to them. When President Johnson spoke of preventing the appeasement of a brutal enemy, these young men accepted that without question. They accepted the mission of anti-communism, the effort to protect American democracy– in other words, they saw the fig-leaf to be the full story. Military service became a conduit to act out these missions; by joining the Army, a young man had the opportunity to answer what he deemed to be his responsibility to the United States and to the world. Although he wrote the following sarcastically, war correspondent Michael Herr spoke to some version of truth at the end of the war: “Not that you didn’t hear some overripe bullshit about it: Hearts and Minds, Peoples of the Republic, tumbling dominoes, maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah…”Despite characterizing those justifications as “bullshit,”¹ the fact that Herr mentions their presence at all suggests that they were a factor for at least some of the young soldiers he encountered when they described their service in Vietnam. So let’s take a look at some of the specifics.

For some young service people (let’s not forget that there WERE women present in Vietnam, mostly as nurses or USO girls), they just generally internalized the entire Cold War culture, with no one facet becoming more important than the other. 1st Lieutenant Robert Salerni is a good example. He wrote to his parents in October 1969, “’I’ve philosophized enough on the war. There are so many things here that I’ve seen that make me proud to be an American, proud to be a soldier.’”² For Lt. Salerni, he had taken his leaders’ message, “philosophized” on it, and ultimately determined that it was truth. He wanted his parents to be proud of what he had done, to know that he believed in his cause. Although it is, of course, possible that he was attempting to justify a decision to his parents, that he used that language is at least indicative of the presence of internalization mechanisms. He at least wanted his parents to think those things were true, and in all probability, believed them to be true himself. 

For other soldiers, the internalization was a bit more specific. For many, this took the form of anti-communism. Lieutenant Marion Kempner, in a letter to his grandparents, tried to explain why he believed the war to be just. “’We are here because we think this is where we must fight to stop a communist threat. But not having gained momentum in conquering this country could bowl us out of Asia altogether…’”³ Kempner believed that one of the main purposes in fighting the war was to stop the spread of communism and prevent the “dominoes” from falling. He believed what his leaders told him about the world: that if communism was not stopped in Vietnam, it would continue to spread until democracy was all but gone from Asia.

For soldiers like Salerni and Kemper, they quite literally seemed to understand their war in the very same terms presented to them by their political leaders. Rather than simply representing the ideology of a distant group of people, the Cold War ideology became a part of everyday consciousness. Their letters, although representing only two, are representative of a larger internalization. Hundreds of young men and women felt that as Americans, they had a distinct obligation to help the Vietnamese, to go forth and do for their country and the world those things they heard from their presidents, believing in the fig-leaf justifications so elegantly put forth by so many leaders.

Stay tuned next week, for the next installment: cultural internalizations!


Soldier. Vietnam. Date unknown. Taken from vietnamartwork.wordpress.com



1. Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 20. 

2. Lieutenant Robert Salerni, letter to parents, October 1969, in Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002).

3. Lieutenant Marion Kempner, letter to grandparents, 9 August 1966, in Edelman 206-207.

War is Hell, and Other Musings

15 Mar

Soldiers in trench, World War I. Somewhere in France. Taken from guardian.co.uk.

Today’s post is more about my own musings than about any discernible history. You see, I’ve recently picked a topic for my dissertation, and no, now that you’ve asked, it isn’t Vietnam. Not that I’m not still intensely interested. It just seems that I’ve found a new, more abusive companion: World War I. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. And this decision has given me pause, and has really forced me to look at war. So I thought I would share with you some of my conclusions, in hopes that perhaps you’ll look at war just a little bit different. As such, all of the opinions written here are my own. While not directly cited from any source, they come from five years of studying military history, and not in small part from reading personal letters and diaries of soldiers (yes, during Vietnam). 

I’ll begin with a brief note. When I was conducting primary research for my honors’ thesis (thank you, Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center and Archive), I read an outrageous number of letters and diaries. In a very few cases, I was fortunate enough to have both letters and diaries from the same individual. In one of those cases– let’s name him Robert– I noticed something of interest. Robert had meticulously kept his diary, and on those days when he wrote home, there was a gaping discrepancy between the contents of the letter, and the contents of the diary. The letters said everything was fine, he was bored, and wanted a shower; he wanted them to deposit his paychecks, and save for a stereo; nothing was happening, and he didn’t want them to worry. His diary entries talked of hell in the jungle, of the pain of killing, of the terror he lived with on a daily basis. He spoke of friends lost, lives cut short, and the endlessness of war. He knew he would leave Viet Nam, either with death or with the expiration of his year’s tour, but still, it seemed endless. To most of this, this might seem like a no-brainer. If you’re writing home from war, it seems futile to tell your family in just how much danger you are, and how your soul seems damaged beyond repair. But it’s worth noting. Soldiers will rarely tell you what war is like, and it is left to those who come after to construct the story with what they leave behind. 

We’re going to work with three premises today, which I hope will leave you at least considering the implications of warfare. I feel that in the 21st century, we are remarkably distant from warfare, particularly in the United States; yes, we do have troops in the Middle East– my husband was once one of them– but it’s not a part of most of our everyday experiences. We watch the Syrian civil war on the news, and perhaps we feel sympathy, but it never really touches our souls in the way that any warfare ought to. So let’s begin.

First, war is at its roots an artificial endeavor. And I don’t mean that it isn’t intrinsic to humanity, because it is possible that there’s something about warfare that exists within our very natures (I’ve seen convincing arguments both ways, so perhaps it’s neither– it does exist, but it is possible for us to evolve beyond it? I can only hope). What I do mean is that the act itself is artificial. Two groups of relatively ordinary people meeting in some geographic location, killing for causes that are generally not their own. As we’ve talked about before, with Vietnam, often times those causes have been internalized, but still… at their origin, they do not directly concern the men and women who usually pay the cost of war. Let’s consider an example.

During the Wars of the Roses, where two great English lines, Lancaster and York, fought for control of the monarchy, great houses rallied for one side or the other. And where one lord went, so went his tenants: his farmers, servants, tradesmen. And on the field of battle, at Towton, or Tewkesbury, those two groups met. Farmer faced farmer, separated only by the lord he served, a slight gesture on the part of fate. And suddenly, they were asked to not only face each other, but kill each other as expediently as possible. Although loyalty to a lord motivated many, it cannot erase the absurdity at facing one’s counterpart across a battlefield, the same in nearly all regards. 

So war is artificial. It is violence by proxy, on behalf of politicians who have made the cause personal in some fashion. You and the person across from you have no real quarrel; you don’t know one another’s names, family histories, or hopes and desires. You know nothing except that you have to kill this person, because they stand on the other side of a line. This is certainly not to say that war is never necessary– stopping Hitler was certainly important– because sometimes, it really is the only option, and sometimes the person standing opposite you truly is evil, or truly does threaten you or what you hold dear. But just because it is sometimes necessary does not make it any less terrible, nor any less destructive. 

Second, war breaks people. This may reveal me to be somewhat of a nerd, but I’ve often thought J.K. Rowling did an excellent job explaining the trauma when she invented Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes. According to Dumbledore, the only way that Voldemort was able to create these fragments of soul was by killing. He suggests that committing such an act breaks humanity. And although this comes from a book of children’s fantasy, and describes very specifically wanton killing, I think it might hold true for war. Every diary I have read suggests that even when a soldier believes his or her cause to be just, the first pull of the trigger breaks a person’s being. During the Second World War– one in which I think we can agree that most soldiers felt their cause to be just– studies have argued that many were unable to actually fire their weapons initially, even when placed into a combat situation. Some have chalked it up to a training failure– in target practice, they shot. at bullseyes, not human-like targets. Tim O’Brien, author and Vietnam veteran, described a similar experience in The Things They Carried, in which he describes his moral qualms about killing the “enemy.” Regardless of the numbers involved, the process of killing another person, even in a time of war, is incredibly painful, and becomes an underlying part of many soldiers’ memoirs. Men kept whole photo albums of the personal effects taken from those they had killed. These albums have taken up residence in many museums around the world, as those who killed seek atonement for their actions. So let us remember that for most, war hurts us in the very deepest recesses of our beings, and it’s a part of us that never recovers. 

Third, and last, war is hell. Famous, I know. But it warrants at least a mention. When we look back at war, we are left only with pictures and film, letters, and diaries. To most of us, we cannot imagine it. We see miniature men running across No Man’s Land, sailors loading the guns of huge destroyers in the Pacific, pictures of burning children struck down by Napalm. But we do not smell it, we do not feel it… we don’t know what those screams sound like, what the roar of guns feels like… we don’t know how it feels to be shot, or to hold a dying companion in our arms. We’ve never been asked for mercy, to spare someone we’re taught to kill. All of these things, and more, are at the very least likely in any war. The men and women who fight learn to live with them, to make order out of chaos. So let us remember that, each time we see a war on the news, each time we see a soldier. Although most would rather not be congratulated, let us silently recall the ordeals they have been through, and realize that many are part of the walking wounded; they have run into hell, and managed to stagger back out.

I shall leave you here, with perhaps two or three book recommendations. Although it was disjointed, I hope that this post provoked some thought, sympathy, and a greater understanding of warfare. 

Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

Elise Forbes Tripp’s American Veterans on War

Man’s Best Friend, in Peace and in War: Dogs and the Military

7 Mar

MWD and Handler, Iraq. Photo by U.S. Army

Greetings, dear reader(s?). I apologize profusely for the massive delay in posts. I’ve recently begun substitute teaching at a DOD elementary school, and have been so mentally exhausted by the ordeal, it’s all I can do to avoid falling asleep on my kitchen floor when I get home. That, and I am exceedingly busy intending to send thank you notes to every single teacher I’ve ever had. Clearly, I have a whole new appreciation for all those in the pre-college teaching profession!

So, to business. Today, we’re going to talk about a subject that has become very fascinating to me as of late. You see, occasionally, when I have only a few minutes, I browse Pinterest on my iPad. No, no… I’m not really on the Pinterest bandwagon. I actually think it’s rather irritating, and far too full of “shabby chic” decorations… but, it does have some fantastic cleaning tips, and some interesting historical photographs. Granted, time and google could yield exactly the same results. But whatever. I apparently like expediency. Anyways, it’s recently become apparent that I have a hideous soft spot for anything involving soldiers and dogs. A picture of a marine with a puppy in Afghanistan is likely to make me go all “mushy,” and my go-to feel better YouTube video is called “Momma Dog”— which, you’ve probably guessed, involves a soldier and occasionally, a dog. So that led me, in some convoluted, half-realized path, to today’s post: dogs and the military.

Dogs have likely been a part of war since warfare first entered humanity’s consciousness thousands and thousands of years ago. Used by many ancient peoples, including the Greeks, Romans, Dalmatians (yes, they did use a certain spotted dog), and Britons, man’s best friend has nearly always had a role. The Greeks and Romans both used them to guard important military installations and armored them to attack the enemy in battle itself. This tradition survived the fall of the Roman Empire, and it was a common practice for European monarchs to exchange breeding stock as gifts during the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods– a good war dog was seen as an absolutely invaluable asset, both at home in Europe, and increasingly abroad, and the great powers began to build empires in the New World.

However, despite their use in North America, the practice was not utilized by the United States until the Seminole Wars (1816-1858), although only loosely then, and the American Civil War (1861-1865), where pit bulls were used to protect important supplies and to carry messages around the battlefield. However, even after that war, the practice did not become part of standard military doctrine, and after the surrender, dogs as well as men went home to put the experience of war behind them.


Sergeant Stubby in his uniform. Photo taken from news.discovery.com

The beginning of World War I brought dogs back into the forefront of war. From the beginning, all parties used dogs to pull small gun carts (dogs were easier to find than horses, and cheaper to care for), haul the wounded to aid stations, and to detect possible attacks. In particular, the Germans utilized their large shepherd dogs to protect their trenches, while the British and French tended to use their dogs more for communication (dogs would bring messages between two handlers) and logistics (read, pulling guns and people).

Despite this trend in usage, however, when the United States joined the war in 1817, they did not mobilize any fighting dogs. Although a bill was put before congress by the Quartermaster General’s office, officials believed the war would be over far before dogs could possibly be needed. There was, however, one notable exception:

Sergeant Stubby, as he was named, was a small terrier mix found by a unit training at Yale Field in New Haven, CT. A friendly fellow, he was actually stowed away aboard the troop ship by one Corporal Robert Conroy (who would ultimately be his handler and owner), who was unable to bear the thought of leaving him behind. Much to the good fortune of the unit, Sgt. Stubby, during his 18 months in France, proved himself exceedingly useful, learning to smell gas attacks before they could happen, snuggling with the wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land and in the trenches, and actually catching one German spy quite literally by the seat of his pants! Upon return stateside, Stubby become something of a national hero, and even shook “hands” with President Woodrow Wilson.


MWDs and Handlers, 1942. Photo taken from vetsadoptpets.org

World War II marked the first time that the United States armed forces truly utilized the power of the dog in warfare, although it was long delayed, and only really took hold in the Pacific Theater. A private, owner-led organization, Dogs for Defense, began lobbying military personnel to begin training dogs before the war even truly began, and once the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, 7 December 1941, their voices began to carry more weight. Officials were afraid of Japanese saboteurs, and the ever-present threat of a U-Boat landing, and sentry dogs seemed like an excellent resource.

The successful use of sentry dogs opened a whole new world for military leaders, who suddenly realized that the dog’s potential war enormous. By late 1943, dogs were overseas with the Marines, serving as scouts and message carriers, increasing their role from World War I. Scout dogs helped “sniff out” enemy troops and weapons, warn of impending attacks, and protected their units. Additionally, one enterprising Swiss citizen (coincidentally a resident of Santa Fe, NM, where I grew up) tried to train dogs to physically attack and kill Japanese soldiers. However, fortunately for humanity, the dogs, and the poor Japanese-American soldiers participating in the training exercises, it was an absolute failure. The dogs were not inherently aggressive enough, and the training was not basic enough, to actually allow for that kind of specified tactic.

A last bittersweet note on the dog in World War II, doctors often used dogs to test new medicines. The dogs likely suffered immensely, but the practice was strongly condemned after the war (although only in a political and military capacity– clearly, animal testing has not yet been fully banned) and the dogs were ultimately recognized as heroes by the U.S. government, and showered in medals (what good a medal does to a dog, unless it’s made out of treats, beef, or peanut butter, is not quite clear in my mind).


Scout dog and his handler in Vietnam, date unknown. Photo taken from thedogpress.com

Yes, we are skipping a war. Good observation, reader! Unfortunately, little information is available about the use of military dogs in the Korean War, other than that they were there, in platoon form, and they performed mainly scout functions. No one has yet analyzed their importance, or how wide-spread their use actually was. So onwards to Vietnam. Which you know is clearly my favorite…

World War II had begun to show the efficacy of utilizing a dog in combat, so when the Vietnam War officially began (and I say officially lightly, as there was no declaration of war) in 1965, dogs were already slated to play an important role. According to the United States War Dog Association (yes, there is such a thing!), some 3,747 dogs served officially in Vietnam (although this number was likely closer to 4,900, as the military did not begin keeping track until 1968, three years after the war’s beginning), and saved a minimum of 10,000 American and South Vietnamese lives.

As in World War II, the majority of canine platoons in Vietnam were scout teams, and consisted one dog, usually a German Shepherd, and one handler, often a Special Forces man. These teams served as the “eyes and ears”– and certainly nose– of the infantry units. Many veterans have remembered these dogs with gratitude over the years, and in fact, one veteran whose account I recently read, spoke of how he’d rigged a special harness in his helicopter specifically for pulling the dogs out of dangerous situations.

Those dogs that were not part of Scout Teams were usually part of what became known as Combat Tracker Teams (CTTs). These specialized units included a dog, usually a labrador, a handler, and three other specialized troops, whose purpose it was to track things– missing troops, enemy units, etc. These dogs were especially useful in leading American soldiers to Viet Cong units, finding downed pilots, and locating isolated, wounded personnel.

Vietnam marked the war in which military dogs had the largest, most important role. In a dense jungle environment, the ability to smell the enemy even moments earlier was critically important, as was the ability to find and locate hurt personnel. Most veterans express gratitude to the dogs and their handlers, certain that they saved lives and made a terrible war just that fraction of an inch better.


Marine and his dog, Iraq. Photo taken from businessinsider.com

And here we are, arrived at the modern era. In our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dogs continue to perform important roles, although perhaps not on as wide a scale as in Vietnam. Referred to as Military Working Dogs (MWDs), they serve primarily as explosives sniffers and scouts, searching out potential threats in a new era of warfare. A valuable asset, the Department of Defense estimates that it takes about six months, and $25,000 to train just one dog and handler unit. Although this is minor in the grand scheme of military spending, it suggests just how important dogs have become to American warfare and military tactics. Furthering that claim, many combat medics are given rudimentary vet skills, and instructed to treat canine victims as they would human ones.

So we’ve seen the evolution of dogs in warfare through American history, playing vital and varied roles throughout the past one hundred years. What we haven’t discussed is the impact on the dogs themselves, and it’s there that I’d like to leave you. My specialty in military history is analyzing the relationship between people and warfare– how war affects and changes humans. The same is true for the animals that serve. Warfare is a terribly brutal thing, and any who are touched by it, be they human or canine, combatant or civilian, will be irreparably changed in some fashion. MWDs have been known to have PTSD and other combat side effects, in addition to battle wounds. Perhaps the saving grace is that these dogs often have remarkably close relationships with their handlers, and can heal and move forward together.

One of many war dog memorials. From theurnreview.com

One of many war dog memorials. From theurnreview.com


“Dogs in Warfare.” Wikipedia.

“Korea.” United States War Dog Association History. http://www.uswardogs.org

“Vietnam.” United States War Dog Association History. http://www.uswardogs.org

“World War I.” United States War Dog Association History. http://www.uswardogs.org

“World War II.” United States War Dog Association History. http://www.uswardogs.org

“Wounded war dogs treated as soldiers.” Seattle Times Online. 13 August 2007.