Saturday, January 28, 2012

Meredith H. Lair's "Armed with Abundance"

Meredith H. Lair is assistant professor of history at George Mason University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War, and reported the following:
American soldiers had a lot of complaints in the Vietnam War: hard work, heavy loads, oppressive weather, loneliness, boredom, bugs, military regulations, and of course the threat--and often vicious reality--of enemy attack. Page 99 of Armed with Abundance is part of a discussion of complaints that U.S. soldiers made to their families, elected officials, and the Army itself about daily life in the war zone.

Complaints are dual articulations of experience, expressing both the way things were and the way they ought to be, according to the author of the complaint. Some soldier complaints were perfectly legitimate, but others were problematic, because they exaggerated the depths of their misery in order to extract sympathy from the folks at home. On Page 99, I describe two such cases: a mother's letter to the secretary of the army alleging that her son was not getting enough to eat; and a wife's missive to her senator alleging that her husband had to trade liquor purchased in Saigon for rations at his base up-country. In the first case, military investigators determined that the soldier's letter to mom included "that little hardship touch to let the folks back home know that he's fighting a war." In the second case, the soldier quietly disavowed the complaints he had made to his spouse. "My dear wife's intentions are indeed good and honest," he wrote, "but everything over here is relative, and she doesn't understand this."

Armed with Abundance examines the daily lives of soldiers in Vietnam, most of whom did not serve in combat. Because the war was unpopular, military authorities struggled to maintain troop morale. To do so, they provided soldiers with material abundance—comfortable living conditions, frequent entertainments, and easy access to consumer goods—that minimized the gap between stateside and war zone standards of living. But no matter how much soldiers had, they always wanted more; there was no fixed point at which satisfaction was achieved. Complaints discussed on subsequent pages reflect this phenomenon: soldiers who slept in beds wanted maids to make them; soldiers who worked in offices wanted fans or central air; and soldiers who worked nine-hour shifts wanted entertainment for the rest of the evening. These complaints only begin to suggest the world the U.S. military made for its soldiers in Vietnam, an alternative warscape that has been all but forgotten in public memory, because it fails to conform to popular ideas of what a war should be.
Learn more about Armed with Abundance at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue