Armed With Abundance: Consumerism & Soldiering in the Vietnam War, by Meredith H. Lair, University of North Carolina Press, 2011
When I began reading George Mason University history professor Meredith Lair’s new book, Armed With Abundance, I was extremely impressed with the author’s concept: To set out the true nature of the American fighting force that served in the Vietnam War. As opposed to the popular image of the American troops in Vietnam typically portrayed in the mass media—that they were primarily infantrymen, Marines, Green Berets and SEALs hip deep in jungle combat virtually day and night, as well as jet fighter and helicopter pilots—Lair shows that the majority of those who served in the U.S. military in the Vietnam War were actually support troops.
As I kept reading, I continued to be impressed by Professor Lair’s research. She amassed tons of facts and figures about who did what in the war based on what appears to be solid and in-depth research. She delved deeply into official records; military newspapers, pamphlets and guidebooks; and personal accounts of the war. And her summary of the makeup of the U.S. military in Vietnam is right on the mark. Lair correctly states that the force was composed of three categories of personnel: combat units that “engaged the enemy directly;” combat support units that “provided immediate support to combat troops;” and combat service support units that “provided logistical support to ensure that enough of whatever was needed reached those on the front lines.”
Lair notes, “the U.S. military built an Americanized world for its soldiers to inhabit, while the high-tech nature of American warfare and a sophisticated logistics effort to care for the troops guaranteed that a majority of the soldiers—perhaps 75 to 90 percent, depending on when they served—labored in supporting roles, out of danger and in relative comfort.”
I’ll come back to “out of danger.” Meanwhile, Lair makes another important—and often overlooked—point: Vietnam veterans’ experiences in the war varied greatly, depending on where and when they served. As she puts it: “Individual soldiers’ experiences were differentiated by time…where they were stationed, their branch of service, and their military occupational specialty.”
That’s the positive news about this book. The negative has do with Lair’s constant generalizing about the experience of rear echeloners, as exemplified in her blithe statement that support troops were “out of danger.” Some clerks at Long Binh Post may have been, but the overwhelming majority of those who “labored in supporting roles” rarely were immune from guerrilla attacks in that 10-year war without fronts. Your degree of safety depended, as Lair herself points out, on where you were, who you were with and when you were there.
That is just one example of many in which Lair seemingly goes out of her way to emphasize the cushy aspects of some people’s Vietnam War tours in Armed With Abundance. We get much too much on support troops who worked in air conditioned offices, lazed around at swimming pools and beaches, and got to enjoy well-stocked PXs, ice cream in the mess hall, and USO and other rock ’n’ roll shows on bases, not to mention houses of ill repute and assorted material comforts.
Contrary to the picture Lair paints, however, for every clerk, cook or truck driver who got to go to a swimming pool, gorge on ice cream and go bowling in 1970 at Long Binh, there were thousands of support personnel who lived in tents elsewhere in-country in 1965, dined on C rations in 1966, took rudimentary cold showers in 1967 and defecated into sawed-off 55-gallon drums in 1968.
In a book that shows the true picture of the force composition of U.S. troops in Vietnam, this egregious mischaracterization of the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of REMFs (which does not stand for “rear echelon maintenance facilitators”) is a giant misstep and a disservice to those who served their country in a dangerous, toxic war zone—no matter where they were or what they did in Vietnam.