Strong Hearts and Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans and the Vietnam War, by Tom Holm, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996, $14.95.
A neglected subject area of Native American studies is the history of American Indians during the Vietnam War and the unique problems they faced. Strong Hearts and Wounded Souls is an all-encompassing study that sheds light on an area where scholarship is needed and where all facets must be analyzed to understand the whole. The 43,000 American Indians who fought in the Vietnam War are represented by a sampling of interviews and information from the Readjustment Counseling Service.
Holm shows the interconnecting historical, social and psychological attributes of native American veterans. He attempts to understand and explain how this group differs from other ethnic groups and how customs and tradition hold different importance for native Americans. Holm also explores the racial stereotypes that distorted the image of native Americans who fought in Vietnam. Most of the Vietnam-era veterans were born between 1945 and 1960, a time when federal policy focused on “termination and relocation” to remove federal responsibility in Indian affairs and to attempt to relocate native Americans to urban areas. Many veterans joined the armed forces for traditional reasons of patriotism–“duty, honor, country, and family and tribal traditions.”
Holm presents an in-depth historical study showing how American Indians’ motives for fighting battles were vastly different from those of Western Europeans. Territory and political gain were not reasons for intertribal warfare. In proportion to other ethnic groups fighting in Vietnam, native Americans had a higher percentage of soldiers in combat arms.
Ethnic stereotypes and myths (such as that all Indians are great warriors) are important in understanding the native American veteran. This stereotyping was sometimes known as the “good scout syndrome.” Holm also briefly discusses the causes and effects of the American Indian movement.
The conclusion of the book shows how the returning veterans have coped with their unique problems. The ceremonial healing process for those who had difficulty readjusting has been a positive and important therapy, especially for veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder or alcohol and drug-abuse problems.