Interview: Dr. Peter S. Kindsvatter, Command Historian at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools
Dr. Peter S. Kindsvatter is the author of “American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.”
POV: What are the biggest differences between serving in the army in the Vietnam era and today?
Dr. Peter S. Kindsvatter: In my book, I focused on what I call the “draft era” wars — the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. So the draft era versus the all-volunteer force of today is a very important basic difference. I would point out, though, that even in the wars of the draft era, many of the soldiers that served were volunteers, especially in the beginning. As the wars proceeded, of course, there were more and more draftees.
The only war I served in was Desert Storm, as a staff officer, and I noticed that with an all-volunteer army, one basic difference is in attitude. They knew they signed on the dotted line, and even though some may have joined because they were looking for an education, or just a job, they were pretty stoic about it. Nobody forced them to do this; they weren’t drafted. Earlier draftees were not happy to be there.
Another factor now is the professional soldier, those who volunteered and stayed in the service, who decided to make the army their profession. There’s a sense for them that when a war comes along, “This is what I’ve been training for. I’m not eager to go through the dangerous life of a combat soldier, but this is what I’ve trained for. And I want to exercise my training, and be a part of this.”
POV: The U.S. now maintains an all-volunteer force, but most of those who served in Vietnam were inductees. How does that affect the soldiers’ outlook?
Dr. Kindsvatter: Studies have shown that reluctant draftees make reluctant soldiers. If a young draftee doesn’t have a positive attitude in the first place, when they hit basic training, that tends to be their attitude throughout. If they start unhappy, they stay unhappy. Your typical volunteer might be enthusiastic about joining the service, and tends to stay enthusiastic. There are exceptions, of course. But the initial attitude tends to stay with the soldier through his term of service.
POV: How have the changes in the army’s makeup and training affected the way soldiers cope with the alternating high amounts of stress and (for lack of a better word) boredom?
Dr. Kindsvatter: It’s something close to a truism that a soldier in a combat zone is never out of danger. You may not be actively involved in fighting at the moment, but the danger is there. The danger may take different forms: in Vietnam or Iraq, it’s when the next suicide bomber or booby trap shows up. Even when ostensibly bored, sitting around playing cards, and it seems like nothing’s really happening, you’re still in the midst of a conflict, so there’s always a level of danger. There’s always a level of stress that’s with you. There’s always a level of fear that’s with you. It could be more prevalent in a war like Vietnam, where you’re out “humping the boonies,” as they said, and you could step on a landmine, or there may be an ambush up around the bend. There’s a cliché that war is 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror, but even in the boredom there’s danger and fear.
POV: Some of the soldiers in “Soldados” were volunteers at a time when most of the armed forces were made up of draftees. How unusual was that?
Dr. Kindsvatter: By the later years of the war, a majority of soldiers were draftees. By then, most of the early volunteer soldiers had been rotated out. In Vietnam, once a unit was deployed, the unit stayed in country, and soldiers were rotated out on an individual basis. When a soldier set foot in the country, he knew exactly when he would leave.
There’s also a kind of semantic difference between then and now: some of those who volunteered did so to avoid being drafted. At that time, volunteering meant three years of service as opposed to two years of service [as a draftee]. So some volunteers signed up so they could pick a specialty to teach them a skill, or perhaps just to try and keep themselves out of a foxhole. There were also the guard and reserve units, which weren’t sent to Vietnam. It’s very different now. In the other wars of the draft era, the guard and reserve were called up. In WWII and Korea, they were called up quite early. Suddenly in Vietnam a decision was made not to deploy the guard and reserve. So there were young men standing in line to join those units. Today, a lot of reserve and guard units are called up. The active Army is dependent on those units for support, maintenance, police and civil affairs. A lot of the structure is in the guard and reserve. If you’re an MP or a civil affairs guy, you can get called up a lot.
POV: How was the rotation system for replacing soldiers different in Vietnam than it is now?
Dr. Kindsvatter: Rotating individual soldiers out and bringing in new ones was not very good for unit cohesion. But on the other hand, if you’re a soldier in a long-term war, you know that if you’re not going to get rotated out, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to get killed, wounded, or you’re going to crack up. So the rotation system provided some light at the end of the tunnel besides getting shot. To the extent that we’ve done that since Vietnam, we’ve done unit rotation, keeping the unit together and replacing them as a whole. It’s probably the best way to do it. We couldn’t do that in Vietnam because we didn’t call up the reserves, and without them we just didn’t have enough units.
POV: And how does the Army handle rotation now?
Dr. Kindsvatter: The Army is asking itself that question right now. We’re looking at a long-term situation, obviously, in Iraq and Afghanistan. What are we going to do? Are we going to rotate units in and out of there?
POV: How long does the typical enlistment last now?
Dr. Kindsvatter: They typically sign up for three years. It can be longer, depending on your specialty. Sometimes the initial enlistment is up to five years. That’s longer than your average group of draftees, but there are other factors, too. Some are looking for educational benefits, and they may join up for only one hitch. Others may join up thinking that they may like this as a career.