Straddling the Threshold of Two Worlds: The Culture of American Soldiers in the Vietnam War, 1965-1973

TitleStraddling the Threshold of Two Worlds: The Culture of American Soldiers in the Vietnam War, 1965-1973
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsAkers, Joshua
Academic DepartmentDepartment of History
Number of Pages288
Date Published2019/04/11
UniversityUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CityChapel Hill, NC

The Vietnam War is often portrayed in postwar popular culture as a conflict fought primarily by reluctant draftees who, donning peace symbols, listening to Rock, and smoking marijuana, held values incompatible with achieving military success there. These generalizations point to the entanglement of societal and soldier culture during the Vietnam War. This dissertation argues that rapid communications and travel collapsed the timeframe for people, news, cultural trends, and popular culture to reach the war zone and penetrate the rank-and-file mass culture, thereby making possible the entanglement between American society and American soldiers in Vietnam. The “soldier culture” that evolved in Vietnam was shaped not only by soldiers’ immersion in mass culture, but also by the twin priorities of surviving a one-year tour of duty and returning to civilian life. The troubling behaviors that military commanders noticed in Vietnam’s final years—“fraggings,” combat refusals, and drug abuse—were logical conclusions of a rank-and-file whose intent on surviving merited an entirely different set of norms, values, and behaviors from those who were alternatively focused on securing success. This dissertation is organized into two parts that emphasize an ethnographic approach to understanding soldiers’ culture. The first half of this dissertation traces how and why soldiers fashioned their own cultures during the war. The second half describes how soldier culture was not singularly determinative of what soldiers thought or how they acted. Two chapters focus on black soldiers, explaining that as they consumed mass culture and read letters from home, their worldview was influenced by their constant negotiation and renegotiation of their liminal position between societal and soldier culture. Vietnam-era soldier culture continues to have enduring power in American popular culture and was also emulated by future generations who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan during the twenty-first cent. [Author]

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