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Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and…
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Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War

by Meredith H. Lair

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This excellent book is apparently under attack in some conservative corners for recounting that most Americans who served in the armed forces in Vietnam didn’t fight (75-90% depending on time/how you count), and that even the ones who did see combat generally had access to many material comforts; only a small minority experienced the Vietnam War of American popular culture. The military used consumerism as a deliberate strategy to deal with soldiers’ discontent, and in the process helped redefine soldiering as a path to individual wellbeing rather than as service to the state, which coincided (not accidentally) with the transition to an all-volunteer force. Material comforts were, Lair suggests, “poor substitutes for a just and winnable cause.” Still, “[u]pon discovering that the Vietnam War would deliver relatively few opportunities for heroism and glory, American soldiers adjusted their John Wayne expectations to demand comfortable living conditions, time for leisure activities, abundant recreational facilities, and easy access to mass-produced consumer goods.” Ice cream, craft shops, swimming pools, and shopping opportunities were abundant, in part because “[t]he war on boredom was the only facet of American strategy in Vietnam in which the U.S. military went all out, and the resources directed toward it were staggering.” Among other things, the U.S. built bakeries and milk production facilities on a huge scale so that Americans wouldn’t be deprived of the comforts of home. This also went along with the privatization of war: for-profit contractors, including businesses familiar from Iraq like KBR, provided many of these services.

And of course sex, alcohol and drugs were also a big part of the experience: “young men raised at economic and social disadvantage in the United States suddenly found themselves empowered by American guns and dollars, yet without the behavioral restraints imposed by family, religion, and law.” The “fundamental weirdness of Vietnam” (material abundance but no clear objectives) also represented a crisis of masculinity: “the war’s refusal to make [a soldier] a hero and its inability to make him a man.” This was one source of ambivalence about the material benefits of service: abundance made it harder to prove one’s masculinity.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric of sacrifice and suffering allowed Americans to maintain the idea of noble forces going to war only when absolutely necessary, keeping the image of the scrappy underdog even though American resources far outclassed those of their opponents. “[W]hen abundance is understood to permeate a war zone—enough food, ammunition, and creature comforts to stay in the fight forever—the violence suddenly appears less restrained, the charity seems less ennobling, and the men who mete out both appear, somehow, less heroic.” Lain concludes that “the erasure of abundance from old war stories helps the United States to create new ones because it allows the American public to revel in the idea of wartime hardship without actually having to experience it.” “[B]ounty’s absence in war narratives ensures that the American people continue to think of their country not as a superpower capable of fielding a massive army of professional killers anywhere in the world, but rather as an exemplar nation that deploys its citizen soldiers only when absolutely necessary.” American resources vastly outstripped those of the Vietnamese, but erasing that allows Americans to think of themselves as the ones who suffered, which also makes it easier to ignore the atrocities suffered by the Vietnamese. A sobering and useful book.

Side note: Lain’s chapter on how similar dynamics played out in Iraq has a vidding hook. She discusses how American soldiers in Iraq often created videos/slideshows set to music, something that could only occur because of the access they had to music, computers, editing software, and so on during the war itself. “Visual evidence of one’s proximity to danger—explosions, fires, dead bodies—factored heavily into soldiers’ photo and video narratives of deployment. When the images were set to music, the effect was disturbing, bellicose, and strangely nostalgic—but also profoundly misleading about the nature of the war. The combat images in a soldier’s personal slideshow might suggest a war environment thick with danger, but the slideshow itself was evidence of a modern war zone culture defined by safety, abundance, and satiety. The slideshows were usually edited and set to music in Iraq, not stateside, in air-conditioned computer labs or on personal laptops in quarters replete with modern amenities. The editing process itself speaks to American bases’ isolation from the exigencies of war and to the workaday nature of combat operations ….” And unlike vids, war slideshows represent themselves as truth about the world, but given the wide circulation of images there’s no guarantee that the things depicted in the slideshows happened to the person making them/claiming credit. ( )
  rivkat | Jun 12, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807834815, Hardcover)

Popular representations of the Vietnam War tend to emphasize violence, deprivation, and trauma. By contrast, in Armed with Abundance, Meredith Lair focuses on the noncombat experiences of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, redrawing the landscape of the war so that swimming pools, ice cream, visits from celebrities, and other "comforts" share the frame with combat.

To address a tenuous morale situation, military authorities, Lair reveals, wielded abundance to insulate soldiers--and, by extension, the American public--from boredom and deprivation, making the project of war perhaps easier and certainly more palatable. The result was dozens of overbuilt bases in South Vietnam that grew more elaborate as the war dragged on. Relying on memoirs, military documents, and G.I. newspapers, Lair finds that consumption and satiety, rather than privation and sacrifice, defined most soldiers' Vietnam deployments. Abundance quarantined the U.S. occupation force from the impoverished people it ostensibly had come to liberate, undermining efforts to win Vietnamese "hearts and minds" and burdening veterans with disappointment that their wartime service did not measure up to public expectations. With an epilogue that finds a similar paradigm at work in Iraq, Armed with Abundance offers a unique and provocative perspective on modern American warfare.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:50 -0400)

Popular representations of the Vietnam War tend to emphasize violence, deprivation, and trauma. By contrast, in Armed with Abundance, Meredith Lair focuses on the noncombat experiences of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, redrawing the landscape of the war so that swimming pools, ice cream, visits from celebrities, and other "comforts" share the frame with combat.To address a tenuous morale situation, military authorities, Lair reveals, wielded abundance to insulate soldiers--and, by extension, the American public--from boredom and deprivation, making the project of war perhaps easier and certainly more palatable. The result was dozens of overbuilt bases in South Vietnam that grew more elaborate as the war dragged on. Relying on memoirs, military documents, and G.I. newspapers, Lair finds that consumption and satiety, rather than privation and sacrifice, defined most soldiers' Vietnam deployments. Abundance quarantined the U.S. occupation force from the impoverished people it ostensibly had come to liberate, undermining efforts to win Vietnamese "hearts and minds" and burdening veterans with disappointment that their wartime service did not measure up to public expectations. With an epilogue that finds a similar paradigm at work in Iraq, Armed with Abundance offers a unique and provocative perspective on modern American warfare.… (more)

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