The Vietnam War cost the United States just over 58,000 dead — less than 5 percent of the 1.4 million Vietnamese, French, and other military personnel killed in Indochina combat going back to 1950.
By comparison, U.S. dead in World War II topped 400,000. The Civil War killed nearly that many on the Union side alone.
But the American phase of the Vietnam War (1959-1975) had power beyond numbers. It was the centerpiece event in a span of U.S. history that shook cultural norms to the core, and unleashed the tumult of civil rights, war protest, sexual liberation, and urban unrest.
Vietnam also helped shake apart traditional American concepts of masculinity, embodied until then in the ideal of the citizen soldier. The war, and the debates that raged around it, transformed the American soldier from a heroic and competent figure into a deeply ambiguous one — especially following the revelations of the 1968 My Lai massacre and other atrocities.
That’s the thesis of Brown University historian Robert O. Self, who is midway through an academic year at Harvard as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. While in Cambridge, the youthful scholar — author of “American Babylon,” a treatment of post-World War II urban decline and racial unrest in Oakland, Calif. — is writing a historical overview of post-1960 America. His lens: gender and sexuality.
Last month — in front of historians, graduate students, and writers at the Massachusetts Historical Society — Self introduced (and later defended) the current book’s second chapter, an exploration of manhood and the Vietnam War called “Last Man to Die: Vietnam and the Soldier as Citizen.” (Those assembled for the Jan. 10 meeting had read the chapter ahead of time.)
By the early 1970s, he wrote in the 50-page draft, “the ideal of the American fighting hero [was] in disrepair” — and along with it the traditional idea that soldiers were the exclusive “emblems of masculine power.”
The Vietnam War, wrote Self, “became a stage on which dramas of a weakened and incoherent manhood played out” in a shifting, frangible American culture. Soldierly traits that had included “a tolerance for violence and close-mouthed endurance of duty,” he wrote, were challenged by emerging alternative visions of manhood.
For one, Vietnam’s “winter soldiers” (active duty GIs and veterans who opposed the war) offered up different measures of soldierly behavior, including defiance in the face of what they regarded as illegitimate authority — both by-the-book officers and high-level politicians making wartime decisions.
On a parallel track, nonmilitary war resisters represented another emerging variation on American masculinity — young men who just said no to a war increasingly averred by the Left to be an immoral colonialist adventure. One Vietnam-era slogan, promoted by Students for a Democratic Society, cast war resistance in a directly sexual light: “Girls say yes to guys who say no.”
Self’s presentation was part of the Boston Seminar Series on the History of Women and Gender, cosponsored by the historical society and by Radcliffe.
The historian laid out his plans for the whole book, an exploration of gender battles that found expression in post-Vietnam politics. Its second half will examine the political fight that emerged during the culture wars of the 1990s, based on Vietnam-era legacy issues like feminism, black power, and gay rights.
The rise of the Right in the late 20th century, Self avers, was an “articulation of coherent response” to the disruptions and turmoil of the 1960s and to the cultural cauldron of Vietnam. And we’re still feeling the pivotal decade’s effects on the political stage of the 21st century, he said, heightened now by the Iraq War.
From the assembled group, Self asked for pointed criticism of his chapter, acknowledging that he was already aware of some gaps in the draft. Among them: the need to add more voices from New Left thinkers and from feminists of the Vietnam era, and the need to summarize what is at stake in these debates over masculinity and the war. Said Self, “This is very much a work-in-progress for me.”
In the spirit of scholarly enterprise, Self got some of the criticism he asked for. He came under fire for putting My Lai defendant Lt. William Calley at the center of the debate over Vietnam War soldiers — even though, he admitted to the audience, that the man who gave orders to shoot civilians “was a completely atypical soldier.”
But Self argued that Calley embodied Vietnam-era controversies over the morality of the war, and even the fairness of the draft, which put the burden of the war on the economically challenged and the uneducated. “I really want to capture that debate,” said Self. Back then, he added, people “were wrestling with the meaning of Calley.”
Seminar organizer Nancy Cott — the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library and Harvard’s Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History — suggested Calley might not belong at the center of a Vietnam-era debate about the “multiplicity of masculinity.” He was perhaps not the best character, she said, to illustrate “other aspects of manhood on trial.”
Historian of black feminism Dayo F. Gore, the seminar’s official commenter and a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, admired Self’s evocation of the political landscape of the Vietnam era, and his attempts to outline the “alternative expression of masculinity” challenging the American standard of the time. But she wished also for “other narratives,” including more feminist voices and the “versions of manhood” arising from the black power movement.
Self also took some heat from members of the audience old enough to have lived through the Vietnam era, including two who had served in the military. “I don’t really see what I remember,” said historical society research director and veteran Conrad E. Wright about Self’s draft chapter.
Along with others, Wright called for more stories and a richer perspective in the narrative, which he described as too theoretical. In answer, Self admitted the manuscript “needs to be humanized more,” and needs “more social texture” — but that space was a problem.
He said of his 50 pages, “This is really a book that is a chapter.”
Offered next in the four-part Boston Seminar Series on the History of Women and Gender: From 5:15 to 7 p.m. Feb. 21, Carnegie Mellon University scholar Lisa Tetrault presents for comment ‘Every History Has Its History: The Creation of Feminist Origins Stories’ in the Schlesinger Library’s Radcliffe Room, 10 Garden St.