10/09/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

War, What Is It Good For?

(NOTE from the teacher: We're completing Matterhorn, the award-winning Vietnam War novel by Karl Marlantes. The experiences of Vietnam soldiers, in particular their conflicts with race and authority, were at the center of our recent class discussions. In today's blog, first year UW students Grace Leppanen of Sheboygan and Alyssa Jacobsen of Oconomowoc share their insights.)


"Upstream from task force Oscar was a contingent of South Vietnamese troops who apparently also did nothing. The Marines watched them with unconcealed hostility, hating them for sitting around with others died fighting their battles, hating them because their very existence served as part of the lie that has brought American troops to Vietnam in the first place. It was easier to hate a visible part of the lie than to hate the liars, who, after all, were their own countrymen: the fat American civilians and rear-area rangers who flitted back and forth with briefcases, sweaty faces, and shiny, unused pistols. But the Marines hated them too. Some Marine hated the North Vietnamese Army and some didn't, but at least the NVA had the Marines' respect." (p. 278)

This paragraph sums up some of the things that did not seem to make sense about the Vietnam War. It describes how the South Vietnamese Army, who presumably would have a large stake in the United States' outcome in the country, didn't care enough about the conflict to take a very active role. It additionally assigns blame to the politicians and Army bureaucrats who were responsible for the decisions made regarding the war.

This is of course only one perspective, that of the U.S. Marines. It's possible that there were South Vietnamese soldiers who took active roles in the fighting; less likely, but still possible, that there were bureaucrats involved in the war who didn't actually make things worse. But it prompts the question of why the war in Vietnam was necessary at all?

People growing up in my generation have a hard time understanding the motivations that got the U.S. into the war: stopping Communism and the fear of destabilization. Post-Cold War, we don't understand the fears that accompanied the rise of Communism. But the situation in the 1960s in Vietnam is not that far removed, in my mind, from our involvement in the Middle East today. We fight a similarly amorphous idea: terrorism. We are trying, and have in the past both failed and succeeded, to remove an enemy that is deeply entrenched in the countries where we are fighting them. And just last week there was a report of three U.S. troops killed by one of the Afghan soldiers they were supposed to be training for combat. Maybe there is a similar mood in today's military of not trusting our allies any more than the enemy?

This prompts the questions: Why was the war in Vietnam fought? Why are our wars today being fought? And have we learned anything from our failures in the past?


"This feeling for the Corps was why Cassidy was hurt so deeply when he found that the pin on one of his grenades had been bent straight. Gravity would eventually pull the grenade from the pin, and the grenade would explode. Cassidy moved out with the company that morning pretending nothing had happened, but he felt apprehensive and alone." (p. 223)

"He returned to his seat and said to Simpson, 'I heard there was another fragging last night, down south. You hear about it, sir?' ... Three or four of the bastards rolled grenades under his rack while he was sleeping. Someone saw them running away. Black radicals. Nothing left for evidence but monkey meat.'" (p. 308)

I picked quotes about fragging during the Vietnam War. These quotes stood out to me because at first I didn't know what fragging was, and then as I read on, I came to a general understanding of what the term implied. When I first read about Cassidy discovering his grenade had been rigged, I was appalled because I didn't understand why someone in his platoon would want to kill him or even how someone would have access to his grenades. Once I read that it was Parker who rigged it, I was even more confused because it confirmed my suspicion of someone in the platoon rigging the grenade.

After reading and gaining a better understanding of fragging, I think that it is a very scary thing that was going on in the Vietnam War... I always figured that being in the service and part of platoon or company meant that you had full trust in each other because in order to work well and get results, troops need to trust each other with their lives. I understand where the black troops are coming from with their anger and resentment towards Cassidy and other leaders, but I never thought they would conspire to the point where they would secretly plan, and execute, killing (one of) their leaders...

I tied this into a James Baldwin piece about Martin Luther King, Jr. and how King said that the Civil Rights fight, and the fight against desegregation, is a two-way thing. It is not simply a fight where the white people are doing everything wrong and the blacks should blame them for everything. Black people are also doing things wrong by allowing segregation to have existed for so long and allowing the white people to think it is right and has become law. By fragging or killing leaders with whom they (blacks) disagree, they are going against King's non-violence protest policy, creating more conflict, and (providing) more reasons for white people to dislike them, thereby leading to a negative association with all black people.