Non Fiction

Last Shred of Humanity: Experiences in WWII and Vietnam

For scholars comparatively studying World War II and Vietnam, the two conflicts could not have contrasted more, but the psychological effects of both wars on the rank and file soldier carry similarities that cannot be overlooked. Peter Kindsvatter, in his book titled American Soldiers Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam, recognized the intense violence that subjected enlisted men to a basic mental state in both World War II and Vietnam. Kindsvatter often juxtaposed quotes that revealed the primitive state that the human psyche succumbed to while dealing with such a high amount of stress and cited Eugene B. Sledge’s description of Peleliu as a “fierce struggle for survival” then proceeding to quote Richard Ogden’s account of Vietnam. “I was aware of subtle changes in my mental state…. The fight to remain alive was one problem; the fight to remain human was quite another”.

Sledge could very well relate to such a statement as he often spoke of his efforts to grasp onto his sense of humanity while at the same time being forced into a primitive state as the only means of survival. This effect that Kindsvatter attributes to the soldier’s immersion into the environment of modern warfare is the key link in connecting the combat experiences of American men in World War II and Vietnam, regardless of what scholars label as the differences between what they describe each as a conventional total war, and a non-conventional guerilla war.

A major factor in the degradation of a soldier’s humanity into a primitive state was witnessing the result of horrific brutality on friends and fellow comrades. Eugene B. Sledge, in his renowned memoir With the Old Breed, described such a scene in which he saw the mutilated corpses of Marines. “One man had been decapitated…. In disbelief I stared as I realized that the Japanese had cut off the dead Marine’s penis and stuffed it into his mouth.” Sledge continued in detail, then went on to describe the psychological effect it had on him: “My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I had ever experienced. From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances.” Sledge’s reaction to such an unspeakable sight is an extreme example of the type of conditions that forced soldiers into losing all compassion for other humans. Although American soldiers were not just on the receiving end of brutality in World War II and Vietnam, as the primitive mental state focused on survival sometimes exploded into an excess of emotional venting that led to a kind of devolution of consciousness.

The explanation of the other side of primitiveness brings about the question, how exactly did men become so mentally distorted as to commit such heinous crimes against humanity? Philip Caputo described such a transformation in his account of Vietnam, A Rumor of War. Caputo was in command of a company of Marines in an operation against the Viet Cong when they found a cache of small arms in a village filled with civilians but no enemy soldiers. Having just been in several hours of non-stop combat, the company was on edge when the Marines spontaneously systematically set fire to homes with Vietnamese still in them. Caputo bluntly explained that the event “had been a catharsis, a purging of months of fear, frustration, and tension. We had relieved our own pain by inflicting it on others.”

Caputo then emphasized that the catharsis him and his men experienced was ill-placed, and that it quickly led to a greater amount of emotional stress. Caputo explained that their relief was as short-lived as the adrenaline rush that enabled them to burn down the village: “…that sense of relief was inextricably mingled with guilt and shame. Being men again, we again felt human emotions… The change in us, from disciplined soldiers to unrestrained savages and back to soldiers, had been so swift and profound…”

Caputo was not justifying their actions, but rather, attempting to explain how him and his men were brought into a state of depersonalization. The Marines lost their identities as individuals, and acted out when they were at their breaking point. Kindsvatter attempted to delve into the psychological implications and evolution of a soldier being thrown into a hostile environment. According to Kindsvatter, from the outset, a newly trained soldier would  usually be over-confident before being thrown into battle, but that once the sense of danger “dawned on him, fear verging on terror was a normal reaction. Any prebattle cockiness evaporated”. The fear resulting from the constant presence of death built up the kind of stress that enabled Caputo and his men to feel like they were briefly relieved by burning down a village. Fear was the driving force that led to either courage or cowardice, both in Vietnam and in World War II. Sledge described how scared he was while first entering battle in an amphibious landing on the island of Peleliu. The sensory overload was too much for some men, and Sledge’s nerves were shot so bad that he rescinded on his previous insistence to veterans around him that he would never smoke a cigarette. As soon as Sledge gathered with his squad on the beach he caved in.

“‘Somebody gimme a cigarette,’ I yelled to my squad mates nearby. Snafu was jubilant. ‘I toldja you’d start smokin’ didn’t I, Sledgehammer?’ A buddy handed me a smoke, and with trembling hands we got it lit. They really kidded me about going back on all my previous refusals to smoke.”

Sledge’s need to smoke a cigarette after the shock of his first combat experience was not a trivial matter. This seemingly small change was an example of the need for what Kindsvatter calls coping mechanisms.

One such mechanism was an automatic mental state that some men fell into which many called the belief in fate or luck. “Despite the death and destruction about them, many battlewise soldiers refused to consider the possibility of injury. In short, they believe that ‘it can’t happen to me’”.

This could be attributed to youthful ignorance (a kind of perception that young people can have in which they sub-consciously consider themselves immortal, or invulnerable), but not if the previously mentioned “prebattle cockiness” returned or never really went away. Some men believed in their skills as soldiers enough to think that it could prevent harm, in that their battle prowess and caution would save their lives. Kindsvatter called this sense of prowess the “…period of peak efficiency,” in that “the battlewise soldier was able to master his fears. Some soldier-authors even describe their fear as ‘useful’ because it heightened their senses and reflexes”.

Kindsvatter cited many experiences in World War II and Vietnam that were alike because the men who experienced it were “so immersed in the physical and emotional environment of war”.

Being immersed in such an environment led men to go through stages or periods where, before entering the conflict the lack of fear made them overconfident, and once immersed the fear overtook them, and then led them to have a sense of courage, before making them completely lose their identities and seem like zombies in a non-responsive state. As Caputo stated, this state of mind was based off of “Self-preservation, that most basic and tyrannical of all instincts,” which “can turn a man into a coward or as was more often the case in Vietnam, into a creature who destroys without hesitation or remorse whatever poses even a potential threat to his life”.

A difference some would cite between Vietnam and World War II was that this sense of self-preservation could be seen as more distinct in the environment of guerilla warfare when American soldiers had to be more aware of booby-traps and mines than the presence of entire divisions of enemy soldiers such as was the case against the Japanese in World War II. Caputo explained the frustration that Marines in Vietnam endured when facing an invisible, un-fightable enemy that could take their lives at any moment while out on patrol. “We could not fight back against the Viet Cong mines or take cover from them or anticipate when they would go off. Walking down the trails, waiting for things to explode, we had begun to feel more like victims than soldiers”.

An American soldier attempting to destroy a Viet Cong explosive "booby trap".
An American soldier attempting to destroy a Viet Cong explosive “booby trap”.

Understanding the kind of warfare that resulted from what Mao called a people’s war can make it easier to comprehend why American soldiers would commit crimes against the Vietnamese civilians that they were supposed to protect. Caputo saw this kind of warfare as akin to fighting against phantoms, because the Viet Cong would often ambush American soldiers to try and inflict as many casualties as possible in a short period of time before quickly disappearing into the jungle or the many tunnels the guerrilla soldiers utilized in South Vietnam. This made it hard for soldiers in Vietnam to cling on to their sense of humanity, just as much as the fear of stepping on a mine. And yet Sledge could relate to such a feeling in a different sense because of the island hopping warfare in the Pacific campaign often resulted in a war of attrition instead of the war of annihilation that so many historians characterize as World War II combat. At Okinawa, Sledge spent days at a time in a foxhole shooting at Japanese soldiers sheltered by pre-fabricated defenses in the side of mountain cliffs and in caves. Fighting in relatively open terrain under the poor cover of foxholes against such strong emplacements could have also been akin to fighting against phantoms. Under such conditions, Sledge remarked:

“I felt a sense of desperation that my mind was being affected by what we were experiencing. Men cracked up frequently in places such as that… More than once my imagination ran wild during the brief period of darkness when the flares and star shells burned out”.

The fear of darkness was another sign that soldiers had slipped into a primitive state of being where their perception of reality faltered in fighting what seemed like ghosts to them. Humanity slipped away from them because they felt as if what they were fighting was not human itself.

Sledge and his fellow Marines had to respond in kind to the ferocious Japanese defense of Okinawa.
Sledge and his fellow Marines had to respond in kind to the ferocious Japanese defense of Okinawa.

American soldiers were dependent on trying to cling onto what sense of humanity they had left, to the sense of civilization at home that contrasted so much from the primitive brutal warfare that they endured. Kindsvatter posited that this feeling was not just mere homesickness. He called what was not happening in an individual’s experience of combat, (their experiences before the war) what the soldier’s sense of what reality should be, or as a private he quoted from the war in Vietnam stated, “The world existed. All too often the fantasy became clouded over by the day’s events. It seemed far away, intangible, even alien; but you couldn’t let go of the fact that it existed, or you might never get it back”.

This perceived alienation led to another coping mechanism, the necessitation of comradeship. In the Marines this was called esprit de corps. Sledge and Caputo had much to say about this phenomenon in the Marine corps, as it was apparent in every aspect of the Marine’s life during war, whether in combat or resting on reserve. The esprit de corps brought home to the frontline for some soldiers, as these men were searching for a reality to grasp onto, a way to cope with the stress of primitive warfare. “I realized that Company K had become my home… I belonged in it and nowhere else… This was the result of, or maybe a cause for, our strong esprit de corps”.

As an officer, Caputo was acutely aware of the importance for maintaining the sense of esprit in the Marines. This was why when a soldier in the Marines was injured he was would always come back to the company he originally belonged to, unlike in the Army where redeployment was random.

This sense of camaraderie reveals that, in spite of all the horrors soldiers had to face in combat, that the experience of war was not absolutely negative for some. Kindsvatter dedicates an entire chapter to this idea, and even goes as far as to make the title “The Joys of War”. He supports this by listing memories that soldiers in both World War II and Vietnam shared that seem almost pleasant in retrospect. “Yet often to his surprise, he found that the experience of soldiering was not universally negative. He might fondly remember, for example, comrades who saved his life, shared meager possessions, raised spirits, or lent a sympathetic ear”.

Caputo exemplified Kindsvatter’s description of a soldier who enjoyed not only the prospects of war, but the actual action of combat itself. The Vietnam veteran described the thrill he experienced when his men were under fire and his orders led to the defeat of a group of Viet Cong, explaining that he felt like his men were extensions of himself.

Looking back on his experiences, Caputo exclaimed: “I could not deny the grip the war had on me, nor the fact that it had been an experience as fascinating as it was repulsive, as exhilarating as it was sad, as tender as it was cruel…. Anyone who fought in Vietnam, if he is honest about himself, will have to admit he enjoyed the compelling attractiveness of combat”.

Even to Sledge, (who was more down to earth than Caputo) he could not deny the compelling sense that war really was glorious at times. However, this similarity between the World War II and Vietnam veteran pales in comparison to the appalling horrors that they witnessed and experienced. Sledge and Caputo only dedicate a few sentences in their entire memoirs to the positive aspects of war, unlike Kindsvatter, who dedicates a whole chapter. Perhaps this was because the experiences they had shared were all too personal to extend a retrospective feeling of nostalgia for combat. In contrast to Kindsvatter, who was not writing a memoir, but rather a book on the universal experiences of American soldiers who had fought in World War II, Vietnam and other 20th century conflicts. Sledge and Caputo wrote memoirs that reveal, more often than not, the psychological effects of combat that could become too much for those who could not find the coping mechanisms to deal with it, whether they were drugs, taking joy in violence, or comradeship. When looked at comparatively through the eyes of Sledge and Caputo, the differences between conventional and non-conventional warfare are almost irrelevant when analyzing the psychological effects of warfare on a soldier, as any combat experience is proven to be beyond grueling, and ultimately inhuman.

Kindsvatter, Peter S. American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2003. Print.

Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed: At Pelelui and Okinawa. London: Ebury, 2010. Print.

Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. Print.

5 replies on “Last Shred of Humanity: Experiences in WWII and Vietnam”

Really interesting piece of work! I know fairly little about warfare but I feel I understand more after reading this!

In your bio it says your an actor…. what type of acting do you do?

Good essay on how combat can desensitize and depersonalize combatants. I agree that fear can keep you alive; however, I disagree that ground combat can be an enjoyable experience. I think that might be a part of the desensitizing process.

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