What We Owe the Vietnam Veterans Who Stayed
As Veterans Day approaches this weekend, there will be a well-deserved outpouring of support for all those who have served the United States in uniform. After almost two decades of war, public support for veterans and those serving in today’s all-volunteer force remains extremely high. Yet few among us, including those currently in uniform, truly understand how much we owe to a special group of veterans: those who fought in Vietnam and chose to continue serving in the military afterwards. They transformed a force that was deeply broken after the war into the remarkably capable and highly respected U.S. military that exists today.
One of us entered the Army just after the Vietnam War, and remembers those troubled days well. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam veterans in America were largely disdained, ignored, and sometimes even reviled by American society. Movies commonly depicted Vietnam veterans then as deranged psychotics, bitter broken people, or bloodthirsty renegades. Commemorations of Veterans Day in that era were far more muted than today, as American society remained deeply divided not only about the Vietnam War but also about how to treat the men and women that fought it. Over time, most Vietnam veterans quietly melded successfully back into society and continued with their lives, building businesses and starting families.
But a relatively small group of Vietnam veterans did not go back into civilian society after the war to restart their pre-war lives, educations, or jobs. They chose to stay in uniform, continuing to serve in a battered force after the painful end of the nation’s most divisive conflict. They dedicated themselves to the immense task of converting the large U.S. draft military into a smaller, more professional all-volunteer force. Even more importantly, they took on the monumental challenge of rebuilding discipline, integrity, and military skills in a force that sorely lacked these traits.
The state of the U.S. military after Vietnam stands in stark contrast with today. The armed forces were profoundly fractured by that decade-long war, with the Army and Marines particularly stricken. Drug use was rampant. Race riots occurred on military bases and aboard ships. Officers on duty in the barracks at some posts had to be armed, lest they be attacked by their own troops. The corps of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) was deeply broken, reflecting the massive exodus of career NCOs and too-rapid promotions of others during the long war. Combat training and general military proficiency were at staggeringly low levels. And when the draft ended in 1973, the volunteers entering the force were often less capable than the draftees they replaced. Given the appalling state of the military and widespread public disdain for military service, it was not at all clear whether the very idea of an all-volunteer force could survive.
The small cohort of Vietnam veterans who chose to stay in the U.S. military stepped into this breach. Though their individual reasons varied, they were all deeply committed to the value of military service in an era when serving in uniform was widely disparaged. They refused to give up on the military, or settle for a dysfunctional force in a dangerous world still dominated by Cold War tensions. They chose to stay — and to act.
They became the mentors and guideposts for those just entering the armed forces after Vietnam. Throughout the grim 1970s, they began a slow and painful overhaul of the U.S. military. One of us lived through this sweeping transformation as a young infantry lieutenant and captain. His role models were Vietnam combat veterans like battalion commanders Howard Moseley, who taught us that officers needed to be as proficient with every infantry weapon as their soldiers; Jack Pellici, who demanded impeccable moral conduct from his officers both on and off duty, especially on deployments; and Fred Peters, who demonstrated how a battalion commander could personally intervene to make things right that were simply wrong. They included brigade commanders like Burton “Pat” Patrick, who often spoke warmly of some of our ne’er-do well soldiers. Patrick regularly proclaimed “those Cat IVs put these eagles on my shoulders,” arguing that his promotion to colonel was due to the outstanding performance of his soldiers hailing from the lowest mental category. He taught us to love all of our troops equally.
The NCOs who continued to serve after Vietnam helped shape young officers while also re-building professionalism in their own ranks. Platoon sergeants like Mike Wagers and Steve Murphy, both arriving from the newly re-formed Army Ranger battalions, began setting an entirely new example of high standards and professionalism across the NCO ranks. They imposed discipline upon the unruly troops, helping to eliminate soldiers who could not meet the new standards or were simply unfit to serve — far too many of who were recruited in a desperate attempt to prove the viability of the all-volunteer force. All of these Army officers and NCOs had cut their teeth in bloody infantry combat in Vietnam, and became mentors and exemplars to those joining the post-war force. Like their peers in the other services, they shared a deep personal commitment to rebuilding the military into a disciplined and professional force that could fight and win the next war.
The story of the U.S. military’s rebuilding in the 1970s and 1980s often highlights large increases in defense budgets, big new weapons systems, innovative new warfighting doctrines, and the insistence on exceptionally realistic training. But most of all, this incredible transformation relied upon a cadre of strong and committed officers and NCOs. The leaders who emerged from the cauldron of Vietnam didn’t get everything right, and made some serious mistakes — such as discarding the key counterinsurgency lessons of the war. But in the face of daunting obstacles and an often-ambivalent American public, they remained committed to fixing the force they deeply loved. They are the unacknowledged architects and craftsmen who designed and built the foundation of today’s U.S. military — and they deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the ultimate success of the all-volunteer force.
As we visit military bases and talk to military audiences, we often look around at the faces of the amazing young officers and NCOs who lead today’s force and wonder: Do any of them know where this remarkable military they shepherd came from? Do they know why they have this force we are so proud of today? Only a few of the most senior generals and NCOs can now remember the U.S. military of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and soon they too will leave the force. The younger generation of leaders, some who are now pinning on their own stars, have only served in a disciplined, well-trained, and highly professional military. It was not always so, and it took Herculean efforts by a generation scarred by an earlier long war to reshape the demoralized force they inherited into the vastly different and professional force of today. That remarkable legacy of duty and commitment should be remembered and honored.
All veterans, including everyone who served in Vietnam, deserve our recognition and gratitude this Veterans Day. But all Americans, and especially those still serving in uniform, should acknowledge the singular contributions of the small group of Vietnam veterans who chose to stay and fix a broken and dispirited force. They painstakingly built the foundations for every aspect of today’s military, and showed an amazing devotion to duty, and to their country, at a time when neither was popular. We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.