Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


Reading and Discussion Questions
Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam


1. Why does Appy begin his book with a description of the Vietnam Memorial?

2. How and why have public perceptions of Vietnam veterans changed during the past twenty-five years?

3. What contradiction was at the heart of veterans’ experience in Vietnam, according to Appy?

Chapter 1

4. What does Appy mean when he calls Vietnam a “working-class war”?

5. What demographic picture emerges of who fought and why?

6. What point is Appy making by contrasting the World War II generation with the Vietnam generation?

7. Appy comments on the presence of African-Americans in the U.S. military during the Vietnam era. What exactly was the relationship between race and class in structuring the composition of the armed services? Does Appy conclude that one was more determining than the other? Why?

8. “Most of the Americans who fought in Vietnam were powerless, working-class teenagers sent to fight an undeclared war by presidents for whom they were not even eligible to vote” (p. 27). Why is this important in understanding the history of the 1960s?

9. What was Project 100,000?

10. How did draft boards work? Why does Appy describe how medical exemptions were handled?

11. What were student deferments? How did they influence the composition of the military?

12. What does Appy think is wrong with the stereotype of the patriotic hawk (i.e. Archie Bunker) who despised antiwar activists?

Chapter 2

13. Appy suggests that class position was closely related to the “choices” that young American had (or did not have) during the Vietnam era. Do you agree?

14. Explain why Appy thinks that active avoidance of the draft looked more or less legitimate to men in different social and economic positions.

15. Americans of diverse backgrounds were exposed to John Wayne movies and other examples of mass culture that glorified militarism and masculinity. Did this popular culture influence working-class men more deeply than middle-class men? Why or why not?

16. Appy argues that the arrival of a draft notice created personal and family crises of different kinds in working-class and middle-class communities. Explain why he thinks this was the case. Do you agree?

Chapter 3

17. What were the most important features of basic training? What kind of soldiers did the military aim to produce?

18. What was the point of the routine verbal abuse that accompanied military training? What special significance does Appy attach to derogatory terms that equated recruits with women and homosexuals? What special significance does Appy attach to the terms used to describe the enemy, such as “gook” and “charlie”?

Chapter 4

19. What were the characteristic features of soldiers’ arrival in Vietnam?

20. What was an FNG? What was the significance of this term?

Chapter 5

21. “The war is best understood not as a civil war between North and South but as a revolutionary war fought in the south over two different visions of Vietnam” (p. 150). Explain.

22. What kind of battlefield did American soldiers find themselves on in Vietnam? What difference did it make that this was a guerilla war?

23. “Attrition was the central American strategy; search and destroy was the principle tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress”(p. 153). What did these things mean for the soldiers who fought in Vietnam?

24. What does Appy have to say about General William Westmoreland, the top military commander in Vietnam?

25. What was “a narrowly technocratic approach to the war” (p. 157)? Why was it important?

26. Appy argues that the U.S. was defeated in Vietnam because policymakers failed to understand the character of the war and the motivations and loyalties of both the North and South Vietnamese people. Explain exactly what he means.

Chapter 6

27. What was “humping the boonies”? What was the point? How did “grunts” perceive their jobs?

28. How does Appy interpret the many instances in which U.S. service members brutalized, raped, and murdered civilians in Vietnam? How does he assign responsibility for such war crimes? Do you agree with his analysis?

Chapter 7

29. What did most combat soldiers understand (and not understand) about the war before they were sent to Vietnam? How did being “in country” alter their views? What is Appy’s aim in contrasting the government’s “official justifications” with the day-to-day experience of soldiers?

30. Why does Appy includes a description of mutinies and fragging in this chapter? (What is “fragging”?)

31. What does Appy think about the unprecedented number of medals given to soldiers who fought in Vietnam?

Chapter 8

32. What typical means did soldiers use to cope with their tours of duty?

33. Appy holds U.S. policymakers ultimately responsible for the tragedy and horror that American soldiers faced in Vietnam, yet he also concedes that many of those soldiers blamed, hated, and brutalized the Vietnamese. Is this a contradiction? How does Appy explain the mindset and behavior of many ordinary soldiers? How would you?

34. What was the My Lai massacre?

35. How did drugs figure in soldiers’ response to the war? How would you interpret drug use in the military? How does Appy?

Chapter 9

36. How would you characterize Appy’s view of the relationship between veterans and the antiwar movement? What other view is he trying to revise? Why?

37. Did veterans mobilize politically after they returned to the U.S.? Why or why not?

38. How do you think Vietnam movies ("Coming Home," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Platoon," "Forrest Gump," "Apocalypse Now," etc.) have shaped the public's understanding (and your understanding) of the war, the antiwar movement, and the experiences of soldiers and veterans?