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Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War
by Tom Holm
University of Texas Press, 1996
Review by Ward Churchill
From 1965 through 1972, the period in which the United States committed maneuver battalions to fight in Vietnam, at least 42,000 American Indians were among the troops. This comes to approximately 1.4 percent of the total number deployed, an extraordinarily high proportion, considering that native people never made up more than 0.6 percent of the aggregate U.S. population during those years. One in every four draft-age Native American males was inducted into the military during the undeclared war in Indochina, a matter which stands in stark contrast to the one-in-twelve rate pertaining to American society overall. Of those sent to the war zone, more than two-thirds were assigned direct combat roles, a proportion nearly doubling that prevailing within the expeditionary force as a whole. Indians also fought in e1ite capacities within Airborne, Special Forces, Long Range Reconnaissance, and Ranger units at rates more than tripleing the norm.
All told, 36.5 percent of the Native Americans sent to Vietnam experienced heavy fighting, while another 46.4 percent saw light to moderate action. Only 17.1 percent were spared direct combat, as compared to more than a third of all troops. Such data, of course, translates into inordinately high casualty rates, not only in terms of being killed or maimed, but in the more insidious long-term effects of field duty: exposure to carcinogenic/mutogenic substances contained in such military defoliants as Agent Orange and debilitating diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Then there are the more or less permanent psychological maladies such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), from which even the Pentagon admits at least 60 percent of all Vietnam-era combat veterans suffer, a pattern shown to be especially pronounced among soldiers drawn from "Americas ethnic and racial minorities."
Over the past 20 years, considerable work has been done, both academically and in popular books like Terry Wallaces Bloods (Random House, 1984), to demonstrate the lingering impacts of Vietnam on other peoples of color, notably blacks, who, despite the objective oppression of their own communities in North Americaor more likely because of itwere disproportionately conscripted to serve in Southeast Asia.
Until now, however, there has been a veritable silence with respect to the effects of the war on those American Indians who fought in it and on the various nations of which they are part. This glaring deficiency has now been addressed to a remarkable extent in a new book, Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War, by University of Arizona historian Tom Holm, a Creek/Cherokee who underwent a tour of duty with the Marines in I Corps during 1968.
A paramount problem in delineating the native experience in this connection, Holm observes, has been in officially determining exactly who they were. Incredibly, although drill sergeants and others habitually referred to American Indian soldiers under their command as "chief" or "blanket ass"and, because Indians were presumed to be innately imbued with special qualities as woodsmen and fighters, routinely ordered them to perform such extremely dangerous jobs as scouting and "walking point" on patrols"enlistment contracts and draft papers for the period contained no racial category of American Indian, and apparently recruiters assigned racial categories to individuals based on appearance."
"Consequently, only 68, or 40 percent, of the American Indian veterans surveyed for [an intensive study in which Holm participated] reported that they had been enlisted as American Indians. Thirty-three of them had no idea what racial category the recruiters or selective service personnel assigned them to. The rest of the enlistees were placed in various other racial groups: fourteen were listed as other; two as Mongolians; one as Negro; four as Latin or Spanish; and forty-eight as Caucasian. All were enrolled members of Native American tribes in either the United States or Canada."
The "other" category, says the author, "was simply a catchall assignment for those individuals who were simply not visibly Caucasian, Negro, or Mongolian."
"At one time anthropologists believed that everyone could be assigned to one of these three racial groups and that American Indians naturally fell into the "Mongolian" category. This, completely out of date even then, probably accounts for the two individuals who were listed as Mongolian. The forty-eight listed as Caucasian were probably designated as such either because their surnames were not typically Indian or because they had certain degrees of white ancestry. The Latin or Spanish listings are fairly easy to explain. Many Apaches, Navajos, OOdhams, Pueblos and Yaquis from the Southwest have Hispanic surnames but are, of course, tribal Native Americans. The single individual listed as Negro probably had some African American ancestry and the armed forces entrance examination personnel assigned him to the category based on physical appearance. Either that, or the one drop rule of the 19th century still applied for African Americans within the United States armed forces. That rule held that even one drop of black ancestral blood meant that the person was considered all black, regardless of actual skin color."
In the end, "the problems with identifying American Indians ... are staggering: Does one use membership in a federally recognized [people] to prove an Indian identity? Self-identification? Cultural identification? Blood quantum? Or some combination of the four?"
"If federal recognition is a criteria, then a ... people like the Lumbees of North Carolina cannot be sampled, despite the fact that they entered the service in large numbers during the Vietnam conflict. There were a number of Yaquis from southern Arizona who served in Vietnam prior to their being recognized as a tribe by the federal government. Should they be excluded? Self identification presents another problemmany individuals claim Indian ancestry on the basis of family tradition; but are not linked politically to any [specific people]. How does one test cultural identification? Blood quantum is fast becoming an unreliable test of who is and who is not an Indian. Many Indians have married other Indians and non-Indians outside of their own groups. Today there are individuals who can claim heritage from as many as eight different [indigenous] nationalities. There are also people with as little as 1/64 degree Indian blood who are enrolled of federally recognized Indian nations."
Although he has spent more than two decades involved in the closest scrutiny of these issues, largely through the Working Group on American Indian Vietnam Veterans, Holm is unable to offer closure concerning such by-products of the ongoing federal usurpation of indigenous modes of defining group membership (we never had a problem figuring out who we were until Euroamerica imposed its "superior" notions of race and recognition). On the contrary, the best he can do is suggest that his figures be accepted as minimums and that the actual numbers of Native Americans caught up in Vietnam may have been rather higher (a circumstance which, if the proportional misidentification of Indians as Caucasians revealed in the above-mentioned survey were to hold, would mean that thousands fewer whites fought in Vietnam than is commonly supposed, and thousands more "skins").
Nonetheless, Holm is able to explain much. By placing them against the historical background, not only of the period of the "Indian Wars," but of American Indian service in the U.S. armed forces during World Wars I and II, as well as Korea, he explores the motivations of those who went to Vietnam in both statistical and anecdotal terms. The bulk of this goes to the belief, still prevalent among Native Americans, that they are legally/morally obligated to respect treaty commitments made by their ancestors to render martial assistance to the United States in times of war or national emergency.
The problem was/is that the U.S. has honored none of its myriad treaties with indigenous nations, a matter which weighed more heavily on the minds of Indian soldiers as Vietnam ground on and on. From there, it is a relatively easy task for Holm to trace the growing sense of disenchantmentin many cases amounting to outright alienationthey experienced in confronting the realities of the military apparatus theyd joined, and the neocolonial war it was waging. To quote one Seneca veteran interviewed for the book: "When I got to the bush, my platoon sergeant tells me and the guys I came in with that we were surrounded. He said: The gooks are all out there and were here. This is Fort Apache, boys, and out there is Indian Country. Can you fuckin believe that? To me? I should have shot him right then and there. Made me wonder who the real enemy was."
Or, as another veteran, a Creek-Cherokee, put it: "I went into the army and to Vietnam because Id seen the same John Wayne movies as everybody else and thought I was doing an honorable thing, that war was the Indian way. And, of course, the government was saying at the time that we had this treatythe SEATO treatyto uphold. So I went... But when I got to Vietnam, I found that my job was to run missions into what everybody called Indian country. Thats what they called enemy territory... I woke up one morning fairly early in my tour and realized that instead of being a warrior like Crazy Horse, I was a scout used by the army to track him down. I was on the wrong side of everything I wanted to believe I was about... Then I found out the SEATO treaty never even required the United States to do what it was doing in Southeast Asia. It was all a total lie. Besides, by then Id figured out that even if it did, it didnt matter. Why was I fighting to uphold a U.S. treaty commitment halfway around the world when the United States was violating its treaty commitments to my own people and about 300 other Indian nations?... I was fighting the wrong people, pure and simple, and Ive never gotten over it."
The aftermath of such disillusionment, as Holm demonstrates with great clarity, was often depression and despair, frequently blended with an abiding sense of shame or embarrassment at having been conned into participating in yet another "white mans war" against darker-skinned people. Many opted to engage in self-negation, drowning their feelings of rage, frustration and futility in alcohol and other substances, frequently in concert with other indirectly suicidal activities: "I couldnt get the war out of my head. So, I stuck my head in a bottle. I hated everybody except when I was drunk. It took me five years .... I rode bulls, I drove stock cars, I piled up my own cars and a couple of motorcycles. I drank all the time... Goddamn war put me in a world of shit. I think now I had some kind of death wish."
Others sought to vent themselves more constructively, setting out to apply the lessons and military skills theyd picked up during the war to assert native rights at home, fashioning a strategy they hoped might force the U.S. into compliance with its treaty obligations to their own peoples. Holm recounts how the majority of those who went toe-to-toe with federal forces during the 1973 Siege of Wounded Knee were Vietnam vets, as were leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) like John Trudell, Stan Holder, Carter Camp, John Arbuckle, and Bill Means. He also observes how the viability of AIM was destroyed by the govermnents resort to many of the same counterinsurgency techniques it was utilizing in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Third World.
Ultimately, as Holm shows in his final chapter, whatever healing and psychic reconciliation American Indian Vietnam veterans have been able to achieve has come mainly through reintegration into their own indigenous societies and traditions. Here, ceremonies such as the Enemy Way of the Navajos have proven instrumental.
"The social value of [this] and other tribal ceremonies cannot be overestimated. Nearly every Indian society in America possesses rituals of renewal and restoration, and, although they are often ignored as products of mysticism, they serve specific functions. Ceremonies like the Sun Dance, the Green Corn Dance, the Blessing Way of the Navajos, and the Stomp Dances of the Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees reaffirm group cohesion, reassert, the individual participants value in the community, and attest the tribal obligation to the Creator. Whether or not the individual fought in an unpopular war matters little, because the purpose of the ceremony is to restore the tribal bond."
Obviously, things are not quite so simple. One of the major questions begged in Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls <D>is how indigenous nations might learn from the mistakes we made vis-a-vis Vietnam in such a way as to not repeat them, subjecting another generation of our young people to the same ravages, and our societies to same sort of damage, in the process. Heading up the grand entry to our pow-wows with an American flag carried by a color guard sporting U.S. military uniforms and decorationsas is by now an all but universal practice-would hardly seem to lead in the direction of appropriate learning (no matter how good such acknowledgment may feel to the individual veterans who take part, or the spectators who love them).
So there is still much more work to be done, research to be undertaken, stories to be told, conclusions to be reached and applied before it can be said that the facts and legacy of Vietnam have been fully grasped by Native North America. That Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls lays a firm foundation on which others can now build is testimony enough to its value and effectiveness. It is a crucially important volume, and its author should be thanked for having labored so long and so diligently in producing it. Z
Ward Chruchills latest book is A Little Matter of Genocide.