NOTE: After writing this I became concerned that it might convey the impression that I subscribe to the stereotypical Hollywood view that all Vietnam era veterans are sad, scarred victims and objects of pity for being caught up in circumstances beyond their control. I know for a fact that this is nonsense. I offer some generalities which hopefully explain a few things, but in no way intend any of this to describe the typical Vietnam era veteran. I know better
There have been a lot of really good explanations here, so whatever I add is only to perhaps expound on this a little more where others have already ably covered the main points.
(For the record, I was slightly too young to have served in Vietnam and am slightly too old to have served during the current war.)
Quote: Originally Posted by smarteyeball
...what is the fundamental difference between a Vietnam Vet and an Iraq/Afghan vet?..
One critical aspect of the Vietnam war which is often overlooked is the way troop rotation was handled.
As Carl pointed out, Reserve units have seen a lot of action during the current hostilities. During the Vietnam war (regular) units were often deployed for lengthier periods of time than is currently "normal". While a Unit might be in Vietnam for this prolonged period, individual soldiers were often rotated in and out piecemeal. This policy was intended to ease the burden on an individual but often had the opposite effect.
As a side note, the reason for this policy goes back to WWII, when an outfit which was sent into combat could pretty much expect to stay overseas until whenever the war was won. Front-line troops were rotated in and out of of "hot" areas as needed, but knew darn well that after what would probably be a brief respite they would likely be heading right back to the front. The best you could hope for was that your unit might be reassigned to a relatively safe area for an extended period.
Bottom-line: You weren't going back to Kansas, or wherever, until Hitler and Tojo were finished off.
In Vietnam, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, units could generally expect to be rotated back to the US for a period of years before they might be called on again. For example, an instructor of mine in college, a retired Artillery officer, served three one-year tours in Vietnam over a period of roughly ten or eleven years.
The big difference now (and a direct result of lessons-learned from Vietnam) is that units go as a unit and return as a unit. This was not the case in Vietnam, where due to much higher casualty rates replacement troops were constantly being funneled in to fill out experienced units already in the field. This caused several serious problems.
First off, troops in the field quite naturally fell into a mindset of getting your year over with and going home - hopefully in one piece. Rather than foster unit
camaraderie, it encouraged an every-man-for-himself mentality.
Secondly, when a soldier was rotated back to "The World" (i.e., the USA), he often returned alone. No one was going to throw a parade in Akron, Ohio for one guy coming back from his year in 'Nam.
Third, a replacement soldier (who still had a full year's duty in Vietnam ahead of him) found himself inserted into an outfit consisting of total strangers, all farther along in completing their one-year tour than he was. His new comrades didn't know if the FNG (effin' New Guy) was going to be an asset or a liability, but they knew for sure that he was green. In short, until the new arrival had proven himself he was likely to be viewed warily.
(You can find examples of this in the latter days of WWII as well. In Audie Murphy's To Hell And Back
he mentions later on in the book how isolated he felt. Most of his old friends were dead or had been sent home due to serious wounds and a lot of their inexperienced replacements didn't last long enough in battle to make it a good idea to get too chummy with them.)
By the time our Vietnam replacement soldier was experienced enough to be trusted he was probably close enough to getting his own ticket home punched that he didn't feel like taking too many chances himself, perhaps making him a little reluctant to set any kind of example for the next wave of replacements by being a fire-breathing warrior bent on winning the war. When he returned home it was often not with a sense of pride in his outfit but more with a sense of personal relief at having survived. This sensation was no doubt tempered a great deal by the knowledge that a lot of his friends were still in harms way.
A fourth flaw was how leaders came to view their troops. With individual soldiers trickling in and out on a regular basis one can see where it might be hard for an officer to come to view an outfit as "his" troops.
In summary, the rotation system in effect during Vietnam was not structured as to bring out the best in anyone.
In our current conflict, a unit is much likelier to return home as a group. A regular feature on our local news here in Ohio is that such-and-such unit has just returned home and is accompanied by video of happy families hugging them on the tarmac at the airport. Even though the troops are nor returning to a V-E or V-J Day style reception, they still have a group
sense of having achieved their mission. Put another way, it surely must be a different feeling to stand among the comrades you have fought beside for the past year and say "WE made it" as opposed to getting off a commercial flight and walking alone through an airport thinking "I made it".
A final thing that hasn't been mentioned is the lack of a draft in this war. The few protests I see today are quite small and are a mix of your standard college-age "Question Authority" crowd mixed in with some aging hippies who have been waiting forty years for a chance to relive the glory days of their youth when they "stuck it to the man" by bringing down Johnson and causing Nixon to wander around the White House late at night talking to himself. Start a draft today and I promise you that we would see huge numbers of protesters and a much different attitude toward those troops currently serving.