The image of the men who fought in Vietnam is usually that of a draftee who didn’t want to be there, likely from a poor family, who were sent to die while they were still teens. But nothing could be further from the truth. Only a third of Vietnam vets were draftees. The average age of U.S. troops in Southeast Asia was 23, and more than 80 percent had a high school diploma, twice as many as the World War II generation. They were more educated, affluent, and older than any assembled American fighting force who came before them.
But even if they were a force of draftees, would that have mattered?
The short answer is “nope.”
While the popular consensus is that the United States lost the war in Vietnam, the U.S. handily won the fighting in Vietnam. The United States didn’t win every single battle, but it won almost every single major engagement, even those massive, infamous surprise attacks of the North Vietnamese, which garnered headlines but little else. The Tet Offensive, arguably the most famous enemy attack of the whole war, was a huge defeat for the Communists. And no American unit ever surrendered to the enemy in Vietnam, either.
For many Vietnam veterans who enlisted to fight in the war, drafted men made good, if not better, soldiers when put to the test. Other volunteers say they saw no difference between drafted Americans and volunteers, and would not have known how they ended up in Vietnam without asking. The only real way you could ID a drafted soldier is by seeing a troop who was much older but wearing a lowly rank. Some volunteer troops even said they respected draftees for answering the forced call to service and fighting without question.
They weren’t all happy about going, of course.
Whether American troops in Vietnam were one-third draftees (as the facts dictate) or they were a force of young, poor, uneducated conscripts (As pop culture would have us believe), what is indisputable is what they accomplished there. The United States was able to win most of the major pitched battles fought there. And while popular history says the United States lost in Vietnam, if the goal of the war was to prevent other countries in the region from falling to Communism (you know, like dominoes), then, the U.S. may have won in the long run.
Some 475 million people in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines do not currently live in a Communist state. When the United States began to ramp up its efforts to help South Vietnam, it moved masses of military men and materiel into these countries. Those forces bolstered the governments of those countries, who all faced some form of insurgency or Communist upheaval at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By the time the U.S. left South Vietnam, those countries had secured their borders, governments, and way of life against Communist threats.
So maybe we should reconsider the idea that we lost and that draftees somehow weren’t as dedicated to winning.