America's wars have historically been a reflection of America's very own cultural tendencies; they're usually enormous in scale, they traditionally consist of a colorful variety of fronts and they are most often regarded as a man's game. So it doesn't strike one as peculiar, perhaps, that the perpetually striking images of Vietnam are of camouflaged nineteen-year-old men enduring the graces and horrors hosted by Southeast Asia during the skirmish that lasted over a decade. It may seem more peculiar, however, when one considers that more than 15,000 women relocated from their American homes to the perilous, jungle canopied land. Vietnam's legacy of physical handicapping, psychological desecration and cultural rifting echoes in an innumerable collection of films, books, publications, organizations and documentation detailing the heroics, trials and disgraces of a generation of men. But the women that this nation sent off to serve in a countless number of indispensable capacities have enjoyed no such narrative proliferation.
And if popular cultural tendencies are any indication of a society's greater conscience, than surely America's warrants some self-examination. Because poorly kept records that are only now being dusted and reassessed will suggest that a more honest cultural recollection of Vietnam would account for women who sacrificed significant personal entitlements at the behest of war.
At the end of the war, America was not the only nation to neglect acknowledging its women. Vietnam would perhaps be inclined to even greater guilt in the matter, particularly due to the extensive support that their forces received from the female population. Records of service by South Vietnamese women, who fought alongside American soldiers in combat, have suffered borderline denial in the scarcity of their recorded mention. And the remarkable quantities of girls and women who left behind homes in order to carry on resistance for the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong are all but disregarded by a government that owed much to their contributions. As the struggle in Vietnam escalated and gradually crumbled into American defeat, much was made apparent about the vast cultural differences separating the two civilizations represented therein. And many could accredit the Vietnamese victory to a Western underestimation of just how significant a factor this difference would be. The substantial advantages that this allowed the Vietnamese in their own country would continue to frustrate and infuriate American soldiers and strategists throughout the war. But for all of the severely antithetical elements of both countries, their ideologies seem to suggest a broader circumstance for the world. Their common silent disavowal of woman's service to the war effort is indicative of the international patriarchy of war. In the aftermath of Vietnam, both countries trended toward this perspective, dashing the much deserved recognition of women to obscurity.
Motivated by desires to help those they knew were suffering abroad and to find adventure far away, many American women sought service in a broad range of positions. "Women served in Vietnam in many support staff assignments, in hospitals, crewed on medical evacuation flights, with MASH Units, hospital ships, operations groups, information offices, service clubs, headquarters offices, and numerous other clerical, medical, intelligence and personnel positions. There were women officers and enlisted women; there were youngsters in their early twenties with barely two years in service and career women over forty." (Wilson, 2). Unfortunately, the exact number of women who served for America is officially unknown because military documentation does not classify those enlisted by gender. But even a cursory conversation with a male veteran should elucidate the abundance of women, particularly nurses. And in point of fact, many nurses who had enlisted in military nursing school were ensured that only volunteers would be sent overseas. This, they would find out, was not entirely accurate With increased casualty came an increased necessity for medical services. And just as the role of the draft heightened notably in the onslaught of the war, so too did exportation of female nurses. And not all of them had volunteered for the tour.
Throughout the conflict, these women were subjected to unfathomable dangers, and the pressures of practicing medicine under the weight of war marked a distinct difference from all prior experiences. Though it certainly bears noting that many nurses were sent to war with only a minimal body of experience to begin with. By all accounts, however, the necessary experience arrived daily in a series of new challenges and heretofore unseen despairs. Likewise, the women learned to cope with exhaustion, fear and hostility at an intensity to that point unknown to them. Like the thousands of American boys who came of age or lost their lives in Vietnam, so too did thousands of young women press through to maturity in the face of monumental adversity, and most usually due to it. And women lost their lives as well. Nurses fell as casualties in plane and helicopter crashes, as did officers. Female officers were killed in ambushes along the Ho Chi Minh trail and others still were lost during the Tet Offensive that was undiscriminating in its selection of victims. Military women, though not in combat service, died as POWs and more still were designated MIA and were never recovered. And in one of the most tragic turns of a war characterized by tragedy, thirty-nine women, working for an assortment of American humanitarian and military agencies, lost their lives in the crash of Operation Babylift, a mission designed to remove Vietnamese children from the country and relocate them to safety.
In South Vietnam, women were called to arms by the increasing severity of the war. And like the men, women served in the painfully disadvantaged ARVN alongside American soldiers. Responding to the threatened spread of communism in Vietnam, most citizens of South Vietnam took political action, even prior to American involvement. But with the United States came greater demands for assistance in an ever-growing war effort. The demand commissioned a widespread increase in recruitment and volunteerism to the ARVN, and likewise, called constantly for assistance from civilians inhabiting strategic towns. This need entailed participation from women who, like the men who fought with America, sought to protect their lives from the incursion of communism. Where American women were inclined to join the effort for a variant of personal reasons, Southern Vietnamese women were driven by feelings of nationalism and, most fundamentally, instincts to preserve a culture and way of life from the burgeoning Chinese communist party that had assumed control in North Vietnam. Like the men, women were trained and armed with intent to gird American divisions, provide direction and enact military support when needed. And it was needed often, as most American veterans will attest. The cultural barriers that served to weaken American virtues in Vietnam were, in part, combated by the South Vietnamese assistance that must be regarded by American historians as essential to the American effort. Indeed, the ARVN claimed many important battle victories due to their greater understanding of and familiarity with the countryside. So their importance was unquestionable. And as a crucial utility in the war, the ARVN found it necessary to employ the forces of both genders to maintain its effectiveness in spite of heavy casualties. And the women perpetuated this dedication to opposing communist aggressors, subsisting in abhorrent conditions on meager rations throughout the war.
The emotionally and physically involving proclivities of the war were also responsible for the extensive participation of women on the side of the North Vietnamese, as members of both the official military force and as guerillas in the Vietcong. In 1965, as the war's intensification became an obvious fact with heavily increased U.S. air-strikes, Ho Chi Minh, commander-in-chief of the North Vietnamese Army, sent out a general request to the people of North Vietnam for volunteered engagement in armed resistance to American involvement. This was a request directed specifically to women, who had previously not been members of any organized military operations. American involvement, however, had become a blight on their existence. The increased combat caused by the United States' declaration of war decimated homes, ravaged the countryside, brought destruction and starvation to Vietnamese families and interfered with a civil war for foreign interests. Most devastating to many, however, was the loss of lives that they saw as being the work of American soldiers. It was not simply that the deaths of so many men had encouraged women to enlist. More than that, it was that women who now had lost fathers, sons and brothers were guided by intents of vengeance and pride. Responding to a Vietnamese adage that, from one similar variation to the next, seems to maintain the primary intention that "When war comes, even women must fight," the North Vietnamese women were bound to action. And the crushing blows that the war had dealt to most of their lives made this action a logical conclusion. A story of any woman who ventured to fight on behalf of communist forces in the struggle will balance political views with horror stories of cindered homes and butchered loved ones.
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