Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War

Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War

Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War

Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War


Popular representations of the Vietnam War tend to emphasize violence, deprivation, and trauma. By contrast, in Armed with Abundance, Meredith Lair focuses on the noncombat experiences of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, redrawing the landscape of the war so that swimming pools, ice cream, visits from celebrities, and other "comforts" share the frame with combat.

To address a tenuous morale situation, military authorities, Lair reveals, wielded abundance to insulate soldiers--and, by extension, the American public--from boredom and deprivation, making the project of war perhaps easier and certainly more palatable. The result was dozens of overbuilt bases in South Vietnam that grew more elaborate as the war dragged on. Relying on memoirs, military documents, and G.I. newspapers, Lair finds that consumption and satiety, rather than privation and sacrifice, defined most soldiers' Vietnam deployments. Abundance quarantined the U.S. occupation force from the impoverished people it ostensibly had come to liberate, undermining efforts to win Vietnamese "hearts and minds" and burdening veterans with disappointment that their wartime service did not measure up to public expectations. With an epilogue that finds a similar paradigm at work in Iraq, Armed with Abundance offers a unique and provocative perspective on modern American warfare.


One of the first Vietnam War stories I ever heard was about a Viet Cong prisoner. In fact, I heard the story several times as I talked to my father, a two-time Vietnam veteran, for school projects in middle school, high school, and college. My fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the emotion and mystery that pervaded its discussion when I was a kid in the 1980s and from a profound sense of pride I had—and still have—in my father’s service. Now, as I am helping to write the history of the Vietnam War myself, I return to the story of the Viet Cong prisoner once more because every story needs a beginning, and my father’s stories are how the Vietnam War began for me.

My dad was an adviser in Quang Ngai Province, on the central coast of South Vietnam, from September 1964 to September 1965. Life on the advisory compound was a bleak yet professionally satisfying existence, and it lacked most of the material abundance described later in this book. He was a young first lieutenant, just two years out of West Point, advising Regional Forces infantry officers, some of whom had been fighting communists for ten years. One day, on an operation in the countryside, they captured a Viet Cong insurgent who had been hiding in a canal. The prisoner had a wound on his hip but also a head wound that had gone undetected because he had been submerged in cold water and because he was standing up. When the Vietnamese medics laid him down to treat his hip, the head wound began spurting blood, and the man went into shock. Those on the scene did what they could to help, except for a man called Mr. Ba, who led a CIA-funded special intelligence platoon. “I was taking my poncho off to cover him up to try to get him warm,” my dad explained in an interview I recorded in October 1993, “when Mr. Ba said something to the effect of ‘I’ll treat him for shock,’ and… he just took his carbine and walked up and put two bullets in the back of the guy’s head. I was just stunned.”

When my dad later let me read his war diary, kept faithfully from September 1964 until May 1965, I learned some forgotten details of the killing. In an entry dated Sunday, 24 January 1965, he wrote, “By this time, the prisoner was bleeding profusely and having convulsions. Mr. Ba, of the spe-

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