The Vietnam conflict proved to be a different type of “war” for all of the Americans involved. Children began experiencing a time period unique to themselves and their families, each individual story ranging from one extreme to the other. Therefore, the way this conflict affected the lives of American children was seemingly different than ever before.
As enlistment and wartime began, America witnessed a change in the average age of the soldier. Unlike previous wars, the average soldier was around 19 years old, a huge drop compared to the past (Lieberman). Although 18 years old before heading off to war, soldiers such Paul O’Connell sealed their fate at the young age of 17 by enlisting in the military (O’Connell). These young boys, several still in high school, began charting their own lives in Vietnam. Unlike in America where these high school boys still needed a parent’s permission to play on the football team or receive medical treatment, these “boys” became “men” as they left overseas to fight for their country (Lieberman). This tough transition into a quick adulthood of horrifying battles proved to be disheartening and at times unbearable for these young soldiers. In the diary of Wayne Burton, a soldier during a tour in Vietnam, he writes of a troubled young man getting high on heroine, desperately seeking suicide:
“The self-destructive 18-year-old removed a hand grenade from the case in the center of the table, pulled its pin, then put it back in the box, detonating the entire batch” (Burton).
However, the drop in age did more than send young boys off to fight; it also affected the number of husbands and fathers leaving their families. Several letters were written back from these soldiers, beginning with “Dear mom,” or “Dear Dad”, unlike the typical “My dear wife” or “My darling children”. Generally, only two in ten men leaving for Vietnam had a family with children they were leaving behind (Lieberman). The children of these men were seen as “fatherless children”, and although their numbers from previous wars had declined, studies proved that these children suffered from depression, anxiety, and delinquency (Lieberman). However, the general population of children were more likely to see an older brother or young member of their community leave for Vietnam opposed to a father.
Unlike World War II, the general population did not support the war efforts in Vietnam. While this caused less propaganda and toys being created inspired by the war, it also created a new way to publicly oppose the war: children’s songs. Although in some cases adults or family members wrote the songs, each song was sung by a young child with an older brother, father, or another loved one fighting off in Vietnam (Gershwin). In 1967, six-year-old Becky Lamb expressed her wish for her brother’s safe return in what may be the most popular children’s song of this time period, “Little Becky’s Christmas Wish”:
“Dear Santa, this is the very first time I’ve ever written to you. All my Christmases have been wonderful and you gave me lots of nice toys. This year mommy says Christmas won’t be the same. Because, well, because my big bother Tommy won’t be here. Not too long ago Tommy was home in a green suit with great big gold buttons” (Gershwin).
Unfortunately, this wish would be put to rest, as Tommy was killed while serving in Vietnam (Gershwin). Other siblings of soldiers sang their own versions of a similar song, such as the child singing “Big Brother Home for Christmas”. This song, however, can be coined as more “anti-war” than several of the other songs portraying this subliminal message. As the lyrics indicate, “the child’s mother prayed each night ‘to bring this terrible war to a close’ and for God to ‘show our president the light’. The child also told the listener that his neighbor ‘burned his draft card under a…Christmas tree'” (Gershwin). This anti-war method was seen by several as cynical and somewhat unethical; they claimed using a child’s small voice would enable people to feel sorry for them, demanding an end to the conflict. However, these songs also brought to light how children with siblings fighting in the war became affected by not only their enlistment, but their unfortunate death as well (Gershwin).
“Losing a family member in Vietnam” became more than a physical death; several soldiers returning home to their families suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. This terrifying disease affected children in several ways. Unfortunately, some children became overwhelmed with the symptoms of PTSD, displaying what came to be known as Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These children would start displaying symptoms their returning fathers displayed with no other explanation except for living in the home with a PTSD father (Vines). For others, and nearly the majority of children, PTSD would change the relationship they once had with their family member they had loved unconditionally before the war. As the baby of twelve children, my father watched as two of his older brothers left to fight in Vietnam. He remembers each of his brothers talking with him, filling him with pride that these two members of his family would be fighting for America. However, before the war came to a close, one of his brothers became very sick and was rushed home to what was thought to become his deathbed. My young father’s world turned upside down; as a child, death had been nothing but a foreign concept to him, and now here it was looking him straight in the eyes. Fortunately, after a long period in the hospital, his brother survived; unfortunately, his mind had been permanently damaged by the horrors he faced, becoming a different person. My father remembers having to deal with the change in his older brother whom he loved so much, watching their relationship change from “carefree” to “careful” (“Interview with my Father”).
Children living on American soil weren’t the only “American” children affected by this conflict; the term “Amerasians” became coined for children of Vietnamese mothers and American soldier fathers. Although there is no official count of these babies born during this time period, the number of children is thought to be more drastic than in any other war, ranging from tens of thousands of children (Dzubow). Because of complicated relations with Vietnam, these children did not qualify to immigrate to America despite the fact that their fathers were citizens of the United States. As a result, several of these “children of the dust” became discriminated against in Vietnam, becoming abused, neglected, homeless, or orphaned (Dzubow). Although these children were not living on American soil, these children did a piece of America within them.
Unlike previous wars, I found that the majority of children affected by the war were those with close families within the war. Because
this conflict was not fought on the homeland, children were unlikely to die as a result of battle-related injuries. Also, due to the general lack of public support, children heard less about the conflict in Vietnam. While my father, who had two brothers fighting in the war, has memories and experiences during the war, my mother, who was also a young child during this time period with no direct family link to the war, does not remember anything special about this time period. The Vietnam Conflict proved to be an experience unique in several different ways, and this can be reflected through the eyes of the children that grew up during this period.
Burton, Wayne M. “Celluloid Versions of War in Vietnam Can’t Compare with the Real Thing.” Diary of a Vietnam Veteran. Richard T. Walsh and Dr. Barbara Poremba, 2001. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Dzubow, Jason. “Amerasian Homecoming Act – 25 Years Later.” The Asylumist. N.p., 29 Jan. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Gershwin. “Vietnam War: Children on Record.” Rate Your Music. N.p., 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
“Interview with My Father.” Daniel Whyte. Personal interview. 29 Mar. 2014
Lieberman, E. James. “American Families and the Vietnam War.” Journal of Marriage and Family 33.4, Special Double Issue: Violence and the Family and Sexism in Family Studies, Part 2 (1971): 709-21. JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
O’Connell, Paul. “Letters Home.” Paul O’Connell’s Letters Home–index. N.p., 1998. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Vines, Brannan. “Secondary PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).” Secondary PTSD. N.p., 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
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