American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam

Review: Peter S. Kindsvatter, American Soldiers (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003).

by Jason Ridler, PhD

All returning combat veterans face the challenge of explaining an experience that has no parallel, that is riddled with fear, blood and violence, and that has no “polite discussion” filter. Paul Fussell noted in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War that the real war rarely gets into the clinical and objective history books, the real war of terror, courage, guts, blood, and shit, not detached and cold retelling events and outcomes..

American Soldiers Cover Image

Peter S, Kindsvatter, Command Historian at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools, Aberdeen Proving Ground, and a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, took Fussell’s challenge with  American Soldiers (University of Kansas Press), a tour of the human experience of warfare from the level of the ground soldier through four wars of America’s draft era (Great War, World War II, Korea and Vietnam). Using a legion of memoirs, diaries, oral histories, novels and more, Kindsvatter breaks down the experience of ground combat into thematic chapters that run the gauntlet of topics from sharp end, from fear and courage to unit cohesion and cowardice, the impact of race in a segregated service, as well as the limits of human endurance and sacrifice. Using a range of scholarly sources on psychology, Kindsvatter helps explain (but not judge) the vast panoply of reactions and traumas endured by those who survived combat in the hell of industrialized warfare. Perhaps the finest source utilized is the woefully under-read J. Glen Gray, whose short work The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, was written from the perspective of a combat veteran in the Counter Intelligence Corps and a budding philosopher trying to unpack the nature of war as an environment and soldiers as its primary inhabitant. Gray’s framework for understanding the “enduring appeal” of battle and the different archetypes of soldiers is employed to great effect as Kindsvatter ploughs through a range of experience from America’s ground soldiers. Kindsvatter also doesn’t shy away from the use of fiction by veterans, including James Jones and Ernest Hemingway, as experiential documents that allowed both writers to use the imaginary tools of literature to make sense of a war in a deeply human fashion. The author can’t underscore enough that too often such works are dismissed for being “not historical”, but when they come to the emotional honesty of experience moments of awe, horror, and grace, there can be few better guides than America’s finest writers of fiction. Kindsvatter also delves into the impact on the homefront on the frontline soldier, how the attitudes and perceptions of each war impacted the grunt’s job overseas, especially the increasing sense of isolation birthed from the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era.

For a history buff, American Soldiers is a grand piece of scholarship on a complex subject, well written and well organized. Far more important, for soldiers who have endured war environments and survived, American Soldiers offers itself as a great companion to that unparalleled experience, speaking across the years about what is unique and distinct in combat experience. As one colleague said when reading it, it made him feel like he wasn’t alone.