Comparative Analysis of the Historical Subjects in Working-class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam and the Southern Past: a Clash of Race and Memory


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As distant as their subjects may appear, “Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers” and “Vietnam and The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory” each explores issues of certain historical epochs which encompass an array of shared human experience at each level of the socio-economic stratum. Christian G. Appy and W. Fitzhugh Brundage develop their theses around a sort of participatory civilian experience, a realm outside the immediate reach of policy-making and expressions of federal or state power. This process is reflected not only in the change affected by activists, soldiers, and socially conscious laypeople across the political spectrum, but in the capacity to shape historical memory expressed by these groups. The former perhaps more evident in Appy’s text, the latter more-so in Brundage, but both incorporate these phenomena as foundations for their historical surveys to much the same effect. Through their shared focus on the individual participants of either the Vietnam War or the lineage of postbellum historical stewardship in the South, both authors examine the profound and broadly synonymous participation of civilians in moments of history, whether brief or prolonged, as either influential movers or unwilling victims of the same.

Before comparing the two it is important first to establish the parameters of this participation in some detail, as expressed in both texts. The Southern Past examines the impact of various factions across the white and black populations of the time in shaping and preserving the popular history of the region through numerous expressions of the power and influence available to them. Although the disproportionate influence of the white population is fully impressed throughout, we are acquainted with a great variety of peoples across both sides of the racial divide: home-makers, teachers, historians, entrepreneurs, and particularly veterans have enjoyed differing levels of power in this enterprise across several points in time. These examples provide us some sense of the diversity of station from which civilian participation may arise. Working-Class War is naturally devoted in large part to the experience of combat veterans, a topic that will be discussed in detail below, and while active members of the armed forces are not necessarily considered civilians we will focus on the choices they made (or were forced to make) following their terms of service and transition to veteran status. Beyond the military are the activists who demonstrated against the war, namely students or intellectuals who helped shaped the climate and culture of the Vietnam era through their active participation in protests across the nation. Although afforded a lesser focus, their relationship with combat veterans is integral to Appy’s survey. Thus the participatory efforts of southern citizens, black and white, and the actions of combat veterans and activists alike will form the crux of our subsequent comparative analysis.

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To begin, we will examine the participation of veterans in the affairs detailed across both texts. The Southern Past details the activity of confederate veterans during the early post-war period, a time in which the shame and perceived indignity of defeat compelled white southerners to enshrine the confederacy and the recently abandoned practice of slavery as components of an overarching legacy of nobility and gentility. The role of confederate veterans in shaping this historical outlook is in fact minimal compared to the numerous factions which would assume stewardship of the past in subsequent decades, but the presence and participation of living veterans of the confederate army constituted an invaluable foundation on which later efforts were constructed. As the most immediate symbols of the lost war effort, and by claiming the most genuine connection to the emerging confederate legacy possible, veterans bestowed a sense of legitimacy to any organized effort with which they were associated. Some of the earliest commemorative endeavors were thus oriented around organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, which relied on their familial ties to confederate veterans to project a sort of authority on matters relating to the past. Even in cases of indirect involvement it is evident that veterans expressed a very real influence over the activity which marked both this era of southern history and the century of historical custodianship which followed. But even beyond this sort of participation-through-influence we find more concrete examples of engagement through the foundation of veteran organizations across the south, groups concerned with the archiving of confederate documents and the construction of apologia regarding the “lost cause”, eventually coalescing around larger entities such as the United Confederate Veterans. In this way their involvement with history persisted beyond their roles in the confederate armed forces, contributing as both pillar of and participant in the cultivation of a white southern identity for years to come.

The veterans of Working-Class War experienced a similar but fundamentally divergent participation in the unfolding of their era. While only the post-war lives of those cited are of concern in The Southern Past, the experiences prior to, during, and after the war form the primary focus of Appy’s work. It is important to consider that the participation of many in this epoch was not voluntary, as is the case of both factions discussed in Brundage’s text, but compelled by either the military draft itself or the looming threat of the same, to say nothing of the myriad socio-economic factors which Appy examines at length. During the conflict, these men were again (to varying degrees) at the mercy of their occupational prerogative, although the actions of certain soldiers or officers would go on to fuel the culture of protest at home. It is after their return that we find a greater point of comparison and a fuller measure of agency. Returning veterans would eventually form organizations or groups which, while similar in structure to those of the confederate veteran societies discussed above, were initiated with starkly divergent intentions. Far from engaging in archival work or apologetic endeavors, these groups were generally dedicated to therapeutic pursuits, forming spaces where veterans could work out their psychological and physical trauma with those of similar experience. And although many veterans expressed contempt toward activists who they perceived as preaching from a position of unaccountable privilege, others joined existing protest groups or formed their own; not unlike the legitimacy conferred by confederate veterans, we can assume the presence of these former soldiers provided a sense of authority to a movement otherwise criticized by opponents for its demographic makeup. And of course, Appy’s veterans in this case do not set out to defend or glorify the conflict in which they fought, but to repudiate the cause as unjust. Thus the mode of engagement pursued by veterans across each study is broadly similar, yet with profound discrepancies as pertains to their impetus.

The non-veteran participants of both texts fall largely within the realm of more traditional activism. Just as the contribution of confederate veterans is offered minimal focus in The Southern Past, the experience of non-veteran activists is only touched upon in Working-Class War. Their engagement is generally examined in terms of its relation to combat veterans in and out of the battlefield, but the palpable contribution of protest efforts toward the cultivation of a counterculture that would ultimately contribute to the withdrawal of troops in Vietnam is observed in some detail. These protest efforts signify one of the most famous examples of civilian participation and activism within an historical epoch, and so little enumeration is necessary at this point. The civilian activists who constitute the focus of Brundage’s text, however, are significantly more obscure in terms of their historical impact. Both white and black populations, having pursued largely discrete projects of preservation and commemoration, are afforded equal attention, and an evolving process of custodianship is evident across the span of time between the reconstruction era and the early 21st century. It is clear that white civilians, from the early women’s groups to the latter day professional historians, made use of their wildly disproportionate social pull to shape the historical identity of the south to their liking, one which glorified the confederacy and an idealized conception of pre-war southern culture. Given that this identity was elevated at the expense of any alternative interpretations of history, and at the benefit of an egregious power imbalance, we might consider this as a sort of dark side to the efficacy of civilian participation. The endeavors undertaken by the black population during this time period then represents an antithesis to this phenomenon, a movement in which a marginalized faction of society utilized the scant resources available to them in a relentless manner, preserving the memory of racial oppression and struggle by incorporating a large mass of the community, oriented around the efforts of teachers and historians, around popular commemorative traditions.

In summation, Appy and Brundage observe the same fundamental process through their studies, disparate as they may appear in terms of subject matter. The veterans of Working-Class War and The Southern Past exhibit a similar narrative, forming organizations and participating in the post-war culture of their era, but compelled by a greatly differing impetus informed by the specific political and cultural parameters of each epoch. The activists discussed in Appy’s work likewise express considerable influence over the culture and events of their era, in addition to the perception of the immediate past, but untethered by a dichotomy like that of the competing black and white visions of history explored in Brundage’s text. Ultimately these works express the rich, contentious, and marvelously complex participation of civilians who wield the social power allotted to them, not through the direct machinations of lawmaking or federal power, but through their position as conscious participants in the unceasing movement of history.

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