Wasted Lives


The enduring symbol of the ‘Rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.’

Lately, I’ve been reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, professor of American History at LSU. White Trash is a cultural or social history and the most entertaining form of history. Isenberg relies on books, letters, diaries, and photos, as well as film stills in modern times to tell her version of American history.

Although I am a quantitative historian, I was exposed to both social and cultural history in my formal study of history. And, with three degrees in sociology and a career spent using sociological techniques for analytical purposes, I was long exposed to “the sociological perspective.” The truth is, I love this stuff.

Thus, Isenberg doesn’t share much I haven’t read before in various formats.  However, she did uncover some ‘new to me’ historical facts, and she writes well.  I was so intrigued with this book that in between medical appointments, I read it in four days, after reading Carlos Lozada’s review in last Sunday’s Washington Post.

When I finished, I promptly ordered Fallen Founder, by Isenberg, the story of Aaron Burr.

Isenberg’s thesis is the United States does have a class system. At the bottom is the underclass, the focus of her book. We pay so much attention to “race” most of us fail to see that many more non-Hispanic white people have “fallen through the cracks,” than people of color (this is a statistical fact, and one Huey Long, George Wallace and Donald Trump understand).

The truth is, most people born into the underclass live wasted lives.  A few break out, like Billy Clinton, who managed to become president of the US, or Elvis Presley. Most don’t. The vast majority became cannon fodder in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For many years, the American colonies were a dumping ground for England. (Working on my family tree, I uncovered numerous indentured servants.) During the Revolution, George Washington’s colonial infantry was largely composed of the ‘unpropertied’ (like my ancestors who were “paid” with tracts of land in the “wilderness”).

This “popular” history was obscured until revisionist historians began writing, following WWII, when government programs began to provide higher education to the masses.  Until then, what we read in history classes was the Whig version of history and the flowery but meaningless words like “equality and justice for all” of “The Founders.”

During the Civil War, the US government drafted poor farm hands, like my ancestors from New England, as well as migrants arriving in NYC on British ships, to become cannon fodder at Cold Harbor and in other battles.

Most of the people who migrated to America in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries truly were the “refuse of foreign shores.” Many like my mom’s Dutch ancestors fled the potato famine in northern Europe (the potato eaters weren’t all Irish).

The really sad thing is sometimes we Americans forget who we are. Building walls to keep out the “riffraff” is un-American, yet, according to Isenberg, since the Reagan years, we the people have largely failed to take care of our own downtrodden.

n.b. Yesterday, was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme where a million English doughboys died in WWI.  

21 thoughts on “Wasted Lives

  1. Coming late to this fascinating discussion. Sounds like good background for me, because I was out of the country from 1971 to 1985, living in Europe. By the time I returned everyone had their memes and stories about Vietnam in place and well defended and it was hard to get at the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Hattie, David was also out of the US part of the 1960s.

      I say do you remember? And he says no.

      I trust historians who carefully footnote each observation they make. Footnotes alone are not enough, however. If their books, reports, papers have been vetted by their colleagues, this helps. Nevertheless, it pays to have some notion of the trustworthiness of the historian, and to read several sources. Also there are differing views among historians. Maddening, isn’t it?

      Most of what we have read about Vietnam heretofore was based on news reports at the time, movies from Oliver Stone, or impressionistic accounts like those Dick offers. While his truth is true him for him, it’s not statistically true.

      Toward the end of the war, after the Civil Rights Act had been signed by LBJ, DOD bent over backwards to integrate the armed forces. This meant adding many African Americans who would not have been considered before the CRA to the ‘regular’ combat forces. Truman began the process of integrating the AF in the 1940s. However, it took from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation and an 26th (?) amendment to the Constitution in the mid-nineteenth century, until the late 1970s to fully integrate the services.

      Thanks to historians who have accessed the DOD records, using FOIA, we know now that much of what was reported about Vietnam at the time was a lie.

      In addition to everything else I’ve written above, recall Nancy Isenberg’s book is not about race, it’s about class. They are different. But my hand is tired.


  2. Many in the underclass join the military voluntarily, then they come home to uncertain futures. Many more of all colors work fast food or other menial jobs. Since I was one of them for so long, I saw this in action. The book sounds like one I would like to read. Look at all your notes, you stirred everyone up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We should all be stirred up by this book. Yes many volunteer for the military. My first husband joined and stayed with the Marines because it was preferable to spending his life in a cotton mill or becoming a share cropper. And he was working class, his parents both having spent their lives in the mills. His mom told me once that working in the mills sure beat share-cropping.

      The problem today is that even the mills are gone to other countries.


  3. Sounds like a good book; it’s going on my reading list. We also remember that during the Civil War young men could buy their way out of the draft for a few hundred dollars. Of course, most upper-middle-class kids didn’t go to Vietnam either … the war where the white man sent the black man to kill the yellow man.


    • Thomas Franke’s Listen Liberal is a better book if you are interested in the state of current politics. Isenberg is a historian and she writes about the WHITE underclass. African-Americans are not the focus of her book. As to your last statement…it’s completely false. All kinds of lies are written and said about Vietnam. I learned recently that the majority of American men in Vietnam were career military. To listen to the critics, you would think draftees fought the war.

      The other thing that frosts my cookies is statements about the American war dead in Vietnam. Although 56,000 men died, this war did not produce the most US casualties. We have not surpassed the Civil War and I hope we never do.


      • I put the Nancy Isenberg book on hold at our library — it sounds interesting to me. I didn’t mean to “frost your cookies” … was just referring to an old slogan which was obviously an exaggeration. But certainly blacks were overrepresented in Vietnam, esp. compared to upper-middle-class whites. And it’s true the casualties were hugely less than the Civil War or the two World Wars … but tell that to someone who lost a son or brother, career military or not.


      • You are commenting to someone whose first marriage to a US marine lasted from 1959-1975. No doubt you know this exactly corresponds to the Vietnam War. And my second Army husband had two tours of duty in Vietnam. Yes, there were newly integrated people from minority groups in the military. However, the services had only recently been integrated and the huge story at the time was the disproportionate racial mix of service members, WHITE southern boys made up the majority of enlisted. Today the racial proportions have changed, but the last stats I saw showed AA as 40 percent of the Army today.

        PS And, of course we knew many casualties as well as family of casualties.


      • I doubt that Tom’s last statement is “completely false.” The Department of Defense uses Nov. 1, 1955 as the start of US involvement in Viet Nam, because that’s when we took over the “advisory” role from the French and officially allowed our troops there to use live weapons against the Cong.

        I was drafted into the U.S.Army in May 1958 and served until 1960. Fort Leonard Wood, where I took basic infantry training, was a huge training post, which most likely was quite representative of others. I would conservatively estimate that 80 percent of infantry trainees there and elsewhere were draftees, not enlistees. And there was a somewhat larger representation of African-Americans than of Caucasians.

        During the remainder of my time in the army, my observation was that as many as a fourth of “regulars” among enlisted men were African-Americans, a much higher number than their percentage of the national population. However, almost the entire officer corps consisted of white men at that time.

        I think I’ll have to agree with what I saw in this case, not what some historians who may or may not have been in the U.S. Army say happened. There definitely were a lot of black soldiers ordered into battle by white officers during the Viet Nam war.


      • See my response to Tom. My recollection is different. The war began in 1959 and ended in 1975. And we lived in enlisted base housing where we had no AA families as neighbors.

        Towards the end of the war, the years you served, (1968 was the worst year) the loss of career men necessitated the increase in the draft numbers and the racial mix changed dramatically. And as you point out, draftees served two years.


  4. I have never heard of author Nancy Isenberg but from what you write here I will definitely get “White Trash” and look into others that she’s written. Thanks for the info…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting post. It reminds me of how I came to be. My maternal grandfather immigrated to Hawaii as a penniless laborer. When he died, he was a millionaire, having invested in profitable real estate.
    On the other hand, my paternal grandfather came here as the second son of a wealthy mayor in Korea. He died a pauper due to alcoholism.
    It goes to show that if you are smart, you will be a winner. If you are stupid, then you will be a loser.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope the rich grandfather passed some of his money onto you. Isenberg’s premise is that the poor don’t have rich grandfathers to leave them money when they die. Many people have nothing and work hard and end up with nothing at the end of their lives. Isenberg writes specifically about the white underclass and how they are constantly missrepresented in the way they are depicted in books, movies and other art forms. For example the “savages” in James Dickey’s book Deliverence (and the movie of the same name).

      Politicians do the same thing: Example: the welfare queens Reagan believed existed and Obama’s “clinging to their guns and Bibles” comment. Most of the poor are there through no fault of their own. And the US military is the only way out for them…why so many Southern and poor youths from the North enter the military. Thus they die in exhorbitant numbers.


    • You mean voodoo economics. What a distortion that is. GHWB spoke the truth before his fellow Republicans shut him up.

      Give me good old Keynesian economics any day. I might have trained as a sociologist/historian, but I spent decades working with economists with degrees, argued with them constantly and learned a lot. Capitalism is great when its regulated and the wealthy including Corporations are taxed properly. FDR is my hero, and apparently Isenberg’s also.


      • My parents were brought out of poverty by FDR. My dad always said he had money in the bank when there was a democrat in the White House. Looking back, I have been financially well off during the democrat presidential years. We haven’t done as well during republican presidents.

        Liked by 1 person

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