Meredith Lair: What Was in the Other Three Bags?

We welcome a guest post today from Meredith Lair, author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. In the book, Lair focuses on the noncombat experiences of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam—finding that consumption and satiety, rather than privation and sacrifice, defined most soldiers’ Vietnam deployments. In this guest post, she revisits an incident involving the luggage of soldiers flying back home at the end of their deployment to Afghanistan last summer.—ellen

Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War, by Meredith H. LairLast June, Delta Airlines prompted a minor Internet controversy when it charged an excess baggage fee to a group of soldiers returning from the war. Flying from Baltimore to Atlanta, en route from Afghanistan to Fort Polk, the men of U.S. Army Detachment 62 found themselves with several extra bags. Though their orders authorized them to check four bags apiece, Delta’s policy at the time allowed soldiers flying coach only three. The extra bags—fourteen in total—would cost $200 each to place on the plane. After a futile negotiation with Delta employees, two soldiers poured their frustration into a three-minute video they uploaded to YouTube. It went viral, garnering tens of thousands of views almost instantly and prompting hundreds of news stories. Within three days, Delta had apologized and revised its baggage policy for soldiers en route to and from United States war zones.

The video, made by Staff Sergeants Fred Hilliker and Robert O’Hair, was shot on the plane and briefly outlines their ordeal. After Hilliker provides some context, he turns the camera on O’Hair and asks him to describe the outcome. “We ended up paying, out of pocket, our own money, to allow that fourth bag to be taken on the plane,” O’Hair explains. To drive home the unfairness of the policy, Hilliker then asks, “What was that fourth bag for you?” As O’Hair later put it in an interview with Fox News Radio, “My extra bag was my weapons case. I had my assault rifle, a grenade launcher, and a 9-mm pistol.” In the video, he describes these as “the tools that I used to protect myself and Afghan citizens while I was deployed in the country.” Hilliker concludes the video with some up-close headshaking and an admonishment for the airline: “Good business model, Delta. . . . Not happy. Not happy at all.” Once uploaded, the video prompted immediate outrage from bloggers, news editorialists, veterans, and angry patriots, who objected to the disrespectful “welcome home” they felt Delta had given these returning heroes.

The soldiers who made the video had a keen sense of how it would be received, suggesting their awareness of the cachet military service has afforded them in American public life. In a single take, they framed their grievance perfectly in order to maximize the viewer’s disgust: Delta was cast as the monolithic, unfeeling corporation that exploited their service for profit, while the soldiers themselves were cast as stoic warriors returning from an austere existence defending other people’s freedoms.

The fourth bag, the one for which O’Hair had to pay, contained weapons, essential implements of warfare that speak to the harsh conditions one would expect to find in a war zone. The sacrifices the soldiers made on behalf of the nation, first to serve in the military and then to deploy to Afghanistan, were compounded by the financial hardship of having to pay to transport their weapons home. Whether or not the baggage fee was a hardship for the soldiers is arguable; their commanding officer actually paid it for them, and, because they were pre-authorized to carry four bags with them, they were always entitled to reimbursement at taxpayers’ expense. Regardless, the public embraced Hilliker and O’Hair’s version of events, as evidenced by the hue and cry that forced Delta to change its policy. Yet no one has ever asked what is, in my opinion, the most important question: What was in the other three bags?

The soldiers characterized the weapons case as the “fourth bag,” but that was completely subjective on their part. O’Hair had four bags, including one that contained weapons and three that contained something else. Any one of them could have been designated as the “fourth bag.” The other three bags presumably contained whatever it is soldiers carry home from a war zone. If my research on the Vietnam and Iraq wars is any indication, then the other three bags held essentials like uniforms, but also a variety of consumer goods and souvenirs of the region.

Since Vietnam, consumption has been an essential part of wartime military service, with subsidized goods in the P.X.’s working to ensure good soldier morale. This emphasis on consumption persists even in active war zones, with the proliferation of retail outlets, fast food chains, and souvenir stands on U.S. bases. The U.S. military provides shipping to and from the war zones at domestic postage rates, making it possible for soldiers to import even more comfort items than what they can purchase at their base’s P.X.

The camera, in particular, has long been a standard purchase for G.I.’s, and Hilliker’s use of one to create the video only affirms its ubiquity among American military personnel. Laptop computers, which present-day soldiers use to play video games, communicate with loved ones, make purchases, and edit slideshows and movies, are also standard pieces of equipment. Other electronics like portable DVD players, MP3 players, and video game consoles are extremely common among soldiers’ personal belongings. Regional souvenirs like Afghan rugs, Soviet war materiel, and carvings like chess sets that pit Osama bin Laden against Barack Obama regularly flow home to the United States. Any of these goods, as well as typical comfort items like toiletries, personal linens, camping gear, and civilian clothing, could have filled the other three bags. Yet in the video, they are never mentioned.

O’Hair chose the weapons case as his “fourth” bag because it was the one that best affirmed the public’s ideas about warfare, that war requires austerity and that military service invites danger. The contents of the other bags speak to less familiar, more unsettling facts of American military occupation abroad: that the disparity between stateside and war zone living conditions narrows as a war drags on, disappearing altogether for some soldiers stationed far in the rear; that most soldiers do not participate in combat, nor are they in appreciable danger for most of their deployments; and that consumerism is so pervasive in American life that it flourishes even in one of the poorest countries on earth, even in the middle of a war.

The contents of bags one, two, and three represent the abundance with which the United States fights its wars, that is, the comfort and convenience with which we equip our soldiers serving abroad. The abundance tends to get left out of discourses about soldiering—or, in this case the disgruntled sergeants’ video—because it is inconsistent with traditional ideas of what a war is supposed to be. But for many soldiers—and perhaps most of them—bags one, two, and three are the sum total of their deployments, whether the public wishes to acknowledge it or not.

Meredith Lair is assistant professor of history at George Mason University and author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War, which examines living conditions, recreation, and consumption—in essence, the contents of the other three bags—for American soldiers in Vietnam. Read her previous guest post, “Life Needs Frosting, Even in a War Zone.”