For his senior thesis, History and Literature concentrator John N. Sakellariadis ’16 took the unique approach of using graffiti to study combat morale in the Vietnam war. The Crimson sat down with Sakellariadis to discuss his 58-page work, "Waiting for Vietnam: Vietnam-era Canvas Graffiti and American Combat Morale in the Pre-Tet Period.”
While investigating literary responses to war, Sakellariadis stumbled upon an archive of graffiti that soldiers drew on the way to Vietnam. In troopships, soldiers had used the blank bed canvases on their cots to scrawl messages and drawings as they sailed away from home. The canvases thus provide a unique look into the troops’ mental state. “It wasn’t PTSD,” Sakellariadis says, “because for 95 percent of soldiers on the ships it was before they’d ever been to battle.”
Not all the graffiti was particularly enlightening. “A lot of it, to be honest, is just stuff you’d see scrawled in a bathroom stall,” he says. “There’s a lot of references to pot, LSD, some really crazy stuff…. One guy wrote ‘Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when you need him?’” But what Sakellariadis did see consistently appearing in the archive was a distinctly anti-army attitude. The subversive acronym FTA, for example, showed up frequently on canvases. It stood for “Fuck The Army,” but had originally been a term used to recruit new members, meaning “Fun, Travel, Adventure.”
Protest within the army against the Vietnam War is a well-known phenomenon, but Sakellariadis’ research was unique in two ways. The graffiti, for one thing, had been a relatively little-known artifact. “Nobody had written about it in a more scholarly fashion,” Sakellariadis says. But even more importantly, the messages he found on the canvases were drawn from a period earlier than what is traditionally known as the beginning of anti-Vietnam sentiments. “What has been well-documented historically is that after 1968, there’s this GI movement to end the war,” he says. But the Pope, the ship that Sakellariadis studied canvases from, was exclusively in service before 1968, and almost all the soldiers onboard had never fought in the war before.
His thesis stemmed from this important distinction. “Basically, I was saying there are these incipient cultures of dissent in the military that you can see kind of being formulated in the graffiti,” he says. Another side of the issue he could investigate was the difference between anti-army and anti-war sentiments. “I was trying to figure out was whether this meant they were opposed to the Vietnam war or just lamenting the institutionalized aspects of the army,” he says.
One of the most challenging parts of writing his thesis, Sakellariadis explains, was the visual nature of graffiti. “It’s just such a hard thing to analyze,” he says. “You can look at these images for a long time and come away with insights, but actually turning that into a thesis was really, really hard, and part of that is that it’s just so difficult to interpret graffiti.” Sakellariadis’ junior paper also had a uniquely visual topic; he wrote about the postcards of lynching that were circulated in the beginning of the twentieth century.
The thesis process was personally rewarding for Sakellariadis, whose uncle served in Vietnam. Writing his senior thesis gave Sakellariadis plenty of time to think hard about questions of wartime. After graduating in the spring, he will be completing a fellowship at the Institute of War in Washington, DC. “I’ve always thought war is really interesting, in the American context, because we’re all about individualism,” he says. “And the military context, the military ethos, is about obedience to authority structures, and so they’re fundamentally antithetical.”
—Staff writer Rebecca H. Dolan can be reached at email@example.com.
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Vietnam Falls, Harvard ShrugsI didn’t stand out much among the best and the brightest but as far as I knew I was the only student whose father had died in battle in Vietnam.