James Wright, author of Enduring Vietnam, discusses what it was like to bring a human face to the Vietnam War while writing his book.
QDT: Although you served in the military, you've been careful to say that you did not serve in Vietnam. What compelled you to explore Vietnam from a human perspective rather than focusing on things like weaponry and military strategy?
I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1957, at age 17, and served for three years. I was never in Vietnam until I spent some time there in 2014 researching Enduring Vietnam. But the Vietnam War in the 1960s and after was an important and powerful part of my experience. I came to be critical of the war in the late 60s, but critical of the leaders who sent finally over two and a half million Americans there and not of those who served.
It is a story that needs, that deserves, to be known.
Over the years, I became concerned that we had neglected the story of this generation. In 2009, I spoke on Veterans Day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. I told the gathering that we had an obligation to ensure that those who served and sacrificed in Vietnam would be remembered.
I said, “Casualties of war cry out to be known—as persons, not as abstractions called casualties nor as numbers entered into the books, and not only as names chiseled into marble or granite ...We need to ensure that here, in this place of memory, lives as well as names are recorded.”
Reminding people of the human face of war became my focus for the next decade, in two books, a dozen op-eds, and many public presentations.
When my wife, Susan, and I saw Hamilton on Broadway several years ago, one of Eliza Hamilton's lines stayed with me. She asked, “Who lives, who dies, who tells the story?”
Those who serve in war directly confront the first two of her questions. The third question is about the responsibility that remains after the war. Without the story being told, the personal story, we fail to understand the nature of war. When I wrote Those Who Have Borne the Battle in 2012, I had a chapter on Vietnam. I knew then that I needed to do more to tell the story of the generation who served in Vietnam and came home to an ungrateful nation. This book aims to do that.
It was hard then, and has been hard since to look at [photos of the dead] without confronting the human face of sacrifice.
I have often turned back to a Life Magazine issue of June 1969 that deeply affected me then—and still does as it sits on a table five feet away. The magazine had 12 pages of photographs, listing the 242 Americans whose deaths had been announced by the Department of Defense for the week of May 28-June 3, 1969. In yearbook style, the photos, provided by families of the dead, largely were high school graduation pictures or Basic Training/Boot Camp photos. So many looked so young. They were. It was hard then and has been hard since, to look at it without confronting the human face of sacrifice.
QDT: This book gives a face and a voice to the Vietnam War. How did you go about making the war relatable to generations who weren't alive when it took place?
Historians must be able to make past experiences real, relevant. And if we can’t do that with war, it becomes too easy to romanticize wars, and far too easy to engage in new ones. I have written elsewhere that deploying troops involves far more than the metaphorical “boots on the ground.” Combat involves the flesh and blood of our young, who wear those boots. And some of those boots will sit empty next to an inverted rifle and a helmet forming a battlefield memorial for the lost.
In writing Enduring Vietnam, I interviewed those who had served in combat in Vietnam. We talked about their experiences and about friends they lost there. I also interviewed some family members who faced the knock on the door. Their memories reach out to any generation, any time.
I knew then that I needed to do more to tell the story of the generation who served in Vietnam and came home to an ungrateful nation.
QDT: When you discuss or get feedback on Enduring Vietnam, what seems to surprise audiences the most about the war? What are the most common misconceptions?
We often think of the Baby Boomer generation, the 60s generation, as being the anti-war generation. And, of course, many were. But some 40 percent of the young men of that generation served in the military. Many people seem surprised to learn that, particularly in those early years, many volunteered to serve.
We need to understand the mood, the sense of mission and impending conflict with international communism that had been part of the education of that generation. Children raised in the 1950s participated in “duck and cover” drills in schools, which prepared them for a nuclear attack. They were raised with reminders of their obligation. And so many who served told me that their father had served in World War II and they felt it was now their turn to fulfill their duty to their country. The country’s leaders misled them, simplified and misstated the conflict, and sent them to war. Finally, perhaps more tragically, many of them in those early war years eagerly went to serve.
I have been especially gratified by the feedback and commentary I have received from those who served in Vietnam. They have appreciated my effort to tell their story and to frame it as a central part of the history of this war.
QDT: In your research for Enduring Vietnam, you met with Vietnamese veterans, as well. How did those interviews affect the course of the book?
I was not able to interview enough Vietnamese veterans to get a sample of their attitudes. While I aimed to tell the story of the American generation who served there, it is important to note that the Vietnamese experience, with all of its tragic suffering, is essential to understanding more fully the story of the war.
It is important to note that the Vietnamese experience, with all of its tragic suffering, is essential to understanding more fully the story of the war.
I was able to identify and interview some Vietnamese who fought against the Americans on Hamburger Hill in May 1969. This was a crucial, symbolic battle. It is the one I described in greatest detail in the book.
I asked these North Vietnamese veterans to climb Hamburger Hill (Dong Ap Bia) with me. It was a powerful experience. At the end of our trek, I asked them what they learned there 45 years earlier. They said that after the battle, they had greater confidence that they could stand and fight the Americans for an extended time. But they also continued to marvel at the way these young Americans kept renewing the assault on their well-fortified positions on the top of a steep hill. For ten days, the U.S. soldiers came back up the hill.
QDT: Did interviewing 160 people for the book give you a picture of the typical soldier? Can you describe the men who fought there in broad strokes?
I am not certain there is a simple way to describe them. While they were disproportionately blue-collar in background, they did represent more or less a cross-section of American society. By 1966 or 1967, many came to the war with a negative view of the conflict. And very few left Vietnam without a critical view of the war.
But nonetheless, while in the field, they largely shut out all of the politics and tried to look after themselves and their “buddies.” I found them an admirable group. I dedicated the book to those who served and sacrificed. I wrote:
The difficulty of this American generation’s war and the controversies it engendered made their willingness to serve, and the sacrifices that they made, the greater and not the lesser.
There was as much heroism on the part of those who fought in Vietnam as there has been in any of our wars. But perhaps it is harder culturally to salute heroes in an unpopular war. It is unfortunate that in the 1970s, more Americans would have known Lt. William Calley, the commander of the unit that massacred Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, than would have known anyone else who fought there. I surely acknowledge, critically, Lt. Calley. But I seek to tell the story of the others. It is a story that needs, that deserves, to be known.