Enduring Vietnam: “A Story That Has No End”

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By Dr Kathy Mathis, New Hampshire Humanities Project Director                                                                       Valor is not a precondition for victory in war. Rather, it is a quality contained in a personal narrative, written on the mind and body of men and women who fight the war. That war can be good or bad, purposeful and celebrated, or reviled and out of order. Of course war is never wholly either or. But in Vietnam, a generation of young adults fought in an increasingly unpopular war with confusing objectives and political and military goals. When they came home, they were not embraced for doing their duty, except by their friends and family. Their homecoming was complicated by a national consciousness not “as hostile…as the legends suggest” nor “as warm...or as comfortable...as the narrative promises.” The American War in Vietnam “is a story that has no end.” Those words from author James Wright underscore his poignant message: The stories of the young men and women who were on the ground has not fully been told except as an analogue to the times. But it is both focus and context for Wright’s latest book of history, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War

James Wright, former Dartmouth College president and Marine veteran himself, estimates there are probably 30,000 Vietnam veterans in New Hampshire. Inspired by a June 1969 LIFE magazine issue that featured photos and stories of a one-week toll of combat soldiers who didn’t make it home, he became caught up in telling more of the rich and complex story. Before he knew it, he said, “I was up to my elbows in another book.” An earlier history about war and homecoming, Those Who Have Born the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them, was larger in scope in terms of the conflicts involved. This new book is dedicated to those Americans who endured, but did not necessarily survive, Vietnam. It is based on interviews with 160 mostly combat veterans and family members, those who received the “knock on the door.”  

The book is meant to demonstrate to its readers the human face and the cost of war, and to remind people that soldiers are not “boots on the ground” but kids we send off to fight. In this case, the theater of engagement became a battleground for geopolitical struggles and international policies that were a reflection of genuine concerns over the fate of democracy in the world. What was most surprising to the author as he continued his interviews was just how willingly many young men of the era went to fight. Having been shaped by their growing up in the 1950s and by family members who had served in World War II, many believed it was their duty and responsibility to serve. Even when they were drafted, not eager to go, they went. By the late 60s, though, all that changed. 

How the war was carried out, Wright says, was very much predicated on how it played out at home. They knew about the anti-war sentiments, the protests, the violence surrounding the election of 1968, the unrest on college campuses, and the “tin soldiers and Nixon coming” of the popular Neil Young song. They fought on under circumstances of uncertainty and chaos, knowing no front lines, no clear battle plans, and no sense of unified goals or specific outcomes. So, when they returned, they did so quietly. Their homecoming was not an occasion for cheering. They had endured the fighting but could not savor victory. The war, for most, was about survival. 

It follows that the veterans Wright interviewed freely told their stories, some for the first time. They were motivated to help him tell the untold stories of comrades who gave their lives. And, of course, in the telling, they told their own poignant stories. What can we do to help veterans of Vietnam, or of any conflict for that matter, come home? We can continue to reach out, to help them tell their stories and address the issues that still surface. Vietnam veterans were not treated kindly on return. They have not forgotten that. This is not just about them, though. This is about what we, civilians, can learn from them. This is our responsibility as well. 


Save the date!

Author James Wright will be in New Hampshire on Tuesday, September 12 at 6:00 pm at Southern NH University to discuss his latest book in a special event that is free and open to the public. A Q & A with the author and a booksigning will immediately follow the talk. RSVP to reserve your seat(s) today!