War and American Life
Reflections on Those Who Serve and Sacrifice
Distributed for Brandeis University Press
War and American Life
Reflections on Those Who Serve and Sacrifice
An engaging collection of essays focusing on American veterans.
War and American Life is a book of essays and reflections by celebrated historian and former marine James Wright, who has been active as an advocate, teacher, and scholar. Featuring both previously published pieces and new essays, the book considers veterans in America and the ways in which our society needs better to understand who they are and what they have done on the nation’s behalf—and the responsibilities that follow this recognition.
"An important book brimming with essential insights about what it means to be a nation at war...Wright writes with passion, perspective, and purpose...War and American Life deserves the widest possible readership. Clear-eyed yet never cynical, it is a brief for veterans—and a nation—in need of healing."
New York Journal of Books
“Jim Wright presents a fascinating blend of history and personal reflection that reminds us of the human costs of war and of our responsibilities as citizens to support those who serve for us. A timely and very readable book.”
George W. Casey, Jr., General, U.S. Army (Retired)
“This book is critical reading for anyone who wants to understand what it means to be a United States citizen today. Wright possesses a deep historical consciousness, a gift for narrative, a sophisticated analysis of modern civilian and military relations, and a powerfully humanistic knowledge of the suffering of war. Marvelous, incisive, and fascinating work from a historian of great moral seriousness, and great emotional sensitivity."
Phil Klay, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Redeployment
“A necessary and eloquent book that raises critical issues about military service, decisions around war-making, veterans and the 99 percent who do not serve. Wright speaks to a foundational crisis of our time—the loss of civic responsibility. I highly recommend this book!”
Kathy Roth-Douquet, Founder and CEO, Blue Star Families
“A much-needed call for civic participation, and for remembering. Wright’s decades as an historian lend perspective and sweep to this account, while his experience as a Marine and an advocate for veterans fills the book with humanity.”
Nathaniel Fick, author of the NYT Bestseller One Bullet Away
“Wright, distinguished scholar and remarkable public intellectual, succeeds in reminding Americans of the sacrifices made (and continuing) by multiple generations of veterans. This extraordinary set of essays is a must read for a country that struggles to understand the magnitude of these sacrifices.”
Dr. Kyle Longley, Chapman University, Director of the War, Diplomacy, and Society Program
“As both a Marine and a historian, James Wright brings a unique perspective and insight into his examination of America’s treatment of those who served in uniform. His writing is a reminder that we still have a long way to go in keeping the promise to those who have borne the battle.”
Jeremy Butler, CEO, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Table of Contents
Section 1: Reflections of A Veteran
“Cannons in the Park,” Excerpt from first chapter of Those Who have Borne the Battle
“The Old Corps: Boot Camp Memories”
“Visiting Vietnam,” Excerpt from Preface of Enduring Vietnam
“Remarks: Veterans Day 2009 at the Vietnam Memorial Wall”
“Walking the Hill They Died On,” Vietnam [magazine], June 2019
Section II: Advocacy
“Honoring Veterans,” The Boston Globe, October 6, 2007
“The New G I Bill: It’s a Win-Win Proposition,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 7, 2008
“The Yellow Ribbon Program and Private Colleges,” Excerpt from remarks at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, February 2, 2009
“Veterans Day Is for Remembering -- And for Looking Ahead,” Huffington Post, 11/11/12
“What Does America Owe Its Veterans?” Excerpts from Lecture at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, November 14, 2012
“The Challenge of Memorializing America’s Wars,” The Atlantic, 5/29/17
“GI Bill 2017: Investing in the Future of the Republic,” Thehill.com, 7/28/17
“American Veterans and the National Obligation” Excerpt from remarks at a symposium organized by the National Institute of Corrections at the Library of Congress, May 17, 2018
“Remarks: Ivy Plus Veterans Council Meeting,” October 5, 2019
Section III: History Lessons: Reminders of the Nation’s Obligation
“We Are Always Rewriting the Past – We Must,” Valley News, 7/12/20
“War Veterans and American Democracy,” Excerpts from Jefferson Memorial Lecture, University of California, Berkeley, February 2, 2010
“Veterans Day in America: The Place of the Korean War in a National Day of Memory,” Excerpt from Shinhan Bank Lecture at Yonsei University, Underwood International College, Seoul, South Korea, November 11, 2010
“What We Learned From the Korean War,” The Atlantic, 7/23/13
“The Baby Boomer War,” New York Times, 4/11/17
“The Real Lessons of Vietnam – And Afghanistan,” DefenseOne.com, 10/13/17
“Remembering Vietnam,” Excerpt from remarks at the Wardroom Club, Boston, MA, November 15, 2017
“Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War,” Excerpts from remarks presented to the Association of the United States Army in the Lemnitzer Lecture Series, May 16, 2018
“How Modern Wars Are Changing the Definition of Heroism,” MilitaryTimes.com, 9/21/18
“As We Remember Normandy, Let’s Not Forget Hamburger Hill,” MilitaryTimes.com, 5/20/19
“The Capture of Hamburger Hill,” Vietnam [magazine], June 2019
Section IV: Responsibilities
“Bearing the Cost of War: Why the U.S. Should Raise Taxes -- Just As it Has in Previous Conflicts,” Foreign Affairs, 8/11/12
“The Forgotten 1%,” Huffington Post, 10/4/12
“War in Afghanistan: The Unseen Sacrifice,” Huffington Post, 12/13/12
“Have Americans Forgotten Afghanistan?” The Atlantic, 3/25/13
“10 Years After ‘Mission Accomplished,’ the Risks of Another Intervention,” The Atlantic, 3/25/13
“Remember: Those Who Fight Wars Die in Wars,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/3/13
“Remembering Those Who Wore the ‘Boots on the Ground,’” The Atlantic, 5/30/16
“The Human Face of War,” MilitaryTimes.com, 6/27/19
“Nixon’s Leniency After My Lai Hurt Veterans. Trump’s May, Too,” DefenseOne.com, 12/15/19
“We’ve Learned to Thank Those Who Serve, Whether It’s in War or During a Pandemic,” Los Angeles Times, 5/25/20
“The Election Without a Debate Over War,” DefenseOne.com, 11/1/20
X Epilogue: Mountains to Climb
IN November 2004, I found myself drawn to television coverage and newspaper accounts of a fierce battle underway in Iraq. The Battle of Fallujah would prove to be the largest sustained battle of the war and the vicious street fighting was reminiscent of the Battle of Hue City in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968.Marines from the 1st Marine Division were at the center of the fight along with U.S. Army and Navy units, British Black Watch soldiers, and Iraqi soldiers. This battle took place a year and a half after the initial invasion of Iraq, following assurances in the spring of 2003 that all was well and, indeed, that the mission was “accomplished.” In April 2004 Marine units had actually fought and succeeded in occupying much of the city in response to insurgents killing American civilian contractors, but under pressure from the Iraqi governing council, they withdrew. The next six months allowed the Iraqi resistance to buttress its forces. My interest, then, was less with the politics or the military tactics.
The photos and accounts of the young Marines fighting there captured my attention and I was stunned by the brutal fighting with major casualties and with so many acts of heroism. The “Second Battle of Fallujah” would finally result in an allied victory, but a costly one. The allies suffered 197 killed and 613 wounded; 95 of the killed and 560 of the wounded were Americans. As many as 1,500 enemy forces died— and up to 800 civilians. All of this was made more real when I learned that a young local Marine, whose father worked at Dartmouth, had been killed in the fighting.
I kept thinking about the fact that these U.S. troops were the age of the students I worked with on the Dartmouth campus, were the age that I and others were when I had served in the Marines over forty years earlier. The local Marine who was killed on Thanksgiving Day 2004 was twenty years old. I wanted to do something, to reach out and show some support. I had no idea what this would be.
A few months later, this was still on my mind when I had a conversation with Peter Michael Gish, a Dartmouth alumnus who had served in the Marines from World War II to Vietnam. He was a widely recognized combat artist and when he learned of my interest in doing “something” he suggested I visit the wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I agreed and he arranged for me to do this with a contact he had in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. I scheduled a visit in July 2005.
In so many ways, this trip was a natural step in my life, but in other ways it also represented a circling back. The son of a World War II veteran, I had joined the Marines at the age of seventeen, a natural move at that time in my small- town midwestern world and culture. I found boot camp a challenging and often very unpleasant experience but I came out of it feeling stronger and more mature. I had real pride in being a Marine. I served with the First Marine Brigade in what was the Territory of Hawaii when I arrived there and my unit was deployed to Japan during the Quemoy- Matsu crisis in 1958. I was discharged in 1960 as a lance corporal, proud to have served but happy to be moving on.
The problem was that in 1960 I was not certain what moving on meant. I had always been an indifferent student but now I thought I would like to try going back to school. I enrolled at a local public university and discovered that if I studied, I could be a good student— and even more importantly, that I loved learning. I graduated in 1964, the first in my family to do so. Then having been honored with a Danforth Fellowship I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was in Madison during the height of the Vietnam War. While I had originally supported the war, I came to be very critical of it. I supported Gene McCarthy in the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in 1968. The next year, after completing my PhD in American history, I took a position as an assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College.
At Dartmouth I joined the critics of ROTC and agreed with the protestors who organized against the Vietnam War in the spring of 1970, following President Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Jackson State and Kent State. At that time, I went to Washington with a group of Dartmouth students and we met with members of Congress and other officials to argue against the war. In 1971 I began volunteering for the George McGovern campaign.
In 1998 when the Dartmouth board of trustees elected me as the sixteenth president of Dartmouth, probably a good many of my colleagues did not even know I was a Marine Corps veteran. I certainly never hid this but I seldom discussed it. I had come to support with no reservations Dartmouth’s reinstated ROTC program and now firmly believed that the military was stronger with more liberal arts graduates serving as officers. In fact, in 2010, after I had stepped down from the Dartmouth presidency, my successor Jim Yong- Kim asked me to go to the Pentagon to see about beginning a NROTC program at the college. I thought it was a great idea and was sorry that finally it did not work out.
In my presidential years, probably most of my Dartmouth generation knew me as someone who had opposed the Vietnam War. But there was one important qualifier in this opposition. I don’t recall ever being generally critical of those who served there— except certainly for the individual thugs and criminals like Lieutenant William Calley of My Lai. I never linked all veterans of the war with this horrible conduct and in fact was sympathetic to those who served. It was my concern for those who sacrificed, a concern based on respect and gratitude, that led me to Bethesda Hospital in the summer of 2005.
At the hospital I went bed to bed, talking to the young Marines, nearly all of whom had suffered very serious injuries. These young men— and they were all men on this first visit— were missing limbs, being fitted for prostheses, had skin and features horribly burned or ripped off by explosives, were swaddled in bandages, and many were heavily medicated to deal with the intense pain they were suffering. These images have stayed with me. (I recall a few years later a visit in which the hospital staff showed me a new wing they were opening for seriously injured patients. When I asked about the absence of mirrors in the bathrooms, I was told that they did not want the patients to look at their burned or otherwise disfigured faces unless they were with someone.)
When I visited these Marines, often their parents or spouse were with them in the room. I expressed my support to these patients and encouraged them to think about continuing their education. I described my own insecurity and hesitation about returning to school when I had been discharged in 1960 as a lance corporal. I assured them that they could overcome their own concerns and would do well. I left them a card and if they asked about my current status as president of Dartmouth College, I told them I was the only Marine to serve as president of an Ivy League school.
That July 2005 visit to Bethesda was the first of over thirty times I went there and to Walter Reed Hospital over the next decade. I even had one visit to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, where I had been hospitalized for an injury in 1957. Each visit was the same. I always asked them what had happened and no one ever hesitated to share with me some powerful, moving, and some very scary accounts. I was struck by the fact that only a few knew who had caused their injuries— this reveals so much about the nature and the anonymity of modern warfare with mines and hidden explosives, mortar rounds, snipers, booby traps, and fiery vehicles. I often learned something of their families and we generally discussed their plans for the future.