Wednesday, April 05, 2017

What We're Reading: An American Generation and Its War

Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War, by James Wright

Tomorrow (Thursday) night, April 6, at 7:00 p.m., James Wright will be speaking at Buena Vista Branch Library on his new book, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War. Booklist wrote, “There have been hundreds of books written about the Vietnam War, but this is among the most powerful and heartbreaking.”

Why does this book have such impact? Much has to do with the tone, which is balanced rather than tendentious, but that's not to say that Wright’s passion does not come through; it is also a wonderfully constructed narrative. This book is well researched. Wright presents the facts as he has found them for his reader’s consideration. We will argue forever, it seems, not only about the politics of the war but over how it really was "in country"--a fight over what was characteristic and what was exceptional. In this book, Wright offers the reader his judgement, and most readers will find him objective and reasonable, tentative where he should be, convincing where he feels he can be more conclusive. That grounding allows us to replace our distanced sense of unknowing and uncertainty (emotions that work against empathy) with connection, and with feelings we can trust.

Enduring Vietnam also has power because of its personal focus, one that is not commonly addressed in books about Vietnam. Rather than focus on the national politics of the war, Wright wants us to understand the identity of the men and women who served in Vietnam, as well as their experience of war, what it was like for them when they came home, and how the nation remembers their service. So while Wright does a fine job of describing the causes of the Vietnam War and its place in U.S. politics and in the international politics of the Cold War, he gives us this overview only so that we understand the larger, formative context of the war in which these young Americans served. He then turns to the more personal story of those soldiers serving in the ground war. Wright centers his narrative around the year 1969, the year that things were changing there for America, and he uses--with great facility--that period of transition as a device to look both back and forward as he describes the experience. 

Under sniper fire, Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam, 1967. AP Photo by Henri Huet
The author first gives us a statistical portrait of those who served, telling us the demographics of social class and where these soldiers came from in the country. It is not that there is anything new here, although these facts may correct a few misconceptions and stereotypes. For most of us the statistics will have power because they tell us things that we had never known about before, allowing us to get to know these soldiers for the first time, and intimately. He discusses the impact of the draft on the composition of U.S. fighting forces. The war gradually transitioned from one fought by relatively older career soldiers to the point that in 1969 half of junior enlisted men who died in Vietnam were draftees, and the median age of all fighting forces dying in Vietnam was 20-21 years old. Their youth lends the trials of their service an additional poignancy. This abstracted statistical portrait leads us into what is the real emotional heart of this book, the personal accounts and stories in which we meet those who served and come to understand their experience and feelings. Wright conducted interviews for this book with more than 160 men and women who served in Vietnam.

Vietnam, Dong Xoai, 1965. Photo by Horst Faas.
The power of  this book comes from the realization that we are meeting for the first time a generation of soldiers we never knew well at the time, and have not thought much about since. When the war ended, the only thing that most of those for and against the war seemed to tacitly agree upon was that they would put the war behind them. And in the process, we also forgot the soldiers who fought it. As Christian Appy (The Vietnam War and Our National Identity) and others have observed, we have not yet reckoned as a nation with the war in Vietnam. We can only do that by remembering. It was, we have discovered, a more brutal war than we supposed. There is much we need to remember about Vietnam, including the million or more Vietnamese and other people in Southeast Asia who died in this war, and the countless greater number who were wounded. Maybe thinking again about those Americans who died in Vietnam, and understanding the experience of those who served in this war and survived it, is a place to start. There isn’t a better place to do that than with Enduring Vietnam.

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