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Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War
by James Wright
(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2017)
I approached Enduring Vietnam with some trepidation after seeing that Ken Burns has endorsed the book on the front cover, and James "Mad Dog" Mattis has offered the top endorsement on the rear cover. Looking a bit further, I found that Karl Marlantes, Peter Prichard (Chairman of the Newseum), Christian Appy, and Bernard Edelman, all highly respected for their work on Vietnam, had also praised this book, so it had to be worthwhile. It is always available in quantity on bookstore shelves, in hardcover, so I went with the reality that "Mad Dog" had left the Trump administration abruptly, and went ahead and purchased Enduring Vietnam.
Author Wright is Professor of History Emeritus at Dartmouth College, and very active in various veterans assistance organizations. He is not a Vietnam veteran, but he seems to be sincerely attuned to Vietnam vets and their concerns. That said, Enduring Vietnam is a strange book. It attempts to offer a compact semi-history lesson, but it is also a vivid examination of the traumatic experiences, memories, challenges, and the psychological residue that so many veterans have lived with every day for years. It tends to jump around a lot, but always with the year 1969 as the key moment in the author's telling of the history of the war.
Author Wright says, on page 131, that he interviewed 86 veterans, with 56 who had enlisted and 30 who had been drafted. He devotes approximately two dozen pages to brief histories of many of them, all volunteers or draftees who accepted their fate. "Most draftees," he writes, "recalled being willing, if not eager, to serve." Where did he find them? In my experience, at least ninety percent of my peers did everything possible to avoid the draft and despised being in the (Army) military. I entered the service at the very end of 1966, visited Vietnam from September of 1967 to 1968, and then transferred to Thailand for the remainder of my "obligation," a desperate effort to avoid the strict discipline and pointless harassment of stateside duty. When I came home in September of '69, I was discharged. Wright does not mention the many little acts of resistance, obstruction, even sabotage that were constant signs of the contempt we felt for our oppressors. In fact, he writes that everything changed in 1969, about a year after the Tet offensive, as if there had been no discord until after the battle of Hamburger Hill made all GIs mysteriously thoughtful, disrespectful, and unwilling. A large number of the guys he interviewed "mentioned some variant of duty, patriotism, fighting communism, or family tradition as an explanation of their willingness to serve." Nowhere in the book's 445 pages did I find a single expression of a draftee's anger at being torn away from his life and family. There is no mention of draft counseling.
"Beginning in 1965," Wright tells us, "anti-war demonstrations challenged the war and the assumptions that underlay it. It took a few years for these arguments to persuade a majority of Americans. They more rapidly seemed to persuade young Americans, the boomer generation. Their decade, the '60s, would take on an altogether different and even revolutionary form." In January of 1967, Wright tells us, student leaders from one hundred colleges and universities sent a letter to LBJ that politely "questioned the conduct, rationale, and very aims of the war in Vietnam." Wright acknowledges Barry McGuire's 1965 hit record "Eve of Destruction," various artists' versions of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," and Phil Ochs' 1965 "I Ain't Marching Anymore." He begins the book with a description of Memorial Day in 1969, and mentions the Beatles' song "Get Back," and, many pages later, tells us that "The Ballad of the Green Berets" was America's number one song in 1966, "ranking ahead of any of the Beatles' or other pop group songs."
On page 242 he relates that a soldier hitching a ride on a Huey found it "surreal" to hear AFVN Radio and a Beatles song through the door gunner's helmet. At no point in his book does Wright acknowledge the impact and importance of the Beatles on our generation. Bob Dylan is never mentioned. There's plenty about Operation Rolling Thunder, but no mention of the Rolling Stones. Again, jumping to 1969, Wright mentions a few of the performers or bands that would play at Woodstock. "It was a music festival rather than an anti-war gathering, but obviously it represented a substantial part of American culture that was increasingly hostile to the war in Vietnam." Ya think? Our generation had grown up on Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. We were Beatlemaniacs in 1964, and four years later when the Tet offensive made it clear we could never win the war, our culture was long established and flourishing. Yep, Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe McDonald, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were putting out messages of truth and hope in great contrast to anything coming from the White House or the Pentagon.
James Wright did a lot of research, and only he can say how he missed so many of the Woodstock generation when he was interviewing Vietnam vets and dipping his toe into the stream of sixties history. He is, sadly, The Establishment, and while his compassion for Vietnam veterans is sincere, he fails completely to offer any real understanding of what went wrong, both in Vietnam and here at home. Perhaps worse, he fails to offer anything new. As a Professor Emeritus of History, he missed by a long shot on this endeavor. It is not an invalid book, but it offers no new revelation or explanation of what happened. Today, in 2019, as we see a very similar debacle taking place in Afghanistan after 17 years and 17 commanding generals, after another American intervention under the same old theories, rules, and regulations. It seems that any examination of the debacle that was Vietnam should acknowledge the concepts, strategies, tactics, and yes, the mistakes that resulted in such tragedy and travesty. What were the lessons of Vietnam? And, what light do they shed upon today's protracted debacles? James Wright doesn't ask, so I will: What the hell are they teaching at West Point?
Enduring Vietnam devotes a few pages to VVAW, a few more to My Lai, and a few paragraphs to the Pentagon Papers. I suppose every book about Vietnam has to touch those buttons. But while author Wright interviewed 86 veterans, there is no evidence that he interviewed anyone associated with VVAW. All he had to do was Google us, but he didn't. There's no indication he interviewed Daniel Ellsberg or anyone who was at My Lai. Or, for that matter, Seymour Hersh, who broke the story. Wright offers amazing statistics about what he calls "mess" clubs, including the curious fact that the army's clubs generated over $177 million in revenue in 1969 and over $22 million in profit. The "Khaki Mafia" scandal is never mentioned! Clearly, James Wright harbors a great deal of "proper respect" for the military lifers who were corrupt, pompous, incompetent, and who directed and profited from the unprecedented destruction and death that rained upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia while they lined their OD green pockets! He cannot neglect the terrible effects of the war upon its veterans, but he finds little fault. In the end, Enduring Vietnam is just one more of an endless chain of books about Vietnam that relate a long list of facts, but fail to describe the tragedy of it all, the vast extent of the harm done, or to assess blame. This book will do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Ken Burns and "Mad Dog" Mattis may be comfortable with that, but I am not!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW. He is the author of …and a hard rain fell, and a new book to be published in May or June of this year, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.