Much has changed about the nature of warfare in the 100 years since the end of World War I, including the percentage of American adults who have served in the U.S. military.
“I’m of the over-75 generation, [and] 52 percent of us are veterans,” former Dartmouth College president James Wright said Monday on St. Louis on the Air. “The Vietnam generation, about 37 percent are veterans. And of course the current generation, in their 20s and early 30s, it’s about 2 percent … it’s clear which way this demographic is moving.”
In conversation with host Don Marsh, the military historian was quick to add that while it’s a relief to have far smaller percentages of the nation’s young people heading off to war, it also means that fewer and fewer Americans understand “what it is that we’re asking them to do.”
Wright’s latest book, “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War," takes a close look at what the experience was like for those who served in Vietnam – and then returned to a homefront quite distinct from those their parents and grandparents encountered earlier on in the 20th century.
“If the Korean War was the forgotten war, Vietnam was never the forgotten war … but we really ignored those who came home,” said Wright, who joined the talk show ahead of an evening presentation Monday at the Missouri History Museum. “I think that was the thing I heard most – not that they had to encounter protestors but [that] nobody even asked [about the experience of war].”
He recounted how one woman he interviewed for his book – an Army nurse – was welcomed home with a potluck during which no one attempted to talk with her about what she’d just endured.
“Another kid said somebody said, ‘Nice suntan,’ [like he’d] just come up from Florida rather than Vietnam,” Wright added. “Another … who was a Marine [said] he thought, ‘Maybe I can talk to my dad about this, because my dad was on Iwo Jima,’ and he told me 40 years later his dad had never really asked him about what he did there [in Vietnam].”
The author said he’s “not too kind” to the leaders who sent U.S. troops to Vietnam but does see a need to better recognize the contributions of the many baby boomers who accepted the draft notice and served “in an unpopular war.”
“I’m not trying to make it a popular war in my book,” Wright explained. “But I do think that those kids … really demonstrated a fundamental form of service and patriotism.”
With U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War occurring in the ’60s and ’70s, he added, “we think of the generation as a time of peace and love and protest, and really they did change American culture in some profound and good ways. But we also need to realize that [nearly] 40 percent of the men in that generation served in the military.”
Wright noted that the wars the U.S. has fought from the Korean War onward are “really being fought with the military being used to advance a political goal,” something that distinguishes them from wars of the more distance past.
“[It’s] often a very valid political goal, [such as] to keep North Korea from permanently invading and occupying South Korea, but there are no clear military objectives,” Wright said. “In Vietnam, for example, 80 percent of the encounters with the enemy were initiated by the enemy – we didn’t have mass landings to go in and try to fight them. We didn’t in most cases occupy ground and hold it.
“There were no flag raisings like there were on Iwo Jima or places like that. There were not these iconic moments.”
What: Experiences and Memory: Enduring Vietnam
When: 7 p.m. Monday, November 12, 2018
Where: Missouri History Museum’s Lee Auditorium (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.