Book Review: Those Who Have Borne the Battle, by James Wright

Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them, by James Wright, PublicAffairs, New York, 2012, $28.99

James Wright, the historian and former president of Dartmouth College, takes the title of his book from Abraham Lincoln’s famed March 4, 1865, second inaugural address. “Let us strive,” Lincoln said, “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” Those stirring words, which are inscribed at the entrance of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., fittingly describe the subject of Wright’s worthy book.

As does his subtitle, since Wright—who served three years (1957–60) in the U.S. Marine Corps—here presents a well-written summary of the way America has raised its armies to fight its wars and how the nation has treated the veterans of those wars. Wright begins with the American Revolution but concentrates on World War II and what came afterward. The book, Wright says, “describes how we have mobilized for our wars, how we think about the service of those who are called upon, and how we treat them after their service has ended, as we attempt to return to status quo ante bellum.”

Specifically, Wright says, he is interested in “the way societies and cultures think about their past and about their legacy, which can indeed have consequences for subsequent understandings, choices and behavior.” In that context he writes convincingly of the negative consequences of the “deification of the World War II generation” (aka the “Greatest Generation”), which prevailed in the “good war.”

Among many other things, that glorification of World War II and its veterans had an impact on the way the United States prosecuted the Vietnam War and the shameful way the nation as a whole treated veterans of that war. While it has been well chronicled that members of the antiwar movement vilified Vietnam veterans for taking part in that war, Wright also points out that members of the Greatest Generation also mistreated those who fought in the Vietnam War.

“The pro-war right, normally considered the natural allies of military forces and veterans, was of little help to Vietnam veterans,” Wright writes. “There was on the part of some conservatives, particularly among veterans groups, a sense that the Vietnam veterans were weak drug addicts and shiners.”

One good thing came out of this: Sometime in the 1980s the American populace realized it was unfairly blaming the Vietnam warrior for the war. That situation then led directly to the situation today in which, as Wright points out, Americans of all virtually political stripes have embraced today’s veterans of the wars in Iraq an Afghanistan as heroes, “even if we do not really know them.” While treating every returning veteran as a hero has some drawbacks, it is immeasurably preferable to the disgraceful treatment given to veterans of the Vietnam War when they returned home.

—Marc Leepson

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