The operative word in the title of James Wright’s superb book is “enduring.” It applies not only to members of all military branches who were “enduring” the horrors of combat alternating with the soul-numbing boredom of an assignment far from home but also to the families back home “enduring” the wait for their loved ones to return, while being bombarded daily with media reports primarily featuring bad news.
Enduring Vietnam succeeds on several levels as it looks at a generation and those of it “who served and sacrificed.” On one level it is a well-researched, cogently written and thoughtful history of the war. On another, it gives Vietnam vets and their families the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words. Finally, it includes Wright’s own reflections on “why America in the 1960s sent its young to war…and why this generation served and sacrificed in a war that drifted in purpose and declined in public support.”
In a vivid example of the combat suffered by those who fought in Vietnam, Wright focuses on the May 1969 assault and capture of Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley near the Laotian border. The Vietnamese name for Hill 937 is Dong Ap Bia, but the 101st Airborne Division troopers who launched multiple frontal assaults up its steep slopes to dislodge the firmly entrenched North Vietnamese Army aptly called it “Hamburger Hill”—a veritable human meat grinder. Wright chose that battle because it encapsulated “many of the elements of the American War: elusive tactical goals, unexpected sustained resistance from disciplined and tough enemy forces who seldom followed the American expectations, American troops who despite those surprises fought with courage, and a growing controversy in the United States about the need for the battle.”
Both U.S. and NVA troops fighting for Hamburger Hill were surprised. The Americans because the NVA, unlike in previous engagements, stood and fought. The NVA because the Americans, despite horrific casualties, kept coming time after time for 10 agonizing days. The Americans eventually took the heavily bombed, burned and blasted hill, but at a high cost—more than 100 dead and another nearly 400 wounded. The NVA suffered an estimated 630 killed in action and likely several hundred more wounded.
But, as was so typical in America’s Vietnam War battles, Wright notes, “The heroism was there, but the tales of it were missing….There was no flag raising on the top of Dong Ap Bia, no symbolic moment when weary soldiers reached the summit and combat photographers captured their victory with an inspiring, iconic image.”
Wright highlights the irony that the victory American troops had sacrificed so much to gain was seized upon by anti-war politicians to criticize the war. Sen. Ted Kennedy publicly lambasted the Nixon administration’s political leadership and criticized the tactical skill and competence of the military leadership that caused “American boys…to be sacrificed for a false sense of military pride.” Unlike in America’s previous wars, during the Vietnam War it became acceptable to score political points using the blood and bodies of U.S. troops.
Further insight into Wright’s motivation for writing this history of the Vietnam War can be gleaned from a Veterans Day speech the author delivered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2009. Wright said the casualties of war cry out to be known as persons, not as numbers or names on a memorial. We can remember them for history and for those in the future who would send the young to war.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2017 issue.