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The Wright Stuff

Dartmouth’s former president adds a new dimension to histories about the Vietnam War: the human element.
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On a muggy day in September 2014, James Wright, president emeritus of Dartmouth, visited a battlefield of the Vietnam War where Billy Smoyer ’67 was killed in an ambush with 18 fellow Marines on July 28, 1968. A history major and popular hockey and soccer star, Smoyer had volunteered because he believed the war shouldn’t be fought by just the sons of miners and factory workers. Wright buried a hockey puck in the mud where 2nd Lt. Smoyer died less than a month after he had arrived in Vietnam. 

A couple of miles away, in another rice paddy, Smoyer’s classmate Duncan Sleigh ’67, a Latin major, was killed with a dozen more Marines four months later, shielding the body of one of his wounded men. He was posthumously awarded a Navy Cross for gallantry. “I buried a small New Hampshire memento in that rice paddy,” Wright says. 

The former history professor writes about such men and their sacrifices in his engrossing new book, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War, which is encyclopedic in its breadth and depth and profoundly moving in its ability to convert numb statistics into an homage to those who served and sometimes never came home. [Read an excerpt of Wright’s book here]

“This book is not a compendium of memories,” Wright explains. “It is a work of history that seeks to understand why America in the 1960s sent its young to war, to remember who the Vietnam generation was and how they had grown up, to reflect on why this generation served and sacrificed in a war that drifted in purpose and declined in public support. Finally, I focus on the human face, the human cost, of war. It is a cost that by no means is paid in full when the shooting stops.” 

Wright seems uniquely qualified to weigh in. Before he became the 16th president of Dartmouth, serving from 1998 to 2009, he was a popular professor of American history. As a teenager fresh out of high school, he joined the Marines and served three years stateside and in Japan, well before the Vietnam War. After his discharge as a lance corporal, he worked as a lead miner in his hometown of Galena, Illinois. He also became a voracious reader in his spare time. 

“Just having a couple of years to grow up, I was curious and thought I might go to college and become a high school history teacher,” Wright says. Since 2005, Wright has supported veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, visiting some in hospitals and steering others toward colleges and universities, including Dartmouth. 

Beginning in 2009, Wright has focused on what he calls history on a personal level. He translates a wealth of statistics into the experiences of the G.I.s in the field, an opportunity for those who served, and sometimes their families, to tell their stories. He brings the stats alive. More than 2.5 million Americans served in Vietnam. Wright focuses on the half million who did the actual fighting. Draftees constituted a growing part of the U.S forces just as their casualties increased markedly.

His resurrection of a war never won and now largely forgotten builds upon his 2012 book, Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them. Wright reminds us that the American war in Vietnam was never about just Vietnam, though it remains a political, cultural and moral minefield. The war was waged largely without front lines, built around small-unit actions intended to surprise the enemy or lure it into attacking. Close combat erupted almost by accident between armies. 

Wright interviewed nearly 160 people (including 17 Dartmouth alumni), some of whom shared their experiences for the first time. He also visited battlefields such as Dong Ap Bia, nicknamed “Hamburger Hill” by Army paratroopers who lived the carnage there in an 11-day battle in May 1969. No one knew what was going on there, even at the command level, but losses were so high on the hill that enlistees were left to assume more authority. “A lot of them had not been out of high school for a year before they came to Vietnam, and here they were taking over tactical operations in the jungle,” Wright says.

“Despite the inequities, a large part of an iconic American generation served there, and served well. If it was largely a blue-collar war, it surely was not uniformly one,” he writes. “College students and college graduates were also on the front lines. And by no means only as officers.”

Wright climbed Hamburger Hill  for his research and found it “very steep, more than 3,000 feet high, red clay and rocks, slippery after a summer heat that began our trek.”  

To Wright, the fallen cry out to be understood as more than abstract numbers or names chiseled into marble and granite. He learned that seriously wounded or dying soldiers often called out for their mothers. Army Ranger Robert Holmen ’72 described his first firefight: “The immediate emotion was one of exhilaration; really, the adrenaline was pumping and the realization that I was actually in life-and-death combat.” What followed was “some of the deepest dread that I ever can remember.” After he carried a dead G.I. back to the dust-off helicopters [with the prospect of continuing such work], the Ranger confessed: “I went from exhilaration to despair in the course of about 12 hours.” 

A survivor of Hamburger Hill told Wright of spending weeks in the jungle, “watching your uniform rot off your body, your boots rot…we just didn’t know what was going on in the world.” Happiness was finding spiced beef or peaches in your canned C-rations. “That’s what you were worried about, and keeping your weapon clean, having enough water, making sure that you kept security and you didn’t get your buddies killed somehow by doing something stupid.…You really didn’t know strategic stuff.” 

More young Americans—58,000—died in Vietnam than went to jail for refusing to serve or moved to Canada. By comparison, estimates of the number of Vietnamese who died range from 1 million to as many as 3 million. 

Popular stereotypes about Vietnam vets do them an injustice. “Many of those who served may have been unwilling, but they did not consider themselves hapless victims nor were they racist psychopaths,” Wright explains. “They came home quietly and stepped aside quickly, except perhaps for those who joined in antiwar activities.” For all the acts of courage and sacrifice, “there was relatively little enthusiasm for publicizing those accounts—or, revealingly, perhaps even less interest in hearing them. The result was a hard and impersonal narrative with few publicly celebrated military heroes and an often difficult and lonely homecoming.”  

In reviving their stories, Wright extends to Vietnam vets the respect and affection long overdue for those who served in one of America’s least popular wars, and for their next of kin. As he tells it, it is not too late to care. This is a compelling book that you’ll read fighting off tears or outrage, with compassion for a neglected generation that deserved so much better.                 

Christopher S. Wren covered Vietnam as a war correspondent from 1965 to 1970. He went on to work for The New York Times for nearly 29 years. Enduring Vietnam will be published April 4 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press.

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