Author: Americans Know Little About Vietnam Vets
The experiences of the generation that went to war in Vietnam were largely unknown to the American public at the time, says historian and author James Wright. And, he says, not that much has changed.
The author of a highly acclaimed book on Vietnam, Wright said the public should know more. “Killing or being killed is the cruel purpose of war. We can talk about it in diplomatic and geopolitical and strategic terms, but it comes down to putting some young people in the field and saying, ‘You have to kill or be killed.’ That’s what war is,” Wright said in remarks at a Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer Lecture series event hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare.
His book, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War, was published last year.
Offering a snapshot of what he called a “different world,” Wright said more than 60 percent of Americans today were born after the last combat units left Vietnam in 1973, and over 75 percent of people today will never face the possibility of a draft. Some 50 percent of American men over age 75 are veterans, while about 36 percent of the men ages 65 to 74, the Vietnam generation, are veterans. In comparison, he said, only about 1.5 percent of men and women ages 18 to 34 today are veterans or serving.
“Most Americans don’t really know the Vietnam experience and very few did in the 1960s either, for a war that was as publicized, watched and debated” as the Vietnam War was, Wright said, noting that “the vast majority of citizens today have no idea what servicemen and -women go through when they’re trained to fight, sent into battle and then return home.”
Wright, who joined the Marine Corps at age 17 and ended his service three years later as a lance corporal, acknowledged that veterans can be reluctant to tell their stories, and lamented the fact that many World War II veterans have passed on without sharing theirs. He encouraged people to persuade veterans to talk about their experiences and suggested they would be more willing to do so if they talk with another veteran.
“It’s hard to get them to tell their stories, and it’s too easy for the rest of us to sort of ignore the real story of what war is,” he said. On dozens of visits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to do research for his books, he said, he discovered that the wounded are willing to talk in detail about their experiences.
“Veterans are more comfortable talking to other veterans and we just have to realize that. I don’t think we can press somebody, if they’re not looking to talk about it, they’re not looking to talk about it. But we have to keep trying to find ways to learn these stories.”