Dartmouth President Emeritus James Wright '64a—looking tanned and relaxed following a visit to a Red Sox spring training game in Florida—was as warm and welcoming as ever when he greeted a visitor to his office on a sunny April day. Wright, the Dartmouth College Eleazar Wheelock Professor of History, had a reason to be smiling. His new book, Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them, had just arrived. The book will be formally released during an event on April 26 in Washington, D.C. View an invitation.
The concise 351-page book is one of the first to focus on the experience of veterans throughout this country’s history, from the American Revolution to the war in Afghanistan. “It’s a study about what Americans have thought about war, how we have mobilized for war, and how we’ve treated the people who have fought the wars,” says Wright, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 17.
One of the central themes of the book is that members of the military, while professional and highly capable, no longer represent a broad cross-section of the country. They tend to be geographically more southern than northern, and more rural than urban. There are also fewer people volunteering—only about 1 percent of the general population currently serve in the military, while in World War II, that number ranged from 12 to 14 percent.
"The traditional American attitude was that in a democracy everybody is obligated to take up arms to defend that democracy,” says Wright. “This was part of the rhetoric that came out of the American Revolution. But today—when we talk about the sons and daughters fighting in wars—it’s not the sons and daughters of most of us. Who are they and what do we owe them? I think that’s a question we as a country continue to wrestle with."
While Wright notes that veterans today are treated better than were the veterans of the Vietnam War, he is concerned with the well-intentioned but somewhat superficial recognition of their service, such as ribbons on cars, extended applause at sporting events, or billboard advertisements noting a business's support of veterans. In the chapter "Remember That," he writes, "If we have no personal relationships with those who are fighting our war, then we think of the war as a geopolitical drama, and we think of those fighting it as heroic action figures, or perhaps as victims, but also less as real lives with real dreams at real risk."
A consummate teacher and mentor to students, Wright enrolled James Reed '12, James Shinn '11, and Michael Stinetorf '11 (a veteran of the Iraq War) to serve as research assistants on the book. He also consulted with Dartmouth professors, among them Robert Bonner in history and Ben Valentino in government, and alumni including Nathaniel Fick ’99, author of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer.
Wright's wife, Susan Wright, says, "Jim loves being a historian, and this book is a natural follow-up to all of his research, including his many years teaching history at Dartmouth, his reading about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his visits with wounded veterans going back to 2005. Jim isn't one to talk a lot, but he will go into every detail about those visits with veterans and their families. He is deeply moved by them."
The book is dedicated to Susan and to all the veterans who have served.
Boot Camp, and High School, 55 Years Later
In the next few months, in addition to speaking about his book at various engagements, President Wright will recognize the 55th anniversary of two major occasions in his life. He will serve as the Parade Reviewing Officer at a graduation at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego—the same boot camp he attended in 1957. He will also be the graduation speaker for Galena High School in Illinois, from which he graduated in 1957. “I had Marine drill instructors and teachers in Galena who would never have believed that I would have these roles,” says Wright.
Photos, top to bottom: Cover of the book, courtesy Public Affairs Books; Wright in his office in April 2012, courtesy Eli Burak '00; Susan and Jim Wright at Mont Saint-Michel in France in 2009, courtesy Jim Wright.
By Steve Smith