James Wright, Marine (in the 1950s), PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin, professor at Dartmouth College as well as its President Emeritus, has written a fascinating and superb history of the American war in Vietnam. Wright is also an adopted member of the Dartmouth Class of 1964 and it is therefore surprising that he (1) chose to date the American War from LBJ's 1965 introduction of conventional combat forces and (2) does not even cite the collective memoir of his adopted class, Dartmouth Veterans: Vietnam Perspectives. For Wright's purpose the war does not include as its prime protagonists his adopted classmates. Yet, for all of us who served during that era, whether Wright's baby boomers, or those of us who are older, the Vietnam War is calculated from President Kennedy's introduction of Special Forces advisors in 1961making it a 12 year war.
A second fault in Wright's account is that he downplays North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh's commitment to communism calling him a nationalist revolutionary. Ho was, indeed, all of that but he was also a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1919 as well as an agent of Stalin's Comintern.
While these two failures degrade somewhat from his macro history, the great strengths of the book more than make up for them. What Wright has accomplished is a history that weaves together individual stories and the context in which those stores take place, both in Vietnam and back home. Moreover, the weaving is seamless, so much so, that the book is a compelling read. Wright's battle scenes are as harrowing as Hal Moore and Joe Galloway's description of the 1965 battle of the Ia Drang Valley. His stories of the families of those killed and of the wounded are full of pathos. He clearly captures life on the home front and shows the shift from support for the war to opposition. In short, Wright captures the era better than most and his book harkens back to the symbolism of the Wall - rising to a crescendo and then falling slowly back in accordance with the pace of Vietnamization.
Wright draws his sources from interviews, documents, books and articles. Among them are war novels from the era like Phillip Caputo's A Rumor of War. I do wish that for the final years he had drawn from John DelVecchio's The 13th Valley. Nevertheless, these criticisms are minor. James Wright has captured the essence of the American War in Vietnam from 1965 until 1973 and its lack of a clear end. Thus, the war endures in the minds of all who lived through the period or are related to those who did.