Why America goes to war and who fights its wars are two realities that have drastically changed since World War II. In Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them (PublicAffairs, 368 pp., $28.99 ), author and historian James Wright, a former Marine, provides a concise and informative look into these two phenomena.
While the book—which emphasizes the role and the burden of the soldier in America’s wars—begins with the Revolutionary War, Wright (a former history professor and the president of Dartmouth College from 1998-2009) presents the Vietnam War as a turning point in America’s war history. Unlike past wars, Vietnam “seemed more discretionary, based on policy makers’ judgment and calculations and presumptions,” Wright argues. Because of this, he concludes, “Vietnam did not fit easily into the narrative of American wars.”
This change in the rational for war, Wright maintains, altered American war-time consciousness. While Americans shared a sense of collective responsibility and burden in their country’s pre-Vietnam wars, going off to war in Vietnam “seemed more optional, or at least it became less a shared responsibility,” Wright says.
In the final chapters Wright reflects on the great extent to which this mentality has moved forward since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. As the United States continues to fight wars many view as “discretionary,” and as the nation’s population expands, Wright points out, the U.S. military has become less representative of American society.
Offering much more than a dry retelling of America’s wars, Wright’s book allows readers to follow the evolution of important trends in American warfare and to easily pick up and trace the author’s line of reasoning.