In the Foreword to Dartmouth Veterans: Vietnam Perspectives (Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England, 400 pp., $29.95, paper; $28.99 e book), edited by Phillip C. Schaefer, James Wright tells us he joined the Marines in June 1957, two weeks after he graduated from high school.
“Military service,” Wright writes, “was a part of the life plan for my generation and in my culture.” This is a statement that really made me scratch my head. I am in Wright’s generation and it wasn’t my attitude in 1957—nor was it in 1960 when I graduated from high school, nor in 1960 when I was in Air Force ROTC in college. It certainly was not my attitude late in 1965 when I got my draft notice.
I say this to make the point that these Dartmouth graduates are not like me. What’s more, they are not like most young men I knew back then, nor are they at all like the veterans whose essays I read in The Conflict That Was a War, a book I reviewed recently on this page.
The only big similarity between the men who wrote the essays for these two books is that many characterize themselves as patriots and as thinking that military service was “part of a life plan.”
Dartmouth Veterans offers multiple windows for outsiders to view a culture I, for one, knew nothing about and did not even suspect existed—the elite world of Dartmouth College graduates. There are 55 essays by Dartmouth classmates and three extras in this collection.
I decided to start reading this book with David S. Decalesta’s essay, “Entitled Elites and Exploited Expendables: the Privileged vs. the Patriots.” The author came from what he (and I) view as the elites. He ended up in Vietnam as a lieutenant leading a platoon of “expendables,” carrying out the orders of elite majors and colonels who had no experience fighting a war of counter-insurgency. This essay is typical of the others in this fine book—cogent, compassionate, and humane.
Reading this book brought home a truth about America: The family you are born into and the schools you go to are the prime determinants of what your life will turn out to be. The Dartmouth men in this book ended up as CEOs, stockbrokers, university professors, bankers, venture capitalists, and owners of chains of conveniences stores.
Such was not the destiny of the men who contributed to The Conflict That Was a War. These men were the “expendables,” and terrible things happened to most of them in Vietnam—and after they came home from the war.
Why were the men of Dartmouth successful after their war? This quote from David W. Kruger illustrates why. “Unexpectedly out of active duty, I cast about for what to do next,” he writes. “My good fortune continued, though, as my father-in-law called a family friend at a large Boston bank.”
Kruger got a job at the large bank, and spent almost thirty years there. All seven of the bank officers he met the day he interviewed were Dartmouth graduates. This is mind boggling to me, a lower middle-class boy from Yakima, Washington. My former father-in-law drove a beer delivery truck for Miller High Life. No career opportunities there for me.
This book puts the lie to the myth of Vietnam veterans as losers who came back home and never amounted to anything. These men went to law school or graduate school; they became captains of industry.
These men “elected to become officers” as that seemed the smart way to go. Many of us did not have that option, because we had made the bad choice to not attend Dartmouth. Had I even heard of Dartmouth in 1960, the year I graduated from high school, coincidentally the same year as most of the men in this book? I am not sure.
I highly recommend this book to everyone as a counterpoint to The Conflict That Was a War. There is much less combat narrative in this book, as one would suspect. Most of the Dartmouth men were REMFs of one kind or another.
Why go to Dartmouth to end up a grunt out in the shit? That would have been stupid.