A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them

By James Edward Wright PublicAffairs. 351 pp. $28.99

James Edward Wright eloquently describes the history of American forces at war in his new book, “Those Who Have Borne The Battle.” Wright’s impressively detailed text begins in Yorktown during the revolution and progresses to the muddy redoubts around Pork Chop Hill in Korea and on to the unforgiving and austere mountainsides of the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

One fascinating aspect of the book is its exploration of military demographics through the years. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, only 40 soldiers of the 28,000 in the Army were younger than 21. In Korea, half of them were younger than 21. In Vietnam, the average age was 19.

‘Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them by’ James Wright (PublicAffairs)

At the heart of this book are the experiences of the boots on the ground. Wright, a Marine veteran, historian and former president of Dartmouth College, sympathetically portrays the hardships of the common men — and more recently, women — called up for duty. In researching the book, he conducted more than 300 interviews during visits to military hospitals for wounded veterans. “War is about strategic agendas and epic battles that define nations and shape history,” he explains. “War is about courage and heroism, but it is also about pain and suffering and sorrow and tragedy.”

Wright contends that those who have borne the battle in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home to little fanfare. Most Americans have not been remotely affected by the wars of the past decade. Some choose to “display magnetic ribbons on automobiles” or “applaud their sacrifices” during baseball games, but “this has little real impact,” he writes. However, there is a risk to deifying the troops, Wright argues, as has largely occurred with the “greatest generation” who fought during World War II. “It was not a glamorous war,” he writes. “It was savage and dirty, and sometimes those fighting it demonstrated uncommon courage and sometimes uncommon cruelty.” Simply put, “It was a war.”

T. Rees Shapiro