TOPICS > Nation

Honoring Soldiers Who Fought and Died in the Recent Afghanistan and Iraq Wars

November 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, the gap between soldier and society only widens. Gwen Ifill talks to Dartmouth College's president emeritus James Wright, who says he is concerned about how Americans will choose to remember and honor those fallen in the line of fire during the two longest wars in U.S. history.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now to our second Veterans Day story, about how we remember the sacrifice of those who served.

James Wright is the president emeritus of DartmouthCollege. He says that now is the time to begin talking about how the nation will honor the heroes of its longest wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Welcome, James Wright.

You mentioned in an article that you wrote and in your book that there’s a gap between — that exists now between the soldier and society. Tell me what you mean by that.

JAMES WRIGHT, president emeritus, DartmouthCollege: For these wars we have had over the last 11 years, those who have fought them are less and less representative of a cross-section of our society. Fewer of us know who they are, what it is that they have suffered.

And as these wars are winding down, we’re paying less and less attention to them. It surely, in any specific sense, wasn’t a focus of this last political campaign. And I don’t mean simply presidential, as far as I know, in congressional and senatorial races as well. And we just need to refocus on them.

My suggestion that we start to think about how it is we’re going to remember their wars has less to do with how we start creating monuments. That’s not my interest.

My interest is to remind people that we really have to make certain that the people who are fighting these wars have a role in helping to shape how we remember those wars.

The World War II veterans didn’t have a chance, except after many of them had died, to do this. The Korean War veterans didn’t have an opportunity to do this until after many of them have died.

And I think we have to start thinking about this now. But it has less to do with marble and granite than it really has to do with this country recognizing what it is that we have asked these young Americans to do over the last 11 years.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the marble and granite for a moment because on this day, Veterans Day, and over the weekend, many people observe by going to these memorials, by seeing the way that we have chosen to honor our veterans.

And until Vietnam, they were mostly about living memory. They were about maybe a statue here or there. But then we had the Vietnam Memorial, which opened in 1982. And that was about sacrifice.

JAMES WRIGHT: It was about sacrifice. And it was really quite different for national memorials. But if you go to many communities across the country, often, the obelisks and markers that they have there do include the names of those who were lost in the war. So, it’s not something that’s unprecedented.

But the Vietnam Memorial was quite a different thing. And it really said let us remind everyone of the cost of this war. And if you walk down those black granite walls, you can see these names. And each one of these names suggests an individual who had a lot of hopes and a lot of dreams that ended very quickly. We have to find ways to continue to remember them.

GWEN IFILL: Very different way than the Korean War, the memorial which came as a result of a Vietnam War. That was a memorial to experience. And then the World War II memorial, which opened some years later on the National Mall, seemed to be more about triumphalism and a war that was about victory.

Those were very different ways of actually doing this, of honoring these veterans.

JAMES WRIGHT: It really has been, although the Korean War veterans, Colonel Bill Weber and some of those who were involved in putting up that original memorial 20-plus years ago, they now are trying to include there the names of those who were lost in Korea, because they realize that there has to be a way of recording them and of reminding people of them.

But the World War II Memorial is more abstract. And it’s about the triumph of democracy.

GWEN IFILL: And now we have the longest wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan, of course, still under way. How do you suggest that we should begin to think about honoring those veterans?

JAMES WRIGHT: Yes, I think probably we shouldn’t begin to think about it, but I would like to find a way to encourage them to think about it. I have no interest in trying to think about how their memorial, how it is that this nation will remember their wars.

But I’m trying to encourage them to start pressing upon us the need to do that, because I think that’s terribly important. As I said, we waited too long for the Korean veterans and the World War II veterans. Thanks to Jan Scruggs and others, we’re very active. Thanks to, I think, a guilt feeling in the late ’70s and early ’80s in this country, we did move far more quickly for the Vietnam veterans.

And they were able to participate in planning their memorial. And they have been able over the years to continue to go there.

GWEN IFILL: James Wright, president emeritus of Dartmouth College and the author of “Those Who Have Borne the Battle,” thank you so much for joining us this Veterans Day.

JAMES WRIGHT: Thank you so much.