I grew up convinced I would die in the jungles of Vietnam. I needn’t have worried. My birth had come almost a full decade too late.
My worries weren’t constant, in any case. Most of the time I was too busy playing pick-up games in the backyard or schoolyard, and organized games at the local park or ice rink. It was only on Sunday evenings when we went to my grandmother’s house that my anxiety came to the fore. As we sat in the parlor waiting for Nana to serve the pot roast, Walter Cronkite came on the television and with him the images. And with the images, the fear. (Did the adults have any idea how powerful these images were on impressionable minds?)
Then the war went away. I was too busy with sporting activities and being a kid to wonder why.
The cloud of Vietnam never fully lifted from the cultural horizon. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now introduced me to a seamier side of the war that CBS had not. I had been too young for the war and now I was too young for Hollywood’s first cinematic depictions of it. I didn’t get them. The Russian roulette scene (“Mao!” Thwack!), the choppers flying to Wagner’s music (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”) was all my friends and I could talk about, all we cared about.
In high school, the Woodstock movie was more my speed. Country Joe MacDonald sang “And it’s one, two three,/ What are we fighting for?/ Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,/ Next stop is Vietnam;/ And it’s five, six, seven,/ Open up the pearly gates,/ Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why,/ Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.” Arlo Guthrie sang (well, he didn’t actually sing that part) about the “twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles/ And arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one….” These protest songs I could relate to. I knew I would have done anything to avoid the war, myself.
More books and movies followed: A Rumor of War, Platoon, Good Morning, Vietnam!, Forrest Gump, The Things They Carried. All reinforced the idea that this was an especially sinister war, in which American participants, from the president on down, lost their moral compass in the “heart of darkness” of Vietnam.
The war hung unresolved and poorly understood over my head. Then, last summer, I read Marvin and Deborah Kalb’s Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. The father daughter team chronicled in detail how the shadow of the war has loomed over our politics to the present day. In so doing, they gave context to the many international news events of my adult life.
Now, this summer, I discover Elizabeth Partridge’s Boot’s on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam. It takes its camera closer to the ground to show the lived experience of young Americans who were actualy there. Partridge writes with equal respect for those who served as those who protested. The polarized cultural legacy is as “haunting” as the political/military one in the Kalbs’ account. Partridge gives hope that we might eventually escape its “haunting legacy.”
Partridge interviewed eight different service members: an early military advisor, two infantry soldiers, a machine gunner, a Green Beret, a medic, a nurse, and a Vietnamese refugee (her son’s mother-in-law!). Between these “Vietnam” chapters, Partridge places chapters labeled “America,” which follow the contemporary political developments in the United States. (The camera may rise out of the jungles, but it continues to follow individuals’ stories.) She includes a chapter from President Kennedy’s point of view, two from Lyndon Johnson’s, one from Martin Luther King’s, three from Richard Nixon’s, one from Country Joe McDonald’s, one from Gerald Ford’s, and two from the creators of the Vietnam Memorial.
The “America” chapters are as important and illuminating as the “Vietnam” chapters. The post-war chapters are as important as the war chapters. In fact, I found the Maya Lin chapter to be one of the most powerful in the whole book. Her iconic design might have been stillborn had some vocal dissenters had their way.
Partridge begins her book with a very personal prologue. It is November 1968. The author and her boyfriend (and one other friend) are driving east into the Sierras. These three Berkeley hippies pick up a hitchhiker who, they now notice, has short hair. “Military short.” They learn he has just come back from “Nam.” Partridge recalls her discomfort, making clear what side of the cultural divide she grew up on. She follows her student-eye memories through the 1970s before jumping ahead to the twenty-first century, and her first visit to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Remember that, she is saying. The Wall is crucial to this story.
Though her perspective shifts throughout the book, Partridge’s book is neatly chronological. Often threads from an America chapter find their way into the next Vietnam chapter. We read that President Johnson, in the summer of 1965, reluctantly sent forty-four more combat battalions to Vietnam, bringing the total number of troops to 200,000. In the next chapter, we learn that Gilbert de la O is one of those soldiers whose battalions has been called up. The narrative shows Martin Luther King in 1967, struggling to balance nonviolent principles with the need to stay focused on civil rights. In the next chapter, Henry Allen, a King follower, faces the same quandary, even more intensely, while toting a machine gun in Southeast Asia.
As the narrative approaches the seventies, we read about Country Joe McDonald’s performance at Woodstock and, in the next chapter, how nurse Lily Lee Adams (partial to “love-ins and peaceful protests”) regretted missing the festival at Yasgur’s farm. We read of Gerald Ford’s decision to abandon Saigon in 1975, followed in the next chapter by Hoa Thi Nguyen’s harrowing escape from the fallen capital. These may be small moments, but they show the deft touch of a gifted nonfiction storyteller
Each American serviceman (and one woman) we follow in this book leaves us a little more distressed and ashamed. How could our government, our country, put its citizens in such a no-win situation. Partridge articulates the thoughts of Jan Scruggs as he lies wounded under a tree, early in his tour “in country”: “I’m going to be dead within minutes in this little nothing of a battle in Vietnam that’s not even going to change the course of the war. This is not like Normandy, or Stalingrad. This is just a skirmish.”
The presidents’ stories elicit varying degrees of sympathy, scorn, and incredulity. Partridge’s research lets us listen in on Kennedy’s private thoughts following the November 1963, overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem: “I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it,” he records into his Dictaphone. Later in the recording he called the killing “abhorrent.” One feels anguish and the weight of responsibility behind those words.
JFK’s successor, in Partridge’s depiction, is both pitiable and outrageous. He roars in frustration, “This is not Johnson’s war. This is America’s war. If I drop dead tomorrow, this war will still be with you.” He laments in desperation, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
Nixon brings a Machiavellian crudeness to the Vietnam presidency. Partridge quotes him saying, “If you can’t lie, you’ll never go anywhere,” then documents how he follows through on this promise–repeatedly –in his ordering of bombings in Cambodia. Nixon doesn’t allow us to muster even a whit of sympathy on his behalf. He calls the protesters “bums.” He authorizes an investigative unit, later known simply as “the Plumbers,” to dig up dirt on Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame. We know where that line of work will lead. We know how that sordid story ends.
Partridge doesn’t let the story drop with the fall of Saigon. The struggle over the meaning of the war continued, both for the individuals who served and for the country as a whole. In one of her most affecting chapters, Partridge follows the abrupt highs and lows of Jan Scruggs in the decade following his year in Vietnam. Marriage and degrees in psychology were accompanied by heavy drinking and a near-attempted suicide. A viewing of the movie The Deer Hunter sent him into a tailspin that might have ended badly but, instead, gave him the idea for a Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.
The last two chapters recount the unlikely selection of Maya Lin’s design, its near-rejection by the community of veterans, and its ultimate vindication at the National Salute to Vietnam Veterans in November 1982.
Boots on the Ground is a book of healing. It gives voice to service members who were “asked to fight for something [they] didn’t believe in, for a country that didn’t believe in [them].” Then they returned from war only to be neglected or, worse, shamed. Partridge’s book shows them honorably trying to execute the mission they were assigned, a mission they tried valiantly to believe in. It shows them having more than a little in common with the protesters who spat on them as they returned home. Even Country Joe’s protest anthem was anti-the-people-who-made-the-war-happen, not anti-soldier.
If you don’t close the book making a pledge to yourself to visit The Wall as soon as possible, it can only be because you have already visited it in the past. In which case, Partridge’s book is equally valuable for revealing its story–along with those of eight others whose names are not etched in its granite.
Source: Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, Elizabeth Partridge (2018)