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An Open Letter to Student Activists by Elizabeth Partridge, Author of BOOTS ON THE GROUND

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Boots on the Ground is an intimate portrait of America’s war in Vietnam, containing more than one hundred photographs. Award-winning author Elizabeth Partridge’s unflinching book captures the intensity, frustration, and lasting impacts of one of the most tumultuous periods of American history. The book features key American leaders and events, reminding us of all that was happening at home during the war, including peace protests, presidential scandals, and veterans’ struggles to acclimate to life after Vietnam. Betsy has noticed the parallels in American student activism between Vietnam and today–read her letter below, then start reading Boots on the Ground , out 4/10!

 

Open letter to student activists:

Fifty years ago this spring, our government was sending young men – like the guys I was in high school with — to fight and die in the Vietnam war. I was angry and heartbroken. If they were eighteen and out of school, unless they had a good reason to refuse, men were drafted into the US Army.

Every night on the television news, we saw soldiers – our soldiers – shooting and killing North Vietnamese forces, bombing villages, spraying deadly poison. I felt bad for the guys who were sent to Vietnam, and agonized for the civilians caught in the middle. We saw footage of desperate people running, clutching children, their huts being burned to the ground.

In my big, urban high school, protesting began. We left our classes, poured onto the streets, and joined demonstrations on the nearby University of California campus. We marched and sang and chanted and yelled and wept. We did it again, and again, and again.

I hated the crowds, and feared the violence that could flare up suddenly from either cops or protestors. But I thought, if not now, when? How else would we stop the war? The protests were our full-throated cry to the president, to the men and a few women who set policy and made laws in far-off Washington DC. We had no other recourse: at the time, we couldn’t vote until we were twenty-one.

Now, fifty years later, the guns are trained on you, on our high school campuses. The thought is terrifying, the reality a thousand-fold worse.

Here’s what I learned a half a century ago: get out there and protest. Do it again and again, as long as you can stand it. When you can’t stand it anymore, someone else will take your place. Just do your part, no matter how small.

Our politicians can change, or we can vote them out. Axiom: Who wins the election depends on who votes. Vote with your feet, vote with the ballot.

Something I didn’t understand back then? The older people who marched with us, some of them way older, the ones who moved slowly, were rarely at the front of the marches. But they showed up, and inside each of them was a fire, still burning bright.

There are a lot of us moving slower now, but know that every one of us has a fiery knot of fury deep in our heart. Once again, our elected officials are doing nothing to stop the killing. So we will turn out to march with you. And for you.
Stay strong. You can – and will – change our country.

 

Read an excerpt from Boots on the Ground !

After graduation, John enrolled in college, which deferred his military service. Warren was ordered by the Selective Service, the agency in charge of the draft, to report for his physical. He was given a medical deferment for the braces he wore on his teeth, and told to report back in a year. I started college at nearby UC Berkeley, where my life was a mixture of antiwar rallies and marches and beginning French and rhetoric classes. Men were still being drafted, and Americans and Vietnamese were dying. Why couldn’t we—or wouldn’t we—get out of Vietnam?

A lot of protestors wanted to know the same thing. Peaceful gatherings became violent as frustrated demonstrators threw rocks and bottles, even started fires. I hated being in the middle of the unruly, angry crowds. Policemen and the National Guard retaliated with tear gas, helicopters, and bullets. How had we come to this, where violence was used to protest violence?

I went to more classes and fewer protests, until I steered clear of demonstrations completely. But conflict was unavoidable. As I came out of class one day, a helicopter swept over campus and released a wide arc of tear gas meant for a nearby rally. I ran blindly back into the building, coughing and choking, my lungs and eyes on fire.

Our country had irrevocably split in two: those for the war, and those against.

In April 1975, the North Vietnamese Communists swept down through South Vietnam, heading for the capital, Saigon. On April 23, President Gerald R. Ford announced the war was finished as far as America was concerned. Five days later, as North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon, Ford ordered the evacuation of all United States citizens from Vietnam. Helicopters plucked the last desperate Americans from the roof of the embassy.

More than a million Americans had served in combat or in at-risk support teams in Vietnam. There had been no parades, no celebrations to welcome anyone home. Those who’d served in Vietnam kept their heads down and did their best to readjust privately to civilian life. Like most Americans whose lives were not directly touched by the war, I put it behind me and went on with my life. I was just relieved the fighting was over.

 

A few years ago, I visited Washington, DC. Our complicated military involvement in the Middle East made me think once again about the dark, divisive days of the Vietnam War. I walked over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “the Wall,” near the Lincoln Memorial. Late-afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees. It was chilly, and few people were in the park. The memorial emerged out of the grass, then as I walked alongside, it rose higher, and higher still. 57,939 American names were inscribed on it in 1982 when it was dedicated, arranged by casualty date—the day the person was killed, or sustained wounds that led to death. I ran my fingers over the tiny, chiseled letters. So many dead. Buddies who’d died together now clustered together forever in the granite.

57,939 is an abstract number, but name after name under my fingertips was not. How had this happened, that we’d been drawn deeper and deeper into the war, at such great cost? So many lives lost, both Americans and Vietnamese.

A young man with an open face came up to me. “Could you do me a favor?” he asked. He waved his cell phone apologetically. “My grandmother asked me to take a photograph of my grandfather’s name,” he said. “And my battery’s dead.”

I used my phone to take a picture of him pointing to his grandfather’s name, Galen E. Haynie, and texted it to him. He thanked me, glad to have a picture for his grandmother, and loped off.

Long ago, back in 1969, Galen E. Haynie had died in Vietnam. He’d left a widow at home with a child to raise. Later, there was a cheerful grandson. The war continued to reverberate through our country, through these dead.

I put both my hands flat on the granite. It was still warm, a gentle radiance of the day’s earlier sunlight. Tears filled my eyes, surprising me. How could I be crying for people I’d never known?

In a sudden flash, I remembered the hitchhiking Green Beret. He must have had friends whose names were chiseled into the granite. Had he come here to pay his respects, to remember?

Who were they, all these Americans who left the United States—volunteers and draftees—to fight in a war far away? Where were the men who’d come back, who’d laughed and eaten and fought alongside their buddies in Vietnam, mourned them in death? Where were the women who’d cared for the injured and dying?

I set out to find a few of these veterans. I wanted to hear their stories, understand what their time in Vietnam had been like.

 

 

 

Read more and pre-order your copy of Boots on the Ground!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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