Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam
(2018), a nonfiction book by American author Elizabeth Partridge, presents a multifaceted view of the Vietnam War, told through the first-person accounts of various people on both sides of the conflict, combined with several chapters profiling other prominent figures from both the pro- and anti-war factions. Containing more than 100 photographs, Boots on the Ground
serves as a stark reminder of one of history's most controversial and divisive wars, which still reverberates in the public consciousness more than fifty years after it first began.
In the opening prologue, Partridge reflects on a pivotal moment in her own youth. It is 1968, and she and some friends pick up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. He tells them he's a Green Beret, just returned from 'Nam. His confession rattles everyone else in the car, all of whom are against the Vietnam War. But as Partridge and her friends talk to the hitchhiker, she grows more interested in his experiences and what it was like on the battlefields of a nation half a world away. Some thirty years later, Partridge remembers this encounter as she visits the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with yet another questionable military conflict—the Iraq War—looming on the horizon. She renews her interest in getting to know the soldiers who risked their lives in Vietnam and sets out to talk to some of them, as well to others who were involved in, impacted by, or spurred to action because of the war.
From here, Partridge presents a chronological account of the conflict through an array of different lenses, starting in 1962. The first chapter is a profile of military advisor Mike Horan. Horan describes in vivid detail what it was like on the frontlines and the hell he faced when the Vietnamese captured him. After his tour of duty, he makes a vow to go to college and become an educated person.
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford all have at least one chapter devoted to their actions as Commanders-in-Chief. As the primary and final decision makers in all major policy regarding Vietnam, each of these men work to try to understand the conflict—some better than others—and find solutions, many of which are misguided, some of which are the result of genuine attempts to bring the situation to a close.
In addition to Horan, Partridge features chapters on seven other members of the military, including military medic Tom Kelley and nurse Lily Lee Adams.
But it isn't just those directly involved in the war whose stories are told. Legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., is an early and vocal opponent of military action in Vietnam, and he utilizes his considerable influence to speak out against the war, its inherent inhumanity, and what it means for all of society when one nation takes up arms against another. Protest singer Country Joe McDonald also shares his experiences, talking about using his voice to bring about social change and end what, by the early 1970s, began to feel like an endless and unwinnable war.
By the time the war does end in 1975, there are some 58,000 dead U.S. servicemembers, between 200,000 and 250,000 dead South Vietnamese soldiers, and millions of displaced persons and refugees left in a devastated country. One of those refugees, Hoa thi Nguyen, shares her story and the journey that brought her to America.
Finally, Partridge gives voice to some of the individuals who work to keep the memory of the Vietnam War alive. She speaks to architect and artist Maya Lin, who started designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1980, eventually unveiling it to the public in 1982. It stands in Washington, D.C., as both a tribute to those who died and a towering image of the very human cost of war. Partridge also talks about the National Salute to Vietnam Veterans, which took place on the day of the public dedication ceremony of Lin's iconic Memorial.
After completing primary work on Boots on the Ground
, Partridge checks in with those she interviewed, providing the reader with a last section updating where her interview subjects are today. She includes source notes and a bibliography of further reading resources as well.Boots on the Ground
is appropriate for adult and young adult readers. In 2019, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators honored it with the Golden Kite Award for Non-Fiction for Older Readers.
Ultimately, the book is neither a glorification of the Vietnam War nor a scathing indictment of it. Through the voices of those who endured the war and profiles of those in leadership positions throughout it, Partridge lets readers see the conflict in all its complexities, illustrating just how far and wide war can spread—across thousands of miles, expanses of ocean, and the passage of decades.