Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam Book Poster Image
Powerful, intimate must-read account of the Vietnam War.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Boots on the Ground isn't war as it’s presented in history textbooks. Rather than dates, significant battles, and famous generals, it focuses on what daily life was like for the hundreds of thousands of enlisted men who fought "in country," the medical teams who worked under fire and in hospitals to save their lives, and the thousands of refugees created by the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese.

Positive Messages

Someone with whom you think you have nothing in common can often become a best friend.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The men and women interviewed for this book risked their lives to save others, made deep unexpected friendships that crossed racial and ethnic lines, and struggled mightily to retain their own humanity in the chaos of war.

Violence

Soldiers vividly recall what it was like to be caught in a firefight or ambush, often seeing friends killed or being wounded themselves. A military advisor is captured and dragged through the jungle by a rope around his neck. Soldiers go on "search and destroy" missions. The aftermath of battle -- trying to save wounded soldiers and civilians -- is graphically described by a medic and a nurse.

Sex
Language

The author notes at the beginning of the book that she didn't censor racial slurs, as they were "important for understanding the Vietnam War, its era, and the intense memories and feelings of several of my interviewees." North Vietnamese soldiers were commonly referred to as "gooks." Asian American and Mexican American soldiers heard themselves called "chinks," "spics," and "taco benders."

Consumerism

Scattered references to movies (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Woodstock, In Harm’s Way). The Army told soldiers they weren't allowed to listen to music by Joan Baez or Bob Dylan, but R&B was OK.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Soldiers talk about smoking marijuana and getting drunk as a way to deal with what they were experiencing in combat.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Elizabeth Partridge’s Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam is the war seen through the eyes of five young American soldiers, an infantry medic, an Army nurse, and a teenage Vietnamese refugee. Unfolding in chronological order from 1962 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, their stories are straightforward, deeply personal, and spare few details about what it was like to be caught in firefights and ambushes, see friends killed, and be wounded themselves. Chapters on presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon provide a political context for the course of the war and give insights into many of their most important decisions and there are additional chapters focusing on the anti-war movement and the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The nearly 100 photographs (archival news photographs and personal photos) put an often heartbreaking human face on the cost of war. A must-read for young readers wanting a deeper understanding of America's most controversial war.

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What's the story?

At the heart of BOOTS ON THE GROUND are Partridge's interviews with five American soldiers, an infantry medic, an Army nurse, and a Vietnamese refugee. Military Advisor Mike Horan was a foster kid who joined the Marines after high school and was captured by the North Vietnamese. Mexican American Gilbert de la O thought fighting for his country would mean people would "treat me right" when he came home. Machine Gunner Henry Allen had been trained in nonviolence by Martin Luther King, Jr. but found he "lost compassion" during his time in Vietnam. Medic Tom Kelly continually risked his life to rescue wounded soldiers in the field. Infantryman Jan Scruggs’ determination that those who died in Vietnam would always be remembered would lead to the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Green Beret David Oshiro was called a "gook" more times than he could count. Chinese Italian Nurse Lily Lee Adams treated some of the most desperately wounded soldiers and civilians. Hoa Thi Nguyen was 18 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and she was forced to flee with her mother and three younger siblings. Additional chapters focus on the policies of presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon and the anti-war movement. Chapters on the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial include an interview with the memorial’s designer, Maya Lin. A senior at Yale when she won the competition, her Asian American heritage made her a controversial choice. An Epilogue lets readers know what became of the men and women interviewed for the book.

Is it any good?

Unsparingly honest, haunting, and often heartbreaking interviews put a personal face on what it was like to be "in country" during the Vietnam War.  Because most of the men and women featured in Boots on the Ground are young -- just out of high school or college -- their stories are likely to bring this period of history alive to readers in ways no textbook could.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the experiences of soldiers in Boots on the Ground are different from the way war is portrayed in the movies. After reading this book, do you think movies do an accurate job of showing what it's really like to serve in combat?

  • Do you have a family member or friend who has served in the military? Have you talked with them about their experiences?

  • If you could spend the day with one of the men and women interviewed for the book, who would it be? What would you want to learn from that person?

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