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How Do We Tell a New Generation of Teenagers About the Vietnam War?

The first photos in Elizabeth Partridge’s ambitious BOOTS ON THE GROUND: America’s War in Vietnam (Viking, 214 pp., $22.99; ages 12 and up) underline the fact that this was a young person’s conflict. Teenagers and those who had recently been teenagers formed the majority of ground troops “in country.” Antiwar protest was unavoidable on college campuses, starting with a “teach-in” movement that was already nationwide when the first official United States troops landed in Southeast Asia. Journalists under 30, like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, broke some of the war’s biggest stories. Many of the North and South Vietnamese troops, and many of the civilians killed or driven from their homes by American actions, were children and youth.

High school students who led the March for Our Lives this spring are taking the same kinds of risks opponents of the Vietnam War took in their grandparents’ day. Today’s dissenters are, like their predecessors, tilting at political and corporate windmills to change systems they find abhorrent. Partridge builds bridges to this audience by using the words of Americans who were young at the time of the Vietnam War, and including a wealth of black-and-white photographs that illuminate diverse American experiences. Although some of these images are disturbing, they may reach this visually literate generation in ways other historical sources just can’t.

Given how politically engaged teenagers are today, a book for them about Vietnam can afford to tilt at a few windmills itself. Partridge, the author of books including “This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie,” walks readers through the creepy terminology of tactics like the “search and destroy” method, in which American soldiers were told to move through a designated area, locate enemy troops, then “capture or kill them. Success would be measured by body count: the more captured or killed, the closer the Americans and the South Vietnamese were to victory.” “Boots on the Ground” accurately represents the Tet offensive of 1968 as a shock to Americans whom officials had repeatedly told that their side was winning, and asks readers to grapple with the bombing and invasion of noncombatant Cambodia.

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But Partridge omits other facts about Vietnam that run against certain American exceptionalist myths, like the Eisenhower administration’s scotching of elections to reunify South and North Vietnam in 1956. This lets her argue that America pursued the war to further democracy. Absent also from this telling is the killing of roughly 500 civilians by American troops in the village of My Lai, and the heroic intervention of Hugh Thompson Jr., who stopped the massacre by threatening to shoot his countrymen if they continued.

Given the book’s focus on young American troops, Partridge should have discussed organized opposition by veterans, an extraordinary sign of the rethinking then underway of post-World War II ways of being American. Surely, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War deserve a hearing — if only to help explain a photo in the book of a veteran throwing away his combat medals.

Perhaps Partridge or her editors thought a full confrontation with America’s behavior in Vietnam was too much for teenage readers. But kids can handle it. I know because I reported from Thailand and Cambodia at 14, traveling with a team of youth and one nominal adult. None of what I saw or read about the war was easy to understand, or to incorporate into ideas I was still forming about my country. I’ve never regretted that early dunk in the deep end, though, the opportunity to contend with the whole story before I built thick defenses against it.

Shouldn’t we give all young people a chance to grapple with the whole story, America right and wrong, America as ever great and not so great?

Felicia Kornbluh, a historian at the University of Vermont, reported from Southeast Asia for Rolling Stone as a young teenager. Her latest book, “Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective,” co-written with Gwendolyn Mink, will be published this fall.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 18 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: How Do We Tell a New Generation of Teenagers About the Vietnam War?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe




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