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Battle Green Vietnam
By Tom Gery (reviewer)
Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston
by Elise Lemire
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021)
Operation POW, a Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) protest, occurred fifty years ago this Memorial Day weekend. Professor of Literature Elise Lemire has documented the historic three day operation in a book, Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston.
The Vietnam War spanned a period of time when the post WWII generation was coming of age, as was student activism. The early "boomers" were turning draft age in 1964, the same year the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution made US military involvement official. By April 1968 troop build up reached more than a half million. It was the first televised war. Nightly news brought the destruction and horror into the American living room. In 1967 a group of Vietnam veterans turned ideas into actions so that by 1971 a non-profit organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had the resources to conduct peaceful, impactful anti-war activities. Lemire's work has focused on one of those staged events: Operation POW.
The writer has compiled a detailed description of the May 1971 protest march while imparting a rich background of Revolutionary War history. Paul Revere rode from Boston to Concord to alert the Colonials of the British Army's move to destroy munitions; the symbolism of liberty and freedom sounding the alarm of the danger of war and imperialism. Through a creative interface of literature and history using Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Paul Revere's Ride, a heroic narrative, the writer aptly describes how the protest planners developed the fundamental message they sought to communicate. "Capitalizing on the mythology built around the silversmith's famous mission, . . ." namely the idea that warning the American people is the greatest of patriotic acts. . ." the reader is alerted to the courageous commitment the veterans are making to inform the public of the true nature of the Vietnam War.
Dr. Lemire has provided something special in this story, a rare element of the Vietnam anti-war movement: the perspectives of veterans who participated in that conflict; who had received wounds, ribbons and medals. Their histories and experiences serve as a thread winding through the narration of the three day demonstration for peace. Her research is exhaustive in uncovering the planning of the event, the advanced preparation implemented by the leaders and in the study of how the operation unfolded. Included is the distillation of hours of personal interviews which affords the reader the equivalent of a front row seat at an Oscar winning movie. Lemire has blended the history of our nation's founding with period literature, monuments and sacred ground to explain the strategy and tactics of the Connecticut, Rhode Island and Northeast chapters of VVAW. At the onset Daniel Chester French's 1875 citizen soldier monument models modern day VVAW citizen-veterans coming to the defense of peace by stepping forward to counter the message of the Nixon Administration war machine. Authors of giant stature, Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau are seen as rendering historical blessings on the mission of 1971. Thoreau's essay, Civil Disobedience, is a script for the veterans' peaceful resistance to Lexington Selectmens' Bivouac Injunction prohibiting an overnight camp out on the Battle Green.
Throughout the six chapters, to me, the writer displays the diligence of the historian combined with the skills of a novelist. Events depict drama, actions build tension, outcomes yield understanding as illustrated by a description of the British Army's march from Boston to Concord, the deaths of Minutemen and the King's men, the Regulars subsequent retreat. Use of Guerrilla Theater, a form of acted out political protest, explodes in the town of Concord on the first day. Saturday morning shoppers are shocked to see toy M-16 toting, jungle fatigue garbed men reenacting an American search and destroy mission drawing comparison to British soldiers' behavior. The essence of what the battle tested veterans are doing is captured by the author during one of her more than 100 interviews. A reluctant veteran realized reenactment ". . . released an incredible amount of patriotic energy in both the participants and those observing them." People begin to join the march in support of the protest. A sub plot of civilian mobilization develops demonstrating the effectiveness of the VVAW intention to alert society to the immoral war. The vets are joined by hundreds including parents with children, senior citizens and clergy some of whom later are arrested, along with the veterans, for trespassing on the Lexington Green. There is real drama and tension as civilians and veterans align against the intractable political leaders; the use of local and state police to enforce the law adds to the tense situation.
The story is introduced with a gut wrenching reference to the My Lai massacre during which 504 Vietnamese, among them 182 women, 17 of them pregnant, and 173 children, 56 of them infants, were killed by American soldiers. Having touched an evil low point Lemire resets to a journey toward the good. At the heart of this literary trip is an explanation of how place and performance, sacred historic battlefield space and the reenactment of an immoral war mission are used by a band of ex-soldiers to enlighten the country about the war. The book honors these men while paying tribute to VVAW for its determination to right a horrible wrong. It is also a contribution of major significance in the way it describes a unique and unprecedented aspect of American social protest. Battle Green Vietnam documents for posterity acts of conscience by veterans who honorably served and were willing to die in the very war they are protesting. Dr. Lemire's work is worth reading for the history, the abundant details of the event and most importantly for the message of hope one can receive. Truth can prevail in a country where there is liberty that allows for its expression.
Tom Gery US Army; Vietnam 1968-69; retired social worker; married, 2 children, 2 grandchildren; volunteer with local Veterans Treatment Court.