Patriots and protest

Port Chester author speaks on her third book, “Battle Green Vietnam,” and the lessons it offers to future revolutions

By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 5/21/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

It’s been nearly 50 years since 200 fatigue-clad Vietnam veterans embarked on a three-day trek from Concord to Boston. It’s been 10 years since Port Chester author Elise Lemire began to write about it.

On Apr. 16, Lemire published her third book, “Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston,” which recounts the efforts of six Vietnam veterans who helped organize the march shortly after returning from war. The book compiles interviews by the Lexington Oral History Project, personal interviews Lemire conducted on her own and details discovered from unearthed footage.

“This is right when people could use portable movie cameras,” Lemire explained. “There were also graduates at MIT and Harvard who were looking for things to film and it seemed like something really compelling.”

The book fleshes out the organizers of the march, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, New England chapter, who trooped, in reverse, Paul Revere’s famed Midnight Ride on Apr. 19, 1775, starting in Charleston with stops in Concord and Lincoln—Lemire’s hometown.

In their mind, like Revere, they were patriots—warning the public of a great misdeed just on the horizon.

According to Lemire, the veterans felt they could not return to civilian culture while their fellow soldiers continued to risk their lives in an unjust war. They needed to attract the public’s attention and explain their firsthand knowledge of what went on overseas. Along each stop, civilians practically dropped their belongings and joined in trek. At its height, the march encompassed nearly 10,000 people. A young John Kerry and Noam Chomsky were among those who attended.

The path began at the Old North Bridge in Concord and concluded at an anti-war rally on Lexington Battle Green, where local law enforcement arrested the protestors who called for an end to the Vietnam War. Lemire explained the reasoning for action the local officials gave was that the protest introduced a contemporary issue on sacred grounds and desecrated the landscape.

It was the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts state history. Nearly 500 people were detained, half of which were veterans. Many were children.

“There was also just a lot of regular people like moms, dads, and little kids who had never protested before,” Lemire said. “And people let their little kids get arrested.”

The point of the march, Lemire explained, was that in its occupation of South Vietnam, America contradicted its foundational values and reduced itself to the British imperialists that once broached our shores two and a half centuries ago.

“We invaded Vietnam. We were trying to govern it and take away people’s freedom there, much like how the British did in the American colonies,” Lemire explained. “So by drawing that parallel a lot of people crusaded and they wanted to be on the right side of history.”

Elise Lemire previously wrote “Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts,” and “‘Miscegenation’: Making Race in America.” All three of her books have been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

She is also a two-time fellowship recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a professor of literature at Purchase College (SUNY), president of the Friends of the Port Chester-Rye Brook Public Library and a mother of a Port Chester High School Class of 2019 graduate. She moved to Port Chester in 1997 and began her research for the book in 2011.

“I will tell you that interviewing Vietnam veterans is both the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career but also the most challenging,” Lemire said. “Virtually everyone I reached out to was more than happy to talk to me and was generous with his time. Often (they) told me really difficult stories of what they had seen or done in Vietnam and how it has impacted them.”

One veteran told Lemire that reaching out to him triggered his PTSD. He sent her a cease-and-desist letter.

“That really upset me,” Lemire said. “To think that I had hurt someone by bringing up something that was still so painful for him.”

The theme Lemire hopes readers glean from the book is that protesting successfully requires guidance. And she believes her book—and the protest it documents—can guide future movements in attracting the public’s attention to instigate legitimate change.

“This march is a manual for how to pull off a successful protest,” Lemire said. “As we look into the future, we see so many issues we need to address—the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change—these things we know young people want to protest and want their voices to be heard; they’re looking for ways to catch the public’s eye and create empathy for their cause.”

Lemire has an estimated 150 people already signed up for her online book launch on May 26 at 6 p.m. Free and open to the public, the talk will run an hour long on Zoom.

Those interested in joining can sign up with the link: http://bit.ly/battlegreenvietnam

The book is available for purchase on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. It’s $45 for the hardcover and $34 for the Kindle version.

Lemire is also publishing an article for The Washington Post which will be released on Memorial Day, May 31.

“This is my third book and it’s such a different beast trying to bring it out during COVID, so the downside is you don’t get to speak to audience members after a book class,” Lemire pointed out. “But the upside is that a lot of people can gather from long distances on Zoom.”

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