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The Vietnam War, Through a Glass Clearly:

A Review of David Maraniss's They Marched Into Sunlight


Friday, Feb. 27, 2004

The Vietnam War is back. As the presidential election turns into a contest between John Kerry and President George W. Bush, the sniping over Bush's service in the National Guard (and, to a lesser extent, Kerry's involvement in the antiwar movement after his tour of duty in Vietnam) has prompted yet another foray into the politics of the Vietnam War.

As electoral politics tends to simplify such discussion, it may be worth consulting a more thoughtful - and less partisan - account of the United States' longest war in the twentieth century. And David Maraniss's recent book, They Marched Into Sunlight, offers just such an assessment.

Maraniss's Story: Using Two Incidents as a Way Into the Larger Conflict

Maraniss provides an account of two incidents that occurred within 24 hours in October 1967 - an ambush of a United States infantry battalion in the jungle of Vietnam, and an antiwar protest against Dow Chemical Company at the University of Wisconsin that culminated in a bloody confrontation with the Madison police.

Maraniss' sweeping book offers a detailed description of each event. It also situates the individual stories of the book's large cast of characters in a personal, as well as a political, context. The chapters alternate between Vietnam and the United States (there are several brief chapters describing the deliberations of President Lyndon Johnson and his staff), and offer meticulous reportage. Maraniss provides a comprehensive portrait of the Vietnam War abroad and at home at a pivotal transitional moment, when the war was at worst a stalemate and not yet a quagmire.

Contrasting They Marched Into Sunlight with Other Vietnam Accounts

To briefly situate They Marched Into Sunlight in context, it is worth noting that as the Vietnam War escalated and the antiwar movement became more confrontational, extraordinary writing was produced.

Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977), based upon his work for Esquire during the war, conveys completely the harrowing intensity and addictive camaraderie of combat. Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968) captured the antiwar movement at a time when one goal of the march on the Pentagon in 1967 was to levitate the building.

Contemporaneous with the events they describe, Dispatches and The Armies of the Night succeed in recreating the intensity and engagement of the Vietnam War - to the extent that the writers could not avoid including themselves in their stories. (It is no coincidence that the high point of the New Journalism came as the Vietnam War escalated, and the personal became political for so many people.)

Maraniss, writing well after the fact, is not personally involved in the events described in his book (though he was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin when the protest against Dow occurred). His book, however, remains intense and effective -- albeit in a different way than Herr's or Mailer's.

With the benefit of the distance allowed by the passage of time, Maraniss is able to serve as an almost omniscient narrator. He focuses on the details of each incident, and, ultimately, the accumulated weight of all of the individual stories - especially those of the soldiers caught in the ambush - is quite powerful.

Maraniss attains a laudable journalistic objectivity that allows him to provide a kaleidoscopic view of the times. Nevertheless, his book is not divorced of emotion; he is moved by the courage of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam, and a bit dismayed by the rhetorical excess of some of the antiwar protesters.

The Ambush in Vietnam: A Brutal Battle

The more dramatic of the events described, inevitably, is the ambush: Many lives were lost. In 1967, the United States increased the number of soldiers sent to Vietnam but apparently was not making any progress in the war against North Vietnam. Maraniss shows how the pressure for positive military results resulted in the search-and-destroy mission of an infantry battalion, the Black Lions, that went tragically wrong.

Maraniss traces the journey of the troops from their arrival in Vietnam to Lai Khe, less than fifty miles from Saigon. Much of this story is told through the letters the soldiers wrote home to their wives and families.

Maraniss then walks the reader up to and through the mission on October 17. As the soldiers head into the jungle near Lai Khe, "the vegetation grew denser and the field of vision narrowed." The soldiers come across a trail, "a well-used path running southeast to northwest" with "fresh sandal tracks" running "in both directions" while "[t]rees nearby seemed newly cut."

A few troops head deeper into the jungle to investigate, and report seeing "seven to ten Viet Cong moving through the jungle toward the southwest." The American soldiers decide to set up an ambush. As they are doing so, there is a brief silence as the troops pause. Then, a medic hears "a rapid click-click-click above him," and a sergeant radios back to the company commander, "The trees are moving," adding, "And I think someone's in them."

In describing the ensuing ambush, Maraniss draws on not only on the accounts of the soldiers in the Black Lions battalion, but also on the account of the Viet Cong commander, who is still alive and was interviewed by the author. With the help of these accounts, Maraniss is able to describe the battle in graphic, moving detail. More than 50 soldiers were killed, and more were wounded.

Maraniss does not limit his account to the battle itself, however. To the contrary, he also shows what it meant at home - for the soldiers' families, and for the military and political leaders who could not acknowledge that United States troops had been caught in such a disastrous ambush.

The Protest at the University of Wisconsin: Fighting Over the War

Maraniss takes the same comprehensive approach in describing the events at the University of Wisconsin protest.

The antiwar protesters held a sit-in at a building on campus where Dow was interviewing and recruiting prospective hires. When students would not leave, the administration called in the Madison police to clear the building. The result was a confrontation with protesters that turned bloody.

Here, Maraniss sets the stage with the same unobtrusive care that he devoted to painting the backdrop of the ambush. He shows, for example, that one of the ironies about the demonstration and the ensuing clash with the police is that the university's leaders were liberals who opposed the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, as the chapters alternate between the ambush in the jungle and the protest in Madison, it is inevitable that the latter story will not have the same heft.

One of the most intriguing parts of the Wisconsin story is Maraniss's account of the participation -- or lack thereof -- of people who now are national political figures. Current Vice President Dick Cheney was a graduate student in political science at the time; neither he nor his wife Lynne Cheney, then a graduate student in English, participated in the protests. But current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, then a law student and chairman of the Young Republicans, makes a cameo appearance at a congressional hearing about the Vietnam War in 1965, warning about the dangers of communism and appeasement.

In describing the history department at the University of Wisconsin, Maraniss sketches a brief profile of Professor George Mosse, who specialized in European history and explored the lessons of nationalism: "'What man is,' Mosse would say, 'only history tells.'"

In his thorough account of the ambush in Vietnam and the protest at Wisconsin in 1967, Maraniss has provided an extraordinary portrait of what the United States was at a crucial point in its history.

At the time, the nation was still confident that it would prevail in Vietnam, yet not certain how that would be accomplished. And it was divided, but not fractured, over the war at home. With the election looking back to the Vietnam years, and the electorate mulling America's role in Iraq, Maraniss's book is a particularly timely read.

Rodger D. Citron is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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