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When war raged far from the battlefield

They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967; David Maraniss; Simon & Schuster: 592 pp., $29.95

September 21, 2003|Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" and, most recently, "Letters to a Young Activist."

In 1998 the Library of America published two huge volumes of journalism, numbering 1,688 pages in all, under the title "Reporting Vietnam," which for all their bulk barely paused to explore one of the war's major reverberations: the antiwar movement that tore through America, ripping up politics, ideas and cliches, disrupting and transforming millions of lives and leaving a scorched, desolated and -- eventually -- regenerated landscape. You could understand the editorial judgment to seal Americans' experience of the war off by itself, but it also enshrined the '60s political truism that the young men who fought in Vietnam belonged to a different nation than did the ones who fought at home against the war. Today, though the old truism hangs on like a sluggish shadow, it's taken for granted that Vietnam not only divided a generation but also united it; that everyone of a certain generation misleadingly labeled "the baby boom" was tested and many were ruined by the brutal, relentless war; that American normality was ruptured whichever front you lived on; that while the Viet Cong wouldn't be landing on the beaches of San Diego, the anguish -- and fog -- of war spilled onto this continent to stay.

It's long past time for the journalism of Vietnam to explore the totality of the social upheaval that upended America on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. To treat the war and the antiwar together as two faces of a single historical moment is one of David Maraniss' inspired achievements. The longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, best known for his biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, has a feeling for character and for the way in which ideas, events and accidents leave human beings transformed when they collide. He has written a transoceanic montage that powerfully, grippingly folds together two events that took place during the same two days in October 1967. About 40 miles north of Saigon, a battalion of the 1st Infantry Division, under pressure to "search and destroy" and thereby show Gen. William C. Westmoreland that the U.S. forces could kill communist soldiers faster than the other side could recruit their replacements, marched into an ambush and left 61 Americans of Alpha and Delta companies dead among anthills in sweltering heat under the jungle canopy.

Meanwhile, in Madison, the antiwar center where Maraniss grew up and attended the University of Wisconsin, a militant demonstration to block a Dow Chemical recruiter from telling the university's students why they should make a career at the company with the exclusive Pentagon contract to manufacture napalm was set upon by baton-swinging riot police who injured dozens of students. As the demonstration expanded into the nearby plaza, police fired tear gas for the first time in campus history. What took place in Madison was one of three major demonstrations in October that propelled the antiwar movement on a jagged route "from protest to resistance," in the popular phrase of the time.

Maraniss takes hundreds of intense pages to set up the human cascade that poured into each event and left each world violently broken. He records the fumbling deliberations (if that is the right word) of President Johnson and his inner circle as they attempted to square the circle and to protect themselves from clear knowledge of what they had wrought. But Washington, which concocted the war, is not the epicenter of Maraniss' attention. What he has written is principally the book of those who suffered from their leaders' recklessness.

He is as interested in the lives of his protagonists as in the living, breathing detail of the battles they marched into. He knows how to set up the ache of suspense, when to intrude his judgment and when to restrain himself. Like his literary ancestor Stephen Crane, he is not a fancy writer, but he has a fine eye for character and place (down to the color of the soil) and the way in which both reveal themselves in action. It is no small help to his Vietnam sequences that he has something of a celebrity cast, the battalion having been led by Lt. Col. Terry Allen Jr. of El Paso, son of a famous World War II general, and one of his reinforcements being former West Point football star Maj. Donald Holleder. But Maraniss takes the uncelebrated as seriously as the stars -- especially a former Green Beret from New Hampshire, Lt. Clark Welch, the Delta Company commander and a "soldier's soldier" who believed in the war but knew when the brass was out of its depth in the jungle. Maraniss renders the intensity, the resolve and bewilderment of men encamped for war in the spirit of James Jones' "From Here to Eternity."

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