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Shattering the pent-up silence of the Vietnam generation

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 1984


Myra McPherson plays taps for Vietnam in her new book, ''Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation.'' It is a long, poignant song that lingers in the memory after the 680-page book ends.

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The undertaking has included four years of Ms. McPherson's life and over 500 interviews with hawks and doves, soldiers, officers, Gold Star mothers, historians, nurses, sociologists, the wounded and disabled, conscientious objectors, exiles, doctors, deserters, POWs, blacks, warriors, war protesters, parents, victims of Agent Orange, scam artists who ducked the draft, counselors, girlfriends, and wives.

Ms. McPherson has attempted to shatter the pent-up silence of a generation of Americans who found the war unspeakable and have been unable to talk about it to anyone, whether they fought in Vietnam or fought to stay out of it. For some, it is a book that, as one veteran wrote to her, ''has the potential to be a real healing force in our land.''

Myra McPherson folds that letter from the veteran carefully and puts it back on her green and white desk at the Washington Post. It's just one in a pile of letters from veterans that started flowing in even before the book was published in early June, when syndicated excerpts from it began appearing in serial form in newspapers across the country. Alongside the letters on her desk are stacked press kits from Doubleday, her publisher, wrapped like the book itself in a jacket photo of the black granite Vietnam War Memorial, with its soldierly rows of names of those killed in action. Some of their final stories are told by survivors Myra McPherson interviewed for her book.

Ms. McPherson, in fact, made a conscious decision to let the men and women she'd interviewed function as ''reporters,'' to let the immediacy of their experiences seep through into her own writing. ''I wanted all these people to speak, and so I tried to let them all tell their own stories,'' she says. ''... I found that I couldn't write as well as they could talk. Like that marvelous line of one guy who said, 'I always thought John was too young for that war, and he growed right into it.' ''

The first chapter of ''Long Time Passing'' begins:

The patrol picked its way through jungle so thick that by noon it was dark. A dead, midnight kind of darkness. Fifty men threaded their way. The first ten began to cross a river. The soldier walking point touched something with his boot. It was not a twig, not a root, not a rock. It was a trip wire to oblivion. In an instant the wire triggered a huge, fifty pound Chinese mine. There was an enormous roar, like the afterburner of a jet, as it exploded....

That's the way two of its survivors, Nebraska brothers Tom and Chuck Hagel, remember the exploding mine that wounded them both and killed 15 soldiers. To McPherson, the brothers in a sense symbolize the national split over the war: By the time they'd returned home from the war, ''Chuck thought it a noble cause. Tom thought it a rotten waste,'' she writes. In the book she etches their lives in sharp detail, tracing the causes that polarized the brothers' opposite views of the war.