Soldiers of war and peace

Two battles - one in Vietnam, one in Madison, Wis. - marked a turning point

With young Americans fighting and dying in Iraq, this might not seem the best time to publish a long book on the Vietnam War. Arguments about "quagmire" and all that.

Or maybe it is. If not for the political lessons, which are many and varied, then for the stories of what it means to send soldiers into harm's way and what that decision does to so many others for years to come.

Nineteen-sixty-eight was an awful year in United States history. In Vietnam, 6,000 US Marines at Khe Sanh were under siege for 77 days, followed by the Tet offensive, when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops struck targets (including the US Embassy) all across what then was South Vietnam. Six weeks later, US Army troops massacred more than 300 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.

At home, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. prompted riots in more than 100 American cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Massive antiwar demonstrations and police brutality marked the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

But in retrospect, two events occurring simultaneously in October 1967 set the stage for what was to come the following year. At the time, the connections between those events - the ambush of a US Army battalion in South Vietnam and an antiwar demonstration at the University of Wisconsin in Madison - could not have been known.

But they turned out to be historymaking. Together they were a turning point in how the US sees its place in the world and how individual Americans see their role in determining that place - the very questions that are being asked now, 36 years later.

Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss has skillfully drawn together these two events and their import. At more than 500 pages, "They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America - October 1967" is a door stopper. But Maraniss is a great reporter and a great storyteller, leaving the reader accelerating toward the finish rather than feeling bogged down by the detail.

Like all good reporting, it's the eyewitness detail that makes the story complete and compelling. We not only move through the landscape of the campus at Madison and the jungles of the Long Nguyen Secret Zone, we inhabit the thinking processes of the protesters and the soldiers as it becomes clearer to both that things are not turning out as they had intended.

Some 44 miles northwest of Saigon, the "Black Lions" battalion of the 1st Infantry Division is sent on a "search and destroy" mission - the kind of thing commanding Gen. William Westmoreland thought was the way to win a war that had already gone on for three years and cost some 13,000 American lives.

But it turns out that the Americans themselves walked into a hellacious trap. From bunkers and treetops, enemy fire pinned them down, killing many, including the battalion commander. "I was scared to death," one soldier told his parents on a tape he later sent home to Ohio. "It was hell, you know."

Within hours, US military officials were inventing enemy body counts, spinning what everybody there knew had been a battlefield disaster into some kind of victory.

Meanwhile, half a world away and at the same time, students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison were organizing a protest against on-campus corporate recruiters from Dow Chemical Co. - makers of napalm.

The demonstration started out as a sit-in meant to block access to the Dow recruiters, but it ended up in a swirl of tear gas and flailing police clubs. When it was over, 47 students and 19 officers had been taken to the hospital. Among the most tragic characters were university administrators who, like many Americans by then, questioned the war but felt obliged to keep an open campus.

It's hard to know which of the two events is more important to history or affecting in the telling - the warriors' battle or the war-resistors' demonstration. (For the record, I'm a Vietnam combat veteran later involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, so they're both of great interest to me.)

To his credit, Maraniss does not favor either side in his presentation of events. He interviewed virtually everybody involved (including Viet Cong commanders), combed the official records and news reports of the day, and laid out in great detail the disposition of forces and flow of the two battles.

The book includes helpful maps, but no photographs, a peculiar omission considering the number of snapshots and news photos that must have been available to the publisher.

Those two events in October 1967 marked the midpoint, not the end, of the war in Vietnam. It was to go on for another four years and take another 45,000 American lives. This is a book to ponder as the United States finds itself in another war with murky goals and elusive opponents.

Monitor staff writer Brad Knickerbocker was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam.

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