It was the spring of 1965. US marines, the first American combat troops in Vietnam, were anxious for action. They had ringed an area around their airbase at Da Nang with trip flares in case of attack.
Suddenly, one night in mid-May, the sky lighted up. The marines braced for an attack. But instead of Viet Cong, the intruders turned out to be a group of monkeys frolicking at the edge of the airfield.
Such was Vietnam. Frustrating. Infuriating. Demoralizing. Inglorious. Unlike any war America ever fought. When the marines were finally permitted to leave their base at Da Nang to hunt down the enemy, the first American killed was shot by accident in the dark - by one of his own buddies.
Vietnam eventually touched millions of us. Over 3 million served there in the military. Tens of thousands more went as contractors, journalists, government officials, private humanitarians, CIA agents.
The costs - especially in human terms - were immense. An estimated 723,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed (57,605 Americans), as well as some 587,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands were disabled, including 519,000 Americans.
Cost to the US Treasury: $165 billion for the war, plus $24 billion for aid to South Vietnam.
Cost to America's social fabric: still being paid. Among other things, 570, 000 young American men became draft evaders. Many, even today, are living in exile abroad, alienated from the country of their fathers. And at home, resistance to draft registration and opposition to Reagan military budgets both have roots in Vietnam's soil.
While World War II has been relived many times in flag-waving movies, books, and articles, most people have put Vietnam into the furthest reaches of their memories. The war is taken out, dusted off, and remembered only with the greatest reluctance.
The publishers of this book, however, hope that the mental scars, as well as the physical ones, have healed sufficiently for an in-depth look at America's most controversial war. Boston Publishing Company is planning 14 volumes on ''The Vietnam Experience,'' available by subscription directly from the publisher and distributed to book stores by Addison-Wesley. And even those who were in Vietnam, as this reviewer was in 1966-67, will learn much from ''America Takes Over.''
The authors appear to have done careful research. This volume (number 4) alone cites as sources 108 books and articles and 34 government documents, newspaper reports, material from various archives, and a half-dozen exclusive interviews.
Just as important, they have written dispassionately. What emerges is the story of the world's greatest power slipping, despite doubts and debate, into an Asian quagmire. One small story might illustrate the point.
In early 1965, President Johnson began to receive alarming reports. South Vietnam would collapse, he was told, unless US military support was increased. All of Johnson's advisers - except one - urged him to bomb North Vietnam. The lone holdout: National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.
Johnson knew the war had reached a turning point. He could soon be known as a ''war president.'' He was willing to go ahead, but only if his advisers were unanimous. So he sent Bundy to Vietnam to see for himself - and perhaps change his mind.
What followed has irony. With Bundy in Vietnam, the Viet Cong decided to strike one of their first major blows directly against American troops. In a nighttime raid, they mortared US advisers based in the central highlands at Pleiku. Bundy rushed to Pleiku to see the damage and count the casualties. He was so furious with what he saw that he immediately phoned Washington with his advice: bomb North Vietnam. Johnson had his consensus.
The bombing would eventually disappoint US experts. During the first two years, they calculated, total damage to North Vietnam was less than $1 billion. During the period, losses of US aircraft alone were over $6 billion.
The team of writers producing these books is led by editor in chief Robert Manning. He is a former editor in chief of Atlantic Monthly magazine, and also served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He has given the books an authoritative, calm tone.
A couple of warnings are warranted, however.
The writing, unfortunately, is erratic. Some chapters are concise, superlative summaries of key aspects of the war. Others are turgid, overly detailed, and difficult to follow.
The layout of the books also gets mixed reviews. The photography is extensive and usually well displayed. But the editors have tried to cram in too much type. The type often extends so close to the center of the book that it is difficult to read.
Even so, the 3 million Americans who served in Vietnam, and many others as well, may find these volumes a valuable addition to their libraries - and to their memories of that least memorable of wars.