Shattering the pent-up silence of the Vietnam generation

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.

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.

How did Myra McPherson, who has never been a war correspondent, never fought in a war, manage to write passages that sound like reporting under fire? ''I would get them (the veterans) to say something over and over. I'd say, 'What do you mean about the trip wire? Where was it?' because I wanted it to be as vivid as it could be. ... And it really was my asking Tom and Chuck over and over again, when the mine blew up, 'Tell me exactly what happened.' ... They would say all of this in their own words, and I would write it down and rephrase it in mine.''

Speaking of that and other interviews, she says, ''I think it just tapped a wellspring of emotion that went beyond combat stories. I kept saying, 'I don't want a combat story - that's just a combat story. I want you to tell me this story and how it affected you, how your time there affected you, what the last 10 years did to you as a person.' ''

''I'd have them come up afterward and say, 'Thank you for listening.' It's amazing to think that so many have not told their stories,'' including ''the ones who didn't go (to war), too, on both sides of the fence. America buried that war, but the people who had anything to do with it didn't....

''Since they'd never talked about it to people, I was getting fresh material 10 years later,'' she concludes.

Over lunch, Ms. McPherson talks about the writing of the book and how it affected her life. She couldn't distance herself from the subject as she has always tried to do in reporting. She cried through the writing of the two most painful chapters, those on the parents of slain soldiers and on war nurses. She had nightmares about the barbarous war stories. She even got herself arrested and jailed for kneeling in prayer on the White House lawn with a group of women protesting war so she could write about war protesters firsthand.

The idea for the book came in 1979 as she watched the Emmy-award-winning TV movie ''Friendly Fire'' about an Iowa family whose son dies in American crossfire in Vietnam. As the message ''Honor Vietnam Veterans Week'' flashed across the screen, she decided to write a series exposing the superpatriot types who would ''gloss over the pain and agony, ... mythologizing the glories of dying in war.''

From that series, which ran in the Washington Post over Memorial Day weekend in 1979, sprang the book. While caring for her two children, Leah and Michael, now 17 and 19, she was also traveling, researching, and writing. As her one-year leave of absence from the Post stretched into three, her money began to run out, but she plowed on with encouragement from Lisa Drew, her editor at Doubleday, who urged her to expand the book's scope from Vietnam veterans to an overview of the whole Vietnam generation.

''Long Time Passing'' may have seemed a forced march at times, but it appears to have been worth it. In addition to widespread newspaper syndication, it has become a Literary Guild alternate selection and is reaching readers as diverse as those of Ms. magazine and the Military Book of the Month Club, Essence, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Progressive magazine.

How does Ms. McPherson see her book contributing to an understanding of the Vietnam era?

If we don't learn from Vietnam, she says, ''we're going to repeat these skirmishes with a few paying a heavy price. Those mothers crying over the kids (killed) in Lebanon looked like the mothers of Vietnam veterans, saying 'Why was my son there?' It's the same question being asked over and over,'' she sighs. ''That's the thing I hope people will take away from this book - that we shouldn't have a blind patriotism, but an enlightened patriotism.''

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