One Generation, Two Stories: On Campus and In Country

They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967, by David Maraniss. Simon and Schuster, 572 pages, $29.95.

Toward the climax of The Armies of the Night , Norman Mailer delivers one of his finest bolts of lightning-like illumination, his intuition of the immense psychological distance between the demonstrators and the soldiers facing off outside the Pentagon that day in late October 1967. The formerly well-behaved SAT-taking children of the urban middle class confronted the harder-bitten products of the working class, with “their easy confident virility and that physical courage with which they seemed to be born,” and for the moment, advanced placement’s moral fervor caused the shop rats to blink. In the late 60’s, this passage electrified me and my college friends, for we were precisely the sort of kids Mr. Mailer marched with, and we were separated from the young men fighting the war we so despised both by the merest knife edge of circumstance and by a huge gulf of academic ability and expectation: We had our student deferments. You couldn’t contemplate this then without an unease strongly resembling guilt. I still can’t.

In They Marched Into Sunlight , his important, timely and moving new book, David Maraniss, a Washington Post editor and author of fairly definitive biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi (what a pair!), has applied the Anthony Lukas full-on journalist-as-historian approach to Mr. Mailer’s flash of perception. In this sort of book, the writer typically finds some event pregnant with social and historical significance and, by dint of prodigies of research and reporting and composition, produces something like a panopticon in prose form, with the event seen from every angle, all possible points of view comprehended, with-big gamble-ultimate meaning finally delivered. Pick the wrong event, or pile up too many facts and quotes and backgrounders, and the whole edifice can collapse under its own ambition and self-importance.

David Maraniss has won the gamble, and won it decisively. His historical template comprises two near-simultaneous events that took place a few days before the 1967 march on the Pentagon. On Oct. 17, the Black Lion Battalion of the First Infantry Division-the storied Big Red One-marched into an ambush set almost accidentally by a Viet Cong regiment in the Long Nguyen Secret Zone in South Vietnam; the ensuing slaughter reminded one of the survivors of Little Big Horn. Among the 61 Americans killed were Lt. Col. Terry Allen Jr., whose legendary father had commanded the division in World War II, and Maj. Donald Holleder, a fabled All-American football player at West Point. Gen. William Westmoreland and the military P.R. machine tried to spin the encounter with an inflated V.C. body count into a set-piece battle that the enemy lost, an imposture that fooled nobody-not the press (Peter Jennings makes an impressive cameo here, calling the brass’ bullshit), and certainly not the traumatized survivors of Alpha and Delta companies.

The next day, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, a bastion of progressive thought and politics, a large student demonstration seeking to block recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company (infamous at that time for its manufacture of napalm) spun completely out of control. Ill-prepared riot police (what training they’d had came from Chicago cops!) were called on campus, the students refused to vacate a building, and the whole thing devolved into a nightstick-wielding, head-cracking, tear-gas-soaked nightmare, with horrified and ineffectual university administrators looking on. (The presence of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, in town for a performance, provided the requisite period touches of absurdist guerrilla theater.) The result was a vastly more radicalized student population, a polarized and demoralized faculty, and a thoroughly pissed off and hostile state legislature. In retrospect, this fiasco feels like the pilot episode for later campus confrontations: Columbia, Cornell and, most lethally, Kent State. In 1970, the nadir of student radicalism would be reached at Wisconsin when the bombing of the Army Math Research Center took the life of a physicist in the building.

Two debacles then, 10,000 miles apart, but fortuitously linked by timing and their pertinence to the supercharged American agon of the period. The rote accusation of the time on the right was that while American boys were dying in the jungles of Vietnam, long-haired dope-smoking draft-dodging college students were doing the protesting. True enough, but Mr. Maraniss unpacks that tendentious cliché in something like real historical time and allows his readers to make their own judgment. His portrayal of the brave and doomed men of Alpha and Delta companies is a triumph of empathy; they certainly deserve Mr. Mailer’s attribution of physical courage. There’s First Lt. Clark Welch, the book’s hero, the superb commander of Delta Company, whose doubts about the mission are squelched by Col. Allen; Mike Troyer, who pens supremely bitter grunt’s laments to his parents back in Ohio (“The whole damn war is run by the book and Charlie can’t read English so he gets all the breaks and we usually get killed”); and Joe Costello, a grenadier from Long Island, whose abrupt return, despite his wounds, to the field of battle to rescue soldiers left behind struck me as the single bravest action I’ve ever read about. Mr. Maraniss renders the horrific combat action with a mixture of precision, horror and deep feeling that is almost unbearably moving: My tear ducts got a workout. The added testimony of Vo Minh Triet, the commander of the V.C. regiment who set the trap for the Americans, is invaluable in grasping the battle in its larger context-a great piece of reporting on the author’s part.

The transitions to the Madison-campus sections can be abrupt, and the contrasts sometimes unflattering; we move from a realm of iron necessity to one of choice and ambiguity. The figures here lack the grandeur that life-and-death struggle confers. Still, Mr. Maraniss does an excellent job of conveying the troubled atmosphere on the politically engaged campuses of the era, with their beleaguered liberal administrators, riven faculties, student radical leaders high on the existential fumes of Historical Action, and the mass of students driven this way and that by the confusing swirl of events. Like Mr. Maraniss, who describes himself as a naïve freshman onlooker in Madison in 1967, I was a freshman on a campus that cracked up (Cornell in 1969 … oh, man), and he captures the strange, unsettling excitement of it all perfectly. Also on the Wisconsin campus in 1967 was none other than Dick Cheney, a graduate student in political science who affected indifference to campus events and the large political issues informing them-showing the talent for vaguely sinister non-engagement he’s since perfected in his Vice Presidential bunker. As Mr. Maraniss makes obligatory side trips to Washington to describe high-level sessions-with Lyndon Johnson in his familiar role as Captain Ahab-I was struck by how closely Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, the brothers Bundy and others in the best-and-brightest set reminded me of their successors in imperial hubris, Wolfowitz and Co.

Like hundreds of thousands of my generational cohort, I carry around a huge steamer trunk of unresolved issues dating from the 60’s, so I was rooting for Mr. Maraniss to orchestrate the painful and often discordant elements of that era’s history into a moving threnody of loss and forgiveness. And he has done that, particularly in the book’s magnificent coda. If it’s the American soldiers who come off as admirable while the students’ moral and political engagement in some cases seems adulterated by opportunism and self-dramatization-well, that’s something the high-SAT crowd will have to live with.

Earlier this month The New Republic published one of the most sickening articles I’ve seen in years: “Willpower: Why the Public Can Stomach Casualties and Elites Can’t.” I ask you: At this dangerous historical moment, with our neoliberal hawks apparently feeling that our political leaders are in need of bucking up to accept higher body counts of the sons and daughters of the working class, can there be a more pertinent book than They Marched Into Sunlight ? It should be read by those who seek to craft a principled and effective resistance to the Bush administration (if only to avoid repeating the mistakes of an earlier generation). It should be read by those who are curious about the ugly origins of our red state–blue state political divide. There’s a raft of prize nominations clearly headed this book’s way, and they’ll be richly deserved.

As a stylist, Mr. Maraniss isn’t a patch on Norman Mailer, but he has provided a crucial part of the Vietnam-era drama missing from The Armies of the Night . (We can see this clearly now, 35 years later.) In doing so, Mr. Maraniss has written the greater book. He quotes the late Wisconsin historian of nationalism, George Mosse: “What man is, only history tells.” They Marched Into Sunlight does the job.

Gerald Howard is an executive editor at large at Doubleday Broadway publishers.