They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Bill clinton, Book Reviews

Reviewed by Lewis Sorley
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster, New York

David Maraniss is an associate editor of The Washington Post who has written biographies of — brace yourself for the contrast — Vince Lombardi and Bill Clinton. He is thus well prepared for the formulation he employs in They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (Simon & Schuster, New York, softcover $16). Here, a desperate battle in Vietnam is juxtaposed with antiwar activities occurring more or less simultaneously on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The October 1967 battle involved the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry, known as the "Black Lions," part of the 1st Infantry Division. The battalion commander was Lt. Col. Terry Allen Jr., son of the famous Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen, who during World War II commanded that same 1st Infantry Division in North Africa.

The Black Lions encountered the 271st Viet Cong Regiment above Lai Khe, north of Saigon, and walked into prepared enemy positions. One U.S. infantry company was in the field with only 65 men, about half the normal fighting complement, while another had 68. It was later estimated that U.S. forces were outnumbered by as much as 8-to-1 in this engagement. In the ensuing fierce fight, Colonel Allen was one of 58 killed, along with Major Don Holleder, the 1st Brigade operations officer, who, in an effort to help the outfit regroup when Allen went down, charged into the midst of the battle and was abruptly cut down himself. For the Americans, writes Maraniss, the battle was "a disaster."

Meanwhile, on the campus at Madison, protesters — supported by many on the faculty — occupied a campus building to block access by fellow students desiring job interviews with Dow Chemical. Campus officials eventually, reluctantly, belatedly ordered the building cleared. Maraniss describes the ensuing riot just like a battle, complete with its own detailed maps. In the confrontation between police and protesters, writes Maraniss, who was there, "the intense hatred of one type for the other now was overwhelming." He understands, as well, the enduring nature of those mortal antipathies, referring at one point to "the overwrought notion of healing."

The parallel between campus and combat doesn’t really hold up, but, except in one important respect, that doesn’t much matter. The exception is in the implied equivalence of those who refused to serve with those who went to war. The idea that the antiwar protesters are in any way comparable to those who did their duty would be anathema to veterans. Maraniss does acknowledge one major difference: "That was always part of the reality, or unreality, of student life. One could simply leave."

Despite setting up a juxtaposition that is central to the structure of the book, the author seems to perceive the imbalance of the two elements. His treatment of those who served is powerful, dramatic, respectful, significant. By contrast, his effort to portray the antiwar crowd as comparably important seems strained, artificial, lacking in gravitas. This is so, even though his sentiments are apparently with those who opposed the war — perhaps not surprising in that he was himself an undergraduate at Wisconsin during the events he describes.

Even so, Maraniss does quote Joseph Kauffman, dean of student affairs at Wisconsin, on those who used student deferments to avoid military service. The day would come, opined Kauffman, "when these young men will feel guilty that they didn’t go and someone went in their place, and they will wonder if they had the courage and the ability to go through something like that."

Maraniss has clearly been pulled two ways, presumably conditioned by his youthful experiences to view military service in one way (he writes of a soldier who has completed his hitch as having "escaped the army"), but also influenced by the veterans he has interacted with during research for this account. "Though I never served in the military and never experienced a battle," he writes, "they allowed me to see the best of soldiering, a bond of love and respect that for all the hyperbole flying around was incomparably meaningful." Had that comment come at the end, it would make a good coda to a most interesting book.