- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003


By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster, $30, 528 pages


It has occurred to me lately that books are a lot like loaves of bread. Like bread, a book is ingested, so to speak, and becomes a part of its owner. Dorothy Parker, were she still around, would probably quip that both could be thrown as well as put down. More to the point, just as bread can be light or dense, rye or wheat, rectangular or roundish, salty, seedy or plain, so a book can display various characteristics. Most important, perhaps, what one likes in a book, as in a loaf of bread, is mainly a matter of taste.

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter at the Washington Post, has given us a large, dense loaf with “They Marched Into Sunlight.” The book, more than 500 pages of it, is a double parallax. Composed of a cascading series of overlapping vignettes whose crossing point is a two-day period in October 1967 — almost exactly 36 years ago — the reader is set up to experience a shift of perspective as the narrative’s point of observation shifts from trajectory to trajectory.

One such trajectory rolls out in Vietnam, where the Black Lions battalion of the Big Red 1st Infantry Division gets cut to pieces in a Viet Cong ambush near a place called Lai Khe. Another rolls out in Wisconsin — Mr. Maraniss’ home state — with an antiwar protest against Dow Chemical recruiting at the University of Wisconsin’s main campus in Madison. Mr. Maraniss also braids in, lightly but attractively, what is going on in the Johnson White House as fate gathers its energies in Lai Khe and Madison. The perspective afforded by bringing these lines together is what is supposed to give the book its interpretive power, its appeal, and its literary novelty.

Does it work? It does, mostly. Mr. Maraniss leads us gradually to the key events of Oct. 17-18, 1967. If the reader has a real yen for this particular loaf, “gradually” becomes tantalizingly. If not, “gradually” becomes tediously, at a level of detail leaving one in despair of the lengthy citing of another diary or interview; of the relating of another inner moment of a GI or an antiwar protestor, a Viet Cong insurgent or a Madison policeman; or of meeting yet another character in sultry jungle or on surreal campus. It is not quite a cast of thousands, Cecil B. DeMille-like, but it is rather crowded.

There is no question, however, that the thickness of Mr. Maraniss’ technique achieves verisimilitude. The mud, blood and tears come real 41 miles outside of Saigon; the obscenities, the thudding of the night-sticks on undergraduate heads is plainly audible. And this is so despite the inherent difficulty of deciding how much of what Mr. Maraniss relates is literally true, filtered as nearly all of it is through decades of selective memory.

The narrative itself is clearly enough written. Mr. Maraniss wisely lets the story mostly tell itself though his characters. Every so often the author’s natural liberalism creeps through — as with, for example, the common but erroneous depiction of the November 1963 Diem coup as a mainly Central Intelligence Agency-instigated affair. But he neither deprecates the soldier nor glorifies the protestor, and the book’s factual spine is strong. Mr. Maraniss appreciates human nature’s lack of rigid right angles, and illustrates it with some subtlety and skill.

Sweet raisins of sorts may be found in Mr. Maraniss’ loaf here and there, as well. As it happens, Dick and Lynne Cheney were studying in Madison during those fateful October days. So was Sen. George McGovern’s daughter, Susan, and others whose names echo still today. Mr. Maraniss talked to them years after, and nicely sprinkles their reminiscences into the rising drama of his story.

Every so often, too, a passage arrests the reader’s attention as actual literature.

Early in the book, for example, Mr. Maraniss describes the 1st Infantry Division reaching Vietnam, in October 1965, and being captured on 35 millimeter film: “Their grainy footage of the seminal scene, as viewed later, flickered eerily between color and black-and-white, as though caught forever between present and past.”

Not bad.

But as loaves go, Mr. Maraniss gives us mainly the heels, which is to say the extremes rather than the quotidian. Not every military encounter in Vietnam left 58 Americans dead and 41 wounded, thank God. Very few antiwar protests touched off a full-fledged multi-hour riot, complete with polymorphous bright red violence and a warehouse of belching tear gas canisters. The thick slices of life Maraniss gives us are, in the end, atypical; but that’s the way a writer sells books. So who can blame him? For the book’s epilogue, however, he can be blamed. An indulgence in first-person methodology, it should have ended on the cutting room floor — to my taste.

I think I know how Mr. Maraniss felt as he approached, wrote, and finished “They Marched Into Sunlight.” He was a freshman in Madison when the Dow riot occurred. I was a freshman at Penn when Cambodia and Kent State happened. You have to write a book sometimes to get the dank, uncomfortable feeling of having been on the edge of a national tragedy out of your system. I did it; now Mr. Maraniss has done it. I felt a lot better afterwards, and I’ll bet Mr. Maraniss does, too.

As to the reader’s appreciation for the by-product of Mr. Maraniss’ catharsis — namely the book — well, that depends on one’s appetite. My own catharsis completed, I’ve had quite enough — even a touch of indigestion. Younger readers, in particular, could surely do a lot worse than to let “They Marched Into Sunlight” serve as their first course to the Vietnam era. They could end up chic for the effort, too, because someone might well try to make a film, and some dough, out of Mr. Maraniss’ labors. Only please, let it not be Oliver Stone.

Adam Garfinkle is the author of “Telltale Hearts: The Origin and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement” (St. Martin’s, 1995), which was named a “notable book of the year” in the New York Times Book Review.

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