Friday, January 26, 2007

They Marched Into Sunlight: A Book Review

David Maraniss, They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002) 572 pages including notes, bibliography and index.

I was in Mr. Brigg's 5th grade class in the fall of 1967. At the same time, David Maraniss was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, site of one of the first violent anti-war protests. I don't recall any of the anti-war protest in '67 and Maraniss recalls little of the protests, mostly just a whiff of tear gas he got while watching the chaos from a distance. After exhaustive research, he now knows more about it and after reading his book, I understand a bit about what was happening.

There had been numerous protests against the Vietnam War prior to October ‘67, but the Wisconsin protest marked a change in tactics on both sides. Unbeknownst to the protesting students, the day before and half a world away, the “Black Lions,” a highly decorated American battalion, was ambushed in the Long Nguyen Secret Zone northwest of Saigon. Using the Wisconsin protest and the battle as a backdrop, and based upon countless interviews, Maraniss weaves together a compelling story. This is a timely book, as we again find ourselves as a nation in a war that is raises a lot of questions.

The world was more innocent in ’67. Although thousands of soldiers had died in Vietnam, the battle of October 17, 1967 was especially troublesome. It was unheard of such a large force to be ambushed. There were many mistakes made on the American side in the battle. Some of the bad decisions were made by commanders on the ground, who even though they made mistakes, by all reports remained calm in the face of overwhelming odds. Other decisions were made by higher ups far removed from battle. One such decision at the beginning of the battle was to halt artillery fire to allow air strikes to move in. But the air support wasn’t forthcoming and the soldiers were left to their own resources for over thirty minutes. During this time they couldn’t even use mortars. Prior battles plans called for American soldiers to engage the enemy, and then withdraw allowing air strikes and artillery to be brought in on enemy positions. This time, with the battalion commander under pressure to engage the enemy, the Americans didn’t pull back and found themselves fighting for the lives against a hidden and much larger enemy force.

By the time the battle was over, there was plenty of blame to be passed around. In addition to poor decisions, equipment failure was also a problem. The equipment officer in going over the heavy machine guns found that of the eight abandoned on the battlefield, only two were functioning properly. Many M-16s jammed as well as the grenade launchers. Pinned down by a well hidden enemy, the failure of equipment only added to the chaos.

The dead from the October 17th battle included the battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Terry Allen, son of a World War II General and Major Donald Holleder, who had been a football standout at West Point. The Army couldn’t deny the battle occurred, so they tried their best to spin the events. With so many of the ground commanders and officers dead, this was easier than it might have been. They greatly inflated the number of enemy killed. They refused to call the battle an ambush and called it a victory even though survivors said otherwise. One of the most amazing “spins” of the battle was awarding Major General Hay, commander of the 1st Division, the Silver Star for his heroic actions that day. Maraniss found no evidence that he was even on site during the battle, yet the citation tells about how he brought his command helicopter in low to direct artillery fire on enemy positions. If it hadn’t been so deadly, some of the antics of the military would have been quite humorous. “What a funny war,” one soldier kept saying in his letter’s home.

If Vietnam was changing in ’67, so were things on American campuses. As protests replaced panty raids, police and university administrators found themselves in a new situation. In Wisconsin, what many assumed would be a peaceful protest, with many of the students having learned non-violent tactics in the civil rights movement, turned into a full scale riot. What started as a protest against Dow Chemical (makers of napalm) on October 18, ended up in a full scale riot. Neither students nor police were equipped to handle the situation. Only four officers in Madison had riot training. Many students, who had been ambivalent toward the war, became incensed at the police handling of the situation and became overnight radicals. A split began to occur between extremists who wanted to tear down the system and those who were just against the war. The radicals began to despise the liberals almost as much as they despised the conservatives. Maraniss provides detail into the lives of students and facility involved as well as background into the planning by both the students and the police.

The weekend after the protests in Madison, many of Wisconsin’s students boarded buses to Washington DC for a march against the war. In the city, a depressed President Johnson was trying to figure it all out. Maraniss provides a behind the scene looks at the collapsing Johnson administration.

This books gives insight into lives and training of the officers and soldiers in Vietnam, takes you into the boardroom of Dow Chemical, into the halls of academia and into the White House. Maraniss does an outstanding job weaving together all these threads as he recalls the events in the fall of ’67. Although I recommend this book, it’s only a start in understanding the complexity of the Vietnam War.

On a totally irrelevant topic, THIS IS MY 300th POST!


  1. ah, Vietnam... you'd think the bush idiot would have learned something, but no...the head inmate is running the asylum.

  2. Karen, I forgot to add that Dick and Lynne Cheney were grad students at UW in '67--needless to say, they didn't care much for the protests.

  3. Congrats on your 300th post

    I had always been against the war and after much debating my parents let me go to the demonstration in DC. I was in high school Though I didn't know him then, my future husband for a second and life long friend was arrested on some very silly charge. The college we met at and went to at separate times threw him out and said it was drugs. That made his parents renounce him. Two years later when they found out the truth he became their hero

    It was very different times then. I have begun to realize just how much people don't know about the generational divide---long hair and music and oh yes drugs vs depression era WWTwo parents. While I personally had a wonderful time many people didn't survive. Their was so much hate and fear. It wasn't true that if you hated the war you hated the troops. One of th reasons I stopped political blogging was that even "liberals" believe that all war protesters called cops "pigs" and threw rocks at troops. So untrue. So I have refocused my book to talk about that era

  4. great discussion of the book. I work with a vietnam vet who is very concerned about the current administration repeating the mistakes of the vietnam era - and this is a guy who supports the war in iraq . . . when we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat our mistakes

  5. Pia, interesting comments. So you were there in Washington, wow. I have a friend who was a student at UW then, but it was in biology and was married and his wife pregnant so he stayed away from it all.

    In the book, the author talks a lot about Terry Allen's wife, who turned against the war and while he was over there (where he died), she had shacked up with another man, etc. She talked about how she had a problem seeing the soldier apart from the war. There does seem to be some shame among his interviewees among seeing the soldiers individually in such a manner.

    Thanks Kenju!

    Diane, it is interesting that this book came out right before we got bogged down in Iraq. Has your co-worker read it? I'd be itnerested in his take.

  6. Sounds like a fascinating book. Definitely a historical story worth pondering.

  7. GHood post; a worthy 300th post. Congratulations.

    Michele sent me here.

  8. Sage, thank you for your comment in my blog.
    Your blog is interesting and insightful. I'll be back.

  9. sage - I plan to ask him! I'll let u know

  10. sigh! Another book to read!


  11. Interesting book. And a good review. My compliments.

    Michelle sent me.

  12. Can't wait to see what's in the next 300. I have 20 bucks that says it will include more book reviews, more reviews on movies with subtitles and, if there is a God, more 'love em and leave em' stories from the 80's!

  13. Congrats on post 300! I can't remember the war or protests of course. I only remember my uncle coming home and seeing his pictures. I also remember visiting my grandparents and my uncle would have these episodes when he would just freak out. It would scare me to death. I just find it hard to believe that we've put ourselves in another war that is un-winable.

    Again your book choice is way out of my league!

  14. Tim, it is a good book especially for this time in history. Maybe I should send a copy of it to Georgie Boy.

    Pink Ginger, thanks for stopping by. I love your name. Pickled ginger is wonderful.

    Diane, we'll look forward to his comments

    Gautami, I don't manage time, it manages me, unfortunately. There are so many good books that nobody will ever get through them all, but we try!

    Murf, I will try not to disappoint you, especially since you seem to think that God's reputation rides on such stories, heck, I may even have to make up some "love 'em and leave 'em" stories, adding all kinds of juicy tidbits and really screwing that timeline you've been creating.

    Deana, Don't sell yourself short, I'm sure that you would find the book intersting, especially in light of your experiences with your uncle.

  15. Sage, Sage, Sage...the timeline is ingrained in this odd little head of mine. You can't screw me up. Although I'm in need of clarification regarding Fall of 1991. I'll try to nail you down on that later. :)

  16. Good review, sounds like a good one, especially the Dow boardroom stuff. This December, I had a chance to ask my own Dad why he wasn't in Vietnam, and he said he joined the reserves - not that he was against fighting and doing his duty, but because he had my mom and i to think about. I'm glad that he didn't go.