Is the era of the Vietnam War a model for today's Iraq?

The Argument

David Maraniss' 'They March into Sunlight' evokes the capacity for self-delusion

Books

October 19, 2003|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

Thousands of young Americans were on the move in summer and fall 1967, on journeys that helped alter the path of the United States.

In San Diego that summer, several thousand young soldiers boarded the USNS General John Pope and sailed to Vung Tau, South Vietnam. The enlisted men among them slept in bunks stacked seven-high. Walking ashore after a 6,000-mile journey, the men joined 500,000 other Americans fighting a war against an enemy the Pentagon was coming to regard as both ever-present and frustratingly elusive.

Other young Americans were driving, many of them with their parents, to Madison, Wis. They headed there from Green Bay, Wis., South Orange, N.J., and a hundred other towns to begin their freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. One of the full-time graduate students already on campus, studying political science, was 26-year-old Richard B. Cheney, future vice president of the United States.

As September became October, in Vietnam and in Madison, many of those young adults sensed something disquieting in the air.

David Maraniss, with admirable understatement, documents the feelings and events in They March into Sunlight (Simon & Schuster, 592 pages, $29.95), an immensely powerful account of cataclysms occurring in October 1967 at home and abroad due to the war. Those young people, being assigned to infantry companies in South Vietnam, or being assigned their dorm rooms and classes in Madison, felt "their lives, politics, and culture racing toward a place unsettled."

This is a disquieting book in ways that Maraniss could not have fully foreseen. It chronicles a cluster of tragedies that even now don't seem easily avoidable. They occurred almost simultaneously in time but far apart in place.

One is a daylong battle fought near the village of Lai Khe, about 40 miles north of Saigon, that all but destroys a company of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

A second begins with student protests at the University of Wisconsin against the presence of a recruiter from Dow Chemical Co., the maker of napalm, demonstrations that turn violent and foreshadow the rapid disintegration of a middle ground in the Vietnam debate.

The third calamity, no less affecting though it is far more familiar and only briefly described, is the ignorance or self-deception of President Lyndon Johnson's advisers in Washington. They badly misjudge the determination of the North Vietnamese and the strategy of American forces in the war. Washington, no less than Lai Khe and Madison, becomes a dangerous battlefield of wills.

The story is compelling on its own, but, more than a generation after the events it describes, it also is haunted by shadowy precursors of the American presence in Iraq. In Vietnam, commanders confidently assumed that victory would be easily and rapidly achieved, even though a clear definition of victory eluded them. A show of American resolve through the use of force began to be an objective in itself.

American officers arrived with little understanding of the country in which they were fighting, no certain knowledge of who might want to help them and who intended to thwart them and without enough personnel to do the necessary work.

Lt. Clark Welch, commander of Delta Company of the 28th Infantry Regiment's 2nd Battalion, is one of the heroes of October 1967. He was the rare officer who had at least a rudimentary comprehension of the Vietnamese language and was brave, resilient and earnest without being a fool. Early on, he writes home to his wife of his longing for a world that was "clean, and clear, and real, and solid and good," a standard Vietnam could not meet.

Another officer wrote home about a raid that, chillingly, might double as an account of American actions in Tikrit, where in that much different setting Americans are again finding it difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. Lt. Col. Terry Allen Jr. was the letter writer, one of the many Americans burdened by impossibly high expectations about the Vietnam War.

During the raid of a South Vietnamese village, he wrote, American soldiers and South Vietnamese soldiers and police lined up all the males over age 16, conducted a house-to-house search and fed the villagers rations of fish and rice. In a surreal good-will gesture, the Americans also brought in a traveling carnival. They discovered some weapons, arrested one man. For the next three days, they conducted search-and-destroy missions in the countryside at the cost of 11 wounded. Allen told his wife, "It was a dirty business." American casualties already numbered more than 12,000 dead, nearly 75,000 wounded.

The Pentagon and White House became hypnotized by statistics. "Every body count, every cache of war materiel, every enemy document, was used by [the military command] as proof of progress and evidence in the case against stalemate," Maraniss says. "If the war in Vietnam could be decided by statistics, no doubt the Americans would win."

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