They Marched Into Sunlight

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Vietnam War was fought on two fronts, in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia, and in the cities and college campuses of America. Nowhere have these two seemingly dichotomous arenas of operation been better meshed than in this hefty chronicle. Washington Post reporter David Maraniss alternately describes, in meticulous detail, both the brutal ambush of the elite Black Lion battalion of the First Infantry Division near Lai Khe, in which sixty-one soldiers were killed, and an antiwar demonstration at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that protested the recruiting on campus by Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured napalm, a horrific substance that made humans go up in flames.

The American troops were outnumbered ten to one by the Vietcong regiment which cut them to pieces, the gruesome and vivid details of which are amplified by the familiar irony of an Army commander attempting, despite his unit being understrength, to amass an impressively large enemy body count. Incredibly, the military brass, eager for good public relations, twisted reality and attempted to claim victory. Back in the states, violence which mirrors the battlefield erupts at the University of Wisconsin, where Madison police pummel demonstrators with clubs and fire tear gas into their midst. The protestors are like the soldiers, many are young and naive, some wearing military surplus clothing to emphasize their warlike campaign, and both groups engage in zealous combat against tangible foes.

Those who thought everything had already been said about America’s misadventure in Vietnam will be surprised and impressed with the range of insights which emerge from the juxtaposition of the two contrasting yet eerily similar settings of battlefield and college campus. Maraniss resists the inclination to sermonize and uses his journalist’s skill to present the two parallel chronicles and allow their interrelations to speak for themselves. Readers with the patience to tackle the formidable length and dense prose of this remarkable and significant book will be greatly rewarded.