I started reading this book as background for a dancework being created by Robin Becker which takes the 2003 David Maraniss bestseller as one of its sources of inspiration. Within thirty seconds of having opened the book, a knot formed in my stomach; this sensation recurred each time I took it up again. By the time I reached the chapter detailing the battle which is the centerpiece of the book I felt numb and read it with a sense of detachment, as if it were a piece of fiction. But...it's not.
Looking for a photo to lead off this article, I passed over the hundreds of shocking and horrible images from the Vietnam War (which are basically interchangeable with the shocking and horrible images from any war) because I don't want my readers getting sick to their stomachs. No war has been fought on American soil in living memory and we can therefore look upon filmed and photographic images of warfare at a safe remove.
THEY MARCHED INTO SUNLIGHT begins with the description of a bunch of young GI's assembling in 1967 to be shipped over to Vietnam. David Maraniss's factual style would on the face of it make this seem like just another routine event in the lives of military men in time of war. But we already know through hindsight that many of these particular soldiers will never return home.
A few months later on a hot October morning deep in the Vietnamese jungle, these men and their comrades marched out from camp and into a Vietcong ambush in which many of them were gunned down dead in their tracks and others sustained serious injury. The battle raged for more than four hours; as the Americans withdrew from the field their ranks were so decimated that they could not arrange to remove the bodies of their fallen mates from the battlefield - a rule of honor among fighting men - and so they stacked them and left them under guard overnight. The Vietcong had moved on anyway to their planned rendevous for a bigger operation. In the morning the Americans came out to recover their dead.
We think of the idea of 'spin' as being a modern political concept but even in 1967 the survivors of the battle were told not to refer to it as an 'ambush'. Back in the USA the story filtered out and was cast in a different light: since the bodycount of Vietcong exceeded that of American dead, it was viewed as a US victory of sorts.
On the day after the battle, before details of it had reached the Western hemisphere, there was a conflict at the University of Wisconsin where students sought to block recruiters from Dow Chemical from doing job interviews on campus. Dow was the manufacturer of napalm, a major weapon in the US war armory. You do not want to even imagine the horrors that napalm (along with carpet-bombing) inflicted on the people of Vietnam; Dow's 'publicity' about the chemical downplayed its fiendish effects on humanity: more spin.
The student protest at the University of Wisconsin turned from peaceful to violent as police waded into the crowd wielding billyclubs. This sparked outrage nationally on both sides of the debate: freedom of speech and dissent vs the notion of blind patriotism. The following weekend an anti-war demonstration in Washington took on a far larger scope than the administration had envisioned. Thus the impetus of the anti-war movement in this country became broader and deeper, eventually leading to a decision by Lyndon B Johnson not to seek a second term as president.
Maraniss's book looks at both sides of both stories: the military encounter in Vietnam and the student vs police conflict at the Madison campus. He tells what happened and what the participants in both incidents were thinking and how they felt afterward, but he allows the reader to decide where blame or praise should be directed.
For all the emotional power behind the factual re-telling of these events, by far the most overwhelming aspect of the story comes many years after the incidents when the leaders of the two factions who met on that battlefield that October morning meet once again - now old warriors - and explore the anonymous patch of Vietnamese land where so many young men laid down their lives. If only they could have met before the battle, they might have realized their differences were vastly outweighed by their common humanity. They could have shaken hands and walked back to their respective camps, refusing to kill each other simply because someone had told them it was the thing to do.
The current wars in which the last Bush administration has embroiled our troops are often compared to the Vietnam War: a no-win conflict, a quagmire where Americans are culturally out of place and in which the objectives - whatever they are imagined to be - are likely never to be reached. What exactly is all this death and destruction accomplishing? For all the progress mankind has seemingly made, we still cannot find ways to settle religious and ideological conflicts without killing each other.
Books will be written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are just as touching and baffling as THEY MARCHED INTO SUNLIGHT. People will read the stories and weep and shake their heads over the pointless waste of life and destruction of property, the corruption and the grasping for power behind the conflicts. The cycle seems endless and it will not be broken until mankind learns to put a higher value on human life than on religious or political concepts. I cannot foresee that happening in my lifetime, nor for decades - even centuries - to come.