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A generation divided by the fog of war

Vietnam from both sides now, by David Maraniss

By Todd Leopold

A protester hands a flower to a soldier during a protest at the Pentagon in October 1967.

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(CNN) -- On one side of the world, there was a massacre. On the other side of the world, there was a riot.

Vietnam had a way of producing bad news.

In his new book, "They Marched Into Sunlight" (Simon & Schuster), David Maraniss looks at two events from October 1967: a Viet Cong ambush against a battalion of American soldiers that was initially misrepresented by the military, and a protest at the University of Wisconsin against napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical that turned ugly.

The events neatly summarize a moment in American history when the Vietnam War was driving the country apart.

Though much has been written about the war, Maraniss -- a Washington Post reporter who's also the author of the Bill Clinton biography "First in His Class" and the Vince Lombardi biography "When Pride Still Mattered" -- says he hoped a work blending the two sides' experiences could be something new.

"I was aware of the vast amount of literature on Vietnam, but I hadn't seen a book bringing the worlds [of the war and the home front] together," he says in an interview from his home in Washington.

Of course, there have been a number of highly regarded works on Vietnam -- including books by Michael Herr, Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo -- but Maraniss says he wasn't really intimidated by the prospect of his own.

"When I had the idea, I overcame my reservations," he says.

'It's sort of a gamble'

A Marine in Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965.

But getting veterans of the era to talk wasn't easy -- particularly the soldiers who fought in the encounter at the Long Nguyen Secret Zone. Sixty-one men died; another 60 were wounded when surprised by a Viet Cong ambush. The soldiers were members of the crack Black Lions battalion, and among their dead was the commander, Terry Allen Jr., son of a much-honored World War II general.

Among Maraniss' interviewees was Clark Welch, a rifle company commander who plays a central role in the book. It took several months to line up the first interview with Welch, notes Maraniss, and things almost ended before they began.

"He told me, 'I want you to be good to my boys,' " recalls Maraniss. "And I said, 'I'm going to find the truth and write the truth.' He almost got up and left."

But, Maraniss continues, "He finally decided to trust me, and he shared everything with me." The two even went to Vietnam together, where Welch met the former Viet Cong commander who helped lead the ambush against the Americans.

Maraniss mixes the stories of dozens of people. For the book's Vietnam portion, he tells the story from the point of view of the commanders and the grunts, the wives and the families. For the Wisconsin protest, he describes the reactions of the university administrators and students, as well as the citizens of Madison, Wisconsin. And making occasional appearances are Lyndon Johnson and his aides, trying to figure out both sides from Washington.

Some of the characters, particularly the soldiers, can be hard to tell apart, but the blur adds to the story's atmosphere.

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson reacts to a tape recording made by his son-in-law, Chuck Robb, in 1968.

"It's sort of a gamble," Maraniss says of using such a broad palette. "But I tried to use each character to evoke something." Some of the soldiers were particularly thoughtful letter-writers, he notes; others had distinctive family ties. And for the some of the students, the Wisconsin protest was an awakening for protests to come.

"I tried to present the totality of the experience," he says.

Fighting the war

One of the UW students Maraniss talked to was current Vice President Dick Cheney, then a graduate student and teaching assistant. His wife, Lynne, also worked at the university.

Cheney had already started his political life -- he went to Wisconsin in 1966 to serve as an aide to the governor -- but, in general, he was focused on his political science studies and away from the war.

"I think he's emblematic of a certain type," Maraniss says. "He wasn't against the war, just didn't want anything to do with it. He wanted to get on with his life and not let the world get in the way."

Maraniss sees some parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts. Both involve presidents from Texas; both play into domino theories (in the case of Iraq, a theory that democracy there will transform the Middle East); both were expanded because of fears of other issues (with Vietnam, the Cold War; with Iraq, the war on terrorism).

Fighting the war

But there are key differences, Maraniss notes. "The way the military fought has been different and the enemy is very different," he says. "And the fall of the Soviet Union has made a huge difference."

He notes the military itself hasn't been afraid of the book. A U.S. Army magazine gave the book a rave review. "I've found that military people are willing and able to look at Vietnam without blinders on," he says.

Indeed, one of the goals of "They Marched Into Sunlight," Maraniss says, is for both sides to see what the other went through. And, at readings and book signings, he's seen the soldiers and protesters, the warriors and the peaceniks, gain appreciation for each other.

The protesters tell him how they see what the soldiers went through; the soldiers say they had no idea what was going on Stateside before reading the book. Sometimes the groups ignore swaths of the book to focus on one side or another, but that's OK.

"I can live with that," he says.

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