A sprawling, vivid, and hard-to-put-down account of a mere two days in the fall of 1967, a time of two fierce battles: one in South Vietnam, the other in Wisconsin.
Washington Post reporter Maraniss (When Pride Still Mattered, 1999, etc.) probably wasn’t thinking of James Michener when he set this epic down to paper, but the project certainly has a Michener-esque feel, with its huge cast of characters acting out in the face of great historical forces beyond their control. Maraniss is the more engaging writer, though, and he does a superb job of relating dozens of interwoven but distinct stories in which the obscure and the famous meet. In the Cs alone, for instance, there are William Coleman, a commander; Joe Costello, a grenadier; and Doug Cron, a rifleman—but also activist and actor Peter Coyote, US attorney general Ramsey Clark and his assistant Warren Christopher, and current US Vice President Dick Cheney. The latter, by Maraniss’s account, was busy avoiding the draft at the University of Wisconsin on those bright October days, though he would go on to rattle more than a few sabers. Meanwhile, the real saber-wielders, led by the noted soldier Terry Allen Jr., were busily killing and being killed in a ferocious battle 45 miles northwest of Saigon; some, even as early as 1967, had lost spouses and friends to the antiwar movement, which was gathering strength at the Madison campus, battling such hated symbols of the war as the Dow Chemical company and Lyndon B. Johnson. “There was an emerging awareness,” writes Maraniss of the antiwar activists, “that everything that had been tried to stop the war to that point had failed,” and, now toughened by tear gas and nightsticks, they were ready for the fight they got on the streets of Madison. Off in Vietnam, for their part, the soldiers of the tough-as-nails Black Lions unit were finding a vicious fight of their own—and compromised in that struggle by the leaders, or so many of the surviving soldiers felt. Both battles wrought terrible scars that have still not healed, and Maraniss’s careful narrative shows just why that should be so.
Extraordinary, and likely to become a standard in courses devoted to the history of the Vietnam War.