With the nation locked in a seemingly interminable conflict in a far away land, the eyes of the world were on Madison, Wisconsin this week, where thousands of people descended on Wisconsin’s capital on Saturday.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in the background to the protestors, who were contesting what they saw as an effort by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature to impose draconian budget cuts and strip public sector employees of their collective bargaining rights.
Dear friend and Madison History professor Steve Kantrowitz told me yesterday that the sidewalks and streets around the capital building were packed with people expressing their opposition in nonviolent and peaceful fashion. Steve’s exhilaration crackled across the line as he described the power of being among such a committed, disciplined and joyful crowd.
His children Elliot and Sophie were with him.
While it is unclear how much Sophie will remember of her initial protest, the odds are quite favorable that Elliot, who is approaching double digits, will have clear memories of Saturday’s sights, sounds and smells.
Of course, this is not the first time that the world spotlight has focused on Madison.
The university where Steve has taught since graduating from Princeton in 1995 was home to some of the most dramatic, early and disturbing confrontations between students registering their outrage at the Vietnam War and area police.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Madison native David Maraniss was an 18-year-old freshman at the time, and the indelible impression of observing the protests and feeling the sting of tear gas in October 1967 never left him.
Thirty four years later, he returned with his wife to their hometown to learn more about those events and that time. Maraniss didn’t only focus on the domestic upheaval, though. Rather he also investigated a bloody battle in Ong Nguyen, in which 58 American soldiers were killed.
The simultaneous occurrence of protest at home and war abroad form the dominant narrative threads of They Marched Into Sunlight, Maraniss’ impressive and often gripping evocation of a deeply troubled era in the nation’s history whose echoes still rebound today.
Thanks to friend and Vietnam veteran Chuck Meyers for lending me the work.
The book draw its title from an inversion of a line from a poem by Bruce Weigl, who wrote about a line of infantrymen marching into a deadly battle, and indeed does primarily apply to the soldiers, so many of whom die far before their time.
Maraniss creates vivid portraits of All-American football player and Major Donald “Holly” Holleder as well as of Terry Allen Jr., the son of a World War II general and the First Lieutenant who led his men to their death while his marriage was crumbling back home. Maraniss also writes about Danny Sikorski, the scion of a Polish family who he argues was an archetypal soldier, and blond-haired Jack Schroder, who was studying to be a dental technician and wrote about his concern before the mission.
All were killed.
Yet on another level, the youth in Madison were also walking into a different type of sunlight. Beyond the physical injuries they sustained from the police’s brutal conduct and head smashing, many of the students and others in the university community saw their faith in the social compact that prized vigorous debate as the cornerstone of academic life and discourse shattered.
Maraniss focuses his considerable descriptive and reporting powers in these sections of the book on people like Paul Soglin, who eventually becomes mayor of the city, and Jonathan Stielstra, whose cutting of the flag from the Bascom Hall roof set off a manhunt.
The war’s architects in the Johnson Administration, the source of soldiers and protestors’ discontents, constitute the third thread of the story that Maraniss weaves. Johnson and his familiar cast of characters do not appear as often or in as much depth as either side of the war and peace divide, but Maraniss does write enough to convey their gradually sharpening awareness that the war was unwinnable, even as they continued to prosecute it.
The failure and dishonesty of leaders is a consistent theme in the work. Readers of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam will remember the rage engendered in Achilles when Agamemnon violates his trust and betrays him by claiming the top prize Achilles had earned. Shay argues in his groundbreaking work that American soldiers in Vietnam had the same experience when their leaders betrayed them.
This is shown most clearly through the behavior of Gen. William Westmoreland, who briskly informs one of the battle’s survivors that there was no ambush when that in fact was the case. On a broader level, though, the whole story is an indictment of the series of decisions by political and military leaders that led to seemingly endless carnage on both sides.
They Marched Into Sunlight is not a polemic, however.
Maraniss writes with some sympathy and complexity about Chancellor William Sewell, a liberal sociologist who had recently been tapped to fill the position and who found himself impossibly torn between the law and order and First Amendment positions advocated by both sides of the protest. A young Dick Cheney, who had gotten kicked out of Yale twice and did not serve in the war, makes a number of appearances in the work and does not emerge unscathed, either.
The book ends with the funerals for the soldiers killed in the battle, which took place almost exactly at the same time as the march on the Pentagon that led to Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.
In the epilogue, Maraniss updates the story by talking about what happened to the characters in the book in the 34 years after the events covered in the work.
This includes a trip to Vietnam, where Clark Welch, one of the American soliders, meets with a former Viet Cong adversary. A protestor and soldier are bonded through their children, as the son of one of the Madison students marries the daughter of one of the surviving soldiers. Within the same family, people on both sides of the issue find some peace, too.
Familial peace does mean a lot, but obviously does not signify broader social harmony or resolution of the issues that divided the people.
The events in Madison Saturday, in which Tea Party members also participated, show that the nation, while deeply divided, perhaps has gotten to a place where those in law enforcement or the military are no longer called “pigs” or “baby killers.”
On some level, that is progress, even as the budget cut opponents and public sectors may ultimately lose this battle.
Maraniss’ work reminds of that bitterly painful period by focusing on a Midwestern capital that once again may be serving as a bellweather for our country’s questions of the day.
I also look forward to reading in 2045 or so the account that a now-Wisconsin freshman, or people like Steve’s son Elliot, will write about last weekend’s events.