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It shows how the culture of America was changing, and that unrest was beginning all across the nation because of the war, the companies and government behind it, and the inequity of it all. It combines all these people and allows the reader to meet them, understand them, and then make up their own mind about them. For example, the author compares two of the profiles in the book, an Army commander, and a college protester. He writes, "Just as Army commander Terry de la Mesa Allen Jr. was shaped by the traditions of his father and grandfather before him, so too was antiwar activist Paul Richard Soglin" (Maraniss 94). It seems these two young men, so far apart in time, place, and outlook, would have nothing in common, and yet, the author shows they do, and it is this commonality that proves to be the backbone of this book.
The author is clearly qualified to write this book. He is a journalist for the Washington Post newspaper, and he has written several biographies and histories before this one. His writing style is readable and interesting, and it makes all the participants sympathetic, even if they are Vietcong fighters on their way to ambush American soldiers, as well. For example, he writes of Triet, the Vietcong fighter, "Lunch was a small portion of pressed rice, if available and for energy in the early afternoon Triet reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny piece of the hundred grams of ginseng that he had bought in a traditional medicine shop in Hanoi" (Maraniss 21). He has the ability to make all the characters real and compelling in this book, and one reason is the meticulous research he complied before he wrote the book.
According to the book jacket, the author conducted 180 on-the-record interviews for this book, and combined with 28 pages of notes and bibliography, it is clear his research was comprehensive and detailed. That is one reason the characters are so vivid and memorable throughout the book. The author knows them intimately and wants to present them to the reader in the same way. They become real to the reader, and the reader cares about what happens to them, because the author has done so much research and understands them so intimately. That is one of the things that helps make this book successful - the reader feels as if they are right there with the characters, experiencing the fears, joys, anguish, and anger that they are feeling.
The main point of the book is the bloody ambush at Ong Thanh, which Maraniss discusses in great detail, but the juxtaposition is the White House reaction blended with the antiwar demonstration enacted at almost the same time. Americans are dying for something they do not seem to understand on the battlefield, while young people are accosted by police for speaking their minds, while the White House attempts to bury the entire affair. It is as if the three incidents take place on different planets, but that is they point. They do not, they are all reactions and experiences of the same people, it is the disparities that make them important.
In conclusion, this book is a new look at Vietnam, when it seems like everything has been said about the controversial war, it is clear that is just not the case. This book clearly shows the different factions, both at home and abroad, that came together in this war, and it helps a new generation discover just why the war and the times were so controversial. It is also topical today, because it includes information on companies, situations, and people that are still in the news. This book belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in history, in social unrest, and in the government of the United States. It is a slice in time that is memorable, well written, and completely engaging for just about any reader. The people become real, and the author makes the situations, the questions, and the insecurities about the war real, as well. To truly understand the Vietnam War era, it is essential to read this book, it will make everything much clearer and much more painful, as well.
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