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'Two Days' turns ambush and protest into a powerful lesson about Vietnam

If you could watch only one program to grasp what the war in Vietnam did to the United States of America, ''Two Days in October" would be a great choice.

This ''American Experience" documentary is powerful television that examines twin strands of the conflict that was tearing the country apart in the fall of 1967. American soldiers were dying in droves each week while sporadic antiwar campus protests began to cohere into a muscular national movement. Together, they dismantled the Pentagon effort like a pair of lumberjacks felling a pine.

Taken from ''They Marched into Sunlight," the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, ''Two Days" intertwines a devastating Viet Cong jungle ambush and ensuing coverup by the US military with a bloody confrontation at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin a day later. There, city police clashed with student protesters bent on blocking a Dow Chemical recruiter from conducting interviews. Dow was a maker of napalm.

Both triggered loss of trust in government for those involved and presaged the realization by the Johnson administration that it could no longer win the war. Veteran documentarian Robert Kenner, who produced and directed this show, presents the two tales through moving accounts from men and women who were involved in both: former soldiers, American and Vietnamese, who survived that fight and families of those who did not, former student protesters, police, and university administrators at Madison.

There are no bad guys in either tale. That was the signature of Vietnam. Protesters and police alike were convinced in the rightness of their actions. So were the grunts in the jungle until the disastrous tactical planning and ensuing lies left them embittered men. The feelings hardened as they returned home. One wrote a welcome home letter to himself on the assumption that no one else would.

The Madison melee of Oct. 18 began as a peaceful protest but became a nightmare after Chancellor William Sewell, despite his opposition to the war, asked the police to break it up. They waded with billy clubs into a hall filled with students. Mayhem ensued and 65 people were hospitalized in what is described as the first violent protest of the war.

''It was the most brutal and violent thing I have ever witnessed in my life," recalls a woman who was a freshman at the time.

But then she was never in 'Nam, where the day before, 64 of 142 Americans died in a single disastrous encounter and most of the others were wounded. The testimony of survivors ripples with sadness, outrage, and, ultimately, cynicism.

Field commanders were driven by intense Pentagon pressure to raise the enemy body count to soften the relentless loss of American lives, so they pursued search and destroy missions with a vengeance. In this case, a misguided tactical plan was mounted against an entrenched superior force that left Alpha and Delta companies of the Black Lions unit annihilated. Worse, the military misrepresented the disaster to the media as a successful operation. Troops were told not to tell CBS News they had been ambushed at all, because an ambush represents military failure, despite the fact they had been decimated from three sides.

''It was a total fabrication of what really happened," says retired major Jim Shelton. ''I'm not a cynic, but I started to become one."

Lieutenant Colonel Terry Allen, who led the units, was killed during the fighting, shot while looking at a photo of his three children. He had been in low spirits since his wife, Jean, had sent him a ''Dear John" letter expressing her unhappiness in the marriage, due in part to her growing opposition to the war. Her unvarnished memories of transformation from loyal Army wife to troubled spouse are searing.

Vietnam shattered lives in countless ways. ''Two Days" masterfully documents the larger loss by staying tight on these two incidents. It is profound.

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