Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

McDonough’s ‘Platoon Leader’: A great memoir by a Vietnam War lieutenant

I first read James McDonough’s Platoon Leader  about 17 years ago, as I was watching then-Col. McDonough train up his infantry brigade for Bosnia. It is about his time in Vietnam was a platoon leader in 1970-71. I picked it up again the other day as part of my continuing education on the Vietnam War. ...

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I first read James McDonough's Platoon Leader  about 17 years ago, as I was watching then-Col. McDonough train up his infantry brigade for Bosnia. It is about his time in Vietnam was a platoon leader in 1970-71. I picked it up again the other day as part of my continuing education on the Vietnam War.

I remembered it as being good. I had forgotten how good it is. Some writers are honest, and some writers are fine wordsmiths. McDonough is both. He has enormous admiration for his soldiers, but not for his commanders-his company commander is almost entirely absent, both in the book and in the fight. This is his summary of his company commander and two fellow platoon leaders: "Moray was timid, Smalley was weak, Evans was eager. I did not condemn them for that. I noted it and adjusted. We were in a war, not a community social."

He also is honest about his own accomplishments, failures, and emotions about both. He explores his rage after one of his soldiers protests losing his marijuana by firing a M-79 grenade past McDonough's ear. (McDounough responds by sticking his M-16 rifle, set to fire, under the soldier's chin and slowly lifting the man's head.)  

I first read James McDonough’s Platoon Leader  about 17 years ago, as I was watching then-Col. McDonough train up his infantry brigade for Bosnia. It is about his time in Vietnam was a platoon leader in 1970-71. I picked it up again the other day as part of my continuing education on the Vietnam War.

I remembered it as being good. I had forgotten how good it is. Some writers are honest, and some writers are fine wordsmiths. McDonough is both. He has enormous admiration for his soldiers, but not for his commanders-his company commander is almost entirely absent, both in the book and in the fight. This is his summary of his company commander and two fellow platoon leaders: “Moray was timid, Smalley was weak, Evans was eager. I did not condemn them for that. I noted it and adjusted. We were in a war, not a community social.”

He also is honest about his own accomplishments, failures, and emotions about both. He explores his rage after one of his soldiers protests losing his marijuana by firing a M-79 grenade past McDonough’s ear. (McDounough responds by sticking his M-16 rifle, set to fire, under the soldier’s chin and slowly lifting the man’s head.)  

–On taking command of a remotely located platoon: “I was desperately trying to learn what I was already supposed to know.”

–On controlling himself: “Establishing authority over others . . . is sometimes easier than establishing authority over yourself.”

–On making the platoon more aggressive: “For too long the platoon had done only those things necessary to minimize casualties, an approach that in the long run would surely lead to maximum casualties.”

More to come.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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