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Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat Mass Market Paperback


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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Presidio Press (February 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0891418008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0891418009
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 4.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,772 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Col. James McDonough, USA (Ret.), graduated from West Point and served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader in the legendary 173d Airborne Brigade. A military theorist who has helped shape the post-Cold War army’s thinking, he is also the author of The Defense of Hill 781 and The Limits of Glory. Now retired from active duty, McDonough lives with his family in Tallahassee, Florida.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

AUGUST 1, 1971:

LZ ENGLISH

Slowly the jeep pulls away, and I watch my driver, Phil Nail, trying hard to demonstrate his mastery over the alien vehicle. He has been driving only a few days, and his eyes dart nervously. His new job is a result of my final act of concern for the men of my former rifle platoon. Although Nail is uncomfortable, I am glad I had him transferred. As a rifleman, he was wounded three times. He's been lucky so far, but I know the odds are against his pulling through a fourth wounding. The longer he allows himself to stay in the relative safety of LZ English, the base camp for the 173d Airborne Brigade, the more likely that he will survive to the end of his stay in Vietnam. Having him transferred is the one small gesture I can make before going home, an act I hope will lessen, if only minutely, my feelings of guilt for going home on my feet. How well I know that there are many Phil Nails still out there in the bush. For them I can do nothing.

In the hot sun I stand beside the short airstrip of LZ English, waiting for the helicopter to take me to Camranh Bay, where the DC-10 waits to take me home. It is a quiet morning. From my vantage point on the small, leveled hill that houses the airstrip, I can see across the barbed wire fence to the rice paddies and the village of Bong Son beyond. Amid the tall, green rice, Vietnamese peasants are toiling away, here and there a domesticated water buffalo performing the timeless chores of Southeast Asian farming. Smoke wafts up from countless small homes and huts in the crowded village. The smells of Asia drift across the runway, intensified by the warmth of the sun and the stillness of the day. How quiet and serene it seems. Only the sandbagged wooden hut at the edge of the airstrip reminds me that a war is in progress.

I am not quite alone. A few yards to my right stands an army major in ill-fitting fatigues. His awkwardness of dress and his soft facial expression tell me at a glance that he has never been on the other side of the barbed wire, out in the field. In the wooden hut a soldier stands beside a field radio; nothing but static hums over the speaker. The soldier's rifle is the only weapon in sight.

I ignore them both. I want to be alone with my thoughts. Somehow I must rivet the picture of Bong Son and the countryside into my mind, and I feel I can only do it at this moment. Soon I will be gone, never to see it again. Before, I was too involved, too close to it, to remember it objectively. But now it is important for me to concentrate on these last few minutes on the ground in Binh Dinh province. Perhaps I am assuring myself that I have made it to the end. Perhaps I must convince myself that this is my last day with the 173d Airborne, and I am intact. That seemed a remote possibility when I began leading my platoon back in the early stages of my tour in Vietnam.

How long ago was that? Only a year? It seems I was much younger then, so much younger. And the men. Only a few are still around. Perhaps that was why Phil Nail was so smug when he shook my hand and said good-bye. So many of the others are gone. Even their replacements are gone, gone to early graves, hospital wards, shocked and horrified families, and years of questioning what happened, why it happened, and why it happened to them.

And how did I make it? Did I ask other men to do what I would not have done? Did I not take care of them? Was I too zealous in doing what was military? Did I contribute to the evil of this war in some callous, uncomprehending way? Or did I lessen that evil by doing what was right, by doing what had to be done, by doing what I was supposed to do?

My thoughts are interrupted. The major approaches me and asks me where I am going. I try to conceal my disdain for him, the disdain of a self-acclaimed veteran for the rear area soldier. It is an unfair disdain, but it is there, and he probably sees it.

"I'm going home," I tell him. He smiles, trying to share what he expects is my joy. I sense that, and my disdain grows. Doesn't he know that it's not joy? It's confusion; it's guilt; it's a sense of loss--but not joy. There is no room for joy in Vietnam.

"I'm a doctor," he tells me. "Psychiatrist, as a matter of fact." I wonder why he tells me that. I become wary. What is a psychiatrist doing here? He makes small talk, but I am only half-listening. Somewhere in his words he asks me my branch (infantry), and where I served in Vietnam. I point to what we call the Tiger Mountains, over in the north. "There," I say, "by the village of Truong Lam, not far from Tam Quon." He looks, but cannot see. He doesn't know the places; he doesn't know what comes with the names. The words mean nothing to him. I suppress my rage at this; many have died in the places that bear those names.

"What did you do?" he wants to know. I am wary again. Why is he asking these questions? The answers mean nothing to him. I speak in the past tense of the platoon I led. It has been a while since I led it (having been a staff officer in the last few months of my tour), and the men who were in it then are no longer there. The major picks up my mood; perhaps he is a good psychiatrist after all. "Do you ever dream about it?" he asks me.

I am surprised by the question. Dream about it? What does he mean? What is there to dream about? Is he testing a pet theory? Am I a subject of a research effort? "No, I don't dream about it," I tell him, with all the warmth with which I might say, "Shit on you, Bud!" He gets the message and backs off. I stand in silence waiting for the helicopter. The major is the final irony in a year filled with irony. Whoever sets in motion the forces that determine the life we lead has a tremendous flair for the ironic.

I marvel at the audacity of the question. My platoon was a part of my life, but I will not dream about it. I am determined I will not.

January, 1974: Medford, Massachusetts

I wake from my sleep with a start. The sweat is damp and chilly on my chest; the sheets cling to me. I sit up, causing my wife to stir in the cool air. Outside the bedroom window I can see a gray morning forming beyond the barren trees that ring the backyard.

My heart is beating fast; my nerves feel frayed. The dream was vivid; I feel it lingering even now in the faint morning light. How many were there? Four? Five? No, there were more, and I knew them all. Who were they? Think, think! I knew them. I knew their names. Yes, that's it. They are West Point classmates of mine, all six of them graduates of the Military Academy, class of '69. Momentarily, their names escape me.

In the dream they moved so slowly, they talked so solemnly. And their eyes: big, wide, but nothing in them. Glass eyes, looking at me with no expression. They were in full battle dress, each of them, bandoliers strapped across their chests, faces and hands camouflaged, their M-16s taped tightly to avoid metallic clangs. In single file--ranger file, as we called it--they came to me. We knelt in a muddy, barren hole in the ground, an enlarged foxhole or a fresh bomb crater. I'm not sure which. We talked, they and I, but I couldn't remember the words. We were discussing a mission; a map was spread on the ground in front of us, a map marred by mud and rain, barely legible in the dark jungle. When our discussion was over, they stood up to leave. How stiff they looked, how blank their stares.

Then I remembered some of the dialogue. "How are you doing?" I had asked them. I wanted to know. I felt as if I had to know. But no one answered. Slowly, again in ranger file, they walked off into the foliage, soundlessly fading into the background of my vision and my dream. By now I knew each of them. Their names, first and last, had come to me. Each one had come with me to Vietnam. Each one had died there.

I remembered the psychiatrist, and I cursed him in the quiet of the New England winter morning.

CHAPTER 2

THE ROAD TO WAR

The United States slid into Vietnam so gently, so slowly, it was all but imperceptible to the average observer. The early 1960s had bigger issues to contend with: a missile gap, a space race, a Cuban invasion, confrontation in Berlin, a nuclear face-off with the Soviet Union, an assassinated president, remote wars in faraway places of little importance to the United States, but seeming more important than the nonwars in Indochina.

In 1963 a boy coming of age in Brooklyn could identify more easily with the immediate issues of his own life than he could with Buddhist monks immolating themselves in grisly street scenes in Saigon. "Where is Saigon anyway?" he might ask while quickly thumbing through the newspaper to reach the box scores on the latest Yankee thriller against the Red Sox. Sports were important then. Politics were not. Girls were important, too, even if they were more incomprehensible than politics. World affairs are not the stuff of adolescence.

School was alleged to be important. All the adults said so. But in Brooklyn, school very often ended with graduation from high school, and that event was looming ever closer as 1963 passed into 1964. A time for decision was fast approaching. If not college, then what kind of work? And if college, then how to pay for it? And where to go?

The roads that lead young men to war are not political roads, or national and international roads, but individual roads. What propels young men (and, perhaps in the future, young women) to combat is not the draft. Those who are not destined for armed combat usually will not be drafted for armed combat. The pool of human resources is vast, and the number of riflemen is small. The person who wants to avoid the draft will avoid it. And in Vietnam, as the war went on, the numbers who successfully avoided the draft increased. So who fights? The fools, the uneducated, the knaves? I was none of these--or so I maintain. But I fought. What led me to it?

Certainly not the draft. Things were looking up...

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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This was a short book and can be read quickly.
Jerry R. Hedrick
This is one gritty and tough account of day to day life in the Viet Nam war that should be widely read.
R. J. Marsella
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in military memoirs or the Vietnam War in general.
Doug DePew

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By R. J. Marsella on July 2, 2003
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Lt. McDonough writes of his experiences in Viet Nam in such straight forward language with little embellishment and an honest and humble attitude. This is one of the best written depictions of combat I've ever read. His experiences commanding a platoon in the heart of VC country surpass anything that has been portrayed by Hollywood in terms of the difficulty of the mission and the horror of day to day survival in a combat situation. This is one gritty and tough account of day to day life in the Viet Nam war that should be widely read. Ranks right up there with Philp Caputo ,Michael Herr, Tim O'Brien and Tobias Wolff as a contribution to the definitive written record of grunt life in the war.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Mazza HALL OF FAME on November 4, 2004
Format: Mass Market Paperback
"Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat," by James R. McDonough, chronicles the author's experiences as an officer in the Vietnam War from 1970-71. His platoon is charged with manning an outpost next to the village of Truong Lam.

This is a fascinating, well-written account. McDonough fills his narrative with vivid details that really made his story come alive in my mind. He doesn't flinch at describing the goriest and most horrific images of war. There are also moments of irony and bitter humor. Also noteworthy is the informative material about tactics used in Vietnam. And the author humanizes the story by touching on such "down-and-dirty" issues as the latrine his platoon used.

McDonough's story is populated with a compelling cast of characters. Particularly intriguing is his exploration of relationships among the various groups he encountered in the war zone--U.S. enlisted men, his fellow Army officers, Vietnamese military allies, enemy forces, and the many civilians caught up in the conflict.

While rich in scenes of combat, "Platoon Leader" goes beyond being just an action-packed war yarn. The book explores the ethics and morals of war. McDonough deals directly with the danger a soldier faces in becoming dehumanized by the brutality of war. He vividly portrays the struggle of a leader to remain wise and humane, yet also tough and resolute, under the most trying of circumstances. This book is both a profound meditation on wartime leadership and a powerful work of American literature.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Greg Moss (jumboyang@netsol.net) on June 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
I can't forget the characters in this book: Killigan, Nail, Donne, McDonough himself, and all the others. The prose is sparse but muscular. The author's passion for integrity in leadership and for his troops drips from the pages like tears shed at the Wall in Washington, D.C. The center piece of this unforgettable tale is the tragic truth that America would never know what good and honest and selfless men served their country in the Nam. I will use this book in my high-school English classes to teach new generations about the war, about the men who served, and about the strength of character that once existed in America and that made this country great. My favorite line occurs toward the end when Lt. McDonough, attempting to save the life of one of his troops, writes "I would not let him die. I would rip the world off its axis first." It's a powerful read and one you will not easily forget.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ryan Jones on January 15, 2004
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Lieutenant Colonel James McDonough has written a truly different memoir of his experiences in Vietnam. I believe that this is because McDonough is a different type of leader and individual. His account of his personal experience in Vietnam is not glorified or gory, it is a more emotional recollection of the things that he did, good and bad, while serving as platoon leader in Vietnam. This book is a must for young military officers as well as those considering military service. There is no bravado in this book, because there is nothing fantastic about killing another man, or trying to help civilians who have been needlessly attacked. The book has a very real quality to it, which I found at different times both unsettling and moving. McDonough is not a killer, he is a soldier and an officer. While he may often silently question the purpose of the things he did or was ordered to do in Vietnam, he never hesitated in carrying out his responsibilities as platoon leader. Although he may have been afraid, he was still responsible for 25 other men who were even more afraid than he was. Overall, one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By "lizardpuppy" on March 6, 2003
Format: Mass Market Paperback
The honesty and humbleness in this book are second to none. This is a fantastic book. Lt McDonough gives a new sense to humanity in the face of insanity, pride in the midst of defeat, and paints a candid portrait of a soldier's heart in time of war.
I have recommended this book to many of the officers and NCO's alike in my unit.
Definetly a top-notch read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By C. A. Getchell on February 17, 2007
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
As a junior officer I have an entire list of professional reading that I am trudging my way through, but so far McDonough has been by far the most enjoyable and has made the biggest impact on my own leadership style. Both Platoon Leader and Defense of Hill 781 are great books, but Platoon Leader is so far the best military memoir I have read. It has been over a year since I read this book, but the three things that have stuck with me are:

1. Do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.

2. Death in a combat zone is more about just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sooner or later your luck runs out, but you have the duty to your fellow soldiers to do everything in your power to protect them.

3. The stealing of a bottle of soda from a grandmother leads slowly but inevitable to the rape of her granddaughter. If you let your soldiers steal at all you are setting the stage for what atrocities they will commit later. You must always be vigilant in your discipline.

While I do not have combat experience, I am currently serving in Iraq and know second handedly that these concepts still hold true.

Other than the leadership aspect of the book, Mcdonough is just a great story teller and is able to make the book engaging and addicting.
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