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Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat

ames R. McDonough
By the author’s own admission this book is not another war story, and he makes no claims to have experienced unique adventures in Vietnam and does not attempt to chronicle the Vietnam war. Instead, McDonough suggests only that this is a “book about an American platoon leader in combat”.

By explicitly not over-stretching himself to tell the whole story of the conflict in Vietnam at the time and with no interest in writing a Boy’s Own story of his tour in Vietnam. Platoon Leader is instead an honest and insightful look into the role McDonough played as a junior officer, straight out of training and experiencing his first tour of duty.

The themes of loneliness - from his ineffectual company commander and a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the platoon - and the burden of responsibility, unsurprisingly, feature heavily throughout. However, they speak volumes to the strength of character needed to be a effective and professional officer in the US Army at the time.

McDonough is analytical and precise, not just in his approach to leadership but also in his style of writing, he shares the details that are needed to understand the situation but does not get lost in describing his platoon or surroundings, a trap that many leadership memoirs fall into, especially in such an overwhelming environment.

Although the book does not seek to chronicle the war in Vietnam, the high turnover of names and characters within the platoon speak to the phenomenally high attrition rate seen throughout the conflict. As well as this, the mentions of a lack of discipline, fragging and poorly trained troops (as a result of accelerated basic training for conscripts) give context to some of the wider themes brought to mind when one thinks of the Vietnam War.

Moreover, at times it was easy to forget that you are even reading about the Vietnam war. Concerns about “booby-traps”, rules of engagement, infiltration by the enemy, and the enemy’s ability to blend seamlessly into the local population are all themes that feature frequently through-out and would not be out of place in any modern memoir about the war in Afghanistan. This served to underline for me, that the Vietnam war was not some far removed conflict fought by the Americans far before my time, but a recent and relevant experience.

I powered through this book in a couple of days, it is a short and punchy read. McDonough avoids the trap of recounting every day or incident of the five months he spent with his platoon, instead he focuses on the incidents, characters and details that give the reader a very real feel of command in a war zone. This makes for an immersive and captivating read although did leave me wanting more, at only 244 pages.

Platoon Leader, I think, should be a must read for every aspiring second lieutenant. If Junior Officers' Reading Club left you wanting to have heard more about the experience the experience of command for a young officer the. I would highly recommend this book. A very well-deserved 4.5 mushroom heads.

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