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Marine Corps Aviation Association Magazine


Presidio Press. 236 pages, advance copy.

Pretty much couldn’t put it down--in a word, marvelous. Between the sparse, literary elegance of the writing and the numerous topics addressed by the content-- growing up in privilege, prep school, enlist- ing, Parris Island, Vietnam, LZ Loon and then Harvard--Jack McLean has written a book that tells us much about our country and Corps during the Vietnam years. And he does so by capturing significant, unforgettable people, images and memories that have stayed with him since the sixties, and does so without preaching or politicizing. He doesn’t have to draw conclusions for the reader; the content speaks volumes in and of itself.

This very personal book begins with his academic near-misses at Phillips Academy, his surprising enlistment in the Marine Corps and some “old school” experiences at Parris Island, before being sent to combat in Vietnam. His word portraits are filled with the sounds and smells of war and peopled with his buddies and the trust, camaraderie and losses they shared.

In terms of war literature, I have seldom read better. 

For those of us who were not there, upon reading LOON, you will have a new appreciation for those who were there. He recounts everything from the inevitable first combat deaths of fellow Marines to his first R&R. And in terms of his commanders, credit where credit is due: “...3rd Marine Division was celebrating a new commanding general who would be based in Dong Ha. His name was Raymond Davis, and he, like (Capt) Negron, was appalled by what he saw. Offensive Marines were in defensive positions throughout the region. The North Vietnamese skirted around them at will as the NVA headed to the more lucrative urban targets to the south...

Davis was determined to change all of that and knew that the only way to do it was to abandon the bases like Con Thien and Khe Sanh. He needed his Marines back on the offensive...He would emphasize mobility and movable firebases to counter the enemy buildup.

We were Marines. We were not trained to defend. We were trained to attack. “We grunts were thrilled. Real leadership had arrived at last. ...Davis became our division commander on May 21, 1968, and was quick to observe the futility of the existing strategy...

Within days, he had the Marine Corps mobile again, beginning with Charlie Company.”

And this, from the section dealing with three horrific days on LZ Loon, near the Laotian border:

“All night long, we heard the movement of NVA soldiers just outside the lines, with the squeak of their gear and soft snap of an occasional stick. We heard the snipers climb up into the trees and even heard whispers.

It was eerie and scary beyond all imagination.

Once all of the necessary tasks were completed, there was nothing to do but collapse into our holes and wait. We knew where they were, and they knew where we were..Neither side could now make a move without its registering on the other.

It was time.”

And then:

“Camacho, on Negron’s order, had instructed our supporting artillery to fire directly onto our position, and we prayed like hell that none of the rounds fell directly into any of our fighting holes. We had little choice. The NVA had broken through our lines in several places and were now inside our perimeter...

The following seconds passed in near silence but for the sporadic crack of an AK-47 rifle. Then it came. The air at once was filled with exploding artillery, flying shrapnel, and screaming boys.

Their boys.

The artillery air bursts, ordered by Camacho, had caught the enemy in the open. Instead of exploding on impact, the artillery had been fused to ignite in the air above the battlefield. It was a slaughter... They were scattered everywhere, and they were all very dead...

June 6, 1968.

It had felt like a lifetime, and the morn- ing was only half over.”

The final chapters deal eloquently with the return from Vietnam, the realization that public response to veterans was almost hostile, and the necessity of sublimating the raw experiences of combat that neither his family nor friends could ever understand. And while doing that, enroll as a fresh- man at Harvard. As the years passed, Jack McLean began to process the impact of his military experience, and eventually read through the letters he had sent home in 1968. This marvelous, insightful, painfully truthful book combines the vivid details of combat from those letters with the maturity and perspective of his professional accomplishment today. That we now have this universally appealing master work from a Marine who has come to full terms with his Vietnam experience and shared it so beautifully, is a literary gift to all readers of military history.

Personally, I must take issue with the Presidio Press editing which does not capitalize Marine, and with any current “style book” that promotes that use of the lower case for this proper noun. In the original text, the author capitalized Marine. I have re-capitalized the word Marine in these quoted sections. 

More reviews... © Jack Mclean 2013