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U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings

US Naval Institute Proceedings 

Review of Loon: A Marine Story

May 2009

Loon: A Marine Story

Jack McLean. New York: Presidio, 2009. Foreword. Illus. Epilogue.

By Brigadier General Thomas A. Draude, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

Serendipity is defined as “The faculty of making providential discoveries by accident.” Reading Loon was serendipity for me.

I was uncertain at first about this story by Jack McLean. The title, Loon: A Marine Story, caused me to wonder if this was another anti-war screed by a “war-crazed Vietnam Marine veteran.” It is not.

Instead, Loon, so-named for a hot landing zone near Laos, is a delight to read. McLean has a number of unique elements to the story he shares. One is the fact that a classmate for three years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, was a young George W. Bush. McLean was also the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard University, despite having had a checkered academic record at Phillips. These and other touchstones with history are understated, and McLean allows the reader to sort out their significance.

McLean grew up in a close family and provides a young boy’s view of American history: the Korean War, the challenges presented by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, President John F. Kennedy’s exhortation and appeal to America’s youth, and all that led to Vietnam and McLean’s part in it.

When he was rejected by the last of five colleges, his mother mentioned the military as his only other option. He was of an age, during the late 1950s, that remembered military service as an honorable profession and that had role models from World War II. He chose the Marines.

McLean’s account of training at Parris Island is vivid but not overblown. He was struck by his drill instructor, but does not dwell on it nor parody it. He was better prepared than most of his fellow recruits because of a letter written to him from a distant cousin, a Marine colonel. (It’s one I wish I’d written, and it’s worth the price of the book to read.)

His descriptions of his tour in Vietnam are clear and without attempts at gratuitous explanation or elaboration. He describes the boredom accurately, including the strange mixture of relief from combat and the often eager anticipation of the next contact. His descriptions of life in a rifle company are as I remembered them, from the least-favored C-Ration (“Ham and Mother’s”) to the burning of the field head contents, to the shock of combat combining confusion with intense clarity and blurring of events with slow-motion precision. There is no self-aggrandizement—just the narrative of a Marine scared and confused but doing his job well and faithfully. Nothing more could be expected, and it is its own reward.

McLean’s technical terms are for the most part accurate. I can forgive the 106mm recoilless rifle being called “artillery” and even the Hollywood-inspired “over and out” radio transmission. (Will they ever get that right?)

I was moved by the descriptions of his company commander, Captain Bill Negron. He is remembered with awe and reverence for his competence and humanity. Most of the other leaders, officers and enlisted, come off well.. This is not a discourse on Marine leadership—far from it. These are the honest perceptions of a lance corporal.

One of the most appealing aspects of McLean’s book is the fact that he links historic events in the United States with his tour in Vietnam. It is a concise, accurate narration of the challenges, heartaches, and heartbreaks of 1968, from the seizure of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) by North Korea, to the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, to the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. In fact, he covers even more, from post World War II to his discharge in 1972 in an evenhanded, objective way. For those seeking an easy guide to U.S. history during the period, I would recommend this book without hesitation.

But the best part of Loon, by far, is McLean’s description of his relationships with his fellow Marines, which continue to this day. How difficult to describe the relief at having survived your tour, but the feeling of guilt over leaving behind your comrades as you head home. His recitation of the names of buddies killed or maimed would move anyone who has served in any war. He shares experience without shame; how can you be a Marine without emotion? I may not always remember McLean’s exact words, but I’ll always remember how they made me feel: lucky to have found his book.

General Draude is president and CEO of the Marine Corps University Foundation and teaches information operations as the General Robert H. Barrow Distinguished Chair of Military Studies at the Marine Corps University. 

More reviews... © Jack Mclean 2013