Mark Treanor, A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 2020)
What occurs on the battlefield is not the only important outcome of a war. It may not even be the most important outcome. How the societies that fought the war are affected by the conflict can be deeply significant and have long-lasting reverberations. Both Japan and Germany were transformed by their experiences in World War II, becoming responsible, peace-seeking nations in the aftermath of defeat. America was torn asunder by our experience in Vietnam. Society convulsed on itself trying to reconcile its opposition to an unjust and ill-conceived war with its view of the young men who were drafted to fight it.
Twenty years into the post-9/11 forever wars, the forgotten, acid memories of Vietnam are important to revisit, however painful—especially the relationship between America and its military in that era. Doing so will help us to critically examine the very different but equally troubling relationship between the US military that has fought for the past two decades and the people in whose name it has done so.
Hundreds of books have been written about the Vietnam War. The genre of bitter Vietnam vet is one that especially resonates with those in the military. Foremost among them are the works of James Webb. Webb’s Fields of Fire has an almost cult-like following. When one of the book’s protagonists returns home from Vietnam to pick up his Harvard education where he left off, he is asked to speak at an antiwar rally. He berates his fellow students, “How many of you are going to get hurt in Vietnam? I didn’t see any of you in Vietnam. I saw dudes, man. Dudes. And truck drivers and coal miners and farmers. I didn’t see you. Where were you? Flunking your draft physicals? What do you care if it ends? You won’t get hurt.” Webb gave voice to the derision some Vietnam veterans felt toward those who didn’t serve.
Mark Treanor has written a powerful novel of the Vietnam era that stands in contrast to the Webb’s angry and bitter tale. A Quiet Cadence is told from the perspective of a young Marine, Marty McClure. Forty years after coming home from a traumatic tour in that war, where he lost many close friends and was plunged into the depths of darkness, he is still trying to reconcile his experience and his relationship to the country and society he served and loves. It’s in the same spirit as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Treanor succeeds in drawing a character with whom we can empathize, while gently and thoughtfully navigating the tumultuous chapter of our country as seen through Marty’s eyes. One suspects that the act of writing the book was Treanor’s own exercise in coming to terms with the war and his personal experience of it. The 1968 Naval Academy graduate served as a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam, leaving the Marines in 1973 for law school and a successful legal career.
Ask any male born between 1944 and 1950 where he was on December 1, 1969, and he will be able to tell you. That was the date of the first Vietnam Draft lottery. That night determined the fate of so many, especially those who could not get out of serving. Milt Copulos, a good friend of James Webb, is quoted in Robert Timberg’s magisterial book, The Nightingale’s Song, derisively declaring that “there’s a wall ten miles high and fifty miles thick between those of us who went and those who didn’t, and that is never going to come down.” That’s the terrible legacy of Vietnam.
In a timeless essay about the draft in The Atlantic in April 1980, James Fallows observes:
To those who opposed the war, the ones who served, were, first, animals and killers; then “suckers” who were trapped by the system, deserving pity but no respect; and finally invisible men. Their courage, discipline sacrifice counted for less than their collective taint for being associated with a losing war.
Treanor’s book begins with a short chapter, just two and a half pages long, describing an old Marty, preparing for retirement. “I’d like my kids to understand the events that changed their old man forever,” he says, “when I wasn’t much older than theirs are now.” One is reminded of E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, a memoir he published nearly four decades after his harrowing experience in the Pacific in World War II. Sledge, like Marty, was one of those countless invisible men who served honorably, and only came into the light when they wrote to their children and grandchildren to try to help their progeny understand a bit of why they were the way they were.
The reader is next catapulted backward in time onto a CH-46 helicopter carrying young Marty to the bush, where he would join Bravo Company of the 15th Marine Regiment. The next 230 pages are a harrowing tale of McClure and his platoon as they endure horrific combat fighting a ghost enemy. We come to know these kids, and we suffer alongside Marty McClure as his platoonmates are killed and maimed in gut-wrenching fashion.
The Marines’ outlook turns darker and darker. Marty and his colleagues spend every waking moment thirsting for revenge, believing that killing more “gooks” will avenge the deaths of their comrades. The conscience of the platoon, an older Marine they call “the Pope” because he had spent time in seminary, counsels young Marty: “It’s an interesting thing, being in the bush, doing what we do. Or maybe I should say, have done to us. You can lose your bearings, if you’re not careful. Sometimes it takes real courage to make the right choices out here. I’m not talking physical courage. I mean not letting the darkness that can get inside you take over.” Eternal wisdom for all wars, indeed.
Marty survives, comes home, and tries to begin anew, a timeless ritual. He is a sensitive and tragically mature young man struggling to make sense of his experience, akin to E.B. Sledge or William Manchester in his memoir Goodbye, Darkness.
Unlike the reception Vietnam veterans received when they returned, Sledge and Manchester and the other sixteen million Americans who served in World War II came home to a hero’s welcome. But they also returned to a society deeply worried that the veterans would end up homeless and jobless, would be violent, and finally would take away the jobs of those who had stayed home from the war. Americans feared another Lost Generation. Robert Saxe, in his book Settling Down: World War II Veterans’ Challenge to the Postwar Consensus, details the path America took in landing eventually with a view of the Greatest Generation as it did.
Saxe describes the reintegration of roughly 11 percent of the US population back into civilian life, something termed “The Veteran Problem.” Americans took actions as a government to support them—especially the GI Bill—which gave veterans the leg up that they needed, whether it was buying a home or getting a college degree. Americans suppressed dissent and disenchantment with the war, instead seeking a consensus that viewed veterans as “ordinary heroes” who fulfilled their duties to defeat fascism and then as postwar protectors of the nation. Their myth only grew, reaching its peak in 1998 with Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation.
And by and large, the veterans did reintegrate, restart their lives, and succeed. That success hinged on the fact that it was the entire society that fought the war, not just a military. It was also considered a necessary and just war. Veterans were a significant percentage of the population, and when they came home, they felt as though they were part of the society into which they were returning. Moreover, for the most part, young men had not actively sought to avoid service in World War II. The military and its relationship to the society it served withstood the challenge of a great war.
Vietnam was different, especially in the relationship of those who fought and the society back home. Treanor captures this perceptively when Marty enrolls in college, and in one of his first conversations, a fellow student asks how he was wounded. Without thinking, Marty says, “Not much to tell. A gook popped out of a hole and shot me.” He is immediately lambasted by a girl. “Gooks? They weren’t gooks! They were fucking human beings!” Marty isn’t angered or offended by the response. He is dumbfounded. He’s not a prejudiced person. They just had a name they used for the enemy who was trying to kill them.
In Vietnam the troops lost their noble and heroic image. To others, they were baby killers and suckers. The stereotype of the US soldiers in the war were the goons who perpetrated the atrocities of My Lai, or the blue-collared Boston Southies who didn’t have the connections to get out of the draft. And the result is a generation of combat veterans perceived as products of a single mold, one that gave us James Webb and John Rambo—that of the aggrieved warrior.
Marty belies this image. But he also does not have the luxury of synthesizing what was the great lyric passage of his life. His country and his society did not allow it. He doesn’t even know if he is proud of his service. He just seeks to put the dark memories in a box.
As a society, Americans have carried around a collective guilt about the way it treated Vietnam veterans. They tried to make it up to them with a wall in Washington, DC, hoping it might offer some healing. It did, and it does, and Treanor portrays a glimpse of that healing quite beautifully through Marty’s experience.
Marty is one of the 2.7 million Americans who fought in Vietnam. He is the rule, not the exception. He is one among the vast majority who served honorably, and who are forgotten and invisible. He doesn’t wear his jungle boots and camouflage trousers. He doesn’t hold a grudge against those who didn’t serve.
After Vietnam, as a country, America also punted. It chose to change the rules, the fundamental process of how we choose to go to war, and whom we send, and even how we care for and honor those who return. Fallows, in his 1980 essay, strikes at the heart of the dilemma today. With an all-volunteer force, the United States has created a military class that is self-selected. I recall when I first made the decision to join the military, I had many friends, and especially the parents of friends, who asked me, “You seem so smart, why would you join the military?” Of course, that was before 9/11.
Now Americans celebrate and lionize “the troops” unlike any chapter in the country’s history. But underneath that layer, nearly twenty years into the forever wars of the post-9/11 world, the picture of what it has done to American society and culture is starting to come into view. It’s a concerning picture, especially in the relationship between America and her military.
The connection between society and the military is being lost. With only 2.2 million personnel, both the active and reserve components combined comprise less than 0.7 percent of the population. The public gratitude for servicemembers may be little more than a banal indifference. After all, aren’t the troops doing something Americans appreciate, but given the all-volunteer force, something they don’t want to do themselves? But more concerning is what has built up on the other side of the equation, among veterans—a tendency among some to condescend to their fellow Americans who haven’t served. The self-regard with which some veterans hold themselves is not only unseemly, it’s a threat to the very social contract expected in a democratic republic. Jim Golby and Peter Feaver have noted:
62 percent of all veterans and 66 percent of post-9/11 veterans agreed with the statement, “Civilians who have not been to war should not question those who have.” . . . Post-9/11 veterans—who volunteered to serve in America’s all-volunteer force during America’s longest military conflicts with no full-time mobilization of society—also expressed some open contempt in our survey for those who did not volunteer. A full 60 percent of post-9/11 veterans “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the eligible Americans who did not volunteer to serve during wartime should feel guilty.
I used to joke with some of my closer friends who also served that as veterans we must be either superheroes or broken—either worshiped or pitied. I fear after the last few months that there is a third category—that of radicalized, far-right, angry extremists. All of those caricatures offend me. I’m no more patriotic than my neighbor because I served. And like Marty, serving in uniform and going to war was a chapter in my life. It doesn’t define me, nor do I feel compelled to tout my “veteran-ness.” I’m not alone: although the data cited by Golby and Feaver depicts a worrying trend, it shows that the particularly troubling sentiments are not held unanimously. Still, the data also suggests that those who feel like me are in the minority among our fellow veterans.
The legacy of the post-9/11 wars, then, risks being a majority of veterans who are becoming the caricature of Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, screaming, “You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall!”—at once entitled, sanctimonious, and condescending toward their fellow citizens. It’s a dangerous trend, one where veterans seem incapable of reconnecting with their broader society.
Veterans need an audience that listens, an audience of civilians who must seek to understand—simply thanking veterans for their service and moving on is also an abrogation of responsibility. But veterans also need an audience that is critical. Perhaps the solution lies in the title of Mark Treanor’s novel, its significance revealed at the end as Marty reflects on “how all of us marched to the same quiet cadence of belief in each other and America and in the value of serving something bigger than ourselves.” His is a melancholy call to service and citizenship that asks us to acknowledge that we all owe our country something, and that each of us must do our part to create the kind of country and society we seek. More pointedly, A Quiet Cadence recognizes the fundamental reality that in the aftermath of Vietnam we swept the difficult experience under a rug, individually and collectively. As we shift our focus away from the post-9/11 wars, we shouldn’t make that mistake again.
Scott Cooper served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 1993 to 2013, including five tours in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Master Sgt. Michel Sauret, US Army (adapted by MWI)