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Combat hasn't changed much in the last 45 years, as a Marine remembers Vietnam in 1965-1966, "the rancid smell of buffalo dung... the vivid green of the rice paddies... the ripeness of his soiled and ragged jungle utilities usually drenched from his own sweat or the monsoon rains... only able to keep down a can of C-ration fruit cocktail... hoping the bite was not from a scorpion... the smell of the blood of a dear friend sluicing through his fingers which are pressed against the terribly large hole in his buddy's throat."
In Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966, author Frank Cox shares his experiences and thoughts on his tour in Vietnam in some of the most vivid prose published since Sen. Jim Webb's Fields of Fire. Written 43 years after the end of his tour, Cox successfully combines the adrenaline and anxiety of combat experience with the introspection of later maturity. Combat is a combination of strategy, tactics and human foibles, and Cox's ability to provide an honest look back at his year makes Lullaby for Lieutenants an unusually interesting and readable book.
Cox landed at Danang in July 1965, a 1st Lieutenant attached to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, Battalion Landing Team. For his first six months, he was an artillery liaison officer attached to the Fire Support Coordination Center, "coordinating all supporting fire for the battalion's four rifle companies... four other lieutenants had more dangerous jobs, forward observers out in the boondocks." With Cox's first six months in Vietnam reduced to a single paragraph, it's his next six months that provide a window into the world of a Marine in Vietnam.
Combat in Vietnam, Cox writes, included "daily nicks inflicted by the VC on Marine patrols via booby traps or heavy trauma two-minute ambushes." Cox took the daily grind of combat in stride, "We were U.S. Marines," he explained, "We'd write a new chapter in history — hadn't we always?" This was Vietnam, where "sometimes we'd find only blood trails because Victor Charlie collected his dead... we received no weapons fire but a sudden explosion announced more Marine casualties."
Then came La Tho Nan, where Foxtrot Company 2/9 walked into a huge ambush. Cox is at his best as a writer in describing the battle that raged from late afternoon through the early morning hours. With Cox describing calling-in multiple "Danger Close" fire missions, the 12th Marine artillerymen fired some 1,740 rounds, with Echo Battery alone firing a record-setting 829. Although outnumbered 3 to 1, Foxtrot Company drove off the Vietnamese regulars while protected by Marine artillery. More vignettes of combat follow, if such stories can properly be called vignettes.
Cox has a storyteller's sense of rhythm. He expands his year in Vietnam by adding stories of his time in Quantico and Okinawa, his childhood and the challenge of recreating the adrenaline highs of combat when back stateside. Instead of the typical chronological rendition of years and accomplishments, the reader accompanies Cox as he lands in Danang, calls-in fire missions, and then artfully blends his struggles at The Basic School (TBS), time at Camp Hanson and trading on Wall Street with his time in combat. Additionally, the book has some incredible black-and-white photographs of Cox, local civilians and Marines in the field that provide excellent visuals of 1966 Vietnam.
Vietnam was a non-conventional war against an enemy who (like the Taliban and insurgents of today) understood that time was on their side, and Cox also describes the frustration of dealing with villagers &mdash: whose sons, husbands and cousins were VC — who knew that cooperating with the Marines meant death. Even destroying the local school was ineffective, Cox recalls, as only a few months later another booby trap killed a Marine entering the village.
Lullabies for Lieutenants includes lessons for today's fight in Afghanistan, certainly, in addition to providing an unvarnished and superbly written chapter of the Marine Corps efforts in Vietnam.
Embedded journalist, author, and father of a Marine
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