A Quiet Cadence: A Novel by Mark Treanor (Naval Institute Press, May 2020, 392 pages)
We Few, We Happy Few
The novel’s violence is unrelenting, random, and total. Its first death is a dead body literally flying through the air. Bloodied appendages, spilled guts, burned bodies, sheared limbs—the gore stacks up with each patrol. The reader dreads turning each page knowing it will bring only more pain, more loss. The newly arrived 19-year-old Marine narrator PFC Marty McClure captures the constant terror after one booby-trapped explosion: “Then the panic hit me: Do I have all my parts? Propped on my elbows, I began a terrified inventory, slowly, in no logical order.” While the terror of death never leaves Marty, the shock of death slowly lessens leaving both Marty and the reader with a moral numbness that becomes an even greater burden. Over the first 236 pages, this ubiquitous violence becomes a backdrop for author Mark Treanor’s exposé into what it means to operate and fight at the end of one’s spiritual and mental margins. As Marty remarks: “I wanted to be like the old hands, but I was afraid that one day I might be.” The quote captures the central tension for the Marines fighting in Vietnam—the nearness of the violence required to stay alive and the dearth of space for the inner healing needed to rejuvenate psychologically and spiritually. Instead, Marty packs up each bloody trauma in mental boxes—some which he won’t unpack for years or even decades. This delayed cognitive processing pushes Marty and his comrades towards a breaking point in which their moral scale fundamentally shifts and what was once inconceivable becomes common.
It’s significant that Marty’s scant year in Vietnam takes up nearly two-thirds of the novel while its remaining pages cover the next few decades of his life. His time spent in the jungle will play an outsized role over the course of his life. Returning home wounded but alive, Marty soon learns there’s a societal chasm between his service in Vietnam and the American public’s perception of it. Passing through airports on his trip home he wonders: “I didn’t expect a hero’s welcome, I wasn’t that naive. But not even acknowledged?” At a layover the wounded Marty is stonily flipped off by three attractive girls his own age as he walks by them in uniform. It’s in these moments that Quiet Cadence serves as a somber reminder of an entire American generation’s relationship to its military. It also casts a spotlight on the lasting societal wounds caused by a default demonization of “they-groups” across the political spectrum. As, for example, when a group takes the worst (and usually minority) actions of an opposing group to generalize everyone in the group. While American society may have corrected (some might say over-corrected) its relationship to its military, it’s evident demonization of “they-groups” has grown exponentially.
Marty’s search for stable ground in post-Vietnam American is a faltering one as he’s forced to bury his experiences and even his own veteran status to find employment. Even as he finds love and becomes a father, he remains weighed down by the deaths of his fellow marines locked away in compartmentalized boxes. Marty spends much of his post-war years in pursuit of control since so much of Vietnam’s death and destruction occurred seemingly by chance. But the weight of those boxes manifests itself in vivid nightmares which he can’t control. Ultimately, it’s the creation and funding of the Vietnam memorial that forces him to face his fellow Marines’ deaths as well as his own shame for living in an America that wrote off Vietnam as a lost cause. Initially, he rebuffs the efforts of his veteran friends to donate to the memorial or to attend its dedication because he cannot shift his memories of his fellow marines from their deaths to the attributes for which he loved them. In talking about the memorial he observes, “For years, being a Vietnam vet was like carrying a virus people could immunize themselves against only by silence.” It’s at this point that he realizes this silence may have insulated the public from dealing with the war, it had been a poison slowly eating away at his own soul. But after he visits the parents of one of his fellow Marines, he’s able to mend his outlook. His friend’s father says of his reaction to the memorial, “I just kept rubbing my fingertips into his name in that shiny black granite. Like if I pressed hard enough, maybe I could feel his hand in mine, like when he was a little boy.” During the visit, Marty makes a breakthrough and shares that their son wasn’t alone when he died—that he died with his brothers.
In Act IV, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the English troops are surrounded and outnumbered near the small town of Agincourt. As the day breaks and the battle approaches, King Henry rallies his troops to eventual victory with the now famous “Saint Crispin’s Day Speech”:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Mark Treanor honors the essence of brotherhood in his definitive psychic autopsy of the Marines who fought in Vietnam. And it’s this brotherhood and service that Marty realizes he’d mistakenly hidden away amongst his friends’ deaths in those boxes. When he finally visits the memorial he realizes that it’s not the bloodied compartmentalized boxes that connect him to his fellow Marines—it’s the sharing of hardship, blood, and senseless loss that binds them together. Despite everything, each shared a benchmark belief in an America that valued courage, discipline and loyalty. It is this belief that forms the quiet cadence to which every Marine marches.
“Because I could not stop for death” By Emily Dickinson
Fields of Fire by Jim Webb (1978)
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (2009)
Review submitted by Jack Kruse. (See also a previous review of the book by Dillon Fishman posted February 24, 2021)
This book review was contributed by Jack Kruse, a Navy Foreign Area officer living with his beautiful wife and 5 amazing kids in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is currently reading a novel and poem from every country in Africa and plans to write a book about it tentatively titled Reading the Continent: A History in Stories. He’s documenting that process at his decade-old blog: www.fuuo.blogspot.com He can be contacted through his Linkedin profile.