A Quiet Cadence: A Novel by Mark Treanor (Naval Institute Press, May 2020, 392 pages)
At the front lines of combat on the ground with a platoon of marines in Vietnam.
In A Quiet Cadence, Mark Treanor takes the reader to the front lines of combat on the ground with a platoon of marines in Vietnam. Through the eyes of the protagonist Marty McClure, a young enlisted infantryman, readers encounter vivid scenes. McClure’s rite of passage into the hard reality of battle quickly dispenses with youthful romanticism.
An engrossing book, character development drives the forty-six short chapters and keeps the action moving. Foremost, Treanor skillfully introduces and humanizes key characters. It seems that just as McClure grows attached to his compatriots, an improvised explosive device or enemy gunfire rips them away from their platoon. The pattern of death—seemingly unfair and unsparing—is both jarring and resonant, exposing readers to the unpredictability of combat and volatility of infantry life.
A clear insider account, dialogue and descriptions resonate with authenticity. Likable and unlikable, volunteers and conscripts, marines from all corners of the United States come together to serve abroad in a country they have never seen for a conflict without any clear purpose. Timeless marine corps phrases pepper the dialogue with unmistakable realism. Grunts on deployment, facing daily uncertainty, use gallows humor and street smarts to survive and endure hardship and brutality.
Writing a history book about Vietnam is difficult enough, but using a novel to tacitly educate modern readers about important context requires real talent. Treanor’s use of action and character development helps bridge the ensuing decades of military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan that have relegated prior wars to the periphery of public memory. The cycle of deployments to the desert in the 2000s, occurring with relative predictability, has also inured Americans to the uncertainty of the duration of wars of the twentieth century, including that in Vietnam. Treanor returns the reader to open racial conflicts and the hostility of conscription, issues that posed challenges largely unfamiliar to current servicemembers and unseen in recent conflicts. Racial tensions brought palpable danger and drama to small groups that fought, ate, and lived together. In that environment, trust and collaboration were paramount, and social tensions added to the strain of already-fraught circumstances in a war with no known end.
To succeed, contemporary authors of war must address technology. In addition to shortening the attention span of readers, technology has changed weapons, communications devices, and vehicles, among other tools of war. But Treanor reminds readers that two constants in warfare stubbornly remain: the lived experience and the haunting aftermath. Facing the vicious wrath of bullets and bombs, an inscrutable pitiless violence, young marines ask large, existential questions about suffering and life itself. Likewise, discussions of leadership ethics and faith appear throughout the novel. Characters discuss and practice their religion, reminding readers of the humanity of the men at war and their need to control their fear, make meaning amidst chaos, and maintain a semblance of ritual and control.
The book raises a wide variety of critical leadership issues valuable for servicemembers of all ranks. Treanor addresses the deep invisible scars that the war left behind. Returning alive does not mean the end of pain. Long after the war is over, nightmares, flashbacks, and survivor’s guilt continue to haunt the living. Worse, the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam meant that veterans felt compelled to hide their service, let alone their internal anguish. A war-weary public’s anger and impatience with the death toll compounded the stigma associated with mental health matters, already a taboo topic in military circles. The complex portrait of military mental health topics, including post-traumatic stress, is perhaps the work’s most timely and important application.
Wartime scenes also present practical case studies of the law of war in action. Principles of distinction and necessity, clear in concept, yield to the fog of combat. Battlefield arguments about who can be targeted underscore longstanding disagreements about civilian casualties, particularly during counterinsurgency operations. Young men under the stress of prolonged operations in adverse conditions are faced with discriminating between enemies and civilians. The emotional toll of witnessing repeated death and dismemberment of their friends weighs on them, inevitably influencing their perceptions of when to err on the side of roughing up villagers who might know the location of bombs and tripwires. These are tough calls with real consequences, and they remind readers that rules created in peace must be applied in war.
Decades after the war, still scarred by the conflict, McClure initially refuses to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. Behind the nightmares and flashbacks, one infers that McClure still struggles with resentment, guilt, and shame. But eventually, inspired by the perennial optimism of a friend and fellow veteran who lost a leg in Vietnam, McClure relents and visits the Memorial. The visit provides a sense of closure, perhaps a final willingness to accept what cannot be changed. McClure even experiences a sense of pride in his tribe, a lasting brotherhood in arms.
Broadly, McClure’s struggles and suffering offer a stark reminder of the true costs of war. Public ambivalence and antipathy have consequences. The true bill for battle—the blood and bodies of the young—underscores the necessity for care in the decision to wage war. Thus, the book is recommended not just for those in uniform but also for everyone who votes, makes decisions affecting the military, or has any concern for those who do.
This review was submitted by Dillon Fisbman,