Score: 94+/100 (9.4+ out of 10)
Cheerful Obedience by Patrick McLaughlin follows an American soldier named Conor Patrick McKall during the tumultuous and violent Vietnam War. This is a special book that closely focuses on soldiers as human beings rather than expendable weapons or pawns on a chess board. The book focuses on the human aspects of the war rather than solely on the “action” or violence of warfare itself. We get to know Conor McKall as a young man with interests that fall outside of fighting. He is a loving son, a football fan, a proud American, and a loyal friend.
Not only does he develop into a capable airborne infantryman, but he grows into a competent leader in his platoon and—ultimately—a hero in a war against a dangerous and determined enemy.
We've all seen our fair share of Vietnam movies. We've read our fair share of Vietnam literature. Most of them, we'd say, our pretty good! This book is unique in the sense that it's more focused on the life and experiences of the individual soldier than on the grand, bloody conflict as a whole.
Conor McKall is a very real-seeming, down-to-earth, and relatable protagonist. He could be any of us, really. Something that really endeared us with Conor is that he is a football fan. In fact, one of the first relatable moments in the book is when he and a fellow soldier make a bet over a college football game. And it's not just any college football game, it's the “Game of the Century” between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the game which infamously ended in a tie. This tells us a number of things about Conor, but does so subtly. 1. He is a typical young American man who loves football, 2. He is probably Catholic, 3. He is of Irish descent, 4. His family were probably European immigrants. The fact that we can gather all this information about a character from such a mundane scene is telling.
Something else that stands out about Conor is that he is a person of honor and integrity. The key moment that points this out is when one of his fellow soldiers is under investigation for intentional self-injury and negligence. Instead of throwing the soldier under the bus or letting this injustice happen, Conor stands up for the soldier, vouches for him, and explains that there may be an alternate explanation due to an accident in cleaning a weapon. Conor could have easily let this other soldier be reprimanded and courtmarshalled, but he did the right thing—the hard and courageous thing instead.
The book points out a lot of the ironies of war for these young men. For example, these men are old enough to wield an M-16, fight, and die, yet they're not considered old enough to purchase alcohol. There's also the irony that these young men are in the prime of their lives, at the best time to start a business, go to college, get married, and start a family, and yet they're being sent across the world to potentially die in a foreign war.
Another thing that this book does right is in capturing the tension of a potential ambush. The Viet Cong were a guerrilla force that preyed on ambushing and picking off the Americans. The Americans, as this book describes, were following a directive to “seek and destroy” the enemy. In other words, there were no objectives of the Vietnam War other than to kill as many of the enemy as possible until they got too discouraged to fight. So, Conor and his platoon are constantly in a rough spot. At times, they are practically sitting ducks, although they do everything in their power to protect themselves. Death still lingers around every corner.
In one scene, Conor's platoon is given terrible rules of engagement, directed not to fire unless fired upon. This, however, makes them even more vulnerable. Conor being Conor stands up for his platoon and challenges these rules of engagement, arguing that his men have the right to defend themselves and to take the initiative.
The book also does a great job at showing us the weapons and vehicles used in the war, for example Puff the Magic Dragon, the M16s, M14s, and M60s.
For some reason, our interest and attention did dip about four hours (250 pages) into reading this book. We're not quite sure why, but it seemed like the actual combat wasn't as compelling as the character work that occurred earlier in the book.
Still, this is a very worthwhile read. This book does an excellent job at showing that 99%+ of American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were just men who were doing their jobs, not the monsters they were portrayed as in the media.
Check it out on Amazon!