Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat by James R. McDonough

Destiny is not born of decision; it is born of uncontrollable circumstances.

The shamefulness of his words hit me like a club. He was not the leader of this platoon. He felt no responsibility for the mission; he felt no compassion for the men. In his mind, the other members of the platoon existed for only one reason: to protect him, to keep him alive. The men were expendable; he was not. He had reason to live; they did not.

Within the squads, the standard operating procedures would continue until I had a chance to observe what was being done and decide if any changes were needed.

I was trying desperately to learn what I was already supposed to know.

The line between skill and luck in combat is not very well defined.

Fear itself is not shameful. In fact, the absence of fear in the face of combat would be a suspicious abnormality of character. The challenge lies in not denying fear, but in being able to function in the face of it.

Although I was still a stranger to combat—after all, I had only stepped on a booby trap, not been engaged in a firefight—I knew that the game was played for keeps. I had been fortunate. My education may have been harsh, but it wasn’t fatal. This time I wasn’t going to wonder about my fate. I was going to try to control it.

Establishing authority over others, however, is sometimes easier than establishing authority over yourself.

Then I realized that the other men must be afraid too. Yet they kept moving.

I took the time to debrief the platoon upon reentry to the perimeter, pointing out the strong points and the weak points of the night’s actions. I did not spare myself in the critique; I simply stated what had happened. I had made a mistake, but an honest one. There were a few subdued comments by the patrol members, all of whom clearly recognized the danger of my action. It didn’t matter. I had overcome my fear. I was once again in control of my platoon, and, more importantly, myself.

I had studied them in theory and practiced them for years. The only difference now was that the stakes were for real. Neglecting the small details would be costly to us. Doing them correctly would be costly to the enemy.

An old army adage claims that soldiers only do well that which their commander checks.

I checked each squad on the way out of the wire and counted each one on the way in: we weren’t going to be infiltrated by the simplest of tricks, an enemy soldier at the tail end of a patrol returning in the dark.

I tried not to speak about myself. Their concern about me was whether or not I could get them through their tour. They might want to tell me about their homes and their families, but they wanted me to listen, not talk. They did not want to know about my life away from Vietnam.

Know your enemy! To know your enemy is to defeat your enemy. To know your enemy is to kill your enemy.

My targets for improvement were discipline and tactics. The two are closely related. In the heat of battle there is no time for second-guessing the commander, and it is necessary for a soldier to develop an automatic response to an order. Such instantaneous obedience will overcome all fears, all confusion, all inclinations toward self-preservation.

I remained a part of my platoon, yet apart from my men. They might turn to me, but I turned to no one.

Once more I was fully accepting my responsibility, but I shivered at the realization of what I had almost allowed.

My self-confidence was born of my awareness that luck had been on our side, as well as my own assessment that I had done most of the fighting correctly. Above all, I had not panicked, and I never lost control of the action. My sense of accomplishment was exhilarating.

Yet in battle there is nothing more important than unity of command, and I was determined to lead.

I and others like me are trained and commissioned to lead men into actions that determine life and death. Our authority, particularly on the field of battle, is virtually unquestioned. We are tasked to lead men like Killigan, to tell them what should be done and what they must do. We have no obligation to listen to their point of view. Indeed, to do so might be in itself, or cause to occur, a failure of leadership. And yet, the American soldier is often much more prepared than his leader to make a sound determination of what should be done.

I had succumbed to that most basic of battlefield strategies: shoot now and ask questions later.

One died when it was time to die. Apparently, it was not my time.

That night on the mountain, instead of engaging the enemy I had come to grips with my own mortality. That night I had been a terrible platoon leader. But perhaps I would be a better one thereafter because of it.

Hernandez had served the platoon well and had been a stabilizing influence on my own more aggressive tactics. But I no longer trusted him, so it was time for him to go.

Sergeant Robinson was overcome with discomfort. The big man was not up to the task of platoon sergeant. He was too preoccupied with himself to lead others effectively.

He avoided exposure to the tormenting rains and to the risks of combat that came with the job. Instead he used his rank to excuse himself from the forefront of patrolling or the thick of action. “Sir, I’m in charge of the beans and bullets now, not the fighting,” was his plaintive response when I urged him to become more involved.

The day before I was to leave, Sergeant Tilles became a casualty to a booby trap, and I moved Killigan over to his squad to lead it. Although only an E-4, Killigan had all the ability needed to do the job—except that he didn’t want to do it. He hated the responsibility. He knew he was a good combat soldier, but he didn’t want to be a leader.

A leader who arbitrates when the laws of land warfare are overtaken by pragmatic concerns is treading on dangerous ground.

War is not a series of case studies that can be scrutinized with objectivity. It is a series of stark confrontations that must be faced under the most emotion-wrenching conditions.

A few moments earlier he had been a young man with a lifetime of experiences ahead of him. Now he was just a memory to his family and to us. A few moments earlier he was afraid some of his friends would think of him as a coward. Soon, almost no one would think of him at all.

I knew it wasn’t his fault. It was mine. I had failed to train him, even though he was eager to learn.

Sometimes words aren’t important for their content, but only for their being said,

I knew that I took approximately one hundred thirty-five steps for every one hundred meters I moved. By dropping a stone in my pocket after each hundred meters, I could keep a rough count of distance traveled.

Killigan, the quiet man who disavowed all pretense at leadership, once again had made me aware of the fragile superiority of my own leadership.

The plan would put Moray two thousand meters away from our present location, and four thousand meters away from the objective. I tried to conceal my disdain.

Moray was easy, and I was going to take advantage of it.

A glance around the platoon perimeter warned me not to depend too much on Smalley’s platoon coming through in a pinch. The whole position seemed disheveled, unmilitary, as if all efforts had been expended for comfort rather than for tactical prudence. No defensive field of fire had been cleared, and I could see brush growing right up to the flimsy barbed wire encircling the position. The unit was situated in a cluster of rubbled buildings, apparently a destroyed monastery. The soldiers had strung hammocks under taut ponchos stretched over the half-demolished walls. Garbage was everywhere, a sure sign of a poorly disciplined unit. As we spoke, I could hear music blaring from transistor radios tuned to the Armed Forces Network. Where I could distinguish fighting positions, they seemed badly located and without adequate cover.

Observing all this, I silently wrote Lieutenant Smalley out of the plan. If he could not exercise minimum control in the defense, he would surely fall apart in the attack.

Perhaps it was unfair of me to make snap judgments of others and then plan my actions on the basis of those judgments. The thought bothered me, but not enough to deter me. I was in the business of evaluating people, and the traits of other men would determine my own fate and that of my soldiers. Presumptuous though my role may have been, I had to make judgments and act accordingly. Moray was timid, Smalley was weak, Evans was eager. I did not condemn them for that. I noted it and adjusted. We were in a war, not a community social.

Much of life is a matter of will, and so is war. As long as breath remains, there is hope.

By definition, the leader is the least expendable, yet there are times when the leader can ask no one else to do what must be done.

There was nothing to be gained by anger, so I put it aside and laid out the plans for the night.

In an instant the insanity of war was revealed to me: people die or people live without rhyme or reason. As Nail had said when Fricker died: “That’s all there is to it.”

Like the entire American system in Vietnam, we had fought a limited military war with constrained objectives; the enemy had fought a total political war with no preordained restrictions. We were doomed from the outset

It was essential for the men to be convinced of the importance of their mission. Leadership must always be positive.