Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 392 pp. $29.95) is a great Vietnam War novel.
Treanor—a Naval Academy graduate who led a Marine rifle platoon and commanded an artillery battery in the Vietnam War—tells the war and post-war stories of nineteen-year-old Marine Marty McClure. It begins on the day McClure sees “the dead man above the trees” as he is about to go into the bush. It’s just his fifth day in country.
McClure is an assistant gunner in a rifle company in which the company clerk is the guy with the most scarred face in the unit. The guys are all young. Some have young wives at home, and a couple of them are pregnant. The first Marine to greet him says, “Welcome to shit city.” McClure’s platoon is known as “the frat house” because every member in it went to college.
McClure is looking forward to his first firefight, but hopes it’s a small one. In fact, his actions under fire fall short of his expectations. He is slow to react as he watches a buddy kill “the running man.”
Back at the base camp after a few weeks in the bush means being able to heap mashed potatoes and real butter onto your battered tin chow tray. Then a shower and some sleep and before long you head back out again. McClure encounters the body of a VC and is surprised to see that it’s a young female wrapped in ammunition pouches, an AK-47 next to her.
“Her lips were raised in what looked amazingly like a pucker, as though she were waiting for a lover’s kiss,” Treanor writes, “her nipples incongruously hard.”
Treanor does a great job describing how claustrophobic it feels to tramp through the jungle fearing triggering a booby trap with each step. He also evokes the Marines’ frustrations as they try to ferret out an all-but-invisible enemy:
“We saw no enemy the day Corrie lost his leg.”
“We saw no enemy the day Cavett had his foot blown off and the new guy was ripped up by shrapnel.”
“We saw no enemy on the day Prevas lost his leg.”
The men want revenge, but McClure says there was “no one to kill, no one to pay back. We were all scared.”
When the wished-for action comes, McClure for the first time sees a buddy killed in a firefight. This makes things “somehow more personal,” and he becomes fixated on payback.
The last third of the book deals with McClure’s life after coming home from Vietnam and after leaving the Marines. What he didn’t leave behind was survivor’s guilt. He suffers through continuing nightmares as he attempts to escape the war. The quiet cadence of the title refers to his attempts to continue on with life by focusing on taking things one step at a time.
This is a powerful, unrelenting look at the experiences of a Marine serving at the height of the Vietnam War and the personal battles he continues to fight for decades after his return home.
A Quiet Cadence is a major work of combat fiction. It has my full-throated recommendation.